Beijing Film Academy launched the China-US Master Class this fall: Michael Peyser, one of Woody Allen’s producers invited his friend Chris Edwards, CEO of The Third Floor, to talk about previsualization. Chris shared his knowledge on previs and why he wants to expand The Third Floor’s territory to China.
Xu Jia: What is the origin of The Third floor?
Chris Edwards: I was a son of rocket scientist on my dad side, an aerospace engineer, and I was very much an engineer mind, you know, and a little cool thinker. And my mom, a costume designer, was involved in theater and film production. So I always wanted to do something that somewhere between the two disciplines. I want to do something that was very artistic, like what my mum liked, but I also never want to be disconnected from the technology, the problem-solving side of things. So as I enter my career in filmmaking, I want to find a discipline that would allow me to do both things. And that actually turned into, for me, the world of previsualizations.
So when I went to film school, there was really no such a thing as my career. I helped pioneer some of this technique by using my skills, actually my hobby in computer animation as a way to plan shots for my friends and other filmmakers that I knew. And only later did I realize that other groups were also having the same ideas, similar thoughts about using technology to plan creative and diverse. And so now I am feeling great because now I have achieved this goal of being able to combine both disciplines. And I find a community of, like-minded artist and being able to create a fantastic studio which celebrates all of these disciplines coming together. It really is akin to Pixar where we invest in the artistic talent, and we simply support the talent with pipeline of tools and technologies that allow filmmakers to create whatever they can imagine. We never want filmmakers to have any limitations. So what we do is we simply give them the chance to try out so many different things, and lock down honing on that vision and honing on what is the most effective film.
Disney was an interesting experience because it was my first job out of school. And I was very lucky to work for a film called Dinosaur, which was a computer generated film with characters shot against live action background. So they basically have dinosaurs running around in Hawaii and other exotic locations. So they need to previsualize even though they did use the terminology at a time. They need to previsualize where these dinosaurs would go, coz they were going to send out the live action crew to get those compositions and camera moves. So there was no choice but to use computer to plan this in rough. And at a time that was called “3D Work Book”, that’s the terminology they use. Eventually it involved into previs. But the beauty of the process was that we were able to get the entire team on the same page.
However, I feel like working in Disney definitely was division between departments. What we were doing was to serve the camera department to inform the crew where to go, what to shoot. But we won’t able to take into account much of the character performance of, you know, all the other aspects of filmmaking. So I kind of feel like my hands were tied a little bit in terms of my ability to provide more service, more value to the production that I was working on. So what I had to do is, after five years working in Disney, is leave on good terms, and basically find my own team. We could actually increase the quality of previs to the point work. It’s screenable: you can screen it to the real audience.
The Third Floor was started by six people, and I am one of these six people, and we’re all gather together to work with George Lucas on the third floor of Skywalker Ranch house. Previous to that, we all had our own careers. I used to work at Walt Disney feature animation as virtual cinematographer, and as a character animator. And before that, I went to film school because I wanted to make films, but I also wanted to combine the art and technology. So to me, that is what previs all about is using technology to be a creative sandbox for directors.
XJ: What is previsualization?
CE: Previsualizition started about ten years ago as an idea by filmmakers who wanted to create very complicated shoots, individual shoots and moments in their films, they need to plan in advance, in great detail: where they are going to put the camera, what action was going to take place in front of the camera, and what visual effects needed to be added. So the beauty of the process is that we can get very accurate idea of what this will be on the day when they shoot the shots, and particularly when they go into visual effects and add those elements.
These days, previs has been used in a much broader sense as a planning tool for not just one shoot but for entire sequences or in the case of Gravity or many other films that we work on. The entire film is previsualized in advance. Filmmakers have this place where they can judge the color of the costumes versus the color of the set, the scale of what they are about to build up versus the technical requirements of the camera work and the camera equipment moving that camera. All of this need to be planned in advance, and for once now the entire crew is empowered with this knowledge. So now the trend is continuing where people are beginning getting to understand the true purpose, true role of previsualization. And if anything, it adds positions to the traditional film community, it’s just that the roles, the names of positions oftentimes are changing and adapting. Because what’s happening is we have the pre-production and post-production converging onto the set, so more and more of the planning process has actually been done closer and closer to when they shoot the film. And you’ve seen also from the other end, the visual effect team has increasingly important role on the set. See, it used to be filmmakers will go and shoot the film and do some green screen, and they will then hand that over to a visual effect team. The first the visual effect team really saw some of this work, and they have to make the most out of this footage and go beyond that.
XJ: Who can be a previs artist?
CE: The perfect previs artist is someone who can do a little bit of everything. They have a filmmaker’s mind. They have gone to film schools or been a student of filmmaking, so that they know the film language. But they also have the ability to use computer graphics to quickly depict what they are thinking. A little bit of animation, a little bit of modeling, we call the skills said, a “generalist”.
XJ: What is the average budget of the films TTF works for?
Average budget is difficult to estimate, because some of the films are more independent films that are under 30 to 50 million US dollar range, independent films. But at most large Hollywood film spends more than 100 million dollars on a large blockbuster film, sometimes as much as 200 plus million dollars. But the important thing to recognize is that the budgets for our team are just a fraction of that cost, and any money you put into the previsualizaition should give you explanational amount of savings on set and post-production.
This is why these days it’s not hard to sell for why to do previs. You know, it’s just a matter of how much previse do we really need. So we began to tackle each of these situations by looking at the story, analyzing the script by breaking down each of the sections into setting. OK, these are the major sequences that we are gonna to put most effects into. And time permitting, we will do some extra work to bridge the gap between the sequences. But it is really about the filmmaker, and about what they require in their process. Some filmmakers are very specific, right? Some of them know exactly what they want, so they simply work with the previs team to help create a version of that, so that instead of talking to other people about what they want over and over again, like “hey, I am new to the crew.” “Hey, welcome! Let me explain my shots AGAIN to you.” – Instead of doing that, the traditional way director has to repeat him/herself, the previs actually serves as their microphone. It is their ability to say: “OK, have you watched the previs? Great. OK, now we understand what I’m trying to do. Basically, let’s add your discipline. What can you and your department, your expertise add to my film?” and they go “OK, since we’re doing this, I recommend this kind of set, this kind of visual effects could really work well here.” And the discussion is just a lot more efficient and tolerated, because they are working to that common blueprint.
XJ: What are your favorite films TTF worked for?
Since our inception in October 2004, we have been working on many many feature film projects per year. These days we complete over 70 projects a year. That means we contribute to the line chair the majority of the large-budget feature films in Hollywood. But it doesn’t mean we just work on the largest films, we also work on smaller independent films as well. But some of the biggest projects that we worked on recently are like Gravity and OZ: The Great and Powerful, The Avengers, and recently the film Thor: The Dark World, the sequel to Thor. Just before I came out here, I was lately to find out that Gravity and Thor both achieved 500 million in the global box office. So there are quite lot of commercial success from the projects that we are able to work on be crafting them even better than the original script.
But some of my favorite projects that we work on are projects that don’t necessary need visual effects in order to make them great films. For example, War Horse, a film we worked with Steven Spielberg was one of our best experiences, where we had a chance to, he simply used previs as a way to improve the cinematography, to come up with clever ways to improve the storytelling through our previs planning process, and I think that’s the core of what makes me excited about what we do is basically improve the stories that people will enjoy the end product all better. It basically empowers directors to try things out. They can try things in multiple ways. And they are honing on a solution that they are confident: this is going to be a great film. Audiences will like it, I like it, and it also marketable. So when a director steps out to a film shoot, they are feeling power. They know what the plan is. And the entire crew has been informed what the director’s vision is, so all the equipment, all the planning that is surrounds the previs ends up coming together on the day they shoot that shot. And it gives them the freedom and confidence to know they are able to concentrate on all of those other things that they should be concentrating on, like the actors and actresses’ performances, looking for artistic things that they can do to improve they couldn’t have visualized, to make it even better.
XJ: What is so special about GRAVITY?
CE: Alright, as opposed to most films which have usually around 2000 shots, in Gravity, there was only 192 shots. That means many of the shots were around 10-25 minutes long. In the first thirty minutes alone, there were only three cuts. So this is revolutionary cinema. What we need to do is to go for the director’s vision, which for these extremely tricky camera shots, and use everything at our disposal to be able to plan the shots very very specifically, so that they can be literally technically re-created on the set. So the entire film was previsualized. Every shot in this film has been previsualized many many times. And those thin fires were then broken down technically analyzed, and then converted over to motion that was play back by a robotic camera system. The director said this film would not have being possible without those extensive previsualization.
It’s exciting to see it all come together. Particularly for the actors that have never done anything nearly as extensive as this previsualized effects planned. It’s asking them a lot for an actress to be immersed in an environment where all they see are screens, playing back of the imagery around them. So they have cues where they are looking, where the planets are, what is running around them, with very scary looking of robotic cameras waving around their heads. You know this is a new style for them, but I think the results, hopefully, to most audiences are worthy the efforts for showing them the power of this new tool set. And I think it really represent the next age of our filmmaking capabilities, even for a film not shooting in space.
XJ: Why China? Why now?
CE: Many years ago, several years ago, I came to China because I was invited to speak at a conference and also to be guest judge at the Shenzhen International shorts festival. And that was fantastic experiences. I got to join some colleagues from all around the world, and judge some fantastic works from that city and other cities in China and Asia. And I had my first experience with the drive and passion for filmmaking and culture in China. And I got to tour some of the animation bases, film production facilities and different agencies that were supporting the filmmaking and media industry here. And I saw a lot of technology. I saw a lot of infrastructure and support for little companies that were striving to be media producers.
And I saw that technology wasn’t the problem; infrastructure and support were not the problem. The only is, the only missing piece I feel in order for Chinese filmmakers to be successful on a global stage and export culture, export media all around the world would be simply understand more about western styles of storytelling, understand the 3S structure, different methods of tell a story visually. So with my experience in Disney and these ten years of creating my company, and pretty focused on storytelling and cinematography, I knew I had something to offer. So I’m here in China, because I feel this passion of the people who create the works of art to express culture. And I know I can be a part of that. And I know I can use the resource of my entire company to help.
So really, as opposite to many Hollywood players, Hollywood studios that are mostly focus on creating media in the U.S. or in Europe, and finding audiences for their works in China, I am the opposite. My strategy is, there are so many great filmmakers, so many passionate souls here, and so many fantastic cultural stories. Within China, it’s a bottomless pit of fantastic material that simply needs to just be prepared globally, satisfying globally marketable popular way. And I believe we can form a style which is half way in between the traditional Chinese styles storytelling and sort of global, sort of western style of storytelling. Somewhere in the middle, there is a solution. And I’d like to set up an office, a branch of our company here, to focus on the goal.
Every day, back in our studio in Los Angeles, we prototype films. We prototype films for clients, and we also create our own worlds, our IP or intellectual property. These are the stories that we want to tell or that our friends want to tell. We’re already beginning to create stories in collaboration with Chinese filmmakers and producers. And I’ve seen the magical wonderful success that we can have together by comparing ideas educating each other on both sides about the original stories and intent, the culture here verses the audiences that we know and we have expertise reaching globally.
It’s fun to see this spark flying internationally, to see this relationship and collaboration are coming together, and to see the promising results. So I’m eager to do more and more of this and to see where it goes, because we need to invest in Chinese future filmmakers. You know, I think there are huge movements among the youth, the next generation creator in China to make their step on the culture and the media world. And I want to find all the creators and give them an advantage. Because I think by working together, we can create films that either done in English language, or maybe shot bilingually. Might that you can do one take in English and a take in Chinese, and saying after, saying you don’t have to translate in subtitles. That would be really fantastic way to do it. So we are exploring these options. But I think the more important than the language barrier, is really just focus on the story itself, how that story told. And all the stories are fantastic, but you can tell a story in twenty different ways. And I believe there is a way to make a single story that works well for Chinese audiences, but also it sets up a way where the western audiences will love it too with minor adaptation.
XJ: Some say China have very few big budget films that would use previs.
CE: So what we were talking about is primarily co-productions, because a lot of the scale of the first projects that we envision is very large projects that I believe are going to require financing within China and also co-financing outside of China. It’s quite a package of money and support and distribution, those are need to come together to have a successful launching of film worldwide. So I believe Chinese content has been underserved in terms of its ability to be broadcasted to the world. It’s usually because it’s created in isolation. So what if we all come in and be a bridge, an east-west bridge to Hollywood. And work on international co-financing of those movies at the same time, we will work on the improvement of the IP itself.
The actual structure in the story and the cinematography, and packaging up, so it’s irresistible international financing option. In any film market, there is always a variety of film projects. There are tiny little independent films, like one in the United States called paranormal activity. There was a guy doing a little horror film and it made a huge box office. And at the moment they came out, a lot of people were reactionary, and they said, “That’s the new model.” Like “let’s go out, everyone makes little film for very small budgets, and we can obviously successful.” But I see that very reactionary, not very strategic in terms of what’s really happening, because sometimes you need to step back from what happen in the last couples of months or last year and look at the trends, you know, over years, and projecting the future. And the truth is, the film industry I believe in any country goes in broader cycles. It’s not like the larger budgets spectacles are, in my opinion, going away.
I think as the smartest strategy for any film production company would be to do a variety of films: some very small-budget films, some medium-budget and some large tempo films, because in the U.S., in particular, the majority of the box office comes from the giant-budget films, and they probably spend too much on these films so that the bar of achievement is set too high in some cases, but it’s a high estate game. If you have a very compelling visual project, like Gravity, like Thor, Like Captain America, you know all these bigger-budget projects, there is a really good chance if you put this much of effort into it, you will get a larger share of box office. But it is more of a gamble. However, it’s also a gamble to do a small-budget film because you may never find its audience. So it’s a calculated risk. And in my world, since we work on fantasy films that are typically more ambitious. That I believe that our strategy is to play all our strength, is to bring our expertise to enable filmmakers within China to do something that perhaps are more visually complex than what they are previously able to do.
XJ: How do you work with dictator directors?
CE: Modern filmmakers all around the world are beginning to understand that films we do these days in some cases are very complicated. As many many people, they need to come to make successful film happen whether or not having visual effects in it. And this is going and already has effect on the mind side of director. The director is not the only person who is the creator of the visionary, even Spielberg for example; they realize that they’re only as strong as the support network of team they trust. So this is the philosophy that I hope will find in China too.
That might be the traditional roles of director being the soul leader of the whole project. And being respected as a director that involves into more of a conductor of a simply creative and technical excellent. This community is what work so well when you use the tool previously to pull these disciplines together to have the best ideas from everybody. Be considered. Of course, the director must have the final say, and the director must maintain focus on the angle,, on the audience, on the creative vision. And so I believe, from the current generation of filmmakers all the way through our future filmmakers, there will be a shift of mentality because of the new technologies, the new way of doing things that overtime would be more acceptance of this collaborative team of process.
XJ: What if TTF has IP issues with the director?
CE: Working with any filmmakers is always a negotiation. You know, to understand what’s the team wants to get out of the process. So we are very flexible. Sometimes, it’s simply just a little creative assistance here as work for higher job, and we can shape the sequence, make it a little better. Polish it. Help them to achieve something technically that they are not able to do before. In other incidents, there is open class collaboration where we have become friends, we have become collaborators, we have more to gain together and we have a part. Because I think even with a super established filmmaker here, as a visionary iconic director in China, that very few of these directors have achieved their full potential if they want to broadcast their influence to super global audience all the time. There is more work always to be done, or never been done with this task of bringing the world together.
I am just talking about my expertise in the U.S. and Europe, but there are so many other countries that we need understand their demographic. So in my mind, this is not about U.S. verses China filmmaking and technique and different ways of doing things. It’s about at least having the discussion coming together, and say, “OK, what’s make the most sense”. And it’s gonna take compromise on both sides. It’s all about real honest support for the greater good, the goal of serving the global audiences. Coz ultimately I believe that the main, my understanding, the main ** initiative from China are China wants to show the world the depth, the tradition of Chinese artistry. I see everywhere I go. I see museums, documentary films and you know fantastic efforts been put to catalog in the history and also actually move beyond that. Nurturing the next generation of creators, artists and everyone are really really going to charm China’s future for the future.
So the key to this kind of international collaboration is just listening. It means we listen first before we have any comments about shaping the idea into something that might be more acceptable to western audiences. So it’s that shaping process is not high recommended here. It’s not about bringing American values, American media to China. That’s not the goal. It’s to learn. If we listen carefully, and we have good communication and good translation, if necessary, then we’ll get all of the core culture concept, the core story, the meaning behind things on the table. Just for me, it’s just a matter of rearranging thing, about structuring it in such a way where audience is going to have exotic journey. It’s like they cannot help, and they have to lock their eyes on screen.
So like for example, in Gravity, it’s a roller coaster ride of emotion, and even the shots are very long, you’re compelled to live it with the actress. You know, you feel her pain, you feel her fear. That’s because of the combination of the way was written, the cinematographer choices add meaning to the literally plot in the story. And it also because of the editing and the sound designing, all these elements need to come together to create the experience. And what is popular in the United States is to take you to a world, take you out of your life, and take you on journey of another time and anther place. And this is what we can do in China. We can take anything like traditional story; we can shape it in a way so compelling even the newest generation, even our children all around the world will compel to watch it.
And that balance for complete family audience from getting children to understand the story to really feel they want to watch the whole thing without falling asleep, and also entertaining the adults, and made them finding meaning in it and enjoying in it. That’s the balance, that makes fantastic Pixar film successful, that makes Kung Fu Panda from DreamWorks a global hit. And this, it takes time and it takes expertise to understand how to balance those facts in storytelling. And this is the bridge that I want to create here in China, is just to bring some of my expertise here. And I can’t stress more how less about technology itself, and it’s more about individual minds, individual expertise of people who can consult to shape a fantastic film. But this can be nurture within China, and I am excited already by the experience that I had in here working collaborating with Chinese filmmakers, Chinese creators and projects, anything from the parts to larger feature films. It’s working already. We are able to empower our friends and colleagues with knowledge they had never have before. And we’re learning a lot too. It’s a total even exchange. I’m so excited about the future, and I know this is just a tip of iceberg of what we can do together. I hope it will be seen as a promising example for the future collaboration that will make our Chinese collaborators very proud of the results, and basically give them chance to do more. And China, we will drive this based on project needs. When we start to do more and more work here, we will have, hopefully, healthy exchange of talent expertise. So we can learn from each other. It’s the only way to make progress in an accelerated manner. It would never be my intention to create a local office that exists on its own. It must be a part of the global network. These artists in Beijing would benefit from our global expertise. And we are going to benefit from their expertise. It’s no different than any other office.
XJ: What if people from the future TTF Beijing office leave and build their own previs companies?
CE: I hear a lot about the tradition of duplicating efforts, technologies that are copied; teams will leave a company and create their own team. This is too human nature; this is more of tradition in China, maybe another area of this world. I’m personally focusing on the creative process, nurturing the talent itself, and giving them a really good excuse to stay as one team, because everywhere I’ve gone, everywhere all my company is I’ve created an artist-center-community where there’s a lot we do to share and keep that community together. Because together we are really strong, and divided we are not that strong. So far, so good. I can’t convince everyone to be inside of the Third Floor umbrella forever, but what I can do is to provide a love warming home for everybody and empower them all the latest tools of technology so that they don’t even need to worry about it.
Again, it’s not about the technology. It’s about the individual talents that involved. When a filmmaker who works at The Third Floor, becomes a supervisor or is working alongside of the best directors in China, those people are going to be valuable and many of them are the next generation directors. They will have the desire to go branch out on their own and make their own thing, not just being an employee of our company. So I understand this, completely. This happens all around the world, all the filmmakers that I know. So the best way to give them an option to keep them in the family is to work with everyone individually to actually develop their ideas.
If one of my filmmakers, one of my employees uses our resources and expertise collectively and gets their movie made, and become the next big director, then that’s the goal. That’s, I will feel so proud of that achievement. And more likely, when they’re going there, they are going to say: “You know what, this is my first film, and I know how to do the Third Floor way. Man, I need that support.” So we are going to get even more work as a result of having nurtured them consciously working on everyone’s career individually. I guess, you see, this is an open and honest approach.