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Charting the Stars v.3

Apr 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By S. D. Katz

With the Lucas Dream Team at Skywalker Ranch

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Rick McCallum and the Industry of Doom

Ryan Church’s concept design of a scene for Episode II: Attack of the Clones.

Movies are escape, and I've been closing my eyes to conjure impossible scenes of revenge, love, and possibility for more then a few decades. Designing movies is daydreaming, but most of the time ideas stay daydreams or become thumbnails and storyboards that fill closets and storage boxes with hope grown dim.

If one were to imagine Xanadu, a place where dreams become real, it might be the Skywalker Ranch, the lavish playground and toy shop of George Lucas. It took more than 20 years, but a steady stream of Lucasfilm wealth and innovation now enables a handful of artists and a roomful of workstations to hot-rod the bridge between imagination and the medium. Call it visualization, previz, or production design, at Skywalker — a place with high-tech security and guards at every gate — escape is not only acceptable; it's the whole point.

A previz for Episode III.

Previz is like foreplay. It's all the fun of moviemaking without actually doing the deed. Directors have been getting their rocks off for more than 70 years with storyboards, illustrations, video, and miniature sets — even other movies — any tool that helps them puzzle out a series of shots for a sequence. But in the ‘90s, the computer pushed the entire film design process to a new level. It's not surprising that George Lucas, who in 1975 cut together aerial dogfight shots from old World War II movies to previz the X-Wing battles for the first Star Wars (Episode V), has assembled one of the most highly evolved previz teams for Episode III — Revenge of the Sith.

In 1994, Lucas formed JAK films, named for his children Jett, Amanda, and Katie, to produce the final three Star Wars episodes. One reason Lucas decided to resume the Star Wars saga was that digital technology removed all the barriers to imagination presented by analog visual effects, but beyond that it also changed the way he worked. The computer gave Lucas the tool to design movies in a new way, and he hired a young animator, David Dozoretz, to investigate digital animatics.

In the past, Industrial Light & Magic was the design center for the Star Wars movies. But for Episode I — The Phantom Menace, Lucas created a new art department at Skywalker. Dozoretz began building what would become a dedicated team of computer artists whose mission was to design shots and sequences in elaborate detail. Lucas made the leap from visual effects prototyping to previz as an extension of the director's vision. Having already moved beyond film with his adoption of HD, Lucas is now dispensing with the camera and going directly to data to frame shots and choreograph the action.

Lucas’ modern previz workflow allows for tighter collaboration and integration among concept artists and previz artists such as Brad Alexander.

Reconfiguring Creativity

For Episode I, Lucas reconfigured the system to streamline the design process. Now the storyboard artists and illustrators who create the hundreds of concept paintings used to establish sets, character designs, props, effects, costumes, and landscapes work shoulder to shoulder with the previz team. Located on the spacious third floor of the main farmhouse at Skywalker Ranch, the offices overlook Skywalker Sound, a few contented horses, and the rest of the real empire that struck back. This latest consolidation places all the key designers in direct, daily communication with Lucas. In a sense this is a fulfillment of Lucas' impulse to invent by generating lots of alternatives to every shot. ILM was able to provide some of this capability, but not as affordably or quickly as Lucas needed. Now, as I look around the setup at JAK Films, it seems that Lucas has at last come close to what he's always wanted — a digital, interactive, iterative process that can conjure nearly as fast as he can think.

The work of concept designers such as Douglas Chiang as well as computer assets developed for previous Star Wars films provide an literal and inspirational archive for previz artists to draw from.

It wasn't until the last five years that grand-scale previz actually became practical, though it dates back in some form to the beginning of filmmaking. In 1993, when I previzzed the big assassination set piece in Clear and Present Danger (on two Mac IIfx), modern previz was practiced for the first time. “Modern” means four things: 1) Previz created for the director rather than the visual effects department; 2) Fully edited sequences conceived as narrative rather than isolated effects shots (replete with dialog, sound effects, and music; 3) Previz based on actual locations and set blueprints with digital sets built to scale; and 4) Sophisticated textured and modeled characters, sets, and composited effects. While all visual effects companies today do some kind of previz, this is largely a step in the effects creation process; quite different from using the computer as an extension of the director's process, essentially providing a digital viewfinder.

Even today's most advanced previz has added little to the four requirements of director-driven previz that Phillip Noyce needed 12 years ago. However the 50-fold increase in computer firepower since then is apparent when you look at the stunning previz sequences JAK runs in a split-screen presentation alongside final rendered shots from Episode III. The two are nearly identical and the previz contains all the richly decorated environments densely packed with Jedi, Star Cruisers, and dizzying battle scenes. There may be a little less detail than in the Cineplex version, but the timing and staging are all there.

The previsualization supervisor at JAK, Dan Gregoire, is a rising star in previz currently at work on Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Gregoire is from Minnesota and was another CGI artist whose skills rapidly outpaced the opportunities and training facilities in the Midwest, where he spent most of his time creating executive presentations. His reel led him to San Diego-based Presto Studios, the gaming company best known for “Myst” and the “Journeyman Project.” After a year working on games, a colleague at Presto took a job at ILM, and this connection allowed Gregoire the opportunity to meet David Dozoretz, who had worked on previz for Episode I. Dozoretz brought Gregoire to Australia to help with the previz for Moulin Rouge and then back to northern California for Episode II. The timing was good; Gregoire is making a career in previsualization at a time when it is finally becoming a valued step in the production of action and visual effects pictures. While some producers resist a new line item in the budget, the generation of producers who grew up with a workstation or laptop can't imagine why anyone wouldn't want to design a movie on the desktop.

The pre-viz team for Episode II worked on dual 32-bit AMD Athlon MP processor-driven workstations. On Episode III dual 64-bit AMD Opteron processor-driven workstations halved render times, according to pre-viz supervisor Dan Gregoire, allowing the team to produce even more shots. For additional performance, the team used the beta Windows 64-bit OS, and enabled Maya’s “large address aware” capabilities, providing a glimpse of what the 64-bit world will be like.

After years of notable high-profile work by previz shops such as Pixel Liberation Front, Venice, Calif., technology has made previz practical, if not universally affordable. This probably means that new previz shops will be hanging their shingles out all over Santa Monica, now that expanded realtime performance allows a director to make changes to a scene and see the results before sundown. At Skywalker Ranch, Lucas now tells people he's going upstairs — to JAK — to shoot a scene. To a large extent this is made possible because of the 100 proc AMD renderfarm and 64-bit AMD workstations tricked out with the latest Nvidia graphic boards hardware advances that cut Maya renders down to size. Lucas can move the camera in a textured scene with 40 or 50 complex models and see a reasonable Open GL preview in realtime.

Over the past five years, technology, and Gregoire's continual refinement of his methods, has helped JAK establish a process that is a good template for well-heeled production companies to emulate. While the exact methods vary depending on time and the type of movie, the process typically begins with the script and storyboards, which are studied by the artists and discussed with Lucas. Because Star Wars is a well-established universe with hundreds of preexisting assets, JAK is able to acquire models and texture maps from ILM, sometimes recreated by previz artists in lower-resolution, resource-efficient versions. However, most of the new models and sets originate from concept illustrators like Ryan Church, TJ Frame, and Warren J. Fu, who work on the same floor of the farmhouse as the previz artists. This allows for a collaborative process among the 2D illustrators and previz artists in the creation of 3D props, vehicles, and sets that are then sent over to ILM as templates for final models. Even more important than geometry and texture maps, previz also sends camera, character, and vehicle animation curves to ILM after Lucas has approved them. Since everyone is working in Maya, this means that ILM has a very detailed guide for the art direction, motion, and the overall timing of a shot. The point is that information and assets move back and forth between ILM and the previz/art department at Skywalker Ranch in a way that was unthinkable just a few years ago.


The previz team itself does not have a formal pipeline. Each artist is responsible for an entire shot from beginning to end, including modeling, texturing, lighting, animation, and rendering. While different members of the team have areas of expertise, they are also high-level generalists. Euisung Lee, a member of the previz team, might work on one shot a day or he might take several days to make the first pass at a shot with complex choreography. But the direction all begins with Lucas.

Previz artists such as Euisung Lee produced 6,500 shots for Episode III with about a third surviving editorial to be included in the final film.

Typically, Lucas comes up to the third floor of the farm house at lunchtime, ready to eat and work. He moves from station to station, sitting with each artist and making comments on shots. Whenever possible the artists make the changes while he watches. Sometimes Lucas has a completely new idea that requires a new environment. It usually takes two days to design, build, texture, and light a new set. At that point Lucas returns to direct. A session like this might generate 15 to 20 shots. These are actually alternative framings for a smaller number of shots that will be further revised — or eliminated. Lucas is well-known for wanting to explore many ideas before settling on a solution. He likes to see multiple variations of a shot before deciding which one to use and often exercises the right to change entire sequences fairly late in production. This is underscored by the output of the previz department for Episode III — 6500 shots, of which 2200 actually survived editorial to be seen by millions of ticket holders this May. This is an astounding quantity of material for 12 artists to produce in only 18 months; proof that previz has come of age. It's also a fairly tight shooting ratio of three to one.

Now that Lucas has embraced the technology and is essentially directing Star Wars in front of a monitor, Dan Gregoire's team has had to become very precise. When previz presents a level of detail and motion that conveys 90 percent of the experience of a movie, a director expects that what he sees in the previz can actually be executed in the field. One way previz has done this is to match lenses on Maya cameras to the prime and zoom lenses Lucas prefers to use with the CineAlta HDC-F950 — curvature of field is not taken into account. To help ensure that digital recreations of locations are accurate, landscapes and sets are measured and photographed to allow for photo modeling or traditional architectural modeling. Ultimately, Lucas can expect that in Maya, a previz of Anakin Skywalker's home rendered using a virtual 35mm lens will frame the same scene shot with the CineAlta in Tunisia.

Whereas the drive and considerable resources of George Lucas are pushing the boundaries of film design, the actual progress is ultimately up to the hardware. GPUs and CPUs are what make previz fast. Expectations run high that game engine technology is the solution to rapid prototyping of shot flow and the future of art direction for big entertainment pictures. The possibility of game play merging with film design is already being explored in the Machinima movement, and you can bet that Lucas is looking at this as well. (See “Is Realtime Real? Making Movies with Gaming Tools” by S.D. Katz, page 53.) Cameras manipulated by joysticks and avatars instead of actors are ideas at home in a future not so far, far away. So, as Star Wars comes to an end, previz comes into its own. While sad for some, ultimately it's a fair trade — the Force is powerful, but imagination is the real force.

Producer Rick McCallum (left) on-set with George Lucas.

Rick McCallum and the Industry of Doom

In the serene wine country of Skywalker Ranch, Rick McCallum is amped with filmmaking energy and a mission to make movies without the layers of Hollywood B.S. While desktop production has made filmmaking more affordable, McCallum makes the point that Hollywood has gone in the opposite direction of runaway profligacy.

A fan of computer previz, McCallum has been looking for ways to help directors plan their work for the past 20 years. Back in the ‘80s as the producer of The Singing Detective, Dreamchild, Star Wars, and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, he was trying to find ways to make a television series look like a full-blown Indiana Jones feature but with less then a twentieth of the budget. McCallum's history and perspective were the jumping-off points for our two-hour interview, during which he shared his outspoken views on modern filmmaking and a few ways he's found to improve it.

On Early Previz on The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: “In production, crew professionals want to protect themselves so they often build more then they need. They don't want to have the director arrive and not be able to get a reverse shot because the set is not big enough. Sometimes you need the extra wall; sometimes you don't. So we looked for a way to previz scenes to find out exactly what was required for every shot. If you take the basic premise that everything has been filmed at one time or another, then someone has filmed the thing you are about to shoot. We began to look at old films for shots we liked. So, on Young Indiana Jones we had this huge library of shots we would travel with. I had it on VHS and owned this portable Panasonic recorder — this was before digital and the computer. We would sit down in the art department and for any big scene we would cut together shots from the library. We didn't want to copy any one sequence, but having all these great shots helped lay out the basic plan. This became our animatic.”

On Prep Time and the Director Problem: “A studio has no problem giving a production designer 40 weeks to prep; the most that a designer will spend is $6 to $8 million. But then only one week before shooting they'll hire a visual effects company that is going to spend $30 million dollars. You would never let a director with 150 extras and 20 location finders finish the day without getting the setups he needs. But at the effects house they have no problem wasting days if the director changes his mind or doesn't know what he wants in the first place. Nowadays, we are paying directors $3, $4, or $5 million to direct a movie, and yet they may only understand a quarter — if you're lucky — of the production process.”

On One Hundred, Do I Hear Two Hundred? “Did you know that in 1990 there were only five movies in the history of film that shot more than a hundred days? Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws, Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Grand Prix. Last year more than a hundred films shot over 100 days.”

On a New Hope:On Young Indiana Jones I wanted to use something I call composite filmmaking. We shot all over Europe. So let's say we had a beautiful interior we found in Vienna, but it's not in the budget to send the director there for the one shot. But we might be back there in three months shooting another episode. So we'd ask the director if he would be available, along with the actors, for this pickup shot months after his episode was finished. Everyone had to sign on for a year — even if they were only in one episode. In other words, we treated one year's worth of episodes as if they were one film. This means we could get shots for one episode while working on another episode. This would only work with European actors and directors who want the best for the film and don't have all sorts of other issues. You couldn't do that with American talent or agents.”

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