Summer Previs Powered by The Third Floor

The LA and London-based boutique worked on Avengers: Age of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, San Andreas, and Poltergeist, with Ant-Man and Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation on deck. (Ultron image copyright Marvel 2015, Fury Road, San Andreas images copyright Warner Bros., Poltergeist image copyright Twentieth Century Fox; all images courtesy of The Third Floor Inc.)

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The Third Floor worked with Marvel to provide previs, postvis, and virtual camera Age of Ultron. From the opening battle to the Hulkbuster fight to scenes in Korea and the final climax, key action and visual effects sequences were represented as detailed previs, frequently with techvis diagrams to accompany specific shots or stunts.

“The main objectives for previs were to support the filmmakers, including our director, Joss Whedon and visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend, in developing the many action sequences and planning scenes technically,” said The Third Floor previs supervisor Gerardo Ramirez, who supervised the company’s previs team at The Third Floor London during pre-production and production in the UK. “Joss knows previs and leveraged it to help visualize scenes so the entire crew would understand the goal.”

With thousands of vfx shots in the film, there was also extensive postvis, supervised by Ramirez out of L.A, to composite elements into live-action plates and provide versions for editors Jeff Ford and Lisa Lassek. And there were unique uses of previs, techvis, motion capture, and virtual camera in a more virtual production sense.

“Many of the chase, fight and stunt scenes were staged virtually. We would lay them out in motion capture, bring that data into the computer and run it in our virtual camera system so Joss or second unit director John Mahaffie could explore camera moves and blocking in advance,” said Casey Schatz, head of virtual production, The Third Floor. “Sometimes, camera passes would be the first thing recorded within a blocked environment and then the previs team would animate the characters and action to that move.”

Scenes on the freighter ship and with Captain America fighting Ultron on the train used these “virtual rehearsals,” where action was choreographed on stage at Shepperton, motion-captured by The Imaginarium Studio and played back in the virtual camera. In another example, James Spader recorded dialogue and motion capture for Ultron’s speech at the Avengers Tower simultaneously seeing the performance mirrored to the CG character. That performance was then also viewed via the virtual camera system to frame coverage options.

Together with techvis, virtual prototyping allowed a great deal of input from production departments to be gathered to help determine specific requirements to achieving the scenes on the day: speed at which a vehicle should be traveling, marks to be hit, placement of actors, and even best time of day to be filming. This was evident in collaboration to plan stunts and logistics for the Korea scene where Captain America and Black Widow chase the tractor-trailer, as well as the numerous “beats,” camera paths and rig parameters for the opening “tie-in” shot.

Mad Max: Fury Road

A group of artists from The Third Floor headed to Sydney to work alongside George Miller’s team on previs for Fury Road. The Third Floor’s contributions included the opening at the Citadel, the storm chase and the final canyon battle. Glenn Burton, formerly with the Third Floor, was the previs supervisor.

For the opening at the Citadel, the team assisted in creating 3D designs that explored how the structure could work both aesthetically and practically. Roman Cathedrals, the inner workings of a clock, counterbalance scale and Uluru all served as reference.

With much of the movie focused on a real-world approach to filming, previs served a dual purpose of helping map out main action beats creatively and also ensuring they could practically be shot. The previs team worked from a detailed set of boards that Miller spent years refining.

“We worked to the same sizes and specs as the practical vehicles, which enabled the previs to account for how the real cameras and actors would fit within that space,” said The Third Floor’s Shannon Justison, a previs artist on the team. “We also paid attention to vehicle speeds, keeping to what was safe to film.”

The final car chase presented some particularly challenging choreography of characters across multiple moving, crashing vehicles. Previs was a good medium for helping work out this action within the creative and story demands.

“There’s a lot of concurrent action, people switch vehicles and it was important to clarify the characters’ locations and transitions,” Justison said.  “The final action they filmed is incredibly real and visceral –-  everyone has to fight their way across in what seems like glorious mayhem but the action is always fluid and purposeful.”

San Andreas

In San Andreas, characters navigate a path of danger and destruction as a major earthquake strikes California. Action beats, along with technical specifications for select shots, were worked out in previs, which also represented the major environments.

“Collaborating with director Brad Peyton, VFX supervisor Colin Strause, VFX producer Randy Starr, and others, we created visualizations to depict flow of action, story points, and pacing for key scenes,” Constantine said. “Sometimes, the previs was providing reference for visual effects and sometimes we were providing technical information or specs for production. We also created 360-degree movies of the digital previs environments for the director to use in showing geographical notes on set via a tablet.”

High-intensity moments included a rescue mission in which Ray (Dwayne Johnson) flies his helicopter into downtown Los Angeles, and scenes with Ray and his ex-wife, Emma, in a boat as a massive tsunami hits the Bay Area. For shots at the Golden Gate where a man gets crushed by a cargo container and in the Bay as Ray and Emma drive up to a partially submerged building, the team provided specific techvis measurements to inform the shoot.

To help visualize action at the Hoover Dam, stunts and a virtual camera were motion-captured at Marina del Rey’s Just Cause Ent. This data was then synced up with the previs environment within The Third Floor’s virtual camera system sync, allowing the director to make multiple virtual “takes” of the scene.

“In creating scenes for previs, we tried to reference as much as we could find,” said Constantine. “We looked at blueprints and construction photos and tried to imagine how chunks of the Dam would come apart as it was built in huge blocks. Based on this material as well as input from the director and visual effects supervisor, we animated environment and fx geometry until it felt as big and dangerous as was needed.”

Much of previs consisted of hand-animated geometry made specifically for the show: environments for downtown LA, Hoover Dam and the Hollywood Hills. Artists worked from The Third Floor’s existing library for some city elements and VFX animation but most everything, especially the various San Francisco elements seen in the movie, was extensively re-tailored.


Tapped to work with director Gil Kenan on the reboot of the 1982 horror classic, a team from The Third Floor under supervisor Barry Howell met the somewhat unusual challenge of visualizing scenes for Poltergeist using animation, a medium almost inherently non-threatening.

“Once you have live actors, it is easy to create a horrific scene, but when you’re watching something that looks like animation, you have to work harder to get that feeling across. We knew if we could make the previs scary, it would be scary in live action as well,” said Howell.

To meet that goal, Howell’s team focused on several key factors: working with the director to explore where tensions would be for the audience, re-arranging things for best effect and determining how much of the supernatural to show.

The choice was sometimes to play up psychological impacts instead of physical dangers, as in Maddy being tricked to enter the closet of her own will. Specific camera and lighting angles were also chosen to give the previs shots a scary feel, and various “long-explosure-like” looks were iterated to help develop unique treatment of the spirits and Other Side that met the director’s vision.

On an increasing number of projects, work done in the visualization phase is carrying over into real production. For this film, the detailed previs model of the Bowen’s house, which had allowed for the action to be virtually staged, was delivered as orthographic plans for production and cues from the previs even informed some final costume choices, such as the patterned pajama pants Griffin wears in the tree attack scene. When a game-style element was needed as a finished visual for the opening of the movie, Howell’s team was called upon as well.

“After completing the previs, we were asked to create a game element they were looking to include for the beginning of the film,” Howell said. “We don’t typically do final imagery, but the look of the ‘zombie’ game Griffin was to be playing on his tablet fit well with our animation style and what Gil wanted in the scene.”

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Movies, previs, Tech, Virtual Production

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