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Quick Chat: Proof Inc. on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ previs/postvis

By Randi Altman

Almost all films these days have visual effects of some kind, from the obvious (looking at you Transformers) to the invisible (pick any period piece). To help map out what effects could be done, more and more productions are calling on previsualization, and related services, to visualize the more complex sequences before filming begins.

This type of work happens to be Proof, Inc.’s bread and butter. The Hollywood-based studio, which has offices in London, Sydney and Aukland, New Zealand, has a ginormous and impressive credit list; too long to list them in this space. So here is just a glimpse: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and the upcoming Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Tarzan and Fast & Furious 7. They also recently provided previs and postvis services to Marvel’s ultra successful Guardians of the Galaxy.

In terms of previs, Proof worked on more than a dozen sequences, totaling well over an hour of animation. They generated over 2,300 unique cameras, averaging about three revisions per camera. In postvis, they touched every sequence in the film, generating a total of 1,450 unique shots, and averaging about three revisions per shot.

Ron Frankel

Ron Frankel

Not long after the VFX-heavy Guardians hit theaters we threw out some questions to Proof founder/creative director Ron Frankel and previs/postvis supervisor Earl Hibbert.

You provided previs and postvis for Guardians of the Galaxy. Can you talk a bit about the work?
Ron Frankel: Proof provided previs and postvis services for the film. The work started in Los Angeles at the end of 2012. We had a small team of computer animators and modelers, led by Proof’s previs supervisor Earl Hibbert. The team worked at Marvel’s facility in Manhattan Beach building 3D models of the main characters and hero environments. The source material for those designs came out of the art department, led by production designer Charlie Wood.

In early 2013, the production moved to London for filming. Earl Hibbert traveled from Los Angeles to remain with the show, but the rest of the previs came from Proof’s London office. Earl worked closely with director James Gunn and VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti designing the main action sequences for the film. Earl’s team ended up working on over a dozen sequences, generating over an hours worth of edited Previs.

Filming wrapped in October of 2013 and Earl returned to LA to head up the postvis effort. Proof built a new team to support Earl consisting of animators and compositors. The postvis team was embedded in the Marvel Post-Production offices and worked closely with the director, VFX supervisor and the editors. Proof remained on-site through the director’s cut and test screenings. We delivered our last shots in late May of 2014.

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Can you define previs and postvis in relation to how you work?
Frankel: Previs is the work we’re doing before any footage is shot. It’s the digital sandbox in which the filmmakers get to play and experiment with story ideas and shot selection. In previs, we’re essentially making a low-res animated version of the movie. We have 3D models of the sets and characters. We do our best to make our versions of the characters look like their live-action counterparts. We animate the action — the space pod chase, for example — within the environment and then place cameras to cover the action. The final step is rendering the footage from the cameras and editing the sequence together.

The director will review the work, then start to make changes based on how the sequence is developing. We set up our 3D scenes to be light and agile so we can make quick revisions and experiment with multiple iterations. As much as possible we emulate the real production environment so that the decisions that are made in previs can be easily replicated on the set when it comes time to shoot.

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Postvis comes after the footage is shot. In many cases what is shot is just a fragment of the total image because it is missing all of the computer-generated imagery. In postvis we take the shot footage and add in low-res versions of the CGI. In many cases we already have those elements from our previs, so often it’s just a matter of stripping them out from one scene and adding them into another.

Having the CGI in the shot is important for the editor and director. It gives them the full picture so they can make informed decisions about shot selection and timing. The postvis also becomes a template for the VFX vendors who use it as a guide for the production of the final visual effects shots. As much as possible we try to animate and construct our postvis so we can hand over assets and scene files to the final VFX vendors as a jumping off point for their work.

Can you talk about how you worked with the director and VFX supervisor?
Earl Hibbert: We worked very closely with director James Gunn and VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti throughout both previs and postvis. James fell in love with the previs process. We had an amazing time working with him, because he fully embraced the idea that he could work on all the blocking in the previs process and take that onto set with him.

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For most of our sequences we’d start with an overview that captured the general blocking of the action so we could see all the choreography that was needed for the scene. Once James was happy with the blocking, then we’d go in and start dropping cameras based on the shot list and storyboards. From there we’d start refining the animation to achieve what James was looking for. This was also a great time to see and explore the VFX elements of the sequences. Any questions or issues that came up could be discussed amongst the team and solutions could be explored.

What was the most challenging aspect of the job?
Hibbert: The most challenging and fun aspect of the job was designing the big battle sequences. The team had a blast, and James was very flexible. He allowed us to present him with different ideas, and to really dig in and refine the action as we went through building the sequences. These kinds of dynamic action beats where everything is in motion —spaceships, cameras, explosions all happening at the same time across an enormous battlefield — are incredibly difficult, but also very rewarding.

Can you discuss postvis-ing Rocket and Groot?
Hibbert: The postvis for Rocket and Groot was both a challenge and a lot of fun. The challenging aspect was we had to deliver high-quality shots that would be good enough to allow James to evaluate character performance and blocking so he could make creative decisions with the editor. To do that our postvis for Rocket and Groot had to convey personality and emotion; it had to match lighting to the set to have our character placed within the set with the other actors without being jarring or distracting in any way. Creatively we pushed the postvis further and harder than we had on any other show.

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The fun aspect was getting to find the personality of Rocket and Groot with James. James had very specific ideas for those characters — how they would move and how they’d interact with our heroes throughout the movie. A lot of the Rocket and Groot gags we developed with James in previs and postvis ended up in the final movie. That’s a testament to both James’ vision and to the Proof team’s ability to deliver.

What tools do you call on for this type of work?
Frankel: For previs work we mostly use Autodesk Maya with a suite of proprietary tools that help us work quickly and efficiently. For Guardians of the Galaxy we wrote a realtime CGFX fur shader to help represent Rocket more accurately.

For Postvis we continue using Maya for animation and rendering, and add SynthEyes for tracking and The Foundry’s Nuke and Adobe’s After Effects for compositing.

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