Animatics gets George Lucas all hot and sweaty. We lift the lid on what he knows and what you’ve been missing.

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Thirty years ago when George Lucas was developing the Star Wars trilogies, he used footage of World War II dogfights to show his stop-start model-animators what he wanted the final battle in his film to look like. 
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His sketched storyboards were legendary for their detail, and when The Empire Strikes Back came around he used traditional techniques to roughly animate them on film. Crude, pencil-drawn sketches of AT-AT Walkers stop-framed their way through Lucas’ moving storyboard, and into cinematic history. 
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Fast-forward 20 years and Lucas was taking full advantage of new technology to give him the creative control he craved. “George can finally ‘sculpt’ the film itself,” gushed the StarWars.com Web site in 1998. “Using animatics, the film has become a responsive medium. As a result, Episode I will be closer than ever to the Star Wars movie that George wants to see.” 
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Skip ahead another technological light-year to 2005 and animatics – or 3D previsualization – is an important and influential part of the movie-making process. 
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It’s not unusual for entire films to be blocked out in animatics, for actors to act against a blue-screen with animatic footage to guide them, or for directors to work-up ideas in animatic as part of their pitch. And it’s not just Lucas and his Hollywood colleagues who have access to the technology – software like RealViz StoryViz and Antics Pre-Viz can put studio-style power in your laptop. 
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<h2>Cruise control</h2>
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David Dozoretz is at the forefront of animatics in Hollywood. In the mid-90s he was an art director assistant at Lucas’ studio, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). ILM was trying to sell Paramount the idea of a helicopter and train chase on a new movie, Mission: Impossible. Dozoretz was asked to make an animatic to demonstrate the excitement and flow of the scene. 
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“In four weeks we put together 100 low-res shots,” Dozoretz explains in his online bio. “It was the first time CG animatics had been used to previsualize an entire sequence.” That animatic pitch helped sell the film not only to Paramount, but to movie star Tom Cruise as well.
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It also made Dozoretz’s career. Lucas saw the animatic and asked the then 24-year-old Dozoretz to help him with his fourth Star Wars movie. 
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“George’s storyboards were fantastic,” says Dozoretz, “but as he got into doing animatics we left many of them behind.” 
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But Lucas wasn’t into the technology for its own sake: “It’s about filmmaking,” says Dozoretz, who originally used Form.Z but now uses Maya with After Effects and Premier for compositing. 
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“George knows what filmmaking tools work for him and animatics are one of those tools.” In the end, 45 minutes of Episode I was previsualized in 3D before filming started. By the time it came to work on Episode II, the entire movie was shot in animatics.
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<h2>Narrative and control</h2>
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Lucas uses animatics as a narrative tool: his animatic team headed by Dozoretz concentrate almost entirely on storytelling, plot, and character development. 
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But as well as creative control, animatics give filmmakers acute technical control. California-based company Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) has a reputation for hardcore problem-solving using animatics. The company has worked on dozens of films, from Disney’s My Favourite Martian to the Matrix series. 
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Ron Frankel was a member of PLF before setting up his own company, Proof Inc. Frankel says he worked with both creative- and technical-minded directors. 
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Spielberg, he says, wanted to “get the major beats down.” David Fincher on the other hand wanted: “a map for each set-up – with equipment, what lens was needed, camera moves, and actor placements,” when he came to make Panic Room. 
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Panic Room is set in a four-storey Manhatten brownstown. The house is equipped with a “panic room”, a refuge in case of intruders. On the first night in their new home Meg Altman and her daughter are burgled, forcing them to retreat to the panic room. 
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The film unfolds from there, as the intruders try to force their way in. The camera is king in this movie, sweeping seamlessly through the building and between floors, ratcheting up the tension.
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Each shot was meticulously prepared. “David decided to previsualize the entire film,” says Frankel. “We rendered everything out as AVI files … we could load up an AVI file, the director could make changes as he was sitting there and we could hit a button for the next frame capture. Sometimes he’d still be talking when we were able to show him the new version.” 
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A feature of animatic is its un-realism. It means characters don’t have to be as fully developed as full CG. Frankel explains: “There’s no point in getting bogged down with complex character animations that might take days to create. With Softimage|XSI we created a library of poses. Characters would sort of skate along, look left and right, gesture this way and that.”
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Extensive planning bore fruit. With the shots modelled as animatics it was possible to decide how the physical set was to be constructed to allow the director’s dynamic shots. In the end, they built a set like a skyscraper – a steel box cantilevered so any wall could be moved out.
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<h2>Director’s cut</h2>
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Back then that was unusual. Now it’s almost normal. When Martin Scorsese was directing The Aviator he had immediate feedback and control and could view different shots, with different lenses from a “virtual camera” in realtime on a laptop. 
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When he found a sequence he liked, he pulled it back up and replayed it on the actual set. The development there was the use of motion capture software. Using Kaydara MOCAP resulted in realtime movement through a 3D set. Kaydara’s roots in game-engine technology helped.
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Animatics are not the sole preserve of the director. For actors working on bluescreen it is often the only visual reference they have. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow, stars of 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, spent a month acting against a bluescreen. The entire movie was previsualized shot by shot before shooting began in London. 
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For Law and Paltrow playing on an empty set, the only way to work was to look at the animatics of themselves on screen and then navigate the grids and markers on the floor which had been plotted there by the animatic previz.
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<h2>The future</h2>
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A natural extension of that, and one which has been toyed with in Hollywood, is making full length 3D pre-viz films before green-lighting them. An idea studio accountants would surely love, but actors deplore.
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But as animatics get easier to make, that can’t be far off. No longer the preserve of a Hollywood elite, off-the-shelf previz applications are here, creating a perfect pitch-tool for the advertising and design industry. 
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Antics Pre-Viz and Realviz StoryViz do similar things, though there’s a big difference in price – Pre-Viz costs £750, while StoryViz costs $3,600 (around £1,900).
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The software is designed to be user-friendly, building on game-engine roots, and lets users create animations in real time. The walking motion of off-the-peg characters is streets ahead of the “skating” characters developed for use in Panic Room. 
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“What sets Antics apart is that it is not another variation on traditional keyframe animation,” says Antic’s Mark Burton. “Instead, like a videogame, it harnesses the robust processors and graphics cards of PCs to offer real-time interactivity.” 
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Released on March 1 this year, Antics has already been road-tested on a Hollywood production, says Burton. Its main selling point, he says, is its ease of use: “It has intelligence built in. With a simple click, you can direct a character towards a chair and it ‘knows’ to sit down.”
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Users can pick drag-&-drop environments and characters from a library of content, while characters can be instructed to move and pick up objects, just like in gaming. “Pick up the TV and go downstairs” is all you have to type for the animatic character to do just that, according to the developers Alternatively, you might like to try: “pick up light sabre, chop Darth Maul in half”. That’s what George Lucas would do.
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<h2>Aviation, guaranteed</h2>
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Learning to fly

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