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Introduction to Pre-visualization

Pre-visualization (pre-viz) is the process of making the story you see in your imagination into a preliminary form. In this section, you'll learn about two fundamental ways to quickly visualize the end vision you want to achieve. The first way is by creating concept sketches and storyboards. The second way is by creating a rough version of your film, called an animatic.

Before storyboarding begins, conceptual designs of the imagery in the scenes of your movie must be created.

Concept Sketches

During the pre-viz process, the artists responsible for creating the overall visual language of a production are hard at work. They create the look or style of a production, which is derived from a variety of sources. Elements of visual language come from the artist's imagination and through inspiration from nature, music, novels, the work of other artists, architecture, the classic productions of stage and screen, and so on.

The intention of all pre-production art is to establish a visual language that will support the story being told. Figure 2 shows an example of preliminary sketches created to explore the visual language of the Tesla machines and VandeGraaff generators inside the Area 51 cooling towers.

Figure 2 Preliminary sketches are created to establish the design and detail of the sets and props in your production.

Drawing and Digital Content Creation

You must be able to draw to be a max artist. Drawing trains you to be aware of proportion, positive and negative space, surface development, value contrast, and so on. The reality is that if you can't draw, an artist who can will be feeding you imagery to create.

The ability to pre-visualize design and animation ideas via diagrams, scribbles, clay sculpture, renderings, and so forth is absolutely essential. Without it, an artist will wander in search of a place to start. Pre-viz also creates a common language that unites you as the artist with your art director, producer, and client. For this reason alone, these important people want to work with max artists who can produce sketches. To improve your sketching skills, get a sketchbook and draw every day.

The visual language for Area51.avi is meant to be reminiscent of an older, classical style of science fiction. Some of the visual memes are meant to evoke images of a mad scientist's lab, nuclear power plants, and UFOs. The stylistic forms used to create the imagery have been seen before in the spheres of VandeGraaff generators, the torus shapes of Tesla coils, the arcs of electricity from Frankenstein's laboratory, reactor cooling towers, and so forth.

Figure 3 shows a concept sketch that includes story notes. This is an invaluable part of developing the visual language of the story. When you create this kind of sketch, you are creating elements of the back-story.

Figure 3 When you create your concept sketches, include your written thoughts about how the story and the sketch relate to each other. This is a valuable tool used to communicate your ideas to the other members of your production team. Concept Sketch by Duane Loose © 2001, Creative Capers Entertainment, Inc.

Back-Story: Creating an Alternate Universe

The back-story is a fictional and sometimes factual history of the alternate universe you are creating in your story. It's used to develop the rules and logic of the world you're revealing to the audience. The back-story establishes the environment and physical nature of the world and its inhabitants, and reveals the nature of their relationships and interactions. Even though the audience might never read the back-story, it will exist in everything they see on the screen. Sometimes the back-story, the inspirational art, storyboards, and pre-production art are called the Story Bible or Character Bible. It's the book that contains the entire world you are trying to create.

In Figure 4, you'll see a sketch produced as a guide to create the digital image seen next to it. This is a good example of how a detailed drawing can be translated into an image created in max.

Figure 4 Good pre-visualization of your work in max saves time and enhances your creative process. Image from Intergalactic Bounty Hunter, © 2001, Creative Capers Entertainment, Inc.


Storyboards are created to map out every scene sequence and shot in a production. In many studios there are storyboard artists who specialize in pre-production visualization. They are excellent at producing concept sketches and other art to guide you as you create your shots.

Storyboard Terms and Definitions

In Figure 5, you can see one of the storyboards created for Area51.avi. You'll notice some interesting hieroglyphics in the storyboard. These diagrams, symbols, and words—which outline camera moves, point of view, and shot transitions—are used by production artists to create the scene.

Figure 5 Studios will use storyboards of every scene, sequence, and shot to organize their production work. Effective and complete storyboards have been proven to be a necessary aid to keep your work on time and on budget.

The elements in each shot that an animator needs to include must be clearly communicated. These can include atmosphere and lighting notes, camera move instructions, special effects and sound effects direction, animation notes, dialog and voice-over narration, and storyline notes.

After you understand all the conventions, developing a storyboard format that includes these elements is easier than it looks. Figure 6 shows the anatomy of a storyboard, including the hieroglyphics you'll need to learn to read and understand it.

Figure 6 The storyboard terminology for feature animation, feature films, and television productions differs in some minor ways.

Even though the storyboard terms used by different studios for TV and film production can differ slightly, their definitions are pretty much the same:

  • Production control information—Tells you which act, sequence, scene, and shot the storyboard is referring to. Television storyboards will also include the episode number and title.

  • Storyboard page number—Helps you keep your storyboards in order, which is very important.

  • Onscreen action note—Provides information about character action and movement in and out of the shot.

  • Scene description—Usually describes the scene's most important action, sound effects, and so on.

  • Scene transition note—Indicates the type of transition between scenes, such as cuts, cross dissolves, fade to black, fade in and out, and so forth.

  • Camera POV instructions—Control changes in the camera's POV (point of view) from scene to scene.

  • Camera move instructions—Include the basics: zoom in, zoom out, and pan left/right. Zoom in/out is also referred to as push (in) and pull (out), or dolly in/out. Panning is a lateral movement and is also referred to as truck left or fight.

  • Dialogue Notes—Used to highlight the dialogue of the scene. These notes can also include narration, which might be called voice-over narration or VO.

  • Story notes—Highlights the plot point of the scene.

Using these conventions in your storyboards creates a kind of visual shorthand. Storyboards are not meant to show each and every minute detail of a shot; they are used to communicate the most important details that must be included in the sets and character animation you'll create in max.

Camera POV

Most of the storyboard elements described previously will be readily understood. But the camera POV diagram and the Camera Move instructions might need a more detailed explanation.

Moving or rotating the camera POV can provide a more interesting alternative to simple cuts or cross dissolve transitions between scenes. Figure 7 will help you understand how the different elements in the camera POV diagram communicate the intended camera POV movement.

Figure 7 Using the camera POV information in the storyboard as a guide for your camera movement and animation in max will help you create effective and seamless shot transitions.


Camera movement created by experienced professionals is a powerful storytelling tool. When you begin to animate your camera movements in max, study the work of professional animators and cinematographers, and use their techniques to guide your work. The best examples of a flying camera animation I've seen are in the opening sequences of Men In Black and Fight Club.

The camera movement in the opening of Men In Black is created to show the POV of a bug flying in the desert at night. This is an appropriate use of an active animated camera POV. The opening sequence in Fight Club is an amazing journey from the microscopic cellular level of the human body. In both movies, there is an underlying reason for the use of a flying camera. The animators didn't create the animation just because they could; it was done because that is what was required to entertain and tell the story.

Camera POV diagram elements include the following:

  • 3d space cube—A visual reference of the volume of the content of the shot seen by the camera.

  • Scene content—Shows you what is in each camera view at the beginning and end of the camera move.

  • Starting and ending camera POV—Indicated by the little cone icons and the direction of the arrow describing the camera rotation.

  • Transition note—Shows the direction of the camera POV move.

After you begin to use storyboard shorthand in your work, it will become second nature to you.

Camera Movement

The way you move your camera in your scenes can either confuse the audience or focus their attention on the story point of the scene. Hyperactive camera movement or fast jump cuts between scenes creates a roller coaster ride for your audience. Mission Impossible 2, directed by John Wu, is a great example of how camera movement can be used to pull an audience into the intense action on the screen, thrilling them in the process. This kind of fast, active camerawork is a trademark of Wu's cinematic style, and he is a master of it.

Camera movements are built on a foundation of two basic moves: zoom and pan. Figure 8 shows how zoom in and out are indicated in a storyboard.

Figure 8 The arrows in the zoom in/out diagrams indicate the direction of the camera movement in or out of the scene, and they always connect the start and end frame of the zoom. Also notice that the height and width of the start and end frames are always the same format proportion.

Figure 9 shows how pan or lateral camera movement from one shot to another is diagrammed in a storyboard. The diagram for panning left or right begins with a vertical line in the first scene, indicating the center of the starting POV. An arrow above the scene shows the direction of movement. The pan ends at the vertical line in the second scene, also indicating the center of the POV at the end of the pan.

Figure 9 Panning in a shot establishes the dimensions of a more believable world; it shows that there is something beyond the borders of the screen.

Where Do Camera Movement Terms Come From?

Zoom in/out is also referred to as push in and pull out. These are traditional cinematography terms that refer to the actual act of a cameraman pushing a camera in closer to a scene subject or pulling the camera out or back away from a tight shot to reveal more of the scene. Cinematography terms for the other camera movements used in max are truck, dolly, roll, and orbit.

There are other types of camera moves that you will learn about as you continue your camerawork in max. Beyond the basics are compound moves that combine zooms and pans with other vertical or flying shots. There is also a camera move called a crane shot, created by a daring cinematographer who got the bright idea to put the camera on a crane and shoot the scene as the crane either raised or lowered the POV. The crane shot is kind of a vertical pan.

Becoming a successful max artist requires that you learn and incorporate the fundamental principles of cinematography into your work. Max gives you the tools to create great imagery, but it cannot teach you how to use them effectively. To learn this, you must make the effort to study the works of the masters and understand some basics about scene composition.

Master and Apprentice

There is no substitute for learning from the work of others. Learning from the masters requires analytical research and a deliberate desire to copy and emulate their work. In times past, an apprentice painter would spend countless hours copying the works of the masters, learning the secrets of their techniques by endlessly doing what they did.

To learn the secrets of the masters, you must study the results of their efforts. A library of their work consisting of their books, magazine articles, movies, and so on creates an awareness of visual language and opens up the possibility of experimenting with your own personal visual style. Create a library of your artistic heroes and fill your office walls with their work. Become a virtual apprentice.

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