Previs: <i>Ghostbusters</i>
Issue: August 1, 2016

Previs: Ghostbusters

Santa Monica, CA-based Halon was founded in 2003 as a full-service previsualization company that helps filmmakers by advancing the storytelling process. Through its use of technology and motion capture processes, Halon offers filmmakers a look at shots before the filming process even begins. The company has recently completed previs for such big-budget Hollywood films as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Jurassic World and, most recently, director Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters reboot for Sony Pictures.

Post recently had the chance to speak with Halon’s previsualization supervisor Clint G. Reagan about the work they completed for the film as well as some of the unique challenges the film presented. 

What role did previs play in the new Ghostbusters film?

“Naturally, with a film like Ghostbusters, you know that there will be visual effects scenes that are kind of the big meal that everyone wants to get to, and those are the ones that everyone is asking questions about early on. So, we targeted those scenes first. The scenes that I started with were scattered throughout the latter half of the film and they were large VFX scenes. We usually don’t previs some of the basic filmmaking. Not meaning to be disrespectful, but we call those the ‘talking heads’ scenes because there are no effects. There’s not a whole lot of planning needed except for the director deciding where he’s going to stage his actors. But when we’re dealing with visual effects and where a ghost or this artificial Slimer is going to come from, there’s a lot more people that really need to know what their responsibilities are going to be. So that’s where we come into play. We have the ability to give that visual to all the departments that do need all those very clear details of where all the action is and where the visual effects are going to be.”

Which scenes did you work on?

“We worked on the ghost parade, as well as the journey to Times Square at the beginning of the third act. That’s where the Ghostbusters are headed towards the location for the showdown and there were a number of stops along the way where they met various ghosts. We did previs for about five to eight scenes because several of those scenes blended together. Unfortunately, a number of them got cut out as the film progressed. So there were a lot of scenes we did that were pretty fun, with some pretty fun ghosts, that ended up on the cutting room floor. And then we took it all the way up to when the Ghostbusters entered the haunted building at the end. We stopped our creative at that point. But it’s scenes that made it in the film.”

What were some of the biggest previs challenges in this film?

“Our production had a limited set that they were using to represent Times Square, so it was challenging to figure out how to represent what would be Times Square, the full distance with a very fractional size set piece where we could fit our shots. And so we went through those a lot of times — figuring out how to fit everything into the set piece.”

So you were working with VFX super Peter Travers?

“Yes, Pete Travers … he was at the offices in Burbank and I was in our offices [in Santa Monica, CA] and he was also in Boston, so there was a lot of distant communication. That distance was  a bit challenging, but we made a lot of good progress. Pete came by several times and reviewed our work with us. I stayed in close communication with Pete as he was giving us immediate direction for our work.” 

What were one or two of the more challenges sequences the filmmakers had to complete? How did previs help with those scenes?

“In the Times Square scene where the Ghostbusters have to journey across this long stretch and they meet all types of different ghosts, it was quite challenging and also very interesting to me. Our production had a limited set that they were using to represent Times Square, so it was challenging to figure out how to represent what would be Times Square, the full distance with a very fractional size set piece where we could fit our shots. And so we went through those a lot of times — figuring out how to fit everything into the set piece. We start moving the performances all over this tiny stage and figuring out, ‘okay, now, that shot doesn’t work because it’s outside of the stage’ and then redesigning the shot to fit inside the current stage. Again, it was challenging but also really fun trying to think of ways to make this one art department set build look different from different angles to represent different parts of Times Square. In the end, it was really kind of fun and that’s what I love about previs — I love figuring things out.”

If you had to sum it up, what would you say were the most important roles previs played in this film?

“The three major areas where previs played a  role were in creative exploration, edit tempo and then practical shoot options to get those done.” 

What tools did you use?

“We were using Maya and we also had some modelers using Zbrush to model some of the ghost characters. We also used  Adobe Premiere to edit the previs and then After Effects and Photoshop as sort of a Swiss Army Knife tool. That’s most of it – our primary tools.”

Did you rely on motion capture at all?

“Yes, we did a lot of motion capture, actually. There is a dance sequence in the movie where I ended up pulling up a video on YouTube of the dance they wanted. I just mimicked John Travolta in the movie — in my awkward dance abilities — but when we were able to put it on a Hemsworth model, it ended up looking pretty good and made me feel pretty good about myself (laughs). We also did some motion capture with Slimer – we did some motion capture ourselves and hooked up a rig to Slimer which obviously is just a head, and it worked really well for driving that ghost’s character in a really interesting way. We used it in a number of other places, too.”

Why do you think previs is so important in films today?

“I think it’s very important in the sense that it helps filmmakers solve problems before they become problems. We’re a less expensive way to understand the set a filmmaker picked and the story beats and put the movie together and space it out in a way that makes the director feel like it’s going to work. It’s so easy in our heads, and when we are reading story boards, because they’re not timed out in a way that brings you that close to reality, your brain is very capable of filling in what you want to see as you look at things or read the script and that can both contract and expand time depending on how you interpret each story’s beat. When we put it into previs, it’s so valuable because it let’s everybody feel the same pace. You can feel things like, ‘yeah, we’re running too long in this scene; we don’t even need this part.’

"To me, previs is about getting the people that are out there on the day of the shoot to feel confident with the decisions they’ve made so that they can get in there, get in quick and make good decisions. With previs, it’s as if they’ve already shot the scene once. Now when they get on set, with hundreds of people on the line working, they can make really confident decisions, even if they stray from the previs, which I think is great honestly. I think our value isn’t in designing exactly what’s put in the final, but our value is in helping the filmmakers have the confidence it’s going to work to they don’t paint themselves into any corners that will hurt the production. They can just focus on the performance, story and visual quality as they are capturing.”

Anything unique to this film why previs was so critical?

“Yes, going back to what I mentioned before about the Times Square scene. They weren’t filming in Times Square and we really did have to figure out how to accomplish that with limited resources. With this film, it was very important that that got figured out so they could get right to shooting and let the women just be funny instead of worrying about how to make things work – the director and actors could just focus on making it fun. Figuring out how to shoot it with limited space but still make it feel big.” 

What do you love most about working in previs?

“Halon hires a lot of creative people with creative problem solving skills. That’s one of the parts I love about previs — the creative problem solving together to make something that’s fun and exciting and you actually start to feel it. When it reaches that, it’s very rewarding to hand it off to the actors knowing they will make it amazing.”