We did a lot of work in pre-production to make sure that we would get the most out of our very limited time and budget on Carolina Parakeet. For an example, let's break down the Storage Room sequence.
We had two scenes in two separate locations to shoot on this day, with a total of 4 actors, 20 extras, 8 makeup artists and a full camera crew. It was crazy. There was no money in the budget for additional days If we didn't get every shot we needed, so it was very important that we used our time wisely.
I fell in love with this hallway the second we walked in. With stark white brick walls, identical metal doors with cold war era locks and exposed pipes at the ceiling; it was perfect. We took detailed measurements and a lot of photo reference. The scene was originally set in a boiler room, so I rewrote it to fit the new location.
I drew storyboards for about half of the scenes in the film, but this scene was not one of them. I decided to go with full previs for both sequences we were to shoot on this day.
Virtual Set Build
Using the measurements, photo reference and a little blueprint I sketched at the scout, I recreated the set virtually in Autodesk Maya. My Producer Tefft had to go back a couple of times for measurements I forgot to take, so take this as a lesson to you: you can never be too thorough. The goal here was not to make it photorealistic, but to make it quickly and accurately so we could virtually block in the scene. You also want the scene file to be light so you can work efficiently. You can check out a comparison between the location and the previs set below.
From here, I quickly blocked in the shots, then animated the characters and cameras. Remember to adjust your virtual camera's film back to match the camera you will be filming with, which in our case was the Red Epic. Thankfully, I had some help with the animation (big thanks to Todd Patterson on hooking me up with a zombie walk cycle!). All told, it took about 2 evenings to create the set and a good part of one weekend to animate and cut the scene.
You can take a look at the final previs cut below, edited in Premiere CS.
SPOILER WARNING: We give away the whole scene here, so skip it if you don't want to know what happens.
You can do very good and informative previs with even less detail than we had here.
The purpose of previsualization is to plan your scene so that you know exactly what you want by the time you are on set with 30 people staring at you waiting for direction. It's also an invaluable tool for communicating your vision quickly and efficiently. Where are the grips setting up lights? What's the line of action? Where are the actor's A's and B's? What's happening in this shot? Where are the extras going to be? It's all there.
It's important to note that the final sequence, while very close to the previs, is not a perfect match. While the goal of previs is to create a template of the sequence, as a filmmaker, the trick is not to be bound by it. While you can encounter problems or limitations that may cause you to deviate from your plans, also note that your cast and crew are artists that are there to collaborate with, and there's a magic that happens when everyone is on set and on the same page that may lead you to even better shots and compositions. Be open to letting that magic happen while letting the previs guide you 80% of the way there.
For a comparison, here's a production still from the shoot: