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April 01
2017

ISSUE

Spring 2017

THE GREAT WALL: TAKING THE DIRECTOR’S VISION TO THE NEXT LEVEL

By ED OCHS

Using previs as a first step in building the Wall and armies of warriors that deliver an epic film experience on the grand scale of Universal’s The Great Wall seemed like a smart idea. But first the director had to be convinced that previs was a key, not a limitation, to fully realizing his creative vision. And time, as always, was pressing.

“The Great Wall sky warriors scene was a fun challenge to figure out,” explains Halon Entertainment Previsualization Supervisor Clint G. Reagan in an email to VFX Voice. “We had a short two-week time frame to demonstrate the previs process to (director) Zhang Yimou who had not used it before. The goal was to show him how this filmmaking tool would help him make this very large-scale movie. To show the benefits of using previs during pre-production with very little time or iterations, combined with the armies of characters and lack of storyboards, we needed to generate a scene that would stand on its own.”

The Great Wall. (Photo credit: Copyright © 2017 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

The Great Wall. (Photo credit: Copyright © 2017 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Reagan did some unusual translating to set the wheels in motion. “The previs process began with a verbal pitch from Zhang Yimou in Chinese,” Reagan recounts. “I watched his gestures while I took notes to connect how he expressed each story beat to the English translator. After the initial pitch meeting, I began the structural design of the scene, and planned how to approach the shots so that my Halon team would have an edit to start from. We divided the scene and artists by story beats, with each artist on our team focused on a very specific moment. Each artist brought their filmmaking talents to their beat, making the work scalable and exciting within the confines of our short time frame.”

Modeling and rigging started right away. “Our lead animators started animation with blocky placeholders so that we would have time to find exciting performances and shots for the edit.

The Great Wall turning to gold in 3D and compositing was designed by another artist. I had to design the launching system for the warriors and prep it for more detailed animation. We really had to previs our previs so that no time was wasted in reaching a storytelling piece ASAP.

“Having so many things happening at once and seeing each contribution coming together was rewarding,” Reagan adds. “After a first-week review, we launched into the second week where the action and look of everything was refined and delivered. Our team of previs filmmakers did amazing work with so little to start with, and it shows in that so much of our work is seen in the first trailer.”

Patrick Smith, Previs Supervisor for The Third Floor, another key contributor to The Great Wall, felt the weight of the challenge as well. “Director Zhang Yimou is a renowned director known for his visionary style of filmmaking, so right off the bat that set a precedent for us to really deliver on the most visually and aesthetically pleasing previs we could develop. In addition, we also knew he wanted to create some very elegant, well-choreographed long takes that would need to be worked out in advance.

“To meet that challenge,” Smith tells VFX Voice, “we enlisted some of The Third Floor’s top asset builders to construct the world of The Great Wall in previs form – from the elaborate environments and sets to the vibrant cast of characters and otherworldly monsters.”

PREVIS by Halon for The Great Wall. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of Halon Entertainment.)

PREVIS by Halon for The Great Wall. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of Halon Entertainment.)

 

PREVIS by The Third Floor for The Great Wall. TTF visualized ideas and action for director Zhang Yimou with moving 3D previs that conveyed the vision for key scenes and especially the film’s battles. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.)

PREVIS by The Third Floor for The Great Wall. TTF visualized ideas and action for director Zhang Yimou with moving 3D previs that conveyed the vision for key scenes and especially the film’s battles. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.)

 Smith had previously worked on films requiring long takes and learned it can be useful to approach these shots in bite-sized chunks.

“The nature of these types of shots is that they tend to evolve over many months of sculpting and shaping and pursuing new ideas or reintroducing old ones,” he explains. “In terms of approaching continuous long takes within previs, it helps to ‘manage’ the shot by keeping it as simple as possible and compartmentalizing actions and sections of actions within your file. It’s best to stay in a blocking state for the previs animation as long as possible so you aren’t redoing everything when you need to slip a new action right into the middle of a 2,000-frame shot! The fewer key frames the better in those situations.”

As the shot becomes more defined, the previs becomes more detailed. “You basically have to approach it from the beginning knowing that it’s going to be a lengthy task and if you do the preventative maintenance work up front, it will help save you time in the long run. For example,” he advises, “you can set up some global tools from the onset in the previs file to help rotate large portions of action or camera paths. But you can’t always plan for every contingency – sometimes you have to roll with it.” Welcoming the director to previs for the first time was both exciting and a bit nerve-wracking for Smith. In the beginning, Yimou wondered where previs fit in. When he learned that previs supported efficiency as well as creativity, any concern he may have had melted into enthusiasm. “When we started on the show, we were provided with a set of some of the most beautifully drawn storyboards I have ever seen for a film,” Smith declares. “I was simultaneously excited and terrified to then have to deliver on nailing each and every one of these shots in previs. Our director had not used previs in the traditional sense that I’m aware of and seemed to want to understand our role more when we first arrived on location in Beijing.

“The wall itself was one of the major silent characters in that its interior was a far more complex environment than just wood and stone.”—Patrick Smith, Previs Supervisor for The Third Floor

“After a couple of meetings in which it became clear that we weren’t there to lock him into anything and were simply another visual extension of his vision, he took to it immediately. You could see his eyes light up and he sprang to life with such passion and excitement in describing his vision to us. We truly became the director’s sandbox where he could try out any number of ideas. He would then come by regularly and sit with us and we’d meet with the department heads to go over his vision for each sequence.”

For the visual effects supervisor, producers, stunts and art department, the techvis was “wildly important,” he states. “After having helped develop lots of exciting and bold new actions, we’d then need to help figure out how those shots could actually be executed on a set. We worked extremely closely with the art department to make sure that our sets in previs and techvis were based on their builds and then, using previs camera setups, we could help inform what they needed to build physically or what could be set extensions for VFX.”

 They also worked tirelessly to determine sizes and placements for greenscreens, shipping containers and other elements on a large outdoor practical set. Smith adds: “The techvis additionally encompassed things like calculating the actual path of the sun and where shadows would fall so the set builds could be oriented to show the cast and the environments in the best possible light.”

There was a special previs focus on the big battle sequences. “The director wanted each battle sequence to be strikingly different in style and motif,” he explains, “from the style of combat to how the scene advanced the story or helped unfold the plot. Each battle focused on a unique fighting style used against the film’s alien creatures, so they wanted us to help visualize the vision for what that would actually look like. The wall itself was one of the major silent characters in that its interior was a far more complex environment than just wood and stone. The inner workings of this needed to be visualized since the visual effects team would be stitching different set dressings together to make it seamless.”

The majority of the work Smith and his Third Floor team did while in Beijing was previs and techvis prior to the shoot. “By mapping things out virtually,” he noted, “it was possible to assist the art department as they updated their sets and help visualize the spatial relationships of, say, adding weaponry on top of the wall prior to building it out physically. There was limited space within the wall set, so understanding how many horses or battalions or reinforcements could fit was important.”

Smith believes the previs was instrumental in helping the film’s production team develop a definitive plan for tackling many of the long, complex single-take shots. “Being able to visualize the scenes also provided the director with tools to explore multiple different ideas before going to camera. We were able to help the multiple contributing departments very clearly understand and plan how to achieve these creative and elaborate shots technically well before it came time to go to camera so that the production could be much smoother overall.”

Artists at The Third Floor collaborated with multiple departments to mock up camera positions, distances and stunts via technical previs, or “techvis.” (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.)

Artists at The Third Floor collaborated with multiple departments to mock up camera positions, distances and stunts via technical previs, or “techvis.” (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.)

 

PREVIS by Halon for The Great Wall. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of Halon Entertainment)

PREVIS by Halon for The Great Wall. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of Halon Entertainment)

 

TECHVIS by The Third Floor for The Great Wall. Witness camera views were a component of technical previs that mapped out shots in terms of shooting and stunt components. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.)

TECHVIS by The Third Floor for The Great Wall. Witness camera views were a component of technical previs that mapped out shots in terms of shooting and stunt components. (Photo credit: Image copyright Universal Pictures and courtesy of The Third Floor, Inc.)


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