Idea Editing:
Previsualization for Feature Films

by Bill Ferster
POST Magazine -- April 1998

It’s an awkward word for such a creative process, but previsualization is
rapidly becoming a popular tool for cutting edge feature filmmaking,
particularly when complex and expensive special effects are involved.

Previsualization is the process where scenes in a film are rendered beyond the
simple descriptions on a script or storyboards. There is a tremendous range,
from simply filming of the film’s storyboards set, to an oral reading of the
script, to fully rendered 3-dimensional imagery that leaves little to the

The process provides a test-bed for the working out ideas in a “low-cost”
environment. It can also be used as a way to express those ideas less
ambiguously to others.

Previsualization performs the same role in pre-production that nonlinear offline
editing plays in post-production: It’s a time to be able to make creative
decisions about the show quickly and easily, without a large penalty to pay for
changing your mind.

It allows the filmmaker to experiment with a number of different options, and
see how those changes will affect future scenes, offering a more fluid sense of
the whole show to be felt. It can save substantial amounts of time and money
during production by eliminating shots that don’t work early on in the process,
when the least amount of energy has been expended on them.

The History of Previsualization

The use of previsualization techniques in feature filmmaking is almost as old
as the medium itself. Films are almost always storyboarded, with varying
degrees of detail to aid in production process, the amount of which is largely
dependent on the director’s personal style.

Alfred Hitchcock was said to be able to visualize his films so completely, that
he considered the work of actual shooting to be pure drudgery. He generated
extremely detailed storyboards and camera plans for his films that helped
explain his internal vision of the film to others.

Walt Disney Studios extended this process by filming the storyboards, and
editing them to a soundtrack of the completed film. The resulting “movie” was
called a “Leica Reel.” These crude renditions gave the creative team a much
stronger feeling about the film than simply reading the storyboards.

But it is Francis Ford Coppola who is undisputedly the father of modern
previsualization techniques for feature films. He had been using elaborate
storyboards and “radio dramas” (recorded script readings by the actors) on
many of his early films, but he extended the process during the making of
“One From The Heart” in 1981, which Coppola labeled “Electronic Cinema.”

The notion of Electronic Cinema is to provide the filmmaker with composing
tools that function as extensions of his thought processes. Coppola personally
eschews the label “previsualization,” calling it a misnomer (how do you “pre”
visualize something?), preferring the perhaps more accurate term,


The first embodiment of Electronic Cinema was an AirStream RV that became
known as the “Silverfish.” Silverfish performed two functions- audio support
sets and an environment for creating and editing proxies of the film.

Coppola’s production company, Zoetrope, had just set up shop on the site of
the old Hollywood General Studios, which housed 5 non-sound stages. The
Silverfish was connected to each stage by an umbilical cord of wires, serving
as the electronic crossroads for the sound and images.

In addition to the audio coming from the set, the Silverfish captured the
pictures coming from the camera via a video tap on the camera viewfinder.
Thomas Brown, who oversaw the design of the Silverfish, said, “Francis
envisioned an environment where image, sound and data flowed like hot and
cold water.” Inside the AirStream’s pink interior, housed an early BetaMax
offline-editing system, a switcher, disk-based still-store and Ultimatte keyers.

Prior to the filming of “One From the Heart,” the script was recorded as the
actors read it, and storyboard artists drew some 1,800 individual drawings.
These were then shot and placed into analog videodisk based still-store, where
they could be instantly recalled and ordered.

Once an initial order of the storyboards was decided upon, they were
transferred to videotape as a rough-cut, with the script reading as a soundtrack.
The cast was later videotaped as they rehearsed their scenes, and those clips
replaced the storyboard images on the edited tape. Coppola would review the
show in its entirety and see how the scenes were working, making whatever
changes were necessary.

This process continued through principal photography, with video from the
35mm camera taps being added to the edited tape. Special effects sequences
were mocked up and added via the Ultimatte system in the Silverfish.

“One From the Heart” was not a commercial success and went way over its
production budget. “The use of Electronic Cinema did save us money,”
Thomas Brown said. “Entire sequences were eliminated because the electronic
storyboarding process showed they would not work, yielding hundreds of
thousands of dollars in scenes not filmed and sets not constructed.”

Perhaps Coppola’s biggest legacy from Silverfish was the way in which he
influenced the next step in the evolutionary chain, nonlinear editing. The
inventor of the Montage Editor, the granddaddy of present-day nonlinear
systems, was reportedly heavily influenced by the work done at Zoetrope.

Tools For Previsualization

“People are using existing multimedia tools for previsualizing projects,” stated
Steven Greenfield of Screenplay Systems, whose company makes a series of
film production management tools. Rather than using dedicated tools,
filmmakers are making use of general-purpose tools, such as Adobe’s
Photoshop Premiere and After Effects to mock up scenes.

One exception to this trend is PowerProduction Software’s “StoryBoard Artist”
drawing package, which helps automate the drawing of storyboards by non-
artists. The software comes with a collection of pre-made characters, props and
backgrounds that can be viewed from various camera positions and animated.

More elaborate special effects shots are often modeled in 3D using desktop
products such has as Lightwave and Electric Image. Unfortunately, this
process can be time consuming to create and render; leaving it an option
reserved for more expensive and complex shots.

Nonlinear editing systems, such as the Avid and Media 100 are routinely used
on sets during production, as well as for editing afterward. They contain all
Silverfish functionality and then some, at a much smaller cost and physical
footprint. Directors often use the matting and keying functions to line up and
test complicated blue-screen shots.

Not everyone agrees that using previsualization techniques really saves time.
Just as nonlinear editing systems lowered the penalty for an editor or producer
to change their mind about a scene, it also set the stage for rampant indecision.
Making the changes easier to make is not welcomed by all directors, who fear
increased interference from committees of indecisive producers.

Previsualization in the 90’s

There are currently no tools dedicated solely to scenic previsualization. The
Panavision camera company is rumored to be working on a system involving
multiple-camera video taps, but a product is not imminent.

Recently, there has been some interesting work was done MIT’s Media Lab by
Scott Higgins, then a graduate student. His “Movie Makers Workspace” was
tool where a virtual camera could be positioned in 3D rendered environment.

Scott obtained the blueprint drawings for the set used in “Casablanca” re-
created the set as a crude 3D model. He posed real actors standing on a
turntable and photographed them at 22-degree increments. The resulting
images were animated within the 3D set and various camera angles could be
tested. A director could map out how scenes would look from various

Zoetrope continues to rely on previsualization techniques as a creative
decision-making tool. In the recent production of “Jack”, stock shots and
background plates from the production were fed into Adobe’s nonlinear editor,
Premiere and low-resolution animatics were made. Any promising results were
rendered at high resolution.

Zoetrope and Western Images have recently opened up a joint facility
dedicated to previsualization, called ZOWI. They employ a number of
“obsolete” broadcast graphics systems, such as the venerable Quantel Harry
and Ampex ADO DVE for use by filmmakers to explore visual ideas in a
“collaborative low-risk environment.”

The creative re-purposing of such able equipment puts power into the hands of
experienced operators, but there needs to be a way for filmmakers who are not
necessarily skilled compositors to directly work with their films. Hopefully, we
will begin to see manufacturers creating products that address the specific
needs of scenic previsualization in the near future.