PRE-PRODUCTION – STEP 2: PREVIS

By: Bobby Beck

The question often comes up, “When should I start bringing my story into the computer?” Story IS king, however, I think this has scared people into believing they have to have their story fully complete on paper before they ever go into the computer. This is definitely not the case and every studio that makes creative projects works on the story up until they pry it from their hands and release it to the world.

Today’s post is about moving your rough story idea into the pre-production phase so you can refine your ideas as you start to see them take shape. The thoughts shared below are my opinions, which I’ve learned working professionally as well as on my own productions. These guidelines are simply meant as tips to help you move your project further, faster.

 

Storyboarding

Storyboarding is the act of taking your script, treatment or outline into what is typically its first visual form. Storyboards are a great place to start because they are fast and they can be crude and rough. They simply need to convey camera angles, camera movement and the beats of each shot. The general rule of thumb is that you make one drawing for each beat change. There may be several beat changes within one shot, so there would be a different drawing for each of those beats.

 

Animatic

An animatic is when you take your individual drawings and put them into an editing software and begin to time them out. This begins to give you a good idea of the pacing of your piece and you can also see how things are landing with your audience as you can show an animatic to people to gauge their response. Does it make sense? Does it make them giggle, or feel pathos when it’s needed? etc. If so, great, if not… you can continue to refine. Then, when ready, you can move to Previs.

Here’s an example of a very detailed animatic from Pixar’s, Ratatoullie

 

Previs

Previs is short for previsualization. This is the equivalent of an animatic done with storyboards, but doing it with actual 3D characters/props/sets and cameras in the computer.

Some people believe that previs is slowly taking over the storyboarding phase as you are seeing the film more clearly in its actual form. I personally tend to go right into previs on my projects and skip the boarding phase so that I can start seeing how things cut together. The trade off is that drawing is faster and getting to previs takes more time up front, but, for me, going to previs has worked well. I’ll admit, if I was a better artist or had a bigger budget I would probably spend more time on the storyboarding phase.

The goal with previs is that it’s meant to be fast, not precious so that you can iterate quickly, throw things out and not get married to the output. So long as you remember this, you’ll be able to take advantage of this incredible, freeing part of the pre-production process.

  • When it comes to previs, you can build a simple assets that can be updated as you go. Cubes for buildings with simple textures, characters in proxy with rigs that will most likely get tossed – using an autorigger like Mixamo is a great way to add a decent temp rig to your character that can be used during this phase. They even have pre made animations you can use. Not that you want to use them in your final piece, but they can be really helpful in previs to give you more information to make better editing decisions.
    • Try to use proxy geometry – proxy geo is cut wherever bends would typically happen (see image below). This way geometry can be parented to the skeleton instead of bound/skinned. This will make your character super fast to work with.

 

Here’s an example of previs next to the final piece.

A few things to note here:

  1. Many of the previs shots feel pretty animated – yours don’t have to be this refined. Remember this is a professional example so they go the extra mile. You don’t have to be as refined, however the closer you get to seeing the shots you are developing with the characters, the proper aspect ratio and with some movement, the closer you are to seeing what the final output will be and, most importantly, how your story is playing out.
  2. Previs winds up LOOKING like this example only after many, many shots are made and thrown out. The final result is something you would feel confident to take right into production, but note, your cut gets whittled down to look like something you’d see in this example, it doesn’t start out looking like this.
  3. I know the question will come up, “should the animators simply take the previs and add on to it?” My personal opinion is that this should be up to the animators. Most animators like bringing in a fresh character with no animation so they can start from scratch. This is because trying to figure out where someone else put all their keys and which controls were used becomes more clinical than artistic.

 

Tips for maximizing previs so that it can actually be used in later production stages.

  • Speed is king in this stage. Speed meaning overall performance of your scene. You want to be able to hit play and get as close to real time feedback as possible.
  • As you assemble your rough previs set be sure that your assets are built to scale – more on this in our Step 1 blog post.

How to set up and work with Previs files:

  • Create a new sequence and call it seq_name_previs.
  • Create a new shot – you will have multiple cameras in this one shot, for now.
  • The Master Layout file (discussed in our Step 1 blog post) is imported into the shot – if you follow the steps outlined in the step 1 blog post you’ll be in good shape – you will have just saved yourself a massive amount of time when it comes to going into production.
  • Previs is, in my opinion, the only time it is okay to have multiple cameras and cuts in ONE shot file.
    • NOTE: When you move to the next phase it is CRITICAL to have each camera as its own shot. This is extremely necessary for speeding up lighting as they cannot easily animate their complex light rigs over a one frame cut. Be kind to the lighters and, when ready to move past previs, be sure to set up each camera as it’s own unique shot.
  • When working in previs you may do a lot of “save as” versions, so keeping track of what is in each version is critical. The simplest, most effective way I’ve found to do this is to be sure you export the previs movie file with the name of that file in the heads up display (HUD). That way when you start to edit the shots and you take some from here and some from there you know exactly where to go to when it comes time to break those into their individual shots.

In this stage, be free, tweak, adjust, play with different angles, lenses until you assemble something that feels right to the story you are trying to tell. Then, when ready, move into the next phase of production. We’ll save that for step 3.

 

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