Executive Decisions: Previz Proactive Preproduction
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
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.