vfx Diary – part 1: pre-production
In the first of 3D World’s special VFX Diary series, visual effects supervisor Stephan Fleet explores the musts of good pre-production
The first instalment in a new series, VFX supervisor Stephan Fleet explores the pre-production process
There are several stages to the crafting of great visual effects shots. You might hear about shooting on greenscreen, or the modelling of a digital character, or compositing of CG elements into live-action plates, but there are, in fact, so many more steps in the process.
Many of these steps take place early on, in pre-production – a critical time to plan VFX shots, work out what’s needed and what isn’t, and ultimately ensure you can meet your deadline and budget.
To help get a handle on just what’s involved in bringing visual effects to life, including in pre-production, 3D World is following the work of experienced television VFX supervisor Stephan Fleet for a series of practical run-downs of his process. Fleet’s credits include Under the Dome, Iron Fist, Timeless and the upcoming Amazon show, The Boys. In part one of this run-down, he talks about the stages of pre-production, from breaking down a script, budgeting and bidding shots, previs, location scouting and making final plans before the shoot.
So, what is pre-production?
Pre-production, sometimes called ‘pre-pro’ or ‘prep’, happens any time leading up to production, which typically means the liveaction shoot. For a standard dramatic onehour TV show, prep takes place over around eight days. Fleet, who regularly acts as the client-side visual effects supervisor (rather than a supervisor at a specific VFX studio)
is typically involved in pre-production from the very beginning.
“I’m in charge of all things visual effects for my production,” Fleet explains. “That means overseeing the breakdown and budgeting of the script, and attending all necessary meetings to discuss concepts, production, dedicated VFX, stunts, special effects, and oftentimes the ‘tone’ meeting. Then there’s the location scouts, which are sometimes early on, with the director or later, with most of the crew. The latter is a formal scout that takes a day, sometimes even two, known as the ‘tech scout’. I also have to interview and hire vendors and work with them on bids.”
A large part of Fleet’s role in pre-pro is collaborating with other departments to figure out how they are going to design scenes that require visual effects. “This means working with the gaffer and director of photography to, say, design an LED bracelet for Iron Fist’s reactive light. Or, it means figuring out what parts of a complex action sequence need to be CG versus practical. Or it could be previs’ing a mathematically complex greenscreen shoot where a car falls off a cliff.”
Breaking down a Script: the Beginnings of VFX
A television show or film typically begins with a script. While it might seem obvious that this is the starting point for working
out what scenes will require visual effects, things can often change wildly as the show or film progresses. For this reason, Fleet has adopted a specific methodology for breaking down the script in pre-production.
“I read the first draft of a script at least two times,” he says. “The first time, I read it for story. I ignore VFX and just try and get lost in the script like a – hopefully – good book. I need to know what happens, why it happens. Identify with the characters and find a reason to want to work on the project.
“The second time I read a script, I highlight potential visual effects. Very seldom do I do anything more than a simple highlight. The page stays clean and the VFX are usually self-evident. Frequent noting just clutters my page and I get lost in my own mess. If a scene has a ton of VFX, usually a lot of the page gets highlighted, so it’s easy to see it fast when flipping through the pages.”
Fleet uses an ipad Pro with an Apple Pencil to write notes on a digital version of the script (via an app called Scriptation which will let him transfer notes from draft to draft). Often those notes are just one or two words like ‘explosion’ or ‘monitor comp’.
“I tend to come up with different shorthand for different shows,” adds Fleet. “For instance, on Timeless, monitors were seldom VFX, they were mostly playback. So I highlighted all ‘for sure’ VFX in green, and all monitor shots in yellow. I also wrote the word ‘Ship’ near any shot where a time ship travelled back in time. That was a common VFX task and all I needed was that one word to know what was going on. Also, you have far less time as the days go on, so every second saved is a second earned.”
Bidding and Budgeting – and not making it Boring
“I’m going to be straight-up honest here and say that budgeting is my least favourite part of the job,” admits Fleet. “On a bigger show, like The Boys, right now I have a great VFX producer that helps take care of a lot of it. But on a smaller pattern show, like when I did season 2 of Timeless, I produce and do all the budgeting myself.”
The script breakdown is really the start of budgeting. Fleet will take his highlights and annotations and put them into an Excel spreadsheet template. The template has entries for page, scene, VFX shot number, description, and what the VFX are. “Each show ends up getting its own slightly unique template, based on its needs,” says Fleet. “A complex show may have a column for each vendor’s costs, for instance.”
Initial budget estimates for VFX shots are, Fleet admits, educated guesses. But a lot of these ‘guestimates’ are based on experience – over the years Fleet has come to know how much an average monitor composite or muzzle flash costs a VFX vendor to do. “When it comes to a big, abstract, complex shot, I swear a lot of it is putting my finger to the air and trying to guess which way the wind blows. I can also fall back on my years of vendor experience and run some scenarios with their financial templates as a guideline.”
There continues to be a bit of back and forth during prep, especially since things almost always change, or if scenes are deleted and other factors come into play, such as tax incentives and foreign location shooting. “Usually,” notes Fleet, “we have to lock a budget some time after the production meeting, or at least before we go to camera. And by ‘lock’, I mean, if we are over budget, we either have to get that overage approved, or we have to find ways to reduce the costs.”
the art of previs
Changing or iterating on near-final renders is an expensive proposition, which is why previs has become a major part of pre-production. Sometimes previs also includes ‘pitch-vis’. This is where some early exploratory animatics help sell the studio on the idea, or even help in getting the project greenlit. Fleet had direct experience with pitch-vis for Timeless.
“I had to prove to Sony that we could film an awesome Hindenburg explosion. I had to go in and pitch to some of the head honchos at the studio on how we were going to get it done. I reached out and hired this great company called CNCPT to previs the scene. I also flew to Lakehurst, New Jersey, for a whirlwind 24-hour trip, where the actual explosion happened, and gathered a ton of research. The studio loved the pitch-vis.”
Fleet warns, however, that pitch-vis, and previs, needs to still be prepared within the confines of the real world. “When you’re not paying attention to how the camera works, or how the real world works, you can make
things that are impossible to shoot. The same goes for storyboards. Boards often give me anxiety attacks for this same reason. You can drum up $50 million in VFX on one page or a few drawn frames if you’re not careful.”
Fleet recommends considering a dedicated previs studio (there are several), but he is also conscious of the process becoming an early expense, which is why he even sometimes handles his own previs. “I’ve really started digging Cinema 4D for previs,” he says. “I know Maya is the norm, but there are so many accessible models for C4D. Sketchup stuff imports easily. And now with Adobe taking over Mixamo and turning it into Fuse, I can make rigged characters for animation in minutes that look like my cast. Also, if you want to use C4D for previs, I recommend the ‘RH Character Tools’ plugin. It’s cheap and adds controllers to rigged Fuse models with the click of a button. There’s also a plugin called Cine Designer that has all kinds of film gear like rigged cranes and camera dollies.”
planning and testing
The pre-production period is the time to work out as much as possible, as early as possible. It’s the time to plan VFX and the time to budget. Other things can happen in pre-production too, such as location scouting and, if there’s a moment to spare, testing. This might be, say, figuring out shooting methodologies for the VFX shots or testing with props prior to the shoot.
For example, Fleet had a major challenge on Iron Fist with the glowing fist of the main character – an effect he wanted to achieve as practically as possible. It was something that was tested before production began.
“Our first pass at it was something that looked like the Nintendo Power Glove wrapped in Christmas tree lights,” describes Fleet. “I kinda gulped a little when I saw it, because the profile was so big; not only would it be a full erase-job, but it was bigger than a real hand, meaning we would have to paint back in anything it stacked in front of – notably, Iron Fist’s body.
“I stressed over this quite a bit. I did a lot of research on bioluminescent materials. Ultimately, the answer was an LED bracelet on a remote dimmer. The bracelet still allowed us to power up and down the reactive light on his fist, but it was a much smaller piece to erase. It was also positioned below the wrist, which is a fairly rigid area and easier to matchmove and paint out.”
FYI Keep an eye on this VFX Diary series to discover more of Stephan Fleet’s work
Visual effects supervisor Stephan Fleet on the set of timeless, a television series that tells the story of a team trying to foil the plans of a timetravelling criminal
Below: Fleet’s notes made directly on a previs frame for the hindenburg crash scene in timeless . the whole sequence was designed in previs in preproduction before filming
right: Stephan Fleet during a research trip for the pilot show of timeless, in which he visited the site of the hindenburg explosion in Lakehurst, nj
Below: part of Fleet’s VFX breakdown document for timeless
Bottom right: early concept tests for the interactive lighting required for iron Fist
right: Fleet on set during production on the tv show under the dome. work done in pre-production helps to make the shoot run smoothly