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

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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

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