Making a tentpole feature is a monumental undertaking. Ditto that for an epic television series, done on even shorter time. Yet, each year, the bar is raised and productions blaze new ground with even more spectacular stories and scenes.
Being able to visualize and plan has be-come essential. Here’s a look at how previs teams at The Third Floor, with recent credits including The BFG, Warcraft, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book, and Game of Thrones, helped meet a range of challenges on some very different projects.
FIGHTS AND FLIGHTS – CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War (see “Battle Lines,” May/June 2016) has all the action you would expect in a superhero movie, with an additional twist: The good guys fight among themselves. Under Previs/Postvis Supervisor Gerardo Ramirez and Previs Supervisor Austin Bonang, The Third Floor’s teams were tapped to help map story flow and technical parameters for the main set pieces and explore ways characters and powers might clash.
THE THIRD FLOOR DID EXTENSIVE PREVIS AND POSTVIS FOR COMPLEX ACTION SCENES IN THE LATEST CAPTAIN AMERICA MOVIE, CIVIL WAR. All Captain America: Civil War images copyright 2016 Marvel.
Of many sequences, the Airport Battle was the most challenging in sheer number of characters and logistics. “Each beat needed a cause and effect, and a way for characters to get from point A to point B,” says Bonang. “Working with Visual Effects Supervisor Dan Deleeuw, we built a fictional movie layout for the airport, with assets that could be moved interactively to create the ideal layout for the story the filmmakers needed to tell.”
The team additionally staged virtual matchups between superheroes. “We would pair them off and try to imagine the best, most different combinations,” Bonang says. “How would Falcon fight Giant Man, or Wanda battle Black Panther? How could we get from one fight to the next and switch opponents while keeping the main directive of the two teams intact?”
For the “Splash Panel” scene, the previs also had to reflect the motivations of each character. “Black Panther was out for revenge, Vision was trying to calm the situation, Spider-Man wanted to prove himself, and Captain just needed to get Bucky out of there,” says Ramirez. “Here, you have a group of superheroes with usually deadly powers – how could you keep the stakes high without it looking like they were actu-ally trying to kill each other?”
As this would be the first translation of Black Panther to film, his style of movement and fighting was carefully explored. “We did animation tests based on parkour videos, stunt performers, and martial art-ists, and created early concepts for props and vehicles, like the jet,” Bonang says. “We tested other characters, too. For Giant Man, we considered how his size might influence his speed of moment. For Spider-Man, the directors wanted the character to be agile but still ‘rough around the edges.’ For Red Wing and Falcon, we looked at how they launched and flew, and created techvis to support live-plate shooting.”
Previs models and environments were created in Autodesk’s Maya based on concept art, storyboards, set designs, and location surveys. The previs was animated using mo-tion capture for some of the ground-based action scenes and hand-keyed animation for specific story moments. When filming wrapped, The Third Floor collaborated with the editors to create postvis composites with CG elements and the live plates.
CLASHING WORLDS – WARCRAFT
To help realize Warcraft, The Third Floor worked alongside Director Duncan Jones and Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer to visualize action and story arcs for the film’s Orc and human characters based on the script and storyboards (see “Crafty Effects,” page 8).
The previs sequences, which in some cases were taken to the set and used as a guide for the shoot and for virtual production, included blocking for action choreography, camera, and effects. To add realism to the previs and accelerate previs animation, the previs team recorded motion capture in-house, with artists jumping from the computer into motion-capture suits.
“Beyond the large set pieces and visual effects sequences, a big part of visualizing this movie was being able to effectively block complex shots between Orcs and humans for Duncan,” says Previs/Postvis Supervisor Shawn Hull.
In another phase of production, the team used low-res versions of final CG characters and the actors’ motion-capture performances to create an accurate silhouette for postvis. “This really helped depict the relationship between Orc and human inter-action and scale,” Hull says.
A VIRTUAL JUNGLE – THE JUNGLE BOOK
As a project realized extensively through virtual production, The Jungle Book presented a unique assignment for The Third Floor, not as a traditional previs unit, but within the film’s virtual art department (see “Virtual Verite,” March/April 2016). With the movie being acted almost exclusively with bluescreen or greenscreen, the filmmakers needed a way to approve key environments and give others a view of those settings before going to the stage. So working from concept art, Brian Pace and a group of artists created 3D digital environments for the director and production designer to review.
IN AN ATYPICAL SCENARIO, THE THIRD FLOOR WORKED WITHIN THE JUNGLE BOOK’S VIRTUAL ART DEPARTMENT.
“We paid a lot of attention to the color palette, which was very important to the mood,” Pace says. “For example, there are bright, healthy hues in the greenery around Baloo’s cave to highlight the characters’ budding friendship. We worked closely with Production Designer Christopher Glass to follow concept artwork and make the environments visually rich so they could be approved and used to inform production and visual effects. In traditional previs, we might focus on the action of the characters and then work our way toward the background. In this case, we started with the surroundings and filled that canvas first.”
The virtual environments were built in Maya, with input from Glass, Art Director John Lord Booth, Supervising Art Director Andrew L. Jones, and the director. Files were created to the specifications of the motion-capture set so the virtual 3D scenes were grounded in the reality of what could be shot, and then matched where the per-formers would be stepping.
“Given the nature of this show, it made sense for us to use accurate measurements of where the mocap performers would be standing as a foundation for these environments,” Pace says. “The virtual sets were modeled with re-spect to their real-world counterparts on the motion-capture stage, which right away solved lots of technical issues for production. Once the virtual designs were approved, they were ready for the next team to translate for use in both MotionBuilder and Photon.”
The 3D environments were also used for virtual scouting. In the early stages, the scenes were optimized for Viewport 2.0 in Maya, allowing changes to be made right in front of the director before committing the scene to Photon. The director could use a game controller to interactively navigate the virtual scenes.
Notable sequences included Baloo’s cave (exterior), shots at the bridge to the human village, landscapes for the monkey jungle, and both interiors and exteriors for the ruins where King Louie lives.
“We worked closely with Christopher, especially on layout for the scene when Mowgli is chased through King Louie’s ‘Cold Lairs,’ ” Pace recalls. “The size difference between the characters is pretty steep, so the distance between the columns became a key question. The columns were based on real columns that the art department had researched, so we couldn’t change their dimensions, only their spacing. Using stand-ins for Mowgli and King Louie, it was possible to work out in real time how different spacing affected the tension of the shot. Once we found something that felt right, we sent that environment to animators, who brought Louie and Mowgli in as a proof of concept that the director approved.”
MASTER STRATEGY – GAME OF THRONES
With dragons, wights, giants, and huge-scale human conflicts, Game of Thrones is known for ambitious visuals. Given the range of shots and visual effects to realize within the show’s production window, advanced planning is key.
“We’ll be helping lay out a dragon fight one day and an epic army battle the next,” says Previs/On-set Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Carney at The Third Floor, whose team has been contributing previs, techvis, and virtual production support since Season 4. “Working closely with the art department, stunts, camera, visual effects, special effects, DPs, directors, and other collaborators, we are constantly developing unique approaches to producing amazing shots that are executed as efficiently as possible.”
GAME OF THRONES HAS NEED FOR A WIDE RANGE OF VIS SERVICES DUE TO THE AMBITIOUS VISUAL EFFECTS SHOTS USED IN THE TELEVISION SERIES.
That might include informing configuration of sets, optimizing camera setups, or replicating moves and timings from the pre-vis to precisely control the cranes, stunt rigs, and pyrotechnics used on set.
The main story beats, which are de-rived from boards or director notes, are reflected across the previs. However, the files also include real production specs – art department models, Lidar scans, and details gleaned from all relevant departments, making it possible to study and break things down into accurate technical diagrams for the shoot.
“One area where visualization really helps is in eliminating variables,” Carney says. “If there is a giant or a mammoth, we can determine camera placements and eyelines, so shooting units and set designers do not have to experiment on the fly. We can send data to practical cranes and rigs to reproduce the moves and timings that were worked out earlier in the previs. By referencing the approved sequence edit, the production team can get a pretty good sense of what will be seen in each shot and say, ‘The camera is only traveling this far, so we don’t need as much green-screen,’ or ‘Here are the areas we should focus on for set construction, here’s what we need to have for lighting and props.’”
Indeed, previsualization was once a luxury on a major project, helping to plan out complex scenes prior to shooting. Today, it is a necessary part of the filmmaking process, playing a greater, more expansive role than ever, helping filmmakers and directors achieve their visions.