Previsualization (or Previz or Previs) is the art of visualizing how a scene, shot or sequence will play out using tangible media (not just in your head). This could take many forms, and this article will go over a few ideas and methods to generate previz content.
What’s the best way to previsualize?
The best way to previsualize is the way that works for your particular project. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. The two most important reasons why filmmakers use previsualization are:
- To ensure the shots they have planned actually work
- To communicate their idea to the rest of the team
If the scene calls for two people talking, you would try to accomplish the previz in the simplest manner possible. In fact, for simple dramatic shots and scenes, the director (and crew members) must really be able to see the sequence in his/her head. For more complicated scenes, previz can greatly help in confirming whether the director’s intentions pan out or not.
For really complicated action scenes and stunts, previz can help communicate the director’s vision to the entire team so everyone knows what’s expected. It also saves the production a lot of time and money.
Let’s go over a few previz methods and software with pros and cons of each.
The simplest previsualization method
The simplest previz method, short of imagining it in your head, is to write down the shots on paper, like this:
1. LS. Hero enters room
2. CU. Hero’s feet as he trips the booby trap
3. ECU. Hero’s stupid face as he explodes
4. EXT. Building. LS. Block blows up
This is a shooting script. It is practically an ‘exploded’ view of the screenplay with shot numbers and type of shots involved. For simple dramatic movies the shooting script is more than enough previz.
The Storyboard Artist
The storyboard artist is a person who can sketch and paint storyboards. Storyboards are frames from your movie that you think are important enough to convey an action or scene or idea.
Many storyboard artists draw on paper. The really experienced artists are fast and have an excellent understanding of challenges unique to filmmaking:
- Lens perspective and focal lengths
- Mood and lighting
- Creative editing
- Camera motion and talent blocking
In many ways you can call it a ‘conservative’ comic strip, where you can go all out if you wanted to, but it is more helpful if you stayed within filmmaking conventions.
Nowadays, though, many storyboard artists prefer to draw on computer via a tablet. The same principles apply, but the computer gives us a lot more functionality. Here’s how a computer sketch is better:
- With a paper board, you have to carefully scan the image first. The computer image is ready to be shared instantaneously. Imagine how this would work if you have thousands of boards.
- You can edit images easily. With a paper board, you must almost always start from scratch.
- You only have to buy one pen. Even for colors.
Storyboard frames are still the predominant method of previzualization for medium budget projects including features, shorts, commercials, music videos, etc.
Many filmmakers who use previz for their movies can’t afford the services of a talented storyboard artist. Unfortunately, there are many talented artists, but very few artists who also understand the filmmaking language. For this reason, nowadays, directors tend to DIY.
DIY previz software
It seems a new previz software is given birth every couple of months, though only few stand out. I’ll provide four examples, but please don’t consider them as endorsements. I’ve only used one of the following four:
Toonboom Storyboard Pro sticks to 2D objects, and allows the storyboard artist or filmmaker to sketch his/her vision to life. However, this software takes things to a whole new level:
- You can create objects in layers, similar to Photoshop
- You can manipulate these objects in 2D and 3D space, with cameras, similar to After Effects
- You can edit your shots on a timeline with audio, similar to an NLE
Watch this in action:
Frameforge has been around for a long time. Unfortunately, they haven’t updated their software in ages. Yet, the last version is still extremely powerful and runs much better on modern computers.
Frameforge is a 3D previz tool that has built-in characters, props, sets and probably anything else you’ll need. It also allows for various cameras and lenses, and you can render frames as ‘toons’ or as realistic looking 3D scenes. One of its more powerful features is that it also supports stereoscopy. The one big ‘disadvantage’ of Frameforge is that it does not include complex animation.
Here’s Frameforge 3D Studio in action:
Moviestorm includes animation, though when I tried it a few years ago it was buggy (but free). I’m pretty sure they’ve improved tons by now. The results are impressive:
Moviestorm also provides a free PDF on using their software for previz. You’ll find it in the link in the title.
I hadn’t heard of this software before researching for this article. It seems to offer the most realistic scenes and animation amongst the lot, one that is possible for a filmmaker to accomplish on his/her own:
All of these softwares have one major goal: To allow a non-sketch artist (let’s say sketch-artistically challenged) to design and create life-like storyboards to either pitch a project to a producer, confirm if the scenes work as designed and/or to communicate their vision to their team.
Still, my experience has been that even if you use these programs to the max, you’ll still need the artistic ability to pull off realistic looking scenes. Though I have comprehensively used Frameforge 3D, I still had to use Photoshop and After Effects to introduce motion in my scenes. The latter two programs seem to have this figured out.
One thing you shouldn’t expect is to have this easy. It’s extremely time-consuming to place characters in 3D space, design sets (even pre-built ones) to your specifications, move cameras around, light a scene, etc. On top of that, you still need to account for rendering time. In fact, making a previz is almost like making an animation film.
Really advanced previz software
The ‘really’ advanced previz software is not really previz software. They are 3D applications used to make major visual effects. Examples include 3DS Max (great for architecture and objects), Maya (unrivalled for animation, realism, etc.), Poser (humans), Blender (free and powerful), etc.
It would be rare for one individual to accomplish a previz project with any of these programs. It is certainly doable, but takes a lot of skill and training in the software. Most of the time, previz studios will take on projects and treat it like a ‘mini-VFX’ project. There’ll be character developers, animators, compositors, etc.; all depending on the budget the client is prepared to pay. For a $1 million movie, you wouldn’t look at this option, but for a $100 million movie you’d better.
In this latter budget range, it is almost irresponsible not to previsualize your action scenes (otherwise why spend $100 million?). The logistics are mind-boggling, and the mistakes are career-threatening.
Well, that covers it. I hope this brief overview of previz software is enough to get you started on your adventure-before-your-real-adventure. No matter what your budget, you have an option to previsualize your project in advance before bad things happen. Trust me, it’s worth it.
If you know of any previz software I’ve left out, feel free to tell me in the comments section below.