Planning Makes Perfect
February 8, 2017

Planning Makes Perfect

When a script calls for folding buildings or stairways floating up to the sky, you can bet those scenes were visualized as detailed previs prior to any footage or visual effects being produced. For all types of shots and projects, previs has become a process to help shape the creative storytelling and produce technical road maps to inform production. It can also provide key ways to communicate what ambitious visual effects shots are about, right down to their physics.

Marvel’s Doctor Strange and Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are visual feasts for the eyes, with magic used to bend bodies, minds, and even cities. Artists from visualization studio The Third Floor ( Game of Thrones, Captain America: Civil War, The Jungle Book) were brought on to help develop the fantastic worlds for both these blockbuster films .

Strange Magic

The Third Floor’s Faraz Hameed supervised a team upwards of 30 artists to create all the previs, techvis, and postvis for Doctor Strange . The previs team worked from Los Angeles for two six-month stints, spending 10 months in the UK while operating from The Third Floor’s London office and with the production shoot.

“This was an amazing project because we were able to explore story points, do look development, and R&D complex visuals that had not been seen before,” Hameed says. “Marvel encouraged us to pitch, brainstorm , and really push the boundaries of storytelling in the previs. There wasn’t a department we didn’t interact with. We supported the visual effects team, heads of department, producers , and the director, Scott Derrickson, in every way we could. Scott is very collaborative and had epic ideas for the film. He embraced previs fully and pushed us creatively. It was exciting to see the previs displayed on monitors on the set for others to reference.”

In addition to visualizing shots, The Third Floor worked with Visual Effects Supervisor Stephane Ceretti (see related story on, Visual Effects Producer Susan Pickett, and various production departments on specific production and visual effects approaches to realizing the mind-bending images. Artists collaborated with props to set-decorate action scenes, interfaced with stunts to help coordinate combat scenes that defied gravity , and worked with special effects to ensure that rigs, stunt equipment , and vehicles worked together as envisioned. Work in previs and postvis also extended to collaborations with the DP and editorial.  

Technical diagrams, worked out together with input from multiple departments, were compiled into techvis “bibles” that left literally no stone unturned for production execution. Relying on the techvis, which provided information like camera and distance data from top, side, and front elevation views, made it possible to shoot effectively on the production’s fast pace.

The physical transformations Strange undergoes – being copied, re-assembled, and torn apart – proved to be among the most challenging visuals. “We brought a big bag of tricks into the previs – everything from deformers to simulation effects – as we worked with Stephane and Co-Visual Effects Supervisors Geoffrey Bauman and Chris Shaw to develop something that could be shot,” Hameed says .

Scenes at the sanctum in New York required “trialing” different designs with the art department to come up with some unexpected visual treatments and looks. Often ideas would start with Graphic Artist MC Escher and evolve from there.

“We wanted the shots to offer more than expected, we wanted to ‘plus it,’ even with ideas for camera coverage in the scene. There were a lot of discussions to determine ways to shoot the folding-city imagery. Would it be with a crane or motion-control rig? Would it be first or second unit? Would it be on location or on stage? There were so many details to be determined, especially for the puzzle city section that happens at the end of the chase.”

In Hong Kong, destruction effects combine with time reversing in another challenging scene. Beats and gags for the action were worked out in previs to visualize a forward-working fight with reversing elements. As most shots needed multiple passes, all the shots were techvis’d using knowledge gained from the previs, production collaborators, and visual effects tests.

“Marvel has truly embraced previs as a powerful tool to help explore, design, conceptualize, plan, and assemble a movie,” Hameed notes. “I was impressed by this process. From the first moments of R&D with the art department, it was liberating to be given time to explore and help develop the visual landscape for the film. Scott and Stephane were feeding us reference from mathematics and other sources, as well. It was exciting for all of us to be able to approach story ideas with many visual palettes that we had absorbed – not to mention that my artists had become dimensional and fractal pros by the end!”

Fascinating Beasts

Turning the page to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Warner Bros.’ motion-picture adaptation of the JK Rowling book), artists at The Third Floor London, under Previs Supervisor Peter McDonald, faced a similar but different brief: deconstructing cities that contained mythical beasts. Highlighting new powers and creatures within the Harry Potter universe was part of a creative previs process that also included depicting the impact of magic across a circa 1926 New York.

“We visualized multiple sequences, from the arrival at New York Harbor to various Prohibition-era buildings, to scenes on the street,” McDonald says. “We had to capture a period look, while also giving shots the required action and magic elements.”

The previs team worked to support Visual Effects Supervisors Tim Burke and Christian Manz, as well as the film’s director, David Yates. Postvis was created to assist editorial and visual effects work, as well. (For details on the visual effects work, see the November.December 2016 issue of CGW.)

The film has many scenes that bring out the personality of various creatures as the beasts are lost – or recovered. Previs animation helped define action beats across these key moments with characters from a disappearing Demiguise to the butterfly-like Swooping Evil.

“The Occamy in the attic sequence had a very evolved previs,” McDonald notes. “After the previs was reviewed and finalized, the scene was filmed almost shot for shot. We also did a very detailed postvis that included mock-ups for a half-dozen or so CG shots. The whole scene is kind of a camera ballet around where we see a really dramatic encounter unfold with a shrinking and growing creature in close quarters.”

Other scenes visualized action from the bling-loving Niffler to a grand thunderbird. More mysterious forces had to be visualized, as well – streets being sucked skyward or rain falling upward.

“Some of the coolest camera and creature work happens in the subway station sequence,” says McDonald. “Here, we reveal a mysterious force called The Obscurus and also got to visualize a pretty nice wand fight.”

Indeed, audiences are wowed by the complex visual effects in films such as these, but it takes a village of CG artists to achieve the digital magic. And more times than not, previs, postvis, and techvis is an integral part of that equation.