“Taxi! Find me some good camera shots”
At the end of 2021, we were delighted to previs a ‘super’ high profile international production, but with it being both the client’s and our first outing with FirstStage, we learned a lot about how to deliver insights with two remote teams five hours apart, under critical time pressure and with a fast moving creative target … and that we could do it from the back of a cab!
The right client, project, and time
Greg Jordan is an media industry veteran and executive producer who is also the owner of Bootleg Films (a production company delivering advertising, TV and Film projects for the UK and International markets) and a partner at Beehive Creative Factory (a creative agency supporting the production needs of marketing and advertising projects). He first heard of FirstStage through word of mouth we gave him a live demo over Zoom during our third national Coronavirus lockdown in February 2021. As soon as he saw how FirstStage would allow his teams to remotely collaborate in real time, quickly build sets, choreograph scenes and film the action, he said he would look out for a suitable project in the future.
Slow slow quick quick fast
Nothing happened for several months, but at the start of November 2021, Greg got back in touch with a very exciting project - an international shoot requiring significant visual effects. As an advert for the main sponsor of Super Bowl LVI involving the Dr Evil IP, to be broadcast in one of the most expensive annual TV advertising slots, it was a high profile gig, due by early December 2021, and potentially the perfect first project for Moviestorm’s FirstStage service. So no pressure!
Initially, the vision was for a virtual set in a blimp hovering high over the football stadium. The production team had their standard pre-production process in place, which was essential to minimise the risk of such a high profile project, but with a complex VFX scene being produced across two continents, Moviestorm were confident they could deliver a strong service with FirstStage and remote collaboration. We had plenty of experience of how to turn an idea into a film, so with just a script, stage dimensions, and some composition and art references, we offered to build an accurate virtual set, assemble the scene choreography using posed characters and motion captured performance, and layout virtual camera keyframes and movement. Everything would be creatively directed by their production team, with UK-based members coming to our studio to review the scene in VR, and remote members directing via Zoom calls whilst we shared the VR headset view from inside FirstStage. We could deliver the output as images and video to communicate the vision.
With significant script rewrites (such as no more blimps!) Greg waited until the plan was firmed up, and on 18th November he introduced us to line producer Ira Brooks (Flaunt It Films) and director Tim Kirkby, and they loved what they saw. We were added to the team and the script and some art references were quickly shared giving us our first sight of the vision.
Of course, we immediately had loads more questions for Greg, and pulled together an extensive questionnaire covering the pre-production aims and provided references. But what was clear was that given the project was still not green-lit, they had as many questions as we did, so we had to wait some more.
By the 1st December the project was finally greenlit with a production start of 13th December, and Greg and Tim had to immediately fly over to New York to coordinate production. The previs process would need to be remote from start to finish, but the everyone was up for that and excited for things to be moving.
Another revised script was shared along with the first of many iterations of the 3d set as a Sketchup model and some art references, so we started assembling the scene whilst the production team were in flight across the Atlantic.
Our first priority was to build an accurate set in FirstStage. The film stage and Sketchup model were single story, so we imported it in pieces and reassembled it in FirstStage, then built and added walls and other details. We then laid out the choreography according to the script and delivered an animatic for their arrival in New York.
Production started on Monday 6th December, and right from the start it was high-pressure.
Based on the storyboard and some initial direction, we choreographed the scenes and camera moves in FirstStage and Greg and the team reviewed the test footage each day and gave feedback.
“My priorities were to use Moviestorm to let Tim and Ira visualise the impact of the script changes on existing production ideas as well as explore any new opportunities that might emerge. These insights usually only really come from being on set, but a virtual set is not much different. In fact, in many ways it’s better, as you can make superhuman changes in the blink of an eye, to the set construction, the scene action and the camera direction. And with only small windows to hook up we actually ended up doing those reviews on Zoom in the back of a taxi on the way into the studio each morning.”
Greg Jordan, Bootleg Films
- In the UK, Moviestorm wake to receive new production information. They make scene changes in FirstStage, export images and video and send the updates via email, whilst Bootleg sleep.
- In New York, Bootleg wake to review the updates and organise feedback Zoom session for their taxi ride to the studio.
- In the taxi Zoom session, Moviestorm guide Bootleg around the scene changes using the VR camera, whilst Bootleg direct changes and explore camera shots.
- Moviestorm send new images and video updates via email before stopping for the day, whilst Bootleg integrate the scene changes and email back new references and information before the end of their day.
- After the FirstStage previs iterations, Bootleg take the final FirstStage materials onto set to help guide production.
Having the team split across the Atlantic was actually beneficial - we could work uninterrupted while the Bootleg team were sleeping, and vice versa. This continued for the rest of the final production planning week, and got more critical as a key player arrived in New York, much to our surprise …
Greg … “We’ll need to check that with Mike”
Andrew … “Who’s Mike?”
Greg … “Mike Myers”
Andrew … “Ah, of course”
By Friday 10th, after four days of previs iterations, the production plan was in place with the shoot scheduled to start the following Monday. For remote reference, we delivered a batch of shots looking all around the virtual set and an updated image storyboard, and waited to hear whether we were needed anymore. We weren’t.
From twiddling thumbs to hectic - How pre-production ramped up and up
Being able to look at the scene virtually gave the creative team many new ideas that were incorporated into the final product. These included changes to the set design, choreography and camera angles. Let's look at these in more detail …
The focus group
The vision for the opening scene changed throughout.
In the first script, everyone was sitting around a table, but this caused a number of problems posed in our initial extensive questionnaire:
- Dr Evil would be sitting around a basic table, but needed to easily transition to his command chair and table.
- The focus group needed to exit the room via the stairs when Dr Evil’s lair was revealed as the Dr Evil and his team whizzed into place around their table.
What was needed was something fast and smooth, and swapping the focus group and one set of chairs and table with another just didn’t work out, so they moved to standing with the focus group nearest the stairs and the Moderator opposite. This was picked up in the storyboard with the addition of changing GM’s Ultium Battery Platform from a screen image to a model.
This left the issue of how to get the battery chassis to leave the scene for the final exit, and that is when an iris was suggested. So we quickly cut a hole in the floor, and animated some opening iris shutters and the chassis descended through them.
Upon reviewing the iris feature the next morning, the director (Tim Kirkby) noticed a shot looking through the floor at the cars on the floor below, which ignited a creative spark. Not only did it ramp up the mock-James Bond theme, but the iris was able to let the viewer know where Dr Evil was heading at the end of the scene and understand how they got there.
The Stairs and the Texas Switch
The staircase didn’t even feature in the first script, but was a strong architectural feature in the first set model.
This led to the idea of having a second storey to the set, and to have Dr Evil depart from cars parked on the lower floor. As a comedy, it naturally followed that Dr Evil should do a comedic fall down the stairs, which would be managed in filming using a Texas Switch.
So having created a two storey version of the set we animated the tumbling sequence, but after assessing it for camera angles around the curved staircase, it was decided it would be problematic to get the required shots, and was dropped.
In the end, the stairs did not even feature apart from a cut to Dr Evil and his team descending the bottom of the stairs.
Dr Evil’s evil plans
Another sequence that proved problematical for set positioning was the reveal of Dr Evil’s evil plans (Preparation H, the Allan Parsons Project and the F Bomb). These started off in the script as flat panels emerging from the ground around the main table, but with the table dropped some 3d models were added and they all emerged between Dr Evil’s team crescent of seats. But this didn’t get a good shot of them in relation to Number Two, so they were put in a line and moved adjacent to him, only for them to end up in the final film actually sitting exactly where the top of the stairs should have been located.
The progression of presenting ideas for Dr Evil’s ‘evil plans’
This was a learning experience for both ourselves and Bootleg, and we both agreed that it was very positive with some significant take-aways.
Generally, pre-production follows a straightforward process of building the set, blocking the action, and then filming it. This project wasn't like that. With multiple creative stakeholders there were almost daily script and set changes, so it required a more iterative approach to support the redesign of anything and everything at very short notice.
So FirstStage needs to support a fast and iterative process, and allow the Production Designer, Director and Cinematographer to make changes at any point between script and production, as well as constantly inform the Producer who has the budget to consider.
“I think this is a very important tool.
The enemy is time. Moviestorm are reliant on getting the intel to work with, and we worked on a unique project where we were not the masters of our production time. But FirstStage is so quick to use, they could cope with the constant changes and reviews.”
Greg Jordan, Bootleg Films
Storyboards and animatics
Having been given an animatic created over the first weekend using just the script and a Sketchup model, one of the issues Greg highlighted was that he would have preferred to have more daily WIPs delivered, such as storyboards or animatics.”
There was a reason for that … the fast turnaround required from input of ideas to delivering the results meant that feedback in the form of images and notes from the set were often the best solution. But as FirstStage is also a tool to communicate a vision, there is a need for the constant availability of the latest plan, whether as a cohesive storyboard or animatic.
FirstStage already allows the user to import the script and work with that, but to date a scene has been one long list of scripted timeline activities and a change of scene choreography can inadvertently affect things later on the timeline. That means that the scene is constantly being broken and fixing those problems can be most of the work.
Consequently, we are expanding the Script functionality so a scene can be broken into triggered sequences that can be worked on in isolation, reducing the impact of changes and enabling the latest animatic to be constantly available, as well as a live storyboard.
Role-based player modes
Greg found the use of VR and FirstStage a revelation …
“Seeing the scale of the set required and what wasn't needed, and seeing 'the shooting arena' was really eye opening. FirstStage is literally the future of pre-production.”
Even though the client experience wasn't ideal - broadcasting a live VR headset via Zoom to the back of a cab - a lot was learned about how the production team can effectively work with FirstStage, and what they would actually want to do.
FirstStage is designed for use by creatives, not techies. But creatives don't necessarily want to build animated footage using the tool. Some want to be able to move around the set, see what they could do, explore their options and communicate their needs to the operators, as they are used to doing within their teams.
As a result, Moviestorm are developing role-based Player modes, VR applications supported by un-tethered HMDs, such as the Oculus Quest 2, that focus on direction. These would allow all users to move about and explore the set, leave time and position-specific notes for others to act upon and control time for scene playback, but also allow some relevant role-based functions, such as a cinematographers want to select the exact camera positions and shots, production designers want to move stage assets and check dimensions, directors want to change the pace and position of the choreography, and a producer may just want to observe and feedback on scene changes to ensure that they will work with the budget … and of course still do all that in the back of a cab!
Flexible live team access
The production team is generally going to consist of a number of creatives, all wanting to input in team conversations. So if the discussion is centred on FirstStage, they all need live remote access. This does not however mean that they need to be in VR.
In terms of accessing scenes, flexibility is key to be fully inclusive. So, outside of VR and sharing Zoom sessions, the Player apps will be available on tablets, smart phones and the desktop.
So in summary, this was a hugely significant project for ourselves. The project we were thankful to be part of, the learning from it, and the people we worked with who appreciated the benefits FirstStage brought to their project.
One final word from Greg that really summarised what FirstStage is able to do …
“The whole pre-production process is a learning experience, and what you end up NOT doing in production can ultimately be as important as what you do end up doing, and FirstStage allows you to quickly explore all the options and plan accordingly, saving time on set and maximising creative opportunities.”
References and Copyright
AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY, AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER and all related characters and elements © & ™New Line Productions, Inc.
Storyboard images courtesy of Bootleg Films