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Visiting The Third Floor – Exceptional Previs For Exceptional Movies

Visionaries Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, and George Lucas have all worked with the founders of a company called The Third Floor.  Under the leadership of CEO and Creative Director Chris Edwards, the previsualization or previs artists at The Third Floor have spent their first six years working alongside some of Hollywood’s leading creative teams.  “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland” count among the company’s recent credits.  This month, they’ll add the theatrical adaptation of Marvel Comic’s “Thor” to their resume.

Previs is the collaborative process of using 3D animation to depict concepts, story elements, shots and sequences that allow directors, producers, and all the creative department heads to understand how their ideas will work in concert prior to shooting a single frame of film.  Since designing sequences for “Star Wars Episode III” in 2004, Edwards has noticed that directors have become increasingly interested in incorporating previs into their process.

“We’re working with Sam Raimi on his next feature as well as two films with Steven Spielberg,” said Edwards, “It’s such an honor to work with filmmakers of this caliber, because they’ve been through the filmmaking process many times, they know what they want, and our previs team is there to extract the vision they already see in their heads.”

Previs initiates during pre-production, although the actual starting point varies from project to project.  For a film such as last year’s “Iron Man 2,” where the concepts behind the look and behavior of the main character had been previously established in the first installment, the previs team could focus immediately on the staging of action to support the story.  However, in a film such as “Thor,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, it made sense to begin the previs process much earlier.  The script was still being finalized, yet the previs team was commissioned to produce character studies and environment visualizations to help the filmmakers and the studio determine if these choices were in keeping with the precedents set in Marvel comic book lore.

“When the director had a concept for an idea, we were able to represent this idea quickly using previs modeling and animation, complete with multiple framing options for the camera,” said The Third Floor’s Gerardo Ramirez, “Thor” Previs Supervisor.  “That really allowed the filmmakers to hone in and try out all their innovative ideas at a very early stage.”

It’s important to note that previs does not take the place of traditional storyboarding.  Previs artists usually work in tandem with storyboard artists while visualizing action for sequences, becoming inspired by each others concepts and ideas.  Frequently, many of the creative department heads, such as the production designer, the costume designer and the visual effects supervisor, will use previs as a test bed to determine how their creative elements work together most effectively.

“As a professional previs supervisor you have to be very aware of all the key contributors on the production, what they are trying to get out of the process, and how you can help support them, ” said Edwards.  “I think in some ways it is kind of like going back to the heydays of Hollywood, when the cinematographer, the production designer, the director, and other key collaborators got together early on and brainstormed their ideas in a small group to make the most of the resources at their disposal and push the creative to new heights of visual expression.”

Through previs, the entire crew can see their concepts fleshed out as animated scenes, with 3D representations of characters, backdrops, props, etc. prior to any time and resources being spent on building sets or shooting angles that would have never made the cut.  Beyond assessing creative nuances, previs also helps identify and address specific technical problems that would have come up on set or during the visual effects finishing process.

“It’s possible to work very accurately and to scale with previs,” said Ramirez.  “When you can see a previs sequence that has moving characters and corresponding camerawork, in a representation with rough lighting and sound, that’s when some critical decisions can be made.  Often scripted beats feel different once they are fully previsualized, enabling you to have unprecedented foresight, and the ability to make surgical changes that improve the sequence as a whole.”

For “Thor,” The Third Floor previs team created a detailed blueprint for many of the film’s climactic sequences.  The artists worked closely with visual effects supervisor Wesley Sewell to break down all the epic-scale scenes that required heavy green-screen photography and visual effects.  They also created one-to-one 3D models of complex physical sets such as the ice planet Jotunheim.

While some previs techniques focus on the pre-production process, others are designed to meet certain challenges in production and post.  This includes “technical previs,” the process of providing exact specs such as set dimensions, camera lens data, green-screen specifications and other useful information used by the crew during the shoot.  All of this technical previs information streamlines setup time and logistics on set.  And finally, after principal photography, “postvis” is created by compositing the previs elements back into the live-action footage, to validate footage selection and to provide editors with all the elements they need to cut the sequence before the production commissions the final visual effects.

Over the last several years, as the adoption of previs has proliferated in the commercial, feature and video games industries, the tools of the trade have become increasingly sophisticated. Early previs was limited to basic camera moves on primitive stand-in objects that looked more like vector-graphics imagery from the original “Tron” movie than a moment in an actual film.  Modern previs professionals use the same software that leading visual effects studios use to conjure up more and more detailed animation in a fraction of the time.  In an ongoing effort to speed up its workflow and to enable their artists to flex their creativity, The Third Floor has developed a number of proprietary tools and libraries to extend the standard capabilities of Autodesk’s Maya and MotionBuilder software, making the company leaders in 2D, 3D stereoscopic and virtual cinema.

“Over the years we’ve been writing our own scripts and building huge libraries of 3D assets that are helping to free up our artists from repetitive tasks, making them more efficient.  They are like short order chefs that can serve up anything a director and his trusted advisors can imagine,” said Edwards.  “Previs artists really need to be able to bring the scene together quickly and to manipulate it on the fly.  From there, the trick is to use all your filmic sensibilities and the conventions of traditional film language to elicit the appropriate and intended emotional response.  That’s why great previs artists must have a balance of technical prowess and artistic passion.”

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