(Source: kelowna.com) As film studios seek ways to save money on live-action movies, they will increasingly turn to “previs” and to companies like Vancouver-based Twenty One Inc.


Previs, short for pre-visualization, is a way for a producer to map out a complex and pricey live-action scene using 3-D digital animation. Production companies such as Pixar and Rainmaker do this already with their feature-length animations, but now live-action studios see the advantages of the technology.

Twenty One Inc., whose CEO Jericca Cleland is a former Pixar cinematographer with Finding Nemo and Toy Story 2 notched on her CV belt, does this sort of work.

When contacted by a Montreal producer to do a previs for a race scene at a car track, the folks at Twenty One Inc. researched the Montreal race track (thank you, Google Earth), then shot a race sequence digitally, using a number of different cameras in places where cameras would be placed in a live action shot: at various locations along the track, inside a car showing the racer’s point of view, on the lead car looking back at the pack, atop a crane towering over the cars.

The scene was shot, lit and edited on computers, and sound effects and music were added, making it look like a scene from a finished film, albeit in digital form.

Rather than go out with a crew of 100 and shoot the sequence live on location at great cost, the producer can look at a previs sequence like this one-minute, 18-second clip – which took four people less than three weeks to make in a studio – tweak it, and then know exactly what needs to be done for the live shoot.

Previs crews work fast, and in the film biz, time means money.

Using previs for the race sequence, when one car passes another, the virtual set covers the action with three or four camera shots (the same as on a live- action set), but can add another half-dozen camera angles just to see what it would look like.

“We could shoot 15 versions of this in a day, whereas it would take you three weeks to shoot that on set,” says Cleland.

A production company executive meeting with potential investors could commission a previs sequence like this and bring it to the meeting on a laptop.

Twenty One Inc., located in a 2,700-square-foot office in Vancouver’s Gastown neighbourhood since its founding last year, has four employees, Cleland and chief operating officer Rose-Ann Tisserand being two of them. However, they use a network of 25 professionals both in Vancouver and in other North American cities.

Cleland, who moved to Vancouver in 2003, worked on the animated feature film Space Chimps before starting Twenty One last year. Having worked with previs concepts at large studios, she says she wanted “to create a place where we could provide that as a service.” Tisserand came over from Vancouver’s Bardel Entertainment, where she was vice-president of production.

Without being asked for a definition of previs, Cleland provides one: “It’s a non-linear process that allows collaboration, allows people to work in design and in story and in filming and editing to shape the vision.

“You do it so lightly and swiftly and at such low cost, it’s okay to bang around from one discipline to another to find that vision. Once you’ve done that, you can put those ideas into production.”

The best catchphrase, says Cleland, is “virtual production.”

“What we’re talking about is high-level creative, technical, practical and financial decision-making that’s happening on a virtual version of your film. You can sort out all those issues before committing your production resources.”

For the racetrack sequence, the Twenty One cinematographer basically moves cameras around the virtual set the way a cinematographer would move cameras around a live set.

Twenty One uses software tools to get the lifelike shots. For example, it lights scenes using real-time MachStudio Pro software created by Los Angeles company Studio GPU. A film’s production designer can tell the previs technicians what they want – overhead natural light through a skylight and sharp shadows, for example – and that can be put in the digital scene.

Another advantage to using previs to plan a film comes with insurance bonds. If things are planned properly, the odds of going over budget decrease, and physical safety at a potentially dangerous location should be better.

Previs could be used for video games, although they are already digital, for commercials, and for event planning – one of Twenty One’s clients is a circus.

It also has been used in architecture, for much the same reasons it’s used in film.

“You would never dream of building a $100-million building in downtown Vancouver just taking some flat 2-D blueprints and 200 people and start building,” says Cleland.

While big productions have a previs crew with them when they shoot – the newly formed non-profit Previsualization Society terms this “on-set previs” – it would be wrong to assume that only big-budget directors such as James Cameron or Roland Emmerich can use it.

“If you think you can’t afford to do previs, you actually can’t afford not to do previs,” says Cleland, “because if you have to do a high-quality feature that’s competing with a DreamWorks feature and you have $40 million to do it, you need to pre-plan.”

And what about Vancouver films, which usually range between $5 million and $10 million?

Cleland says her company will work with local production houses.

“We’re looking to enrich the entire film industry here and be a resource locally for that,” she says. “But we’re (also) looking at all of Canada, the U. S., and internationally.”

To see a video gallery, go to vancouversun.com

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