Previsualization as a powerful tool in filmmaking and development

Previsualization has become a hot topic in the production industry. However, previsualization is as old as the industry itself. It goes back to the early days of filmmaking when filmmakers and producers had to find ways to figure out if a scene is working or not. A good scene depends not only on the quality of the screenplay. Sometimes it is necessary to check if a scene works in a technical way before a production starts to build expansive sets or moves to a remote shooting location. In our days where real production and virtual production creates complex workflows precise preparation and testing is essential. Furthermore workflows in digital production getting more flexible with preparation steps could become building blocks of the production.

Previsualization can mean a lot of things. It could be a simple drawing, an artistic storyboard, a miniature set with playmobile figures, all forms of animatics, or in our days a complex virtual production. In former days pre visualisation comes with preproduction. The idea of previz according to Careers in Films is the following:” Previs helps the DirectorDirector of Photography, some crew, and even the Editor understand the camera direction, shot compositions, an edit of a scene and it serves to weed out any possible issues, complications, and artistic direction before money is spent on actual filming”: It means visually mapping out the scenes of a movie. Previsualization goes back to the early days of film: “Storyboards came into use at Disney Studios 1928. Another way was miniatures sets “often viewed with a periscope, a small optical device with deep depth of field that a director could insert into a miniature set to explore camera angles” (Source: Wikipedia).

Today’s workflows have dramatically changed. In the production of sci-fi series, the development of the script goes from the writer to the VFX-department which gives feedback and then back to the writer who addresses adjustments, for example in “Star Trek – Discovery”.

Does that mean writers have to become technicians and 3D artists?

This is certainly not the case. If previsualization makes sense depends on the genre, the story, the setting, or the type of production. In many projects, you don’t need previsualization for example in many dramas. However, if it comes to action, sci-fi or thrillers the success of the project often depends on “memorable scenes” and set-pieces. It’s great to have sequences with a flow and seamless transitions. Thus you want to know how certain transitions work long before you shoot the movie, or more general: Do certain visual ideas work at all? If the writer is involved in that process is an individual decision, however, with the growing importance of virtual production a certain technical understanding is an advantage. It might be possible that in future writers and 3D or VFX-artists become closer collaborators in earlier stages of projects.

The many aspects of previsualization

The most important thing is to know what is a previsualization supposed to do. What do we hope for? Where should it come into play, and who should see this? Therefore a distinction makes sense between translating the script into a moving storyboard and exploratory work with software and other purposes like presenting teasers to potential investors. As for the creative process there is that kind of trying things for example with 3D software just to see how a scene works out. Sometimes this process gives fresh input about potential alternatives. It is about exploring uncharted territory. However, it is good to be a bit careful if we get excited about new things which come up. They might look great but don’t fit in the original idea and story.

On the other side, the fresh look gives us some input to think about what the project is really about. It informs us where we are heading. Maybe in a supernatural thriller we see that the digital effects not really work as intended and dragging the project more into a fantasy or sci-fi direction. And, of course, there is the original purpose of previsualization to give us precise technical information.

Previsualization helps us to get a better idea about the budget. It might also have to find a cheaper solution. It helps to avoid surprises which could make production more expensive. Sometimes there is concern it does work against creativity because if previz leads to detailed preplanning maybe some flexibility is lost. The opposite might be true in many cases because good preparation allows more freedom. If things are under control there is more room for creative development. Previsualization is therefore an interesting option not only for expensive production but for indie productions as well.

Previsualization as a marketing tool

Good previsualization is not the same as a proof of concept but can be a powerful tool to present a project to potential investors and buyers. As decks and lookbooks, it gives a true visual idea of what the project is supposed to present. If the previsualization is part of the marketing package it is important to plan this from the beginning. In this case, there should be a way of previsualization which not only demonstrates the mechanics of a certain scene but show the mood, the setting, the potential direction of color grading, the way effects are used, even they must not be done with the same standard as the final product. Today previz itself can be very ambitious artwork as the case of World War Z demonstrates:

How to do previsualization which also works as a teaser?

There is software for doing previsualization, which is however more production oriented. It is mostly like the storyboard with animated characters and settings as “Storyboarder”, “Plot”, “Studio Binder” and more.

However if there is knowledge and a readiness to get into this a promising road is to use the programmes which are actually used also for compositing, virtual production, 3D animation in the real production world. Examples of software with free versions are DaVinci Resolve with Fusion, Blender or – very popular – Unreal engine – offers great opportunities. Professional software can also be costly as Maya and requires a lot of training, therefore the free software offers are a good option particularly for starters.

It is very good to check if such choices meet the needs of the planned production. Unreal Engine and other software products are really extremely powerful and helpful tools but they require not only a good amount of training. Game Engines like Unreal are hot but originally not made for film production. A good way to get into tech is learning a free software program like DaVinci Resolve or Hitfilm (Express). They both offer incredible possibilities for designing scenes and most important they are compositors. With composition software, there is plenty of room for creating scenes in 2D and 3D. The Hitfilm FX-Home composition software comes with a huge bundle of effects and presets which allows jumping easily into creating.

The approach of Endurance Entertainment in creating previsualization is to use different types of software and work from simple stand-ins, simple demonstration forwards into virtual production. The idea is to simulate the virtual production part as closely as possible to the planned film production. Then in a second step the simpler previz elements gets replaced by actual virtual production elements which could used for the production. It is very important not to mix up these step since virtual production elements need to meet the necessary quality standards.

The previs is the room for exploration and trial. For example, how would a particle system work in a certain scene? It’s important to do a lot of stuff in 3D because there is the chance to get ideas about the whole situation of a scene and discover potential camera angles and more.

Case Study – The Forest Dark:

The Feature Film project The Forest Dark is used as a demonstration of capabilities and for exploration of the possibilities of previz as a pre-production tool and for marketing purposes. It became an intrinsic part of the creative process. The project contains typical elements of Sci-Fi and supernatural thrillers where mere descriptions in a screenplay can only give a general idea if it comes to crossing alternative dimensions or reaching glitches in reality with gateways “to the other world”. These motives have become very popular and projects today need to have a very precise idea of what the viewer should see. It can be also combined with the digital lookbook which gives potential partners a deeper insight and is updated on a constant level. Thus it can be used as a production tool: There are of course always limitations due to cost and available work-time. Animation of realistic 3D characters as Adobe’s Mixamo figures or Metahumans are getting quickly very time-consuming. In the following sequence movements are therefore simplified: 

A new way of creative workflow: “Writing with Unreal Engine?”

If we use traditional writing and technical production elements like virtual scenes not any longer in the traditional way isn’t it true that this is not any longer previsualization but a new workflow where compositing software or game engine become part of the “typewriter” or an indistinguishable tool for creating? Again it depends on the type of project, the genre, or the story. Nevertheless, it is interesting that there is a “Writing with Unreal Engine” workshop at Tribeca Filmfestival 2021 bringing filmmakers and Unreal Engine Experts together. “It is time to reimagine storytelling”:

Previsualization as building blocks of production

The most promising path in previsualization is that it can be not just a preliminary step in preproduction but actually material in the production if we work step-by-step. This is also not new:

“Francis Ford Coppola developed the process he called “electronic cinema”. Through electronic cinema Coppola sought to provide the filmmaker with on-set composing tools that would function as an extension of his thought processes. For the first time, an animatic would be the basis for an entire feature film. The process began with actors performing a dramatic “radio-style” voice recording of the entire script. Storyboard artists then drew more than 1800 individual storyboard frames.[1] These drawings were then recorded onto analog videodisks and edited according to the voice recordings.[Once production began, video taken from the video tap of the 35 mm camera(s) shooting the actual movie was used to gradually replace storyboarded stills to give the director a more complete vision of the film’s progress”. Source: Wikipedia

This approach could be a good model if we work similarly with elements of the production: Replace the original stand-in elements of the previsualization with actual material for the production. There are further technology innovations which have tremendous influence on production workflows. The most prominent examples are the real-time virtual productions and productions with LED-screens in a studio set as Mandalorian. In the near future we will probably see more and more blurring boundaries between former previsualization steps and the production stage of projects. For further reading of this visionary approach there is a detailed article from behind the scenes:

How to do impressing Previz with limited resources?

Low-Budget or independent productions often have very small budgets and need to focus on the essential elements of the production. An external 3d artist or expensive drawings of storyboards or even graphics of scenes are often not an option. It is definitely a big difference if the film makers and producers have an understanding of software like Da Vinci Resolve. Resolve has fantastic color grading features. The free version contains most of the important feature. The other important thing is to have lots of material to play and mess around with. Stock footage is an option. There are platforms with video clips which are free but you will see the limits soon. Today there are many options for cameras even mobile phone cameras which are available all the time. Thus film makers can become collectors and be always on the hunt for footage or materials. It is good to have a tripod or a gimbal in order to get usable material. Furthermore an important advantage is to learn how to do composites (combine scenes and 3D characters or masking out stuff or do set extensions). Doing compositions is a real enabler not only in previsualization.

If you are interested in more information and our work or Endurance Entertainment projects don’t hesitate to get in touch: