Every film production starts with a script and ends with a final product that (hopefully) captures and entertains your imagination. There are of course many steps in between those two milestones like concept art, character design, lighting, editing, etc. But an important step that often gets overlooked is the “previsualization” phase.
"Any technique that attempts to visualize a scene before the filming begins."
As the vague definition suggests, previsualization or “previs” can easily cover many different techniques and mediums. Anything from stick figure drawings to miniature photos, from live-action clips to 3d renders. As long as it conveys the cinematic idea to the team and helps identify which parts are working (and which are not) so production can proceed.
All of this, of course, also depends on the preferences of the filmmaker. For ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ (1981) Steven Spielberg first relied on his own stick figure drawings which later got refined by storyboard artists. Alfred Hitchcock famously planned his films so precisely with his storyboard artists that during production he was often bored and claimed the actual making of the movie was the worst part. (Please note that Mr. Hitchcock had a snarky sense of humor).
On the other end of the spectrum you might have filmmakers that want to be more “free and spontaneous” during the production phase and only do bare minimum pre-production. Usually they end up spending significantly longer time filming (more shots are needed to cover your basis and more takes are needed for exploration) and this puts a lot of strain on the schedule and budget. In these cases, the editing department needs to go over much more footage in order to “find” the movie and odds are they will discover plenty of problems that may not have a solution that fits within the budget.
Which medium is used also depends on the scene or the shot. The previs version of ‘Star Wars’ featured mostly storyboard drawings but for the space battle scenes George Lucas used WW2 footage of aerial dogfights. There’s no rule that says the entire previs needs to be in exactly the same format. Usually you go with whatever gets the idea across in the shortest amount of time possible. The idea might fail, but then it’s better to fail quickly and try another one.
Even though they share a similar cinematic language, live-action films and animated films have differences in their traditional workflow. The main one being that with animated films the editing process starts much sooner, usually at the beginning of pre-production. The editorial department becomes the heart of the workflow and everything flows through it. They cobble together a previs version (often also called “animatic” or “story reel”) that becomes the cinematic blueprint for what puzzle pieces are needed. And as the other departments (layout, animation, lighting, etc) deliver their pieces one-by-one over the production phase the editorial department makes sure they all click together correctly.
But is there a previs method that is the “best” one? Well, it depends. Remember that every project has different requirements and each method has its own pros and cons. Each one of our films has used slightly different methods, depending on our budget, team, skill sets, deadline, technical constraints, art style, etc. For ‘Agent 327’ (2017) we used mixed media editing. For ‘Spring’ (2019) it was a mixture of concept art, sketches and 3d previs. For ‘Sprite Fright’ (2021) we used storyboard drawings edited into an animatic.
Since ‘Charge’ (2022) had a tight deadline and no dedicated storyboard artist, for the previs I decided to push it already into 3d but using only basic “mannequin” characters and simple geometry for props and environments. That way I could quickly mock up shot ideas (with a particular cinematography in mind), see how they flow together and adjust them as needed without getting bogged down in details.
However, I needed to put a limit on myself. Since my background is animation, it’s very easy for me to get carried away and start animating the shot I’m working on, even if it’s in a previs format. So to keep up with the tight deadline, I used a storyboard-inspired workflow where each frame would act as a single storyboard drawing and each shot would use the fewest amount of drawings needed. So as a rule-of-thumb I limited each shot to a maximum of 10 frames (maximum 20 frames if the shot really warranted it).
These “storyboard drawings” would then be exported as images into the edit, where the timing could be figured out. This made it much easier and quicker to adjust the timing and try out alternative versions.
Overall, the previs ended up doing a lot of the heavy lifting for the layout process that followed, which in turn made the animation process go very smoothly.
The more you study previsualization, the more you appreciate the groundwork that it's capable of doing. Its primary objective is to create a cheaper mockup version of the film that's easier to judge and fix. Depending on the project, this might mean that stick figure drawings are already enough, especially if it's only meant to communicate ideas to a very small team. Often the previs goes through stages where it starts off with very simple drawings but with each iteration of the previs the drawings get updated to reflect more delicate details (like camera movements, specific acting beats or lighting). You can also take the previs too far, where precious time and resources are being wasted for an overly-detailed visualization. Each project needs to find its own balance.
To demonstrate the 'Charge' previs process in more details, I'm currently editing an explanation video that should be published here within a week from now. This particular previs method might of course not be the right fit for every production but I hope it inspires you to develop your own method, tailored to your own project.