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Film Studies 101: the secret art of previs

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Tom Cruise is used to taking risks. He’s clung to the world’s tallest building, acted as his own stunt driver in numerous hair-raising chases and got perilously close to wearing chaps in Rock Of Ages. Even so, watching the previs mock-up of the Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation bike chase he’d soon be filming gave him pause. “The first time Tom saw it,” remembers Vincent Aupetit of previs house The Third Floor, “he couldn’t stop laughing”. In fairness, 180mph is fairly swift, even for a man with no fear.

Forget Benji Dunn’s gadgets and Ethan Hunt's stunts, previs was arguably Rogue Nation's secret weapon. Working with director Christopher McQuarrie in pre-production, The Third Floor didn’t just show Cruise what he’d be doing with that BMW S1000RR, it helped cinematographer Robert Elswit plan his shots and camera placements and enabled the stunt team to plan the chase safely. “How do I explain previs to people? It's advanced animated storyboards,” says Aupetit. Using software like Maya, previs artists will create a animated version of sequences in the process of being planned by the filmmaker. It's iterative and ever-evolving – a process rather than a destination. “Often we’re in the studio during prep, working very closely with the director.” Forget fixing it in post, now it’s all about fixing it in pre.

Ant-Man-previs-before-afterThe previs and final footage from Ant-Man's final reel clash with Yellowjacket.

The art of previsualisation – ‘previs’ – is only a decade or so old, but it’s become a vital cog in the blockbuster business. “I don’t think there’s a single big-budget VFX movie that doesn’t use it,” says Aupetit. Just ask Roland Emmerich, a past client of The Third Floor, how valuable it is. “On Independence Day there was no previs,” he remembers. “Our editor did all these composites, so when a spaceship was flying [on screen in post-production] there’d be all these boxes flying about. He’d joke, ‘Excuse the boxes!'” Twenty years on and now deep in post-production on Independence Day: Resurgence, Emmerich no longer depends on flying boxes or quarter-finished VFX shots as a visual guide in the edit. His ID4 sequel is previs’ed to the nines. “[Previs] helps a lot,” he stresses. “You try to make it as good as possible because you will use it to the very end. The finished visual effects often don’t come in until the last six weeks and having a grey model alien drives me crazy!"

Previs is a key tool in movies lighter on VFX, too. Even on a proudly in-camera franchise like Mission: Impossible, McQuarrie was committed to using it from the start. He lent heavily on The Third Floor’s eight-minute mock-ups of Rogue Nation’s three major action scenes as a guide, including that cargo plane opening. It’s virtually a shot-for-shot match for the movie’s opening, right down to the “what, again?!” look on Ethan Hunt’s face. Although, stresses Aupetit, “We try to tone done facial expressions." Actors can feel threatened when their previs avatar does too much acting, he explains. “We just help them understand what the sequence is going to look like and how it’s going to be edited. Although we were pretty proud of Tom Cruise’s likeness.”

The Third Floor’s London offices – on the first floor, as it happens – are perched above Framestore, the VFX house famed for its work on Gravity, Paddington and The Martian. The company, initially LA-based, spun a UK operation out of its work on Gravity. “The previs was actually driving the robots they were using to shoot the film,” Aupetit explains. "Gravity put us on the map because Alfonso talked about previs in interviews, which really helped raise our profile.” Directors like McQuarrie, Cuarón and especially George Lucas were early adopters but there’s few filmmakers who aren’t aware of its value. “That wasn’t the case five years ago,” says Aupetit. Since then After Earth, The Avengers, Iron Man 3, Skyfall and The Walk, among others, have followed.

The Third Floor isn’t the only game in town. Down the road in Soho, UK effects house MPC also offers its previs services to the major studios. Duane Floch, supervisor at the company's Santa Monica-based previs arm, recently helped Jon Favreau nugget out The Jungle Book’s fiery climax. "Jon is all about story,” he reflects, “and there was so much talk around the justifications of that final battle. What started out as a three-week job turned into six months, but it paid off in spades.”

Mission ImpossibleWinging it: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation's opening was painstakingly planned out using The Third Floor's previs.

Other dedicated previs houses include Proof, which visualised Guardian Of The Galaxy’s battle scenes, Halon Entertainment (ditto World War Z's zombie assaults), and Argon Effects (currently working on Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant). “It's a competitive business without a doubt,” says Floch. "Everyone wants the tentpole productions. It's competitive down to the point where [productions] want to see résumés of who's supervising and who's on the team. They'll look at your LinkedIn, your IMDb page, see who you've worked with. It's challenging to bring new supervisors into the fold. They’ve got to start somewhere."

The Third Floor is dogged in resisting the pressures being keenly felt in the VFX industry – squeezed margins and terrifying deadlines high among them. “Unpaid overtime and crazy hours are really common in the VFX world,” says Aupetit, “but we refuse to do that.” The company’s logo, a single light burning from the third floor window of a darkened Skywalker Ranch, is a poetic reminder of the workload its seven founders endured around the time of Revenge Of The Sith to get the business of the ground. “They put in the logo what they don’t want to do,” he adds. Floch’s MPC team, meanwhile, works a strict 9-7pm day, unless production deadlines dictate otherwise.

Planet Of The ApesKoba fire! MPC's previs work on Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes took in the movie's big San Francisco battle.

If the chance to help create the biggest movies on Earth appeals and you know your way around animation software Maya, previs provides a career at filmmaking's front end. But you’ll need to know your onions. At The Third Floor, as at MPC, the whole movie pantheon from Carl Theodore Dreyer and The Dark Knight provides a constant point of reference. The buzz of movie chatter soundtracks the daily lives of their previs artists. "It’s really important to be passionate about cinema,” says Aupetit. “If you don’t like Die Hard, you’d better not mention it in the interview.”