Don Kim on Pre-Visualization and His Journey as a Visualization Artist

Don Kim shared how they chose their path in the visualization industry, talked about the importance of pre-visualization in the filmmaking process, and discussed the technical aspects of previs art.

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Don Kim is from South Korea. After graduating from SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) with his BFA in animation and winning the Rookie Awards for 3D Animation (the world’s leading contest for creatives in games, animation, visual effects, immersive media, motion graphics, and 3D visualization and 3D Animation), he started working as a previs artist in pre-production for films, streaming shows, and commercials.

He has worked for renowned post-VFX houses and visualization studios in LA, such as MPC, and TTF (The Third Floor, Inc.) as a visualization artist for some award-winning productions including Avatar: The Way of Water, and Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers.

Avatar: The Way of Water went on to receive several awards Chicago Film Critics Association Award, Best Use of Visual Effects, 2022, Nominee-it is the only film festival entirely programmed by a critics' group. Membership in the Chicago Film Critics Association is restricted to Professional Film Critics recognized by editors or producers as their commercial media outlets' official critical voices or staff authorities on the cinematic arts.

It also won the Critics Choice Award (CCA), Best Visual Effects, 2023, Winner, a significant award from the largest critics organization in the U.S. and Canada with more than 500 members, the VES (Visual Effects Society) Awards for Outstanding Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature,  and is now a nominee at the Academy Awards (Oscars) for Visual Effects.

Don has also shared his expertise by providing VFX & Animation Workshops for professor Wang from GuangXi Art University in China. These include the workshops about introduction to filmmaking, introduction of 3D program (Autodesk Maya), and 3D animation demo.

Property of Walt Disney Studios

Becoming a VFX Artist

I had two big moments in life at college that made me choose this path. The first big moment was with one of the professors from SCAD professor Jeff Light, who was a former motion capture TD (Technical Director) at ILM. He introduced the filmmaking process using motion capture technology. We set cameras in the scene with recorded motion capture animation and created small sequences to tell the story.

The second biggest moment was my senior year at college. I had the opportunity to work on my senior year project, called "Stabby". In pre-production, as a Lead Animator and Layout Artist, I led my team to work on character animation and camera blocking for the entire film.

Realizing that I preferred working on layout more than animation work. This experience helped me to discover myself as a filmmaker rather than an animator. Eventually, I heard that the previs artist role needs an animator with filmmaking knowledge. Having these aspects, I decided to start applying for a previs artist job.

Don's Main Tasks and Responsibilities

Pre-visualization (aka previs, previz, virtual blocking) is a very important process for filmmaking production. Previs teams are part of pre-production and virtual production.

We create the rough version of the movie before filming starts. Previs is like a blueprint of a product, it helps the production team understand what they are working on the stage. It also allows them to plan the actor’s staging, camera work, set design, lights, VFX, etc. Using this process also reduces the number of technical issues that may arise during filming or the need for re-shoots due to unsatisfactory footage.

A previs artist role is often referred to as a Cinematographer in CG (Computer Graphics). Our job is to create shots and sequences that are visually stunning and help storytelling. The fun part of this job is we are free to use our creative ideas and apply them to the shots. Any ideas that help improve storytelling or visuals can be presented to the supervisor or director.

On the technical side, scene assembly is one of the primary jobs for previs artists, which is to collect the assets such as environment, lighting, characters, and props from the asset team and see if the scene is ready for animation work. Most of the tasks for previs artists are animation work. Previs teams always need to deliver high-quality animation in a short amount of time compared to post-production, due to the production schedule.

Artists animate characters, creatures, and vehicles. We also work on creating cycles or animation samples for future use. Meaning, any artist can use it for their scene rather than animating from scratch. Depending on the project, we also use motion capture technology. In this case, cleaning up and stitching mocap data is also part of our job. Since it is pre-production, there is always the high possibility of a revision or alt shot (alternative version of the shot) request from the director.

Previs artists are also called "shot creators". When the animation is ready in the master scene (a scene that contains all assets and animation), we start placing cameras and creating shots and sequences. Moreover, if the artist worked on a sequence, the artist is also responsible for editing the sequence for review.

Since most of the previs is used for live-action projects, we also need to acknowledge the real-life production set. For example, we can't place cameras inside of the walls even if we are working in 3D space. Shots we create affect the real-life production team.

Some examples include instances where the cameraman is unable to capture the shot based on the previs, indicating that the previs is not reliable. Additionally, we also need to be aware of how many characters (actors) will be on set and blue screen sections on the stage that need post-VFX work.

First Steps of Creating a Project

Previs Artists are placed onto a project by a studio's Casting or Resource Management department. Visualization work is usually done by a VFX studio like MPC or a Visualization studio like The Third Floor, Inc. (TTF). In addition, there are other representative LA-based visualization studios including companies such as Halon Entertainment, Day for Nite (DFN), etc.

I have no experience in game development. So it would be difficult to explain the difference, but generally, production in the motion picture industry is usually divided into these three steps, pre-production, production, and post-production. In pre-production, we work on story development, concept art, visualization, etc. After filming is completed in production, the live-action plates are delivered to the VFX company to do the final work.

Projects using virtual production, which has been used a lot recently since The Mandalorian was created by Disney. With virtual production, we need a different pipeline setup because everything needs to be prepared for the virtual stage for filming. Such as final VFX work for the LED screens, foreground sets, props, etc.

The advantage of using virtual production is that everything in the shot actually exists on set. By doing so we get realistic lighting, and it helps actors make it feel real when they are acting on set. Therefore, the director can easily achieve his goal look for the shot.

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Tools Used During Production

Generally, most VFX and visualization studios use these tools such as Autodesk Maya with their own in-house tools. Maya is the best tool to create complex animation currently. As we know, recently, many studios have started using Unreal Engine.

Unlike other existing render programs, it is a game engine, it has the advantage of being able to render in real-time. For previs work, I also use Adobe Premiere and After Effects to comp shots and edit the sequence. Although not common, some of the studios I've worked with have other tools that work best for their pipelines, such as Autodesk 3ds Max or MotionBuilder.

The Role of Unreal Engine in Visualization

In visualization, shots had to be delivered in the shortest possible time, so we rely on Maya's viewport rendering. To help achieve better rendering quality, additional settings and plugins are used. Fortunately, with the development of Epic Games' Unreal Engine, the motion picture industry has adopted this real-time rendering program into the pipeline. Through real-time rendering, the visualization team has been able to deliver a quality that is very close to the final version to the client.

Don's Take on the Future of the Industry

I believe that starting in 2023, audiences will come back to the theater again. The streaming services will steadily introduce new content. Also, I think there will be many new content pieces that will link streaming series and movies. I hope more small-budget, director-driven projects come out so that audiences can have the opportunity to experience a variety of content.

Property of Don Kim

Learning New Workflows

There weren't any projects that were the same, every project was different. There was always something new to learn from each project. With Unreal's influx into the motion picture industry, there are projects where you learn to work with Unreal artists. Personally, I had to learn how to stitch and retarget motion capture. Learning new tools is always hard, but you have your team who can help. Every studio has incredibly talented artists and they are always willing to help you adapt to the new workflow. When having a good team, and you are willing to accept new things then there's nothing to fear.

Tips for Beginners Willing to Land a Job

As we all can agree, you need to have a good demo reel in order to get a job. It doesn't matter what school you come from. It is recommended that you look for demo reels of anyone who got their first job in the field you are interested in. You can try and match your current demo reel quality to that level. Each department is different in what they want to see. It is helpful to reach out to people in the industry for advice. 

If you're interested in previs, having a narrative animation sequence in your demo reel can be beneficial. If you have a short film that you have worked on it can also be used as a good sample for a demo reel.

Don Kim, Visualization Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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