February 24, 1999

Previsualization Made Easy

Focus On
by Jay Ankeney

We're going to take a step back from our usual focus on post production to take a look at a new software package intended to facilitate what we could call pre-production post production. The software deals with the conceptual process of editing on a very elemental level and when you see it, you too may wonder, "Why hasn't anyone done this before?" Welcome to the new world of "previsualization."

All editors one time or another wish their seat on the production train could be closer to the engineer's cab than the brakeman's caboose. That's because we know the lament "we'll fix it in post" is often just an excuse for not having considered the post production implications of pre-production decisions.

After all, if the essence of video production is editing, and "editing" is defined as the creation of a unique idea by juxtaposing two disparate concepts, couldn't we all save ourselves a lot of production headaches and post production budgets if we could more accurately predict what a production will finally look like even before the camera started rolling?


Bill Ferster, founder of StageTools, has come up with an answer to this by introducing just last January a software package called OnStage!, which he refers to as an "idea editor." But to understand the potential impact of OnStage!, we ought to appreciate what Bill has already contributed to our editing craft.

Right after graduating from the Corcoran School of Art and George Washington University in the late '70s, Bill became involved with computer-generated animation - starting his own shop, creating moves on hand-painted cel animation for several television productions with the help of stepper motors controlled by early computers driven by his own original software.

By the time the first IBM PCs came out, he had a successful company called West End Film, making paint and 3D modeling programs. In 1987 West End Film was acquired by Pansophic Systems, which also hired Bill as director of product strategy with the sole proviso that he not develop any other computer graphics software on his own.

"I got a lot of support from Pansophic," Bill recalls, "especially from the General Manager for Graphics, Jim Treleaven, who provided us with office space and a sales force for our next undertaking.

"There was a great deal of excitement in those days about the Montage Picture Processor, which accomplished non-linear editing with the help of 17 SuperBeta decks flying linear tape back and forth to stack up shots for a real-time preview without the need of recording to linear tape. I had been frustrated by the tedium and expense of on-line editing, and since I was precluded from working on any new graphics software. I was attracted to the potential of designing a better way to accomplish non-linear off-line editing by using disks to obtain faster random access to the source material."

Bill interested Chuck Rieger, one of the founders of Scion Corp., in the idea and at the SMPTE show in October 1988 they demonstrated a system providing random-access off-line editing using rewriteable optical disks. Named after their company, Editing Machines Corp., they called the system EMC2 and it started to attract customers.

The compression they used was primitive by today’s standards, displaying only- every third frame in far less than full screen, but the EMC2 could let an off-line editor speedily output a frame-accurate EDL in any of the then-common formats.


In 1993, Bill was awarded Engineering EMMY for "Outstanding Technical Achievement" as the developer of the first digital disk-based non-linear edit system. Then once again, success overtook Bill's efforts when the Dynatech Video Group acquired EMC in 1994. After a few years as director of product strategy at Dynatech, Bill moved to the country to contemplate new ventures.

He began looking into the general topic of "previsualization" based on his experience creating animatics for test commercials. "It became clear that it was difficult to try out different ideas during production," he explains. "Non-linear editing gave us a way to manipulate pictures once they were shot, but there were only awkward 3D programs available to create those images before the cost of production had been committed to. We wanted to do with pre-production what non-linear had done for post production."

From his research, Bill knew that previsualization was almost as old as film itself, because major features had almost always been storyboarded before principal photography began. Hollywood old-timers claimed Alfred Hitchcock was able to visualize his films so completely that he considered the process of actually shooting them to he sheer drudgery.

Walt Disney Studios enhanced the process by actually filming their storyboards and editing them to a completed soundtrack, giving their creative teams a "Leica Reel" to depict the story's overall flow.


Then in 1981, during the production of "One From The Heart," Francis Ford Coppola developed a process he called 'electronic cinema" to give himself composing tools as an extension of his thought processes. The first manifestation of this concept was a gleaming AirStream RV called the "Silverfish" that Coppola hooked up to each of the five stages at the old Hollywood General Studios, which provided an environment for creating and editing proxies of the film before and during production.

Inside the Silverfish was a Convergence off-line editing system, a switcher, disk-based stillstore and Ultimatte keyers. More than 1,800 individual drawings were created for the storyboard which was recorded onto analog videodisks. Actors could then use this visual guide to read the script to time.

As the production progressed, video from the 35mrn camera's viewfinder taps replaced the storyboarded stills to give Coppola a feel for how the film was progressing.

The process may have saved production costs, but "One From the Heart" was not a commercial success. It's rumored, however, that the creators of the Montage Picture Processors were influenced by Coppola's concept of electronic cinema.


Other attempts at previsualization systems have been tried, but most involved cumbersome 3D imaging systems that were not practical for the average filmmaker. Again, Bill Ferster figured there ought to he a better way.

"I decided to create a tool that allowed you to visualize a show in 3D before it was shot by writing a software package that took advantage of newly developed graphics accelerator cards," Bill says.

"Our company, StageTools, gave the process the conceptual name of 'idea editing' and the resulting product is our OnStage! software for personal PCs running Windows 95/98/NT (a Macintosh version is in the works]. Since it supports Silicon Graphics's OpenGL 3D rendering standard, OnStage! is compatible with a wide variety of inexpensive 3D acceleration cards for real-time performance."

OnStage! is a timeline-based approach, just like a non-linear editor. Its user interface display is divided into four main parts. Linked to the timeline there's a "Script Window" holding RTF text with a built-in word processor that tracks the story as you work with Onstage!.

Then the "Stage Window" provides a top-down view of a virtual stage with a virtual camera you can move around on it, and the "Viewfinder Screen" that lets you watch what the camera is seeing. You can pan, tilt and animate the camera from one position to the other.

OnStage! allows you to position images of your actors on the stage by either using generic models, digitizing photos of your stars, or importing computer-generated 2D bitmapped representations of the real thing with software such as MetaCreations Poser or Adobe Photoshop.

You can also bring in your audio or AVI movie files to complete the illusion. Then you move the figures before the camera to analyze the best angles and moves for a desired sequence.


"It's kind of like the cardboard cutouts of Clinton that you can get photographed with when you visit the White House," Bill smiles. "It doesn't look 100 percent real, but it doesn't have to for the purposes of previsualization."

Once you have positioned your virtual actors, blocked the cameras, and watched them run through a scene at real time in 3D. OnStage! lets you output the result to tape so others can view it. If needed, you can then print out a color storyboard.

Most handily. OnStage! also lets you publish the virtual show to the Web as VRML files. VRML is shipped with Windows 98 and is freely available for most computers. Now, any client anywhere in the world with a VRML browser can give you feedback before the real - and real costly - cameras start to roll.

Incredibly, OnStage! sells for just $895. You can download an evaluation version from StageTools' Web site at www.stagetools.com. to give it a trial run before buying.

OnStage! was just released January 6, so there haven't been a lot of field tests of it yet-- but you can predict its potential by considering its heritage.

One video pro who can give it peer review is John Blackburn, president of DigiPix 5 in Silver Spring, Md. "I've known about OnStage! over the past two years of its development." he tells us, "and I've come to appreciate the way the program lets you block out various camera angles. You can fly the camera around the virtual stage so the whole crew understands what you are trying to accomplish.

"It lets you do a most of your thinking in the pre-planning stage, which can save a lot of unexpected costs. I've found OnStage! is easy to control - and just like non-linear editing in post production, it gives you the ability to try different pre-production options far cheaper than burning time on the set."

In the Hollywood area, free-lance editor Alan Ravik cuts pieces for major studios such as Fox, Disney and DreamWorks as well as directing for Jason Williams Productions. "I think OnStage! is great." he beams.


"Instead of simply storyboarding something, it gives you the ability to see how things will work in a three-dimensional space. As an editor, it will give me a chance to have input on what the best coverage would be for a given scene so I can check out continuity and pacing.

"You can even export scenes from the OnStage! program and integrate them into a rough cut while the production is still underway. It's going to be a great boon for previsualizing scenes before cameras start to roll."

Bill Ferster revolutionized the ability of editors to increase their creativity by giving them the power of disk-based post-production. Now with OnStage!, he isgiving the same kind of conceptual freedom to the pre-production process.

"Previsualization" may be an unwieldy term to some, but the power Bill's OnStage! previsualization software will give to those responsible for bringing a production in on-time and on-budget may prove to be as significant as his already legendary contributions to our business.


Jay Ankeney is a free-lance editor and post production consultant based in Los Angeles. Write him at 220 39th St. (upper), Manhattan Beach, CA 90266.

TV Technology Magazine
ISSN: 0887-1701
Volume 17, No 4
1999 by IMAS Publishing (USA) Inc. All Rights Reserved.