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When Previs

When To Use Previs

Early in the last century, the movie industry developed a workflow, or a process of manufacturing and marketing narrative films. Over the course of the past century this method has evolved with the introduction of new technology, such as sound and color. Though much of the new innovations in machinery have enriched the movie viewing experience, it has not altered the fundamental means of making movies. Nonetheless, pre-visualization is one of the few improvements that has made the filmmaking more cost efficient.

Motion Picture Production Phases

The making and distribution of movies comprises of six phases and a number of sub-phases, which are far too detailed to cover in this brief article. The six phases are as follows:

1) Script
This phase involves the conceptualization and writing of the story in the form of a screenplay.

2) Development
Forecasting the cost to make the movie and raising the funds necessary to complete the project are done in this phase.

3) Pre-production
Here the artistic and logistical preparations for shooting the film takes place.

4) Production
This stage entails the actual shooting of the movie.

5) Post Production
Since it is most likely that the project is not shot in the order it will be displayed, it becomes necessary to assemble the footage in a manner that tells the movie’s story. Of course, this is not to say that editing plays a minor role in the making of a movie. Editing allows the director to creatively manipulate time and space.

6) Delivery
The final stage in the manufacture of a movie is making it available for viewing. In today’s ever evolving market, a plethora of options have emerged from the traditional large screen movie theater to the small screen portable telephone.

How Does Previs Fit Into The Filmmaking Process?

In this new age of filmmaking, pre-visualization can play an important role in every stage but delivery. However, the advantages of previs can best be realized in the first three phases where the concept and logistics of the project are carried out. Much of the time, unfortunately, projects are not storyboarded or boarded until late into the pre-production phase. Often, this is too late to be effective. The longer a director is allowed to plan and conceptualize his or her project, the better the results.

Below is a brief examination of how previs fits into each stage of film production:

1) Script
The script stage may be the best time to previs with regards to planning how the film should look and could be shot. By roughly visualizing the sets, the costumes and the coverage, the director can readily see how his or her story is unfolding, or perhaps, not unfolding. Many story structural and character development issues can be recognized at this juncture of planning and therefore creative solutions can be derived and explored. 3D storyboarding is especially effective at this stage.

2) Development
Development is the optimal phase for creating a pitch deck or finalizing the storyboards. The pitch deck, a term coined by Good Magazine, is a brief three minute slide show designed to help visualize a verbal pitch. Boarding the picture at this stage allows the director the precious time and freedom to work out how to creatively communicate the intent of his or her project. In other words, the director can discover how to best show the film’s story.

3) Pre-production
Unfortunately, this not the best time to begin using previs. Nevertheless, this is when it is most often initiated. Due to budgetary constraints, many producers can only afford to hire on a previs artist at this stage. This delay in hiring is unfortunate as it hampers the potential quality of the project. The longer the director is allowed to plan and conceptualize his or her project, the better the results will be. Boards done in development are passed onto a pre-visualization house to be rendered as VFX animation. This is where the visual effects shots are conceived and tested.

4) Production
Previs at this stage is rarely used except for a process known as motion matching whereby the movement of computer generated images are matched with the movement of a photographed shot or scene.

5) Post Production
If previs is used at this phase, it is usually done to aid the editor and the visual effects department. Often shots that would contain VFX are slugged with previsualized shots in order to help the effects personnel determine the nature of the effects needed.

In the final chapter, we will look at who should use previs and how to shop for a previs artist. We begin by looking at what sort of previs is needed and the volume of work that needs to be done, and then proceed through how much time to allot for previsualization and finally end with determining the costs involved with previsualization.

 To Be Continued.

How Previs Works

How Does It Work

Like any new technology or new art form, previs can work in a variety of ways. Much depends on the background of the director and his or her style of directing. However, the individual previs artist may bring a certain approach to the table that will certainly influence the storyboarding process. Nonetheless, a general strategy or workflow, has developed over the past couple of years, which is suited for most situations and types of directing styles.

This general pre-production or development workflow is made up of seven steps. The process begins with an informal discussion between the director and the previs artist, followed by a listing of the scenes and potential shots, which is usually drawn up by the director. Then the director and the previs artist, together, determine the type of action that will occurs in each scene. This is followed by a rough lay out of each and every set and location. Finally, the previs artist does a series of storyboard renderings; starting with very rough looking thumbnails and ending with highly polished presentation boards. During the rendering stage, the previs artist works closely with director, changing sets and props, altering costumes, and re-blocking and re-thinking coverage in order to create the best possible picture.

Now, as with all things creative, we begin with a disscussion.


All well designed movies have a look; a distinct visual style that enhances the story’s main theme. This can be as simple as documenting a stage play to something as elaborate as an intricately composed Ansel Adams photograph. Usually, the look derives from the director’s vision, but sometimes it can be the result of a concensus of the director, the cinematographer, the production designer and the previs artist. No matter who orginates the vision, it starts from an image; an image that embodies what the story is about. The image might be a painting, a photograph or a movie frame. Whatever its source, the artistic discussion that follows shapes the story’s visual style. Some directors may be influenced by genre and therefore will want to model his or her project off of a genre type, or contrastly, play against a type. Others are inspired by the way light is used in a painting or a photograph and thus will want to mimic this artistic motif throughout his or her film. Another might be motivated by a peice of music and will try to discover an image that best articulates the mood the peice. Whatever the image may be, it will become the basis for a shot list.

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Listing Scenes and Shots

Once a general look is determined, the director develops a shot list, or written visual description, of the key shots for the major plot elements of each act. A key shot is the climatic composition of a scene that best expresses the intent of that scene. Though key shots are in every scene, the director and previs artist are only concerned with the scenes that contain the major plot elements. Theses elements are the beginning, the two plot points, the climax and the denouement.

Depending on the movie’s genre, each plot element will be composed of a certain type of action known as a scene type. The seven scene types are dialogue, movement, fight, chase, simple action and complex action. As might be suspected, the types of scenes describe the kind of action contained within the scene. Most are self explainatory except for movement, simple and complex action. A movement scene invovles to subjects moving from one point to another position. Where a simple action might contain a single character changing a tire, a complex action may include numerous elements such as soldiers and cannons fighting in a battle scene.

Certain plot elements tend to have certain types of scene associated with it. This generalization becomes even more applicable with certain genres. Typically the opening scene involves dialogue or movement. Since the first plot point will be a meeting with mentor, it will most likely be a dialogue scene. Depending on the genre, the second plot point may involve a fight or a heated arguement, which could be considered a dialogue scene. The climax can range from a combination of dialogue and movement to a chase scene. Finally, a complex action scene may punctuate a big action adventure movie, but in a smaller picture it may be a simple action scene. Not all movies contain all of the seven types of scenes. Most dramas open with either a dialogue or a movement scene whereas action movies will begin with either a fight, a chase or a simple action scene. The type of scene is important as it will help determine the nature of the blocking and coverage.

Script Breakdown

Laying Out Sets & Locations

The sets and locations have a pivotal influence on the look of the film, and therefore are hardest to produce both graphically and creatively. Many production design elements are taken into consideration, such as architectual style, the dressing of the sets, the dimensions of buildings, and the volume of space. The former values have a particular influence on the audience’s perception of the story’s characters and the latter features have much to do with the practical construction of the movie. For instance, two characters are exchanging dialogue. The kind of environment and where the actors are located within this environment will shade how the audience will preceive the characters. An example on the practical side would be a fight scene. Here the director and previs artist would most likely have to consider the dimensions and volume of a set in order to determine if there is enough room to choregraph a fight. Laying out the sets and locations have further advantages. If the filmmakers have scouted locations prior to this stage, they may be able to preview the locations in order to determine practical solutions to a mirad of on-location shooting problems.

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Rendering the Scenes

Depending on the nature of the project, the amount and quality of scenes rendered can vary. Short undertakings, such as commercials and pitch decks are fully illustrated at the highest quality. Whereas features and television shows are only be partially executed and at the lowest quality. Much depends on the budget of the film and the time alloted for storyboarding.

Nonetheless, most endevors follow a process of rendering through three tiers of quality, thumbs, roughs and presentation. The rendering stage is roughly modeled after the workflow used by most 2D storyboard artists. In the world of 3D, this process allows for the most flexability in a convient amount of time. Each of level of quality, includes four elements that are rendered in increasing degrees of detail. They are sets and locations, costumes, blocking and finally coverage.

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The original concept for the sets and locations are usually done in the rough. If a production designer is particularly adept at generating computer 3D graphics, then those set and location models can be used. Nonetheless, as the boards progress through the three stages of quality, the sets and locations can go through a number of transformations due to changing taste and practicality. Though costumes are not given much consideration during the thumbs stage, they are certainly rendered in detail by the final step.

Often overlooked and undervalued, blocking and coverage are two of the three most important tools in the director’s creative arsenal. The third most important tool being that of casting and directing the actors. Blocking is the decision making processing of deciding where and how the actors are going move about the set or location. Coverage is the process of deciding where the camera will be placed in order to capture the scene’s action. It is important to determine the type of scene, in terms of action, as this will have a tremendous influence on the blocking and coverage. For instance, a dialogue scene would be blocked and covered quite differently from a chase scene. The former would probably be covered with an over the shoulder or a set of reversal shots. However, this would be inappropriate for the latter, which most likely would involve a series of following and leading tracking shots.

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The first step begins with thumbnail sketches or “thumbs” for short.


Some previs artists literally sketch tiny thumbnail frames of the entire project. However, most artists will render the film in the form of 3D computer generated images (CGI). Often the panels look quite rough as they are designed to show the placement of actors and camera and give a general sense of the compositions. Generally, they will exclude set dressing, poses and optical specifications such as depth of field and focal length. However, they are likely to include colored blocks for buildings, domes for hills and flats for vegitation.

The primary concern with thumbnails is mapping out the shots and figuring out the blocking. In other words, what are we going to see and where are the actors going to move.

Much like working with a writer, the director will review the thumbs and then suggest changes to the blocking, and to the arrangement of sets and to the compositons. He or she might add a thought as to how the costumes or sets should look.

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The next pass involves a more refined version. Locations and sets are completely constructed as opposed to using primative shapes to represent buildings, hills and trees. Sets are dressed in the areas where the actors will be working. Complete and detailed posing with detailed and finished props are included. Facial expressions are also set.

The primary concern of the roughs are the sets, the locations and the costumes. In other words, what are the sets and locations going to look like and do the costumes fit the characters.

Usually the director makes quite a few dramatic changes at this point. A vehicle might be changed for another type. Another story might be added to a building. Or an actor’s outfit or hairstyle might be changed.

When the roughs are completed, once again, the director will review the renderings and consider more changes. However, this time he will contemplate the camera angles and compositions.

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Presentation boards are the finished product. The location and sets are done in detail, including all foreground and background set dressing. Most importantly, the mood of the shots are established with detailed camera compositions and lighting.

The primary concern of the presentation boards is the look. This version of the boards shows the actors and the investors what your movie will look like.

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Set Ups and Shooting Time

Once the presentation boards are completed, it is a simple process to determine the number of set-ups and how long it would take to shoot a particular scene. Using the top down illustrations provided with the boards, the previs artist and the assistant director, count each camera position and then associate all of the shots that would be filmed from those camera locations. The assistant director can then quickly determine how long it would take to execute all of the shots from each of the set-ups. Within an hour, a fairly accurate estimate can be made of the time that will be involved to shoot any particular scene. Furthermore, the previs artist can compile a visual list of the props, and set dressings for helping the art department determine additional costs.

Top Down Set-Up Count

In our next chapter, we focus on when is the best time to hire a previsualization artist. We begin by looking at what sort of previs is needed and the volume of work that needs to be done, and then proceed through how much time to allot for previsualization and finally end with determining the costs involved with previsualization.

To Be Continued.

Why Previs?

Why Use Previs

Communicating the director’s vision is the most obvious reason for using previsualization. Yet, there are two other equally important motives for previsualizing.

The late film director, Alfred Hitchcock, once said that his primary reason for storyboarding was to have control his pictures. In this day in age, that rationale could not be more applicable. Too often, a producer or a department head seizes the reigns from the director, because he or she either lacks or is incapable of expressing his or her vision. If an actor senses a director’s vacillation, a production can quickly spin out of control. The actors are the film’s most valuable assets and for a director to weaken his or her hold on the flighty actors is to unleash charge of the film. Mr. Hitchcock would have agreed that previsualization is one of the best ways to maintain mastery of your picture.



Cost is the other reason for considering previs. A movie budgeted at a million dollars in 1985 will cost nearly ten million dollars today. The increased expense of making movies has inflated the associated risks. Therefore, the amount of funds bankrolled in comparison to the return on investment grows narrower each year. Fewer and fewer funding entities are willing to tolerate the risk. Frankly, most films do not make money. On average, only one in a thirty six hundred films entered into the Sundance Film Festival this year will be picked up by a distributor. Hence, one of the best ways to prevent risk is to plan ahead and previsualization can help the director creatively and efficiently plan for everything that he or she envisions and for every unforeseen act of Murphy’s Law.

Types of Uses

As a planning tool, previsualization can be used in four different ways. Foremost, it can show the investors, actors and the crew what the movie will look like when completed.


When previs is used by the various department heads, it can express to the director how the sets, costumes and vehicles will appear. Such visual communication through conceptual art ensures that the crew is in harmony with the director’s vision.

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Naturally, it can also convey to the director the look of the visual effects and indicate how the effects will be assembled.


Finally, previs, in the form of 3D storyboards, can disclose how the picture may be made. For instance, sunlight patterns indicated on a previsualized exterior set or location can suggest to the cinematographer the best time of day in which to shoot. Visualized blocking patterns can help the assistant director to determine camera placement and number of set-ups.

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But, Why 3D Storyboards?

Storyboarding a picture in three dimensions has certain advantages over traditional boards, but more importantly over 3D animation.

Foremost, the optically accurate nature of the application creates a precise look for the picture. Unlike traditionally hand drawn storyboards, 3D storyboards are not bounded by the artificial contrivance of vanishing points and horizon lines. Because the director is working in a 3D virtual space, the rules of perspective are not applied. Therefore, images are rendered, as they would actually appear on screen.

Working within a 3D virtual space makes it easy for the director to build orthographic projections of sets and locations, and then virtually block the actor’s movements within those sets. Additionally, the director can manipulate the sets on the fly; making changes instantly and without cost.

One advantage 3D storyboards has over 3D animation is in the areas of coverage and editing. It is easier for the director to assemble or pre-edit his or her movie in storyboard form, because they are still pictures. The director can quickly manipulate the frames and insert new shots in order to determine the amount and type of coverage needed. Unfortunately, 3D animation can cause the director to be distracted by the moving images. Often, he or she can not see how the story is unfolding and consequently, overlook cinematic errors, such as crossing the line, or cutting on axis. Yet, all of these problems are readily addressed with 3D storyboards.

Finally, the assistant director, with the assistance of a good previs artist, can easily see the number of set-ups and therefore calculate the shooting time. The previs artist can further assist the production by compiling a visual list of the props, set dressings and set-ups for determining the cost of shooting a particularly scene.

In our next chapter, we focus on how the process of previsualization works. We begin by finding the look for the picture, and then proceed through blocking, coverage and finally end with determining the time and cost expenditure.

To Be Continued.

What Is Previs?

What Is Previsualization?

The computer is possibly the single most significant technological influence in our lives today. There is not a single aspect of our existence that is not enhanced or hampered by the influence of computers — everything from finance and writing to making appointments and storing data.

However, computers have blossomed, beyond compare, with the creation of images. The burgeoning imaging technology has allowed doctors to peer inside the human body, scientists to see the extreme limits of the galaxy and data analyst to visualize complex notions and transform them into simple and easy to understand ideas. Yet, computer images have gone beyond being able to see what is invisible or what has happened, to now being able to show us what may happen. Hence, previsualization — a new form of computer imaging that allows us to visually understand the future.

Assumptions About the Meaning

Previs. You may or may not have heard of it. If you have, you may have heard conflicting or more often muddled definitions. Many assumptions have developed around this often-misunderstood word. Unfortunately, much of this syntactical confusion is not helped by special interest groups surreptitiously commandeering the term and construing its meaning to something quite foreign from its original definition.

The three most common assumptions associated with previsualization are: it is used exclusively in the motion picture industry; it is used exclusively for designing visual effects (VFX); it is primarily three-dimensional animation. Of course, all of these definitions are incorrect.

So, if these presumptions about previsualization are not true, then what is?

The Real Meaning

The Oxford English Dictionary is the best vocabulary arbitrator for a definition of a word in dispute. The OED, published by the Oxford University Press, is the considered by the academic community to be the premier dictionary of the English language. With descriptions for approximately 600,000 words, it is considered the largest official dictionary in the world. Additionally, the University Press staff spends countless hours documenting and cataloging the use of every printed English word. Here is what they have to say about previsualization:

Pre-visualization n. 1956

The visualization (now especially through the use of computers) of how something will look when created or finished. Also instance of this.

It also comes as a verb.

Pre-visualize trans. 1969

To visualize (how) a thing will look when created or finished; to imagine or predict (the result of a process or act).

Though much confabulation has been made over the correct spelling of the abbreviated form, previs with an s ending is the most commonly used short form.

Types of Industries Which Use Previsualization

The OED definition suggests there are several of types of previsualization: all of which are planning tools for various kinds of industries. Now, there are six different fields, in which some sort of previsualization is used to visualize how a procedure or product will look. The motion picture industry is only one of these fields. They are as follows:

Photography is one of the older disciplines to use previs. Ansell Adams was known to previsualize many of his more renowned photographs as far back as the 1930s.

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The field of architecture pioneered the original computer based forms of previs with an application known as AutoCad.

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Though urban planning has been slow to adopt the latest in previs, urban developers have been quick to push the envelop by introducing such marketing concepts as “walk-throughs.”

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Product development, which includes products for the medical sciences, is relatively new to the utilization of previs, however some of the more far reaching developments have occurred in this field, such as simulated virtual operations.

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The motion picture industry is the oldest business to use previs with advent of illustrated storyboards at the turn of the last century. At the moment, movie production has concentrated on using 3D animation as the primary form of previs.

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For the purposes of this essay, we will focus on the various forms or types of previsualization used in the motion picture industry.

Types of Motion Picture Previsualization

Within the sphere of cinema, previs takes on four different forms. These break into either 2D illustrations or the newer classification of 3D renderings. 3D animation is only one form of previs.

Traditional hand-drawn storyboards date back to the beginning of movies. French magician and director, George Melies, was known to have cartoon sketched his stories before putting them in front of the camera. By the 1920s, art directors and costume designers were previsualizing sets and costumes in the form of 2D conceptual illustrations.


Production Designer, Dan Sayre Groesbeck, is credited with being the father of the storyboards when he began expanding on his conceptual illustrations for Cecil B. DeMille. Previs artist, Collin Green, is the self-accredited inventor of 3D animated pre-visualization. This popular form of previs has been the mainstay of VFX visualizations since the 1980s.

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The latest ingress into the world of previs has been the 3D storyboard. Though the studios have been reluctant to adopt this type of previs, independent directors have embraced it because of its affordability and flexibility.


In the next chapter, we are going to focus on the rising cost and risks of moviemaking and why a director or a producer may want to consider previsualizing his or her next picture; particularly with 3D storyboards.

 To Be Continued.

© Copyright 2012 G. Cline