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The Pre-Viz Revolution

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In his keynote address at last year’s Siggraph, director George Lucas mentioned that he’d asked Steven Spielberg to help him out by preparing previsualization sessions for Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. And Spielberg enjoyed the process so much that he now prepares his own movies in the same way. Spielberg, remember, is one of the few directors who still cuts his movies on film, as opposed to using an Avid. Though he’s no technophobe, it’s still a hell of a testimonial for pre-viz that someone like Spielberg is using it.Lucas also said that with the technology, even before he had shot a single frame of film, he already had the film edited. Which meant that all the editor had to do was cut in the real footage as it was shot. Camera angles were thus decided in advance, which put an end to the Scene Missing banner that traditionally would be stuck into the cut until a shot was completed.These programs are really the successors to storyboarding—a practice that has been around since the early days of filmmaking. One company heavily invested in pre-viz software is Antics Technologies, which has its offices at Los Angeles Center Studios in downtown LA. (The main offices are in Cambridge, England.)Antics Pre-Viz software runs on standard PCs and requires at least 1.5 Ghz and 512 Mb memory, either Windows XP service pack 2 or Windows 2000 service pack 4 with an open GL 1.4 card. It uses game technology to create intelligent characters with many different pre-made movements, detailed sets and varied camera setups for shots and whole scenes, which are stored as animated storyboards that can be cut together and output as AVI movies.Alan Hamill, Antics’ US-based technical marketing manager, and Brad Kolacinski business development executive, first showed Below the Line several commercials that had been created on the program, including some for major sports equipment and car companies and British media such as the BBC and Virgin Radio. Since the program is not photorealistic, and people are now used to seeing amazing things from CG programs and even from games, it may not seem impressive. However, it is certainly possible to clearly see what the spots would look like when finished. And that is, of course, the whole point of the software.More impressive is the way the software works. The Antics executives said that the goal was never to create software that looked photoreal but to make a program that was extremely fast, easy to use and ultimately incredibly useful. For example, in set-up mode (one of the three interfaces that control the program) they quickly created a house, front lawn and street, then textured them, added some furniture, doors and windows (that you could see or shoot through) and showed several options for the people used in this demo. All this with the click of a mouse! Next they selected the character, then clicked on the chair, and the character walked over to the chair and sat down. Those who remember the Amiga computer and Lightwave 3-D understand how much work this was bypassing just to do that little task. The program not only has a library of hundreds of objects—people, cars, weapons and household as well as office objects—but also a lot of motion-capture routines to animate those objects. They then changed the walk to a tired walk, and sure enough the character looked as though he could barely make it to the chair. You can add dialog by dragging and dropping .wav files of dialog onto a character, and that character will lip sync the dialog while walking around. All this in real time, with no rendering. The blocking of any scene can be quickly and easily accomplished.The next part of the demo was of an incredibly useful function. They switched to director mode and showed how to choose as many cameras as you want, and place them wherever you want. Of course you can control zoom and pan, as well as pedestal up and down or even do crane shots, but the cool part came with the dragging of some dolly tracks in front of one of the cameras so it was possible to control dolly left and right, in and out. You can plan not only the shot and action but where to put the dolly tracks on location to get the shot you want. All of this using no key-framing (although you can use key-framing if you want) but just clicking and dragging or pointing and clicking. Those who have worked with 3D programs know that key framing is the process of adding marks on the timeline that determine when an object or an action will begin or end, so you can imagine how much easier it is to just grab an object and drag it where you want as it plays.In addition, the cameras can be linked to objects so they can be tracked. In other words, the camera can be set up to follow any object by itself, so every time you cut to that angle, the subject is in frame and in focus. By switching to the third mode (edit), all this can then be edited within the software itself and output as an AVI file (which can be played on any PC and imported to almost any editing software). Now you can see what the piece will look like before you’ve even started shooting. One could, as Lucas mentioned, import that AVI file into the final editing software program and replace the pre-viz shots with the real ones as they come in. Or give it to the composer, VFX house or sound designer so they can get a jump on the work they have to do.You can control lighting as well—up to eight light sources. While the system doesn’t offer all the options available to a real lighting director like barndoors, filters, diffusers, bounce cards, and so forth, it is not supposed to be photorealistic.It’s also possible to edit textures in Adobe Photo Shop and import jpeg and bitmap photo files. Also, Pre-Viz supports alpha channels—layers that can be in front of or behind the main video. So, for example, the pre-viz actors could appear right in front of picture of the actual location or set. It’s also possible to import models or motion from Audodesk 3-D Max so the user is not limited to the models or actions that come with the program. Finally Hamill demonstrated something he had done by shooting, then importing three video streams of the view out the front, side and back window of a car traveling down a mountain road. He then projected them outside a car in Pre-Viz, by texture mapping them onto three flat planes (called billboards) and then placed those outside the car windows. This created that rear-projection effect that Hitchcock used so well. Since he used real video, from inside the car, at any angle, it really looked like they were traveling down a mountain road. Does that mean that Pre-Viz can import video? “Not directly at the moment,” said Hamill, “but it’s something we’re seriously looking at. We will gauge the level of interest from the market. We are doing tests to establish that things can be done, and if there’s enough interest to warrant it, we will devote the resources to it.”In fact, there’s word that in version 2.0, due out in the early second quarter of this year, video will be an option. But the big change in version 2.0 will be the incorporation of the one intergrated timeline that will replace, or rather combine, the three modes mentioned above. And there will be additions to the library of objects and actions.Pre-viz can be used not just for animated storyboarding, but also for pitch sessions, because the producers can see much better what the filmmaker has in mind. A previsualization for producers can now be a lot more than pencil tests. It can have actors, objects and actions. And it can help get the money.

Written by Bob Bayless

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