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New Production Model. Part 4. All about Previs Acting previs, or how to control the quality of an emerging work.

This essay has been provocatively entitled “How to make cheaper and better films”, but maybe it is worthwhile to think independently of the necessary changes in production, if there are any tools that will enable us to control the quality of the resulting film better than before?

I think so. Provided that the final document constituting a foundation for the making of a film will not only be solely the script. I start from a deliberately exaggerated assumption that ‘no one reads scripts’. Their huge number and small production capacity, which we have in our country, but also in the whole of Europe, causes that very few valuable screenplays make it through the sieve of editors and project selection groups. Moreover, with a large number of scripts, texts by well-known authors have the upper hand.

In the past the script, as the final document before the film was made, was a necessity, because filming was expensive and complicated. Today everyone has a camera in their pocket and can use it to create a sketch of the future film. Shoot the rough draft, hiring actors from the acting school or naturals. Such a sketch – the actor previs – of a film that is to take place on a ship on a rough sea, for example, the future director can make in his apartment. In short, we propose a system in which the documents on which the film production is based is not only a screenplay, but the rough draft version – a previs. Something that can be displayed on the screen to distance oneself from a fixed idea, to test your narration. It is a model similar to Hollywood storyboards or animatics, but it was produced for a penny by future film makers, not by hiring extra professionals. The previs is made with the help of actors, not animated characters.

Thanks to the production of the film sketch, sponsors will know much more about the history we find ourselves in. The director will be able to assess its emotional impact. On its basis, the cinematographer will be able to deduce where the camera plays a dramatic role and where it is only an ornament. He will know where to keep distance from the actor’s face and where to be closer. Such a way of film production would, of course, result in savings. The draft film will provide you with information on which parts of the room in a given decoration are needed and which parts of the room will simply not perform. The set designer will not build “for life”. And the operator will calculate exactly what amount of light will be needed for a specific scene. He won’t order an extra light that will lie uselessly in the truck. A draft film is, therefore, also a form of a financial sketch.

Previs of a film will also allow to better evaluate the film’s screen time, because we often make films that are too long. […]

In addition, the rough sketch will give us control over what we do, even if we do not shoot the film chronologically. […]

We want a system in which every young person, who comes with a text: script, short story, novel, could realize their first film version for no money at all. They can do it using the simplest technology, even a mobile phone, with the help of relatives, unless any of the actors would want to “train” the role.

Previs is a film sketch of the future movie…. The foundation of the new system. It is not only the script and all its supplements such as folders of objects and other iconographic materials (mood boards) that will become the basic “document” of the future film. 

[…] The fear of the new, the unknown will hinder the implementation of these tools and the changes we are postulating. These concerns are partly justified. Many professionals will have to change their old habits. But I do not think that there is an alternative. In addition, I do not believe that previses should be used for external evaluation. Nor should they in any way replace scenarios.

Photo: Janek Sadowski

How to make a previs

Previs is a record of a feature film story made with any kind of unprofessional camera. The shooting does not have to be connected with shooting locations envisaged in the script. A movie at sea or in the desert can be made in any room. It is enough to write a text that informs the viewers where the action is taking place. It would be advisable to have the actors scheduled by the director, but in lack thereof (i.e., the lack of money for them) they may be played by substitutes in Previs. The editing denseness of the scenes does not need to match the final product, either. It is usually sufficient to have mastershots arranged in order. Complicated action scenes (accidents, chases) can be replaced by a relevant board with a description, or an appropriate piece of storyboard included in the previs. On the basis of the right to quote one will be able to use scenes from already made, well-known films as references to the scene that we are going to make (with the information where the video comes from,. The condition is only the internal presentation within the group making the film.

Advantages of Previs

Previs is a plan, or vision, of the future film much more precise than the script – it is the film’s roadmap.

Every reader of the script in a way builds their own vision of the future film. And surely everyone on its basis would have directed a different film. Often these visions (interpretations of the text) distort the message of the script, are immature, shallow or ignore the rules of dramaturgy. We know that good scenarios can make bad films and vice versa. That’s why screenplays assigned to well-known and respected directors get a better treatment.

Good screenplay + Good Director = certainty of a good, perhaps decent film

Good screenplay + Unknown Director = a lottery – a good work can be obtained, but equally often a misguided one

Thanks to previses (rough draft versions), a young director is able to prove and defend his vision of their (debut) film.

This tool will help you to better evaluate:

  • The attractiveness of the future film from a distributor’s (viewer’s) perspective

  • The structure of the future work

  • Its length

  • The attractiveness of characters and their development associated with the film’s events

  • Quality of dialogues

  • Assess the proportions between the main and secondary themes – the dramatic power of the film

Moreover, rough draft films will make it easier to:

  • find resources for future production (Distributors, Television and Film Finance Institutes, sponsors, etc.)

  • assess the real financing needs for the project

  • find and communicate with future creative collaborators (actor, set designer, cinematographer, composer)who may at this stage present the models of their future work, e.g. the composer might provide a sample of his music, the cinematographer in one of the scenes might present his idea for visual narration etc.

  • Thoroughly assess the proportions between what is live and what has to be generated or added with the use of CGI.

  • In the course of shooting the final movie, the possibility of replacing scenes performed on the set for those made in the previs will make it easier to control the quality of the emerging film. “The flow of emotions” between the emerging film and its future audience. It is always a problem in the psychological drama, shot not in a chronological order, to assess on what emotional level the actors (their characters) end or start the scene in relation to the whole chain of dramatic events – and the films are not realized in accordance with the the story’s chronology. Previs will make it easier to control this process.

Photo: Janek Sadowski

Previs’s drawbacks?

The script has to be written anyway, so previs becomes an additional obstacle on this difficult path to making the film.

We do not propose a system to replace the script-based selection system.

o Previs’s aim is to be an internal film outline that helps filmmakers to build and control a shared vision and makes a good planning tool, also in the financial scope, of a future film. It is no different from the American animatics. It has their presentation advantages, but it undoubtedly outperforms these tools in sketching the emotional impact of a future film1.

o In 99%, typical scripts do not describe the visual side of a future film. As previses are not a finished works and are not created for public showings, it will be possible to use scenes from famous films based on the right to quote, as a reference to scenes that the future filmmaker plans to perform. Such a possibility will make it easier to evaluate the direction of the search and interpretation of a future work.

o We believe that with previs, directors will be able to find creative collaborators or funds for the production of their films, e. g. by product placement

Like any new element of the system in operation, it will undoubtedly face opposition from those who function well in the current system.

o The rough draft film system is not intended for them, it is intended to facilitate the start for young people and the quality control of the film that is being made.

o We believe that our proposal will be accepted especially well by the young generation of filmmakers if they understand that there it does not create another barrier on the way to their desired debut.

For many artists, making an semi-finished product may be viewed as an attempt to strip the creative process of the natural element of every creative endeavor, i.e. the tension and mystery related to the act of creation.

o Unlike other art disciplines, making a film is an expensive undertaking. Money wasted in a bad project is a loss not only for the producer and the patron, but also a “kiss of death” for the debuting director. Films cannot be kept in the sock drawer , as is often the case with books.

o The so-called “creative mystery” often leads to the fact that the whole creative team does not fully know what the director is all about. Everyone merely follow the director’s instructions. Previses clearly outline the director’s interpretation of the script.

Making a Previs might kill the project instead of helping it. Nobody publishes their notes to the future novel.

o Yes, I am aware of that. That is why it should not be mandatory.

o Previs production should not abolish the traditional (scenario-based) method of accepting the film for realization.

o Previs should not be shown publicly. They are to be used for consultation, agreement with other staff and more precise budgeting.

Another utopian idea with no chance for implementation?

For many years now, we have been carrying out utopian (from the point of view of mainstream cinema) projects at our Workshops and so far this has been successful (3D, Interactivity in cinema, Game Developers’ meetings with filmmakers, VR – expanded reality, modern digital post-production).

As a Film Spring Open, we want to persuade young filmmakers (and many of them are our participants) to make such drafts. We want to produce films in the new system and this may be a sufficient incentive for young filmmakers to respond positively. That’s why we have built the Cinebus, a mobile film studio to support Modern Film Production. In this way, we will be able to test the value of risk control with a previs in practice. We have no doubt that potential young film producers may like the idea of a previs as a test case before investing substantial funds. We believe that for many producers, a “penny” investment in the realization of a previs may turn out to be a practical tool for testing the chances of a given project in distribution, its advantages, but also disadvantages, which – thanks to the rough draft version – could be removed during the realization process.

1 Animatics are made almost solely as computer animations, in specialized software. There are several companies specializing such services on the American market.

[Extracts from the Essay “How to make films cheaper and better” by Sławomir Idziak.]

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