Previs in 2018: How new tech has changed how Hollywood films and TV shows like Game of Thrones are made

The Third Floor's Michelle Blok tells us about how VR and other new technologies are changing how previs is used on major TV shows and Hollywood movies including Mission Impossible: Fallout.

A few years ago the small screen was rocked by the FX spectacle that was Battle of the Bastards from season six of Game of Thrones; the most equivalent water cooler moment recently had to be season seven's Beyond the Wall, which saw humans take on dragons, White Walker ice creatures and living dead wights, all in the space of 70 mind blowing minutes.

The episode nabbed yet another Emmy award for visualisation studio The Third Floor, who came away with the gong for Outstanding Special Visual Effects with the Game of Thrones visual effects team at the 2018 Creative Arts Emmys in September. 

“The amount of work we produced for season seven rivalled anything The Third Floor has done for any movie,” their UK previs supervisor Michelle Blok tells us, who we reached out to shortly following the studio’s big win. “When you think about it, we are working on over seven hours of footage, so it’s almost as much as three films.”

With over a decade’s experience in visualisation working on Marvel blockbusters and the Star Wars universe, Michelle is the one to talk to about the changing nature of previs (aka previsualisation) and her comments confirm that the boundaries between film and TV production are blurring. 

“With the current trend for high-quality visual effects solutions for television, the distinction between film and TV is almost non-existent,” she explains.“Game of Thrones is a prime example of this. The show prides itself on shooting real elements whenever possible and doesn’t rely entirely on CG. It’s a process that requires much more planning but the payoff is in the quality of the final product.”

The Third Floor collaborated to map out previs scenes for Beyond the Wall prior to shooting, helping inform production plans for sets, stunts, location shoots, stage shoots and visual effects.

The challenge posed by Beyond the Wall saw Michelle and the Third Floor team make more use of technical previs, or techvis for short. This is the technical guidance used for shooting; where as previs is the 3D visualisation method to prepare rendered passes of an effects-heavy shoot, techvis gets more into the nitty gritty of what’ll be required on the day of the shoot. It provides crew with measurements and data on elements like camera placement, lighting and the staging of a scene. These come in the form of dimensional diagrams that synthesize camera rigs, camera dollies and scene layout, which Michelle explains were crucial during the shooting of this particular Game of Thrones episode.

“Although we visualised most sequences in previs, the main workload relates to the creation of techvis. Beyond the Wall required not only standard techvis per shot but also techvis for motion control passes for wights falling into the ice lake.”

Techvis artists from The Third Floor created technical schematics and helped develop shooting methods for complex shots tying together dragon fire, motion control, live pyrotechnics, acting performances and CG animation.

A similarly challenging example from the movie world that may surprise you is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast remake from 2017. Its standout Be our Guest musical number required a mixture of previs and motion-capture, as done using a simulcam system that superimposed actors onto a virtual simulation in real time.

“We had the challenge of stitching the previs together to be used for simulcam,” Michelle remembers, “so the animated CG characters could be seen live while shooting.

“We also provided camera data to drive an on-set Technodolly (a version of a camera dolly that can store and repeat an unlimited number of moves) for more than 80 of the ‘Be our Guest’ shots, accurately replicating the visualised moves for filming on set.”

The Third Floor team then took these shots into the postvisualisation (postvis) process, when the rudimentary passes of the previs are 'fleshed out' to make the effects magic you see on the silver screen (or the small one). 

“We could literally take the previs and add that animation back to the plate, providing a guide for visual effects and editorial,” Michelle explains.

The project comes full circle, then, underlining just how important previs is to the filming process. But has it always been that way? I ask Michelle what’s changed in the last five or so years in the field. Her answer is that visualisation is now a mainstay of the entire content production process.

“In the early days it was all about educating people to the possibilities that previs could bring; how it could be utilised to solve problems, to provide creative control to directors and cinematographers, especially in CG-heavy productions, and how it could aid producers in planning and budgeting,” Michelle says, looking back. “Now technology is advancing and we have a whole new tool set, opening up new possibilities that didn’t really exist five years ago.”

She points to the example of virtual production tools like VR set scouting, where Third Floor can build up a scene’s environment and elements using Maya. 

“(This is) where our artists have collaborated within the art department, creating digital models of proposed set builds and allowing art directors to explore and experience their proposals before construction,” Michelle explains.

“This same system can then be used by the director and cinematographer to frame and set up shots, giving them the same optics they would have as if viewing the shots through a real camera. We have also been using AR systems like Ncam to composite CG creature elements with live action in real time, allowing the camera operators to see and frame for action.”

Moving away from creatures and dancing furniture for a minute, I ask Michelle how the studio tackles stunt heavy films like this year’s Mission Impossible: Fallout that hinge upon flesh and blood actors in physical-based action.

“For very stunt-driven content, there is still an immense amount of planning required to complete shooting within the physical parameters of the camera equipment and location, and with the scope of safety in mind,” she responds. 

“On Mission Impossible: Fallout, key shots were visualised in tandem with stunts to ensure real-world considerations were taken into account. The same can be said for the underwater torus sequence or the Airbus scene in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.

Previs for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

“On Thrones,” Michelle continues, “which uses stunts extensively, we constantly reviewed the previsualised shots with the stunt coordinator throughout the process. A good example of this in Beyond the Wall is the wight fight on the ice. 

“Shots across the sequence featured flaming swords and stunt burns, all of which required very specific motion and burn time limits. We needed to ensure that the shots being designed were timed precisely to achieve the shot and then have the stunt performers leave frame so they could be extinguished.

“We spent a lot of time devising shooting plans for stunt elements, such as the complex motion control shoot of the wights falling through the ice, which was achieved on a green screen stage with a dunk tank dressed to look like the ice lake.”

For the frozen lake sequence in Beyond the Wall, a CG previs environment was created using lidar set scans, allowing positions for cameras, wights, fire strafes, the island and the actors to be worked out through techvis in advance of the shoot.

Michelle started her career in previs working on two rather different movies — realist superhero classic The Dark Knight, and OTT Gothic horror Sweeney Todd. I put it to her that it seems the former put her in good stead with the ways of VFX in a realist setting, and wonder whether what she learnt on the set of the 2008 film still holds true ten years on. Or has perhaps too much has changed in previs for that to be possible?

“It’s interesting you mention this, as the challenges met by the production on The Dark Knight with stunt-based realism are the same as we’ve now had on Thrones,” she answers.

“Filmmakers are continually pushing the boundaries; it’s the same now as it was back then with the goal of realism-based shots, except now we have better tools, technology and methodologies to help create solutions in order to shoot them.”

From L to R: virtual production supervisor Kaya Jabar; previs lead Pat Gehlen; Michelle Blok

In Michelle’s view, utilising visualisation is the only way filmmakers can move forward in order to break those boundaries.

“Having visualisation available allows those producing the content to explore and push creative boundaries and then translate their visions into working shoot methodologies,” she says as a reminder of why studios like The Third Floor are so in demand in the industry. 

“It provides the opportunity to preempt potential problems and gives time to develop technical solutions, dramatically increasing the efficiency of a shoot and reducing the chance of unexpected surprises once you get on set.”

Previs, then, is what’ll get you beyond the wall.

Read next:  Game of Thrones VFX - see how visual effects were created for previous seasons before the new season starts

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