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Executive Decisions: Previz Proactive Preproduction Planning
By Russ Jolly - published October 2006

Previsualization, aka "previz," involves mocking up scenes in a multidimensional environment prior to production so that creative and technical issues can be tackled in advance of the shoot. As a corporate media producer, my previz process includes preproduction techniques ranging from storyboarding to shooting test footage.
Preproduction is a critical phase in the creation of scripted corporate videos, but it often gets short shrift. My clients have a tendency to place value on shooting and editing, but they lack an understanding of the planning necessary to make a project successful. Despite my best efforts to educate clients on the importance of this phase, preproduction is just not sexy.

Additionally, many of the projects I produce don't have the budgets to support drawing "museum-quality" storyboards or manipulating complex 3D animations. I have to work fast. But I also have to be prepared. By adapting higher-end filmmaking techniques to fit the scale of my projects, I'm able to accomplish both objectives.

Storyboards have been used to plan shots in films since the early days of moviemaking. You don't have to be an outstanding sketch artist to create effective boards. No one would confuse my crude, stick-figure drawings with the creative handiwork of Hollywood or ad agency storyboards. But my rudimentary sketches quickly and effectively convey to both client and production team how a sequence of shots will fit together and the composition we want to achieve when it's time to roll tape. Storyboards can easily be redrawn to accommodate new ideas in brainstorming sessions, and they are an invaluable reference in the field on production day to guide the shoot.

Animatics are essentially storyboards in motion, oftentimes set to an audio track. Panning or zooming the drawings within an NLE in conjunction with a scratch narration or dialogue track can help work out timing issues between audio and visuals in advance of the shoot and give a feel for the arc of a story. In the real-world example described below, I explain a simplified approach we've used for preproduction audio/visual mock-ups.

3D modeling takes previsualization to a much higher level. While Hollywood previsualization artists use programs like Maya or Lightwave for intricate animations of scenes, there are standalone 3D previz software packages from companies like Innoventive Software and Antics that allow a 3D novice to move objects within a scene and set up complex camera movements. The extra time required to use these programs may not fit the majority of your projects, but advances in software have made the process faster and more user-friendly, and it's a good option to be aware of when a challenging shoot and adequate budget align (for more on these tools, see Kyle Oliver's October 2005 article, Storyboards: An Unauthorized Biography).

Shooting test footage on location is a sure-fire method of previsualizing in advance of production and offers an opportunity to test framing options and camera movements in the real environment. Bonus material in the DVDs for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie and Robert Rodriguez' Desperado show those directors using small DV cameras to shoot test footage. Tape is cheap. Creating quick mock-ups of shoots can solve a variety of problems before the full cast and crew arrive.

In one recent project, we had to go from shoot to edit to delivery in 24 hours, but we had adequate preproduction time in advance of the shoot. Once the script had been approved by the client, I drew a rough storyboard of all the shots. I recorded a scratch VO and rough-cut the narration audio track along with the music we had chosen for underscoring.

We then created several solid-color, screen-sized JPEGs and dropped them onto the timeline along with the narration so that a differently colored screen represented each cut. This gave us a visual representation of how cuts corresponded to the narration, and it allowed us to note the timing of each shot. Meanwhile, our client approved our choice of voice talent, and we sent him the script to record the narration in advance of production day.

The look we wanted to achieve for this video required smooth, fluid camerawork, and we planned to use both a jib and a Steadicam on production. We had four on-camera actors scheduled for the shoot, but the blocking would be minimal since they were mostly in fixed locations with the camera gliding around them. Two days before shooting, I made a quick site visit with my trusty DV camera in hand. In about 10-15 minutes, I was able to capture test footage of each shot on the storyboard. I mimicked the motion we had planned for each shot and timed the shots to match our color-coded "animatic." I hustled back to the studio, fed my shaky, handheld test footage into the NLE, and replaced the color JPEGs with the proper shots.

After adding the professional VO, we had a rough cut of our completed video a full day in advance of production. This allowed us to make timing adjustments, identify location issues within the field of vision, and make final decisions about blocking talent within the frame. The following day, production went very smoothly, and we were able to turn the final edit quickly by replacing the test footage with actual production-day shots.

I guess you could say that proactive previsualization planning put us on the path to a picture-perfect production.

Russ Jolly is owner of 214 Media: video production in Dallas & Ft. Worth area.

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