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Production getting more productive

Jun 10, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Director Pierre de Lespinois has found a creative way to use technology to streamline the production process and save networks a lot of money.
Mr. de Lespinois, creator of large-scale shows such as last year’s “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” for Discovery, began implementing “previsualization” tools during the production of his latest project, “Before We Ruled the Earth,” for The Learning Channel. Such technology allows a director to visualize many of the scene elements in advance by creating a test composite that unites computer-generated elements, drawn elements, the real background and the actors during production rather than post-production.
The advantages are both financial and creative. On one sweeping shot for “Before We Ruled the Earth,” for instance, Mr. de Lespinois was able to reduce crew time from a full day to two hours, cutting the crew costs from the $80,000-to-$90,000 range to about $15,000 for the shot. In addition, reshoots can be nearly eliminated since the director knows immediately whether he has captured the desired shot.
That’s possible by bringing green screens on location and producing composites in the field after each shot. Green screens are positioned behind actors during shooting so the performers can later be inserted into a scene with computer-generated or drawn elements.
The creative benefit is the flexibility it affords the actor. “You never know what the actor will bring and the way he reacts to the environment,” Mr. de Lespinois said. “We had one scene where an actor tripped, and it turned out great and we kept it.”
For the scene in which he cut crew costs to $15,000, the shot consisted of a tribe of Indians walking across dying and dead buffaloes. Shot in the Yukon in Alberta, Canada, he used 20 actors in the scene. He shot each actor in front of the green screen in high definition using Sony cameras. He then down-converted the file and sent a low-resolution version wirelessly to an Apple laptop in the field. Using Apple’s Final Cut Pro, he merged the actors and the background with the computer images of buffalo to create a test composite, a facsimile of the final shot.
That sure beats shooting the background and actors separately and hoping they match up. “I didn’t have to worry about blending and scaling them,” Mr. de Lespinois said. “Everything matches because of the light of the sun. I don’t have to color-correct or worry about lighting.”
And he doesn’t need to book studio time to shoot the actors against green screens. This strategy translates into time-and money-saved. “You can increase the production value while saving cost,” he said. The show contained 240 visual-effects shots.
The next stage of this previsualization technique will occur when he goes into production in July on “Prehistoric World” for Discovery, slated to run in 2003. He plans to take the technology a step further and not only look at the images in the field but wirelessly transmit them at the end of the shooting day to graphic artists in his Meteor Studios in Montreal.
The production will include more than 1,000 visual-effects shots with at least 95 percent of the show’s shots containing such effects. He plans to create QuickTime files of each shot and upload them to the studio’s Web site at the end of each day. The artists can then begin their work during the actual production process and can also let the crew know whether they will need something else shot the next day or whether the crew can strike the set.
“I am trying to blend production and post-production into one element. By doing it this way, I will save a ton of money and have no reshoots and have a better program,” Mr. de Lespinois said.
He estimates shooting in HD and using previsualization tools can save $7 million on a $38 million production. The processing cost alone for one hour of 35mm film is $4,000 compared to $55 for HD, he said. He shoots about 30 hours for each production.
Discovery, for one, has been happy with Mr. de Lespinois’ results. His use of technology makes it possible for Discovery to present elaborate shows such as “Prehistoric World” because it prevents costly fixes in post-production, said Steve Burns, senior VP of production for Discovery Channel U.S.