Meet Cameron Widen
As the Pre-visualization Supervisor for Image Engine, Cameron draws on 15 years of experience working in previz/postviz and layout for feature film and television. We asked Cameron to share his insights into the highlights and challenges of a career in previs, postvis and layout – and his tips for aspiring previs artists.
You’ve been at Image Engine since 2003; can you sum up your experience at the studio?
My time at Image Engine has been the “golden age” of my career. Prior to working here, I had mostly done Saturday-morning television animation, which is fun and has its own satisfactions, but at Image Engine I have had the opportunity to be part of some huge, interesting, challenging, and inspiring projects. Of course, not every job can be the sort that gives you an adrenaline rush when you get up in the morning, but most of the time I can’t believe people pay me to do this.
Can you explain a little bit about what the roles of previs/postvis and layout entail?
Previs specifically is a hard one to define, because you never know what someone means by that term until you go through a process of discovering what they want. The work I have done has run the gamut from purely creative/artistic previs, where I’m helping the director to make decisions about how he or she wants to tell the story in terms of composition and pacing, to purely technical previs where I’m using rigged models of real-life on-set camera equipment to determine how far back we can get a camera, how large a green screen we will need for adequate coverage, and other practical details. I have worked with DPs, stunt coordinators, special effects supervisors, production designers, and even costume departments to help them plan and visualize the shots that the director wants to achieve.
Postvis and layout require a different mindset, in so far as the film has already been shot by the time we get the plates, and we work less with the director and more with the VFX supervisor. The skills are different as well, as the shots often require matchmoving, compositing, and a higher level of animation than previs entails. We do sometimes get to take a step back into previs world while doing postvis or layout, especially when there are all-CG shots within the film that require the hand of someone experienced in realistic camera animation and shot composition.
The cross-disciplinary approach must require a particular type of creativity and skill set – what does it take to be a hotshot previs/ layout artist?
You’ll have to find a hotshot previs artist and ask them what it takes! Previs and layout certainly require a different way of thinking about things and approaching shots than those used by my colleagues in other departments. VFX post work is often very details-focused – an animator or compositor might spend an hour or two doing the basic blocking out of their scene, and then weeks refining the details. In previs, the scope is much more broad and shallow – our milieu is sequences, not shots, and the revision cycle is often very fast. Detailed, fine animation is great, but we rarely have time to really beautify the shots we’re working on.
In terms of specific disciplines, previs requires a basic knowledge of almost everything in the VFX field. We are often asked to work at the film studio where the movie is being shot and are cut off from a lot of the support we might be able to call upon if we worked “at home”, so a previs artist needs to be ready to do modeling and texturing, rigging, animation, compositing, effects, and editing, as well as having a basic knowledge of the practicalities of the actual shooting, like what the parameters of the cameras used might be, what lenses are available, what cranes are on-set, how large the green screens are, and a million other things. It’s an ongoing learning process for me, even after years of doing this.
What does a typical day in your department entail?
I rarely have a typical day! In previs, my day will usually involve some amount of animation and editing to create the sequence. It may also mean building and rigging assets we need for our shots, walking over to the sound stage to take measurements of a set that’s being built, coordinating with the art department to ensure that I have the latest blueprints they are working with, creating set plans so the grips can set the cameras up to exactly reproduce the frames I have generated in Maya, doing simple temp comps layering our outputs with film footage or stills, or any number of other tasks I couldn’t have imagined doing the day before.
When working in postvis or layout, my work mainly involves setting up shots in Maya. Layout and (often) postvis are mainly support roles – I work in between matchmove and animation in the pipeline, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that all of the assets are added to the shot correctly and in the right place and work well with the tracked camera. This can mean doing some basic animation, rendering and compositing as well. On a recent project, “layout” meant building several CG airbases and populating them with moving vehicles and aircraft, and setting up shots of flying aircraft – including research to determine the correct RPMs for the rotor blades of that model of helicopter.
What have been your most memorable projects – and why?
The most memorable projects for me have been Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Elysium. ROTPOTA was a big deal for me because I was supervising a large team – ten people – and the scope of the work we did was huge. We did previs for 8 sequences, some small, some very large, and we pushed the quality to a high level – the assets looked great, the animation was far beyond what we had done in previs before that, and the sequences really gelled.
For Elysium, my mandate was much more technical than creative (though I was able to make my mark creatively on the all-CG sequences). My job was to answer questions for the director, DOP and grips, and to help them plan shots. (As an aside, when they found out I am an amateur astronomer, they also began asking me to figure out orbital altitudes and speeds and things like how long a station orbiting Earth would be in Earth’s shadow on each orbit – questions I’m not used to answering in my work!) I worked closely with the director and spent several weeks at the studio and locations where they were shooting. It was a great chance to learn more about the film side of things.
What was the most challenging sequence or shot you’ve handled?
I had a large team of artists working for weeks on one sequence in the film 2012 that showed an RV trying to outrun a volcanic eruption, with flowing pyroclastic clouds and lava meteors falling from the sky. It was a tough sequence because it involved virtually every VFX discipline – modeling, texturing, animation, rendering, effects, and compositing – and the director didn’t want to look at it unless it was fairly polished. In the end, though, it looked really good and we could see all that work up on the screen when the film came out.
As you’re involved at such an early stage you’ve spent quite some time on sets – where has the job taken you so far?
I have only done a few brief stints outside of Vancouver, but I have worked at all of the film studios in the Vancouver area, as well as at non-studio shooting locations and various other places, like directing actors at mocap studios.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to become a previs/layout artist?
Previs is just as much about the attitude you bring to the job as the skills. To have a happy career in previs you have to be willing to embrace the fast-turnaround, creative problem solving, and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants nature of the work. You have to not just accept, but welcome critiques of your work – I tell new recruits to the department that you have to put everything you have into a shot, take ownership of it and immerse yourself in it, and then be willing to throw it in the garbage without a look back.
In terms of skills, we don’t ask anyone to be an expert in any discipline, but the broader a range of skills they have, the more useful they will be in the team – and knowledge of the film-making process outside of the VFX field is a huge plus.
And finally… Do you have any other personal creative projects on the go at the moment?
My main creative interest outside of work is writing: I recently finished a science fiction novel for young adults as well as a horror/sci-fi novella for a more grown-up crowd, and I’m presently gathering materials for a historical fiction novel.