Previsualization is the visualizing of complex scenes in a movie before filming. It is also a concept in still photography. Previsualization is used to describe techniques such as storyboarding, either in the form of charcoal sketches or in digital technology, in the planning and conceptualization of movie scenes.
The advantage of previsualization is that it allows a director, cinematographer, or VFX Supervisor to experiment with different staging and art direction options—such as lighting, camera placement and movement, stage direction, and editing—without having to incur the costs of actual production. On a larger budget project, the directors work with actors in the visual effects department or dedicated rooms. Previsualizations can add music, sound effects, and dialogue to closely emulate the look of fully produced and edited sequences, and are mostly encountered in scenes that involve stunts and special effects (such as chroma key). Digital video, photography, hand-drawn art, clip art, and 3D animation combine in use.
Visualization is a central topic in Ansel Adams' writings about photography, where he defines it as "the ability to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure". The term previsualization has been attributed to Minor White who divided visualization into previsualization, referring to visualization while studying the subject; and postvisualization, referring to remembering the visualized image at printing time. However, White himself said that he learned the idea, which he called a "psychological concept" from Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
The earliest planning technique, storyboards, have been used in one form or another since the silent era. The term “storyboard” first came into use at Disney Studios between 1928 and the early 1930s where the typical practice was to present drawn panels of basic action and gags, usually three to six sketches per vertical page. By the 1930s, storyboarding for live-action films was common and a regular part of studio art departments.
Disney Studios also created what became known as the Leica reel by filming storyboards and editing them to a soundtrack of the completed film. This technique was essentially the predecessor of modern computer previsualization. Other prototyping techniques used in the 1930s were miniature 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. Set designers were also using a scenic technique called camera angle projection to create perspective drawings from a plan and elevation blueprint. This allowed them to accurately depict the set as seen by a lens of a specific focal length and film format.
In the 1970s, with the arrival of cost-effective video cameras and editing equipment, most notably, Sony's ¾-inch video and U-Matic editing systems, animatics came into regular use at ad agencies as a sales tools for television commercials and as a guide to the actual production of the work. An animatic is a video-recorded version of a hand-drawn storyboard with very limited motion added to convey camera movement or action, accompanied by a soundtrack. Similar to the Leica reel, animatics were primarily used for live-action commercials.
The making of the first three Star Wars films, beginning in the mid-'70s, introduced low-cost innovations in pre-planning to refine complex visual effects sequences. George Lucas, working with visual effects artists from the newly established Industrial Light & Magic, used footage of aerial dogfights shots from World War II Hollywood movies to cut together a template for the X-wing space battles in the first Star Wars film. Another innovation included shooting video of toy figures attached to rods; these were hand-manipulated in a miniature set to previsualize the chase through the forest on speeder bikes in Return of the Jedi.
The most comprehensive and revolutionary use of new technology to plan movie sequences came from Francis Ford Coppola, who in making his 1982 musical feature One From the Heart, 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. These drawings were then recorded onto analog videodisks and edited according to the voice recordings. Once production began, video taken from the video tape 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.
Instead of working with the actors on set, Coppola directed while viewing video monitors in the "Silverfish" (nickname) Airstream trailer, outfitted with then state-of-the-art video editing equipment. Video feeds from the five stages at the Hollywood General Studios were fed into the trailer, which also included an off-line editing system, switcher, disk-based still store, and Ultimatte keyers. The setup allowed live and/or taped scenes to be composited with both full-size and miniature sets.
Before desktop computers were widely available, pre-visualization was rare and crude, yet still effective. For example, Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic used toy action figures and a lipstick camera to film a miniature version of the Return of the Jedi speeder bike chase. This allowed the film's producers to see a rough version of the sequence before the costly full-scale production started.
3D computer graphics was relatively unheard of until the release of Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park in 1993. It included revolutionary visual effects work by Industrial Light and Magic (winning them an Oscar), one of the few companies in the world at the time to use digital technology to create imagery. In Jurassic Park, Lightwave 3D was used for previsualization running on an Amiga computer with a Video Toaster card. As a result, computer graphics lent themselves to the design process, when visual effects supervisor (and Photoshop creator) John Knoll asked artist David Dozoretz to do one of the first-ever previsualizations for an entire sequence (rather than just the odd shot here and there) in Paramount Pictures' Mission: Impossible.
Producer Rick McCallum showed this sequence to George Lucas, who hired Dozoretz in 1995 for work on the new Star Wars prequels. This represented an early but significant change as it was the first time that previsualization artists reported to the film's director rather than the visual effects supervisor.
Since then, previsualization has become an essential tool for large-scale film productions and has been essential for the Matrix trilogy, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Star Wars Episode II and III, War of the Worlds, X-Men, and others. One of the largest recent films to rely heavily on the technique is Superman Returns, which used a large crew of artists to create elaborate pre-visualizations.
While visual effects companies can offer previsualization services, today many studios hire companies that cater solely to previsualization for large projects. Common software packages are used for previs by these companies, such as Newtek's Lightwave 3D, Autodesk Maya, MotionBuilder, and Softimage XSI. Some directors prefer to do previsualization themselves using inexpensive, general-purpose 3D programs that are less technically challenging to use such as iClone, Poser, Daz Studio, Vue, and Real3d, while others rely on the dedicated but user-friendly 3D previsualization programs FrameForge 3D Studio which (along with Avid's Motion Builder) won a Technical Achievement Emmy for representing an improvement on existing methods are so innovative in nature that they materially have affected the transmission, recording, or reception of television.
Digital previsualization is merely technology applied to the visual plan for a motion picture. Coppola based his new methods on analog video technology, which was soon to be superseded by an even greater technological advance—personal computers and digital media. By the end of the 1980s, the desktop publishing revolution was followed by a similar revolution in film called multimedia (a term borrowed from the 1960s), but soon to be rechristened desktop video.
The first use of 3D computer software to previsualize a scene for a major motion picture was in 1988 by animator Lynda Weinman for Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989). The idea was first suggested to Star Trek producer Ralph Winter by Brad Degraff and Michael Whorman of VFX facility Degraff/Whorman. Weinman created primitive 3D motion of the Starship Enterprise using Swivel 3D software designing shots based on feedback from producer Ralph Winter and director William Shatner.
Another pioneering previsualization effort, this time using gaming technology, was for James Cameron's The Abyss (1989). Mike Backes, the co-founder of the Apple Computing Center at the AFI (American Film Institute), introduced David Smith, creator of the first 3D game, The Colony, to Cameron recognizing the similarities between The Colony's environment and the underwater lab in The Abyss. The concept was to use real-time gaming technology to previsualize camera movement and staging for the movie. While the implementation of this idea yielded limited results for The Abyss, the effort led Smith to create Virtus Walkthrough, an architectural previsualization software program, in 1990. Virtus Walkthrough was used by directors such as Brian De Palma and Sydney Pollack for previsualization in the early '90s.
The outline for how the personal computer could be used to plan sequences for movies first appeared in the directing guide Film Directing: Shot By Shot (1991) by Steven D. Katz, which detailed specific software for 2D moving storyboards and 3D animated film design, including the use of a real-time scene design using Virtus Walkthrough.
While teaching previsualization at the American Film Institute in 1993, Katz suggested to producer Ralph Singleton that a fully animated digital animatic of a seven-minute sequence for the Harrison Ford action movie Clear and Present Danger would solve a variety of production problems encountered when the location in Mexico became unavailable. This was the first fully produced use of computer previsualization that was created for a director outside of a visual effects department and solely for the use of determining the dramatic impact and shot flow of a scene. The 3D sets and props were fully textured and built to match the set and location blueprints of production designer Terrence Marsh and storyboards approved by director Phillip Noyce. The final digital sequence included every shot in the scene including dialog, sound effects, and a musical score. Virtual cameras accurately predicted the composition achieved by actual camera lenses as well as the shadow position for the time of day of the shoot. The Clear and Present Danger sequence was unique at the time in that it included both long dramatic passages between virtual actors in addition to action shots in a complete presentation of all aspects of a key scene from the movie. It also signaled the beginning of previsualization as a new category of production apart from the visual effects unit.
In 1994, Colin Green began work on previsualization for Judge Dredd (1995). Green had been part of the Image Engineering department at Ride Film, Douglas Trumball's VFX company in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, where he was in charge of using CAD systems to create miniature physical models (rapid prototyping). Judge Dredd required many miniature sets and Green was hired to oversee a new Image Engineering department. However, Green changed the name of the department to Previsualization and shifted his interest to making 3D animatics. The majority of the previsualization for Judge Dredd was a long chase sequence used as an aid to the visual effects department. In 1995, Green started the first dedicated previsualization company, Pixel Liberation Front.
By the mid-1990s, digital previsualization was becoming an essential tool in the production of a large-budget feature film. In 1996, David Dozoretz, working with Photoshop co-creator John Knoll, used scanned-in action figures to create digital animatics for the final chase scene for Mission: Impossible (1996). When Star Wars prequel producer Rick McCallum saw the animatics for Mission: Impossible, he tapped Dozoretz to create them for the pod race in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). The previsualization proved so useful that Dozoretz and his team ended up making an average of four to six animatics of every F/X shot in the film. Finished dailies would replace sections of the animatic as shooting progressed. At various points, the previsualization would include diverse elements including scanned-in storyboards, CG graphics, motion capture data and live-action. Dozoretz and previsualization effects supervisor Dan Gregoire then went on to do the previsualization for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Gregoire finished with the final prequel, Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).
The use of digital previsualization became affordable in the 2000s with the development of digital film design software that is user-friendly and available to any filmmaker with a computer. Borrowing technology developed by the video game industry, today's previsualization software gives filmmakers the ability to compose electronic 2D storyboards on their own personal computer and also create 3D animated sequences that can predict with remarkable accuracy what will appear on the screen.
More recently, Hollywood filmmakers use the term pre-visualization (also known as pre-vis, pre vis, pre viz, pre-viz, previs, or animatics) to describe a technique in which digital technology aids the planning and efficiency of shot creation during the filmmaking process. It involves using computer graphics (even 3D) to create rough versions of the more complex (visual effects or stunts) shots in a movie sequence. The rough graphics might be edited together along with temporary music and even dialogue. Some pre-viz can look like simple grey shapes representing the characters or elements in a scene, while other pre-vis can be sophisticated enough to look like a modern video game.
Nowadays many filmmakers are looking for quick, yet optically accurate 3D software to help with the task of previsualization in order to lower budget and time constraints, as well as give them greater control over the creative process by allowing them to generate the previs themselves.