Alan Marques
London Film Academy, UK

London Film Academy & Pre-visualization with iClone

The students of the London film Academy are introduced the use of pre-visualization in film production with the curriculum laying out reasons for its use which explore the current methods used by industry practitioners and then leading into the use of more modern and cutting edge technologies like iClone which can significantly improve the quality of the final result while at the same time reducing delivery time through speed of execution using real time graphics card technology.

The Pre-visualization module of the London Film Academy's Digital Film VFX Certificate course is designed to show how pre-vis, with the aid of Reallusion's iClone can aid a film maker in trying out creative visual effects shot ideas in a real time CG environment with digital sets, props, characters and effects. These animated CG shots can then be used as stand in material for the editor of the project prior to shooting the actual effects sequences for real. Pre-visualization has therefore become a great asset for assisting in the production of today’s visual effects heavy productions, by trying out shot ideas without the expense of organising a full shoot. Pre-visualization, (pre-vis for short) allows directors, producers and VFX supervisors to test out sequences before they commit to what can usually be a very expensive visual effects shoot or CG sequence. Pre-vis is therefore instrumental in assisting film makers to design shots that are both creative and also above all cost effective, time is indeed money as they say, and in the film industry this is particularly true.

The course covers the current use of pre-vis which usually involves the use of major 3d computer graphics applications, these programs have a level of complexity that requires a trained CG artist to be able to use the software for execution of the shots, pre-vis by it's nature has to be done extremely quickly and at low cost and to this end the quality of the assets used, in particular characters, suffers greatly and are usually displayed within the delivered animation as simple humanoid shapes that have no motion other than the ability to slide between two places in the shot. This makes using a major 3D application for pre-vis like using a sledge hammer to crack a nut, it is over kill and the time it takes to use these packages high end tools to get a quality walking talking character means that it would take far too long and cost far too much for the average production to tolerate. But the market and the film makers are already asking for the quality of the pre-vis that they want to work with in their production to be raised, the answer to this are programs such as iClone, these real time engines based on the same graphics card technology familiar to game players and provided with a substantial and expandable library of ready to use characters, props and sets allow the pre-vis artist and pre-vis companies to quickly and efficiently put together shots with high quality walking talking character models in a fraction of the time it would take in a traditional 3D application.

This approach also has an impact on cost savings for the average production and is a point which is also impressed upon students during the course. For example a visual effects supervisor can tell the scenic department exactly how many square meters of blue screen paint will be needed to paint a cyclorama by simply building a real world scale copy of the stage where the shoot will be held as a computer model and then viewing this model with the correct focal length lens within the computer. This allows a calculation to be made of the amount of the blue screen area that can be seen by the camera and only that area of the cyclorama needs to be painted, since that paint is paid for by the square meter this can be a great saving for lower cost productions were every saving in the budget is critical to the finishing of the film.

But pre-vis goes beyond just for filing the needs of the visual effects industry, Alfred Hitchcock famously storyboarded every shot of the films he made and there is now more and more reason for taking an approach like this by fully pre-visualizing an entire film from beginning to end rather than just concentrating on action sequences and visual effects shots. Low-budget film productions by their very definition need to watch every pound/dollar spent and the students are introduced to the concept of using pre-vis tools to visualise an entire film. The reason behind an approach like this is simple costs can be controlled only if shots are very carefully planned. The ultimate form of planning is pre-vis were every shot of every scene is decided by the director before a single frame of digital or film acquisition takes place. Pre-vis combined with careful location scouting and reference photography can allow a director to make a virtual version of their entire film, they can try out many different ideas for camera work and placement without spending money on set and location until it is really necessary.

Although for some established directors the idea of pre-visualizing an entire film might seem alien there are a number of factors that make if an attractive proposition and there are independent film makers working at the low budget end of the market that are already embracing this technology. Laying out the structure of an entire movie allows most fundamentally allows proof of concept at an early stage, does the film even work? Yes or No. Also by visualizing an entire film shot for shot it can be established by the production department where the most expensive shots occur as well as how many of them there are, do we really need that camera crane? All of the information provided by pre-visualization can be used to establish a much tighter budget for the project by providing concise breakdown information for each and every department allowing them to make far more accurate an assessment of the costs of production.

And of course in an educational environment geared towards film training pre-visualization tools can of course be used to teach the all important language of film grammar that the students need to learn in order to successfully enter the industry. Storyboards will be provided for a short project based film sequence that the students will execute using the above tools to produce a range of different pre-vis shots that will be edited together to produce a final coherent cinematic sequence. To this end the students will set up and animate a number of standard dialogue scenes that show classic camera techniques when lensing 2 shot and 3 shot set ups with actors allowing the students to understand issues like dealing with crossing the line scenarios. All of these techniques can by carried out and tested in the virtual real time computer environment giving the students the flexibility to try out their ideas without requiring the need for actors and cameras to be present until the students have mastered the grammatical techniques.

Alan Marques
London Film Academy