What is Previs? An overview of the types of previsualization
Going into a film, commercial, or music video production with a visual battle plan is often essential to producing and directing a successful project. It is so important to go into production with essential resources that communicate your vision to your cast and crew.
Previsualization (aka “previs” or “previz”) is the process in pre-production of visually mapping out scenes in a movie, commercial, or music video before principal photography. It can utilize a combination of photography, storyboards, and animatics. The renderings can range from simple stick figures and modest drawings to very detailed, artistic illustrations and renderings that border on fine art.
Previs helps the Director, Director of Photography, some crew, and even the Editor understand the camera direction, shot compositions, and edit of a scene and it serves to weed out any possible issues, complications, and artistic direction before money is spent on actual filming.
Often, on student and independent film productions, hiring a Storyboard Artist or Previz Artist is cost prohibitive. That’s when photography shot by you or gathered from other sources like the internet and movie screen grabs can help you map out your vision on paper while saving money. You may be a fantastic Director, but terrible at drawing, and that’s OK. There are other ways to show your Director of Photography, crew, and Editor your vision with photographs.
For example, let’s say you plan on shooting a scene in a hotel lobby. On your location scout, you can bring your still camera or cell phone along with a friend or willing crew member and photograph a scene in the hotel lobby. Along with the script, you can place your Stand-in in various shots that will make up a rough depiction of the scene. Don’t worry about lighting. This step is to give you an idea of what shots and compositions will work and what will not work within the space you end up shooting in.
Perhaps, you don’t have time to go into the field and photograph a scene. In that case, feel free to use existing images found online that can illustrate your vision. Here’s an example from a music video I assistant directed featuring Ice Cube called Good Cop, Bad Cop:
See the final music video here.
Storyboarding is the time-tested process of having a Storyboard Artist draw panels of a scene in shot order that demonstrate the visual look of the story. Storyboards are often essential to helping the Director and Director of Photography really understand camera placement, camera movement, and shot compositions. They help save time and money on set. A good Storyboard Artist is not only a talented artist who can draw, but someone who also understands film language, camera movement, and the shot descriptions including wide shots, medium shots, close-ups, dolly shots, jib shots, and Dutch angles. Here is an example of a storyboard from an Industrial I assistant directed for the United States Government. Notice how this Artist used existing clip art while also including camera direction and voiceover to bring each frame together for a cohesive visual and narrative description.
Now here is an example of a more traditional, hand-drawn storyboard from a commercial I assistant directed for a promo featuring a toy called Pimple Pete. Again, the boards include camera compositions and voiceover creating a complete picture. You can see the final commercial here.
Let’s hear from successful Los Angeles Film and Video Director Eli Sokhn, who has directed elaborate and beautiful productions for the likes of Why Don’t We, Nerf, Adidas, Old Navy, and Red Bull on the topic.
CIF: As a Director, what do you look for in a Storyboard Artist?
Sokhn: What I look for in a Storyboard Artist is specificity first — being able to transfer a visual that only exists in my mind onto paper. And secondly, when that visual feels loose, the chance to visually brainstorm the idea with them.
CIF: Why are boards and a shot list important to you as a Director?
Sokhn: To me it’s important because I love being efficient and accurate. Knowing exactly what’s happening gives me confidence and certainty and that creates a mood that reflects well on the team members. [Storyboards and shot lists] allow me to visit multiple scenarios before I decide it’s a good idea to film that. It’s also more satisfying to go from imagination to ideation, to boarding and shot listing. It makes it a longer process and with that comes more scrutiny on the idea. It’s like birthing a baby — if it’s planned -– well, there are less surprises there and you know the baby is yours.
CIF: How do both help you communicate your vision to a DP and the crew?
Sokhn: That’s very simple: it follows the principle of “show, don’t tell” and that’s the most efficient communication route in a very visual medium. When everyone can see the vision then it’s easier for it to come to life.
Finally, if you have editing skills or an Editor willing to take your storyboards to the next level, you can also create a simple edit of your boards that show camera movements, including voiceover, scratch dialogue (rough dialogue you record yourself before filming the actual Actor), and music will really make it come to life.
It’s also important to note that if you’re trying to raise money, an animatic is a great way to help investors and crowd funders understand your vision before they spend their money. Here is a side-by-side storyboard animatic that shows the “animated” storyboard on the left and the final motion picture on the right from Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
And if you have the skills, here is a really complex animatic that utilizes a combination of hand-drawn storyboards, computer-generated imagery (CGI), music, sound effects, and subtitles to really drive home the visual complexity of an action sequence in Iron Man 3.
Let’s hear from a pro. Here is seasoned Storyboard and Comic Book Artist John Nadeau.
CIF: What are some of the jobs you’ve done?
Nadeau: I’ve done one each for Marvel and DC as a Penciller — Wolverine #83 and Green Lantern Annual #8. For most of my comics career, I worked for Dark Horse Comics, doing Alien: Cargo, Aliens: Colonial Marines and various Star Wars titles, including Boba Fett and X-Wing: Rogue Squadron, which I also painted several covers for.
CIF: Why are storyboards important to realizing a scripted vision?
Nadeau: Storyboards are typically the first draft of the visuals of the story. As such, they’re communication tools so that the Director can show the crew and Actors what they’re doing on shoot day, or show a Production Designer how something is going to be covered. I do a lot of storyboards for commercials, and often they’re used to communicate pitch ideas to a potential client: “Here’s what a commercial for you would look like.”
CIF: What are the challenges you’ve encountered when given a script of any kind that you in-turn translate into storyboards?
Nadeau: I am rarely given a script and told to storyboard it without some kind of input from a Producer or a Director to get their input on how they want to approach the shots. Sometimes I’m given notes to go along with a script: 1. Master, 2. 2-shot, 3. Following, 4. OTS, etc. The challenges come at either extreme end of the Director-input scale: either they have no idea how they want the shots to go and I’m really there to suggest shots (i.e. storyboard-direct), or they have a very specific way they want to see something but don’t really know how to communicate these ideas visually. Occasionally, a commercial job is just “we want a series of cool shots of this (drill/modular couch/car) — can you come up with some ideas beyond what we have?” and that’s a pretty fun challenge.
Let’s say that storyboards are out of your price range or skill sets. Drawing simple stick figures are acceptable on smaller, low-budget productions. However, poorly drawn storyboards may actually hurt your attempt to assemble a team or raise money and it may be best to come to the table with at least a shot list.
A shot list is typically written up by a Director in collaboration with the Director of Photography. It is a list, either in the order of the script or in the scheduled shooting order (after consulting the Assistant Director on the most efficient way to shoot a scene) and it serves as a guide when picking camera placement, camera movement, and the types of lenses used during a film shoot.
A good Director will plan out all of his or her shots and write them up in a simple list using film language including: WS (wide shot), MS (medium shot), MCU (medium close-up), CU (close-up), pan (left to right), tilt (up and down), dolly shot, tracking shot, crane shot, Dutch angle (a shot that is askew or angled), HH (handheld), cowboy (from above the knees to the top of the head), OTS (over the shoulder), or French OTS (over the shoulder from behind two or more Actors). There are more abbreviations that signify shots, but that is a list of the more commonly used descriptions. Here is an example shot list from a short film I assistant directed called One Day Notice:
And here is a variation of a shot list from a commercial I assistant directed for Huawei Phones:
See the final commercial spot here.