It was the summer of 2000. We had survived the year 2000 and I was busy working on the David Fincher film. Panic room. We were trying to preview the whole movie before the main shoot started. It was meticulous and painstaking work. Next to my desk was the editor, who was responsible for cutting the previews into a gripping cat and mouse thriller. Further down the hall was the principal’s office and a small screening room.
It was late. Most of the people had returned home. I was working hard to finish a few more shots before I finished for the day. From the end of the hall, I heard David scream to me, “Ronnie! I found him in the screening room playing Madden NFL. He had just finished a reception and was flying a camera while watching the instant replay. His question to me: Why couldn’t he do that with the previs? Why couldn’t he grab his gamepad, move the camera, and craft his own shots of Meg, Burnham, Raoul and Junior?
It was a great question. And now, over 20 years later, now is the perfect time to answer it.
What Fincher recognized that evening was the power that technology brings to the visualization process. Game engines, like the one he was using, are designed to run in real time, and it’s much faster than rendering the animation frame-by-frame and then playing it back. Real-time interaction is more natural and intuitive.
The problem was, in the early 2000s, there was nothing intuitive or natural about using game engines for anything other than game development.
People were talking about using game engines for previs, and the first experiments were done using emerging tools like the XSI Viewer. Still, the workflows were too complex for the fast-paced world of feature film forecasting. Developers had to write code and test features. Then, it was necessary to train the artists in new animation techniques. All of this may be achievable with months to design a pipeline, but our projects were measured in weeks, with a delay of days.
Fast forward to today and you have a very different technology landscape. Motion capture technology has advanced and matured. Game engines like Unity and Unreal are common in industries ranging from architecture and automotive design to biomedical research. And graphics cards now have more memory and computing power than the high-end workstations of a decade ago.
So how did all of this change previs? What would my job be on Panic room looks like today?
The first answer is that it would look a lot better. Better not because it would sound more realistic, but better because I could Choose what it would look like. In 2000, I had very little choice for the visual style. I took what I could extract from my Windows NT workstation running an early version of Softimage XSI, and that was it.
Now, with more powerful hardware and software, visual styling is a choice. And with game engines like Unreal, we can apply different looks in real time depending on the creative goals of the project. It may look realistic, with natural lighting and atmospheric effects. It could also look more hand drawn, like Proof’s work for The blacklist Season 7 finale (see “Hybrid Drama”,
CGW Issue 2, 2020).
Filming of the episode was cut short due to the pandemic. This left the studio with just over half of the episode finished and no practical way to end it. Jon Bokenkamp, the series creator, wanted to push the graphic novel, film noir feel of the series, so the Proof team chose a visual style, and a few weeks later our preview was released at national television. A more beautiful preview means it is suited to the tastes and style of the project and the filmmakers. The “look” is a creative choice in a field of creative choices.
On the other end of the spectrum is our recently released Amazon Prime work. The war of tomorrow.
Proof joined the VFX team on The war of tomorrow during postproduction while they were building the director’s cut. Most of the work has been postvisited – adding CG creatures, effects, and backgrounds to the practical plates. We had to make the shots as believable as possible, while ensuring a super-fast turnaround time so that the director, who is also an editor, could experience the animation and create the story he wanted to tell. This meant providing multiple iterations of blueprints, all with excellent creature animation and nuanced lighting so the creatures felt part of the plates.
Achieving a higher quality was especially important for the lab sequence where the creature slowly wakes up and begins to struggle against the chains that hold it together. It’s a calm, intimate and tense cinematic moment. Our animators had to dig deep, imbuing the creature with a sense of emotion and purpose as she slowly realizes the danger she finds herself in.
We developed a lightweight platform, giving our animators the subtle control they needed with the creature’s limbs and appendages, while keeping it simple enough to get to work quickly. The platform was custom built for the show, although we did manage to reuse an old set of “vines” from another movie and turn them into a chain harness that traps the creature. These shots go beyond simple temporary compositions. These are the first animated passes that evoke the mood, tone, feelings and story.
While the lab footage showed our ability to create a dramatic moment, other footage was devoted to the chaos of war. For these, our team used MASH in Autodesk Maya to animate hordes of creatures, then layered in specific keyframe performances to tie the scenes together. We have increased creature gear with several “damage” states to reflect damage received in battle.
We used material rendering for the CG elements, combining Autodesk Arnold shaders with the Maya Viewport 2.0 renderer to achieve fast renderings with sophisticated lighting. And each shot was finished using Foundry’s Nuke, where the composers at Proof were able to focus on color and integration. The film was shot using anamorphic lenses, so great care was taken to extract the distortion from the lens for animation and rendering and then reapply it in Nuke to match the lens. final aspect of the film.
Getting a compelling cinematic look was essential as the postvis remained in the edit for months and was used for multiple screenings with filmmakers, studio directors, and test audiences. Plans had to be credible without sacrificing execution time.
Proof’s work on F9 spanned pre-production, filming and post-production.
The weather is another big difference in previs. If it is true that on Panic room we were trying to preview the whole feature, the reality is we ran out of time. And this movie was very contained: five characters trapped in a townhouse over the course of one night, with only a handful of visual effects shots. The movies we’re working on now involve ensemble cast, multiple locations, and exaggerated visual effects sequences.
Recent work by Take Proof on F9. This was a project that covered all aspects of visualization – from developing the story with the filmmakers, to very detailed technical visualizations to help filming complex action shots, version after version of postvis for the editorial, to the making of dozens of visual effects shots that are in the final film. Previs single-handedly covered six sequences totaling over 3,000 individual shots spanning Southern California to Scotland, Eastern Europe and beyond.
And for postvis, we made more than 700 shots touching almost all the sequences of the film. In some cases, we replaced the blue screens with CG set extensions. In others, we generated complex animations and effects to integrate actors filmed practically in entirely computer-generated worlds.
Our work on F9 lasted 26 months with a team of 12 artists on average.
Panic room was ambitious in his attempt to plan an entire movie. Visualization work for
F9 was epic, its reach touching every aspect of the film – from pre-production to filming and to post-production. This level of involvement is typical of blockbuster movies. Previs is an essential part of the creative decision-making process from start to finish.
The majority of Proof’s work on The Tomorrow War was postvisible.
And that brings me to the real answer to the question. The significant change in previs is not the amount of work that we are able to produce, and that is not what visualization work looks like; it’s about what it feels like.
My working relationship with Fincher on Panic room was call-and-answer. He would call for changes, and I would answer and get them done. Sometimes, however, this response would take a few minutes or even hours. In rare cases, it may even take a day or more. The goal was to make the feedback loop as small as possible, but it was still a loop. Now the goal is to break the loop, directly engaging filmmakers in their creative decision-making process. To give them the game controller and let them create their own plans.
To do this, we use an array of real-time technologies that allow us to capture the action and save it as animation. We dress the performers in motion capture costumes and have them lead CG characters that are integrated into the world of the movie story. The director can step in and block the action as if it were actually happening. We give the director or director of photography a virtual camera and let them compose the shots themselves. They can experiment with composition and coverage, then play back the footage in real time to assess what works and what doesn’t.
That’s what Fincher saw that night in 2000 – using real-time technology to engage and interact with animation as a living document.
Visualization is all of that. It aims for higher quality, while doing a lot more and incorporating new technologies that minimize, if not circumvent, the iterative loop. Interestingly, what hasn’t changed is the “why”. Previs has always been focused on creative communication, ideation and technical problem solving in the service of telling better stories. The way we do this work at Proof has definitely changed, and for the better, but the reason we do it will always remain the same.
Ron Frankel is the Founder and Chairman of Proof Inc., and Partner / Managing Director of Proof London Ltd. Founded in 2002, Proof is the original viewing studio dedicated to providing the highest quality viewing services for feature films, broadcast and immersive entertainment. Industries.