Top US Producer shows how low-cost pre-viz strengthens his pitch

Published: 13th December 2006
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Getting films made is never an easy task. But Dan Halperin at Epiphany Pictures has been making some fundamental changes to his approach for his new movie.



"Sweet Home Chicago is a feature film based upon the award winning short story Blight by renowned writer Stuart Dybek," explains Halperin, one of the creators and producers of the Emmy winning series Picture Windows for Showtime. Last year, Halperin and his Epiphany Pictures partner Scott JT Frank, produced the feature Road Kings, a sort of contemporary hip hop Easy Rider.



"Sweet Home Chicago is a coming of age story about four teenagers just out of high school who put together a band and have dreams of hitting the big time." According to Halperin, Sweet Home Chicago (http://www.sweethomechicagothemovie.com) is an ensemble buddy pic. Think Stand By Me, Diner and American Graffiti and you're in the right sort of space.



Breaking the vicious circle



As generations of filmmakers will tell you, nothing about making films is easy - and getting the cold, hard cash you need is most difficult of all. A classic chicken and egg situation, investors want to see something before stumping up the money... yet they can't see anything before someone has invested.



This time, Halperin thinks he has broken the vicious circle through adopting a completely new approach to pre-production. It's an approach that reduces the cost of pre-viz so dramatically that even low-budget film makers can use it.





Saving money on previsualization



It made sense to shoot a five-minute pre-viz of a scene to convince investors and key talent of the project's merits and present them my vision for the project."



Halperin's original plan was to fly his film-crew to Chicago, where the movie is set, for several days to shoot the opening sequence of the movie on-location with live actors, in order to have a trailer that he could then present to financiers for additional funding. But he found out he could save a great deal of time, money and effort by using a PC-based 3D pre-viz system - the software Halperin used cost less than having just a storyboard drawn for a single scene.



Recreating the scene and drawing the characters



He recreated in software two outside locations in an industrial quarter of the Chicago South Side. Because Sweet Home Chicago is set in 1959, careful attention to detail was required, ensuring that the buildings, cars, characters and props were accurate to the period.



All of the buildings - over four city blocks - were taken out of the software's content library. Fire escapes, dilapidated buildings complete with boarded-up windows, overgrown shrubs, rubble piles and chain-link fences were dragged and dropped into the scene to bring Dan's vision of a dilapidated industrial sector in South Side Chicago in 1959 to life.



To stay even more accurate to the vision it was decided to commission some custom 3D content which was modelled in a traditional 3D system. Five specific characters were required in all, four of which are the key players in the film; the other being a hobo. Furthermore, Halperin had several well-known actors (Wilmer Valderamma, Kieran Culkin and Jon Heder) in mind for the parts of the boys and these actors faces were actually mapped onto the character's faces.



The characters were lip-sync enabled, so that they could actually lip-sync and mimic their lines. Lastly, the characters were configured so that they could pick up, put down, and hold their relevant instruments (guitar, drumsticks, and saxophone) in real time, at the click of a mouse button.



Bringing it all together





With the set complete and the custom content and characters brought into the pre-viz application Halperin was able to begin blocking the action and bringing the script to life. Using a high-quality sound mix, by Mike Franklin at Eleven Sound in Santa Monica, CA, as a reference, he quickly moved from establishing shots of the city to character dialogue sequences.



Each individual take was output as an .avi, full-frames uncompressed, 24 fps, 640x320. These takes were then stitched together in Adobe Premiere, syncing to the sound mix, allowing Halperin to immediately see his scene coverage and gauge the timings and flow of his shots in a pre-production environment.



Pitching investors his ideas



"I cannot adequately describe the value of instant animated pre-viz," enthuses Halperin. "Once I began I was able to watch this world come into shape, and I was able to make more expressive creative decisions. I'd have to say that the experience caused me to see the 'box' that my world was, and then be able to begin to think 'outside the box', creating and inventing more detail and more nuance.



"It will be an invaluable opportunity to come to the set with more already on the page and even on the screen. Just like in Spinal Tap, using software for pre-viz lets me play at 11 while every one else is just playing at 10. Actually I think that this type of real time approach to pre-viz jumps you up to a 15 or a 16!"



Pre-viz helps Halperin from beginning to end



Halperin contends that pre-viz is an innovation that helps at every level and stage of filmmaking. "It works from inception/creation, to fundraising, to the obvious pre-pro and even all the way into and through production," he says. "I hope to have this pre-viz system working on set with me when I'm in production as we figure out the logistics of each day's shoot." Halperin is already convinced by the creative benefits of pre-visualisation. "In being able to express and essentially 'download' ideas from my mind onto the pre-viz screen, valuable brain disc space gets opened up to higher levels of creativity," he says.



This technology is priceless to any director or creative on the project from script to screen. So much of what I would have to explain to my keys - DP, art department and so on - will already be there for all to see, saving time and expense. "We all know the worth of one picture," he concludes. "And if one picture is worth a thousand words, then how many is a real time pre-viz toolset worth? In movies, where words translate into dollars, possibly - no probably - millions."



While Halperin is a high-profile Hollywood producer, the software he chose to create his 3D pre-viz runs on a standard desktop PC and costs around the price of industry-standard photograph-editing software. At that price, this new category of software will enable ideas for countless creative projects to attract funding - even if they have little initial budget.

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