Laurent Lavigne [LEAD PRE-VIS ARTIST]


MATRIX: Tell us a little about your background and how you got into pre-visualization.

LAURENT: Immediately after graduating, I started working in the VFX industry. For four years, I supervised character animation on various movies and commercials. In September 2000 I consulted for PLF [Pixel Liberation Front] on a few music videos. In a conversation with Colin (the owner) I had mentioned some of my writing and it was obvious to him story telling was my passion. At the end of the VFX projects, PLF asked me if I wanted to work for David Fincher on his new movie, Panic Room, as a pre-viz artist.

MATRIX: Was the move from special effects to pre-viz a difficult transition to make?

LAURENT: Let’s say it was an interesting one. Coming from “post” I had the tendency to refine the animation of my Panic Room sliding people and give them a nice walk cycle. Considering the amount of footage we had to produce it became clear I had to step back and spend more time handling cameras and general staging to meet the quotas. Being strictly a character animator, I had never worked with camera. Thankfully my sequence, the butane gas, was going through staging changes and I got to work closely with Peter Ramsey, the storyboard artist on the show, who was a master at composition.

The leveling up occurred quite fast, it was a matter of survival. David is patient … if you do it right. I was still not a convert of less is more: simplistic animation to tell a story… until I saw the 35 minute cut the editor had made from 50 minutes of pre-viz. It had no sound and only sliding people with cool camera work – quite rough. But once my brain tuned to the style of imagery, I was watching a suspense movie. It was telling a cool suspenseful story. I turned into a convert, and you can still see me preach around town.

MATRIX: Do you find a pre-viz department in most films these days?

LAURENT: Pre-viz is still a new tool, so it is rare to find movies that have a department dedicated to it. You usually find that the Art Department integrates it as an extension of conceptual drawing. Action movies use some form of pre-viz for set planning, stunt planning, shoot planning and VFX layout. Something I’d like to see yet is a full story-centric approach to an animatic where we work, not only on the aesthetic of individual shots, but also on the story content and flow of a sequence.

MATRIX: Do you think it is the future of movies to pre-viz everything?

LAURENT: Probably not for most movie genres, but since action features do borrow from comics and since animated movies are already entirely pre-vized (layout), there could be a convergence of methodologies. Also considering the escalating costs of production, and the fear of a flop, it could happen soon. Lastly, pre-viz offers a cheap and flexible test bed for visual experimentation – the trial and error cocoon – it could become the center stage for brewing cool new images. I don’t think you’d want to pre-viz intimate moments though.

MATRIX: Are you saying it might kill spontaneity?

LAURENT: Indeed. Although I think spontaneity is more the result of a directorial choice. If a good actor is given enough freedom, he can make the character his own: believable and endearing. Then, even the most contrived camera will feel natural.

MATRIX: What is the role of pre-viz on RELOADED specifically?

LAURENT: Stunt/shoot planning and motion study. At the moment we are pre-vizing the “Freeway Chase” of Reloaded. Trinity and Morpheus save the Keymaker from the clutches of the Merovingian, a powerful and decadent rogue program. They’re being hunted down by the Twins and a couple of upgraded Agents, their only escape is the freeway. The action is, as you would expect, intense. We have a car chase, bike chase, cars blowing up, an agent jumping from car to car, and a fight on a truck.

MATRIX: How easy is it for you to show the directors a shot from different angles?

LAURENT: Once in 3D, moving the camera is straightforward. Making sure they can be shot is more involved.

MATRIX: Where do you get all the relevant information for a scene the Directors want you to pre-visualize?

LAURENT: Initially, the sequences are storyboarded carefully. This gives us a foundation to work on shot composition and actions. The environment, in this case a freeway, is modeled after plans provided by Owen Paterson. The cameras we use are matched to the movie’s selection, Panavision 4 perfs cameras with an aspect ratio of 2:85. We also match the lens to the Directors’ style. The first pass is more or less a copy of the storyboards in 3D. We then refine timing, composition and animation poses to what Larry and Andy want. R.A Rondell, the Stunt Supervisor also works closely with us to make sure the stunts are not too dangerous. It’s an ongoing dialogue.

MATRIX: What is one of the scenes you’ve done in pre-viz so far?

LAURENT: FC 25 to 36: agent jumping, tearing the roof, then falling. Agent Jackson jumps from the pursuing police patrol to Trinity’s escape car, with a middle leap on an unfortunate Dodge Neon, which flips over from the impact and causes a chain reaction pile-up, involving about 7 vehicles, one being an 18 wheeler. The Agent will be CG but all the cars involved will be live. I think this one will go through much iteration as all the events are interconnected, which makes the timing tricky to nail. What will be generated from this pre-viz is a set of diagrams and top views showing each car’s setup: mortar, ramps, breaks etc… their speed, the timing of their crash.

MATRIX: How far do you go in your animation for THE MATRIX RELOADED?

LAURENT: Pretty far. As Larry and Andy like to see polished animation. In the case of the Agent jumping, the CG character’s performance dictates the timing of a chain reaction of live action events. As we go through iterations with the brothers, the animation gets close to final VFX quality. The shot where the Twin phases off the car underwent its own motion study to determine how such an ethereal creature, whose density is lowered to that of a gas, would drift in the wake of a car’s turbulence. It is being animated to the degree where it can be shipped to the VFX house as a blue print.

MATRIX: You did mention pre-visualizing some of the wire work. For the previous film, Wo Ping actually altered what had been storyboarded to a certain extent because wire work is his forte; will Wo Ping be working with the pre-viz team?

LAURENT: I’d love to. Right now the plan is to motion capture his team during a rehearsal of the Trailer Fight. They might improvise variations so I can create a library of moves to give us some latitude. The 3D information will be mapped onto a pre-viz avatar of Morpheus and Agent Jackson, and from that point we will start doing the camera work in the computer.

MATRIX: How have you found the experience of working with Larry and Andy Wachowski so far?

LAURENT: Great. You probably heard of the sound effects they make, well, they’re very sharp and focused, precise in their intentions and yet open to ideas. As a bonus you get to hear them bounce off ideas with each other, the internal dialogue of a director. Very educational.

MATRIX: Have you had the opportunity to read the scripts?

LAURENT: I finally got to read the RELOADED script. It’s intense, establishing a lot of new characters and extends THE MATRIX to a world of mythology with added rules that add much depth to this world. You’re introduced to rogue programs who live their human frailties with abandon, disconnected from the ruling of the Architect, upsetting the balance of the Matrix. Smith continues his journey into human dementia and becomes what he despised so much in the first movie: a virus. Is there any hope of survival left to stop the incoming machine assault on Zion? RELOADED is paving the way to an amazing REVOLUTIONS.

MATRIX: Thanks Laurent.

Interview by REDPILL
November 2000