by Eric Jacobus
I spent years doing traditional pre-vis (or “previz”) for action scenes in films and shows like Altered Carbon, Black Panther, and A Good Day to Die Hard. I took this overseas for Heart of a Champion and Man Who Feels No Pain. Previz is a video blueprint for a movie. They did one of the first pre-vizzes for The Karate Kid, essentially a walkthrough of the entire movie. You can see it on YouTube. Pre-viz became more advanced with digital filmmaking, which Yuen Wo Ping employed in The Matrix‘s previz, and with 3D tools in the sequel. Serenity‘s previz, done by 87Eleven, employed sound effects, props, and crowds of stuntmen wrecking on concrete and wooden stairs. This was probably when the previz market exploded. Every indie action filmmaker had learned camera and editing skills over the previous 10 years. They scored big Hollywood jobs, but those filmmaking skills sat dormant. Now they could be employed to full effect to sell a coherent action vision. (The industry term, in the action world, is “stunt-viz”.)

High quality stunt-viz became its own selling point. It became common to work stunt-viz into the budget. The market began to demand that stunt-viz include, besides choreography blocking, all camera angles, editing, sound design, visual effects, music, color correction, and if possible wirework.

The limitations of a live-action stunt-viz required constant re-shoots, repeated falls and reactions for the stunt performers (unwelcome wear-and-tear), and many late-night re-edits. The result was the equivalent of a short action film created over the course of a week or two, which the production could use to demonstrate its high-quality action team.

When it came time to shoot, it was anyone’s guess whether they would actually use the stunt-viz. Most of the choreography would inevitably be thrown out due to time or performance constraints. They threw out the entire rooftop stunt-viz for A Good Day to Die Hard, but I never found out why. They might use some camera angles from the stunt-viz, but the DP will have his own vision. (Forget even asking him to come to the stunt-viz session. He won’t.) And if they do use the stunt-viz edit, then you’ve found a unicorn, or the production just wants everyone to be happy so they can traffic heroin on the side.

At any rate, whether or not any of the stunt-viz was used in the project might not matter. The team still got a long gig out of it, and the stunt coordinator got a high quality demo reel with the stunt-viz.

Since then, previz has become an entire market. Halon, Third Floor, and every stuntman on earth has the means to create high quality previz. Some of them are ridiculous in their production value and have so much gloss they could almost be short films. Almost…

What exactly can you do with stunt-viz? Or live-action previz in general? You can polish it up and add vfx and try to make it into a short film. At best, it’s a bunch of stuntmen in workout pants doing choreography in a gym. Live-action pre-viz just doesn’t carry very far beyond:

  1. Reference for the production
  2. A demo reel to pitch for the next production
  3. Fun behind-the-scenes material that you hope will get a couple thousand views on YouTube

The Process Is the Problem

Live-action pre-viz is a process problem. The reason stunt-viz loses value is because film productions are linear by their nature. They weren’t always that way. Chaplin and Keaton films were, in a way, non-linear. They were like live performances when everything happens at once, only with a camera. Set-construction was Keaton’s specialty, and his gags hinged on this process. Chaplin would rearrange entire scenes to get a gag right. Jackie Chan, with the same live performance background as these Vaudeville performers, used the same process to make his great works. These productions were vertically integrated. The auteur‘s vision had perfect continuity because he exercised control over the elements of production. And that’s how you made good comedy. The auteur was a busy guy because he had to ensure every department carried his vision to completion. Or he just did it himself.

Jackie Chan editing Project A in 1983

The studio system commodified film by making the process linear. Set construction was graciously taken off Keaton’s back so he could focus on things the studio deemed more important, like learning his dialog lines to take advantage of the new sound capabilities of film. This was the death of Keaton and the rise of screwball stars who could say funny things in funny ways. Fortunately, Chaplin had a good voice… and his own studio. The filmmaking process would become more like an assembly line.

The linear filmmaking process.

The linear studio system is what we have today. It’s Netflix, Universal, WB, and Disney. Production departments have relative autonomy over their processes. There’s some oversight, but generally these teams are free to do what they need to do, but they do it with caution. Camera team will overshoot (just to cover themselves), and editors will edit the mountain of footage. When a single edit might work perfectly in a scene, the editor might use ten, because ten angles were shot. And you don’t want to throw stuff away. The camera operator doesn’t edit the film, and the choreographer doesn’t shoot the action. The common result is the “Blockbuster style” – lots of camera angles, lots of editing, lots of money. Bollywood and Chinese blockbusters are the same. The linear process is the antithesis of the Chaplin, Keaton, and Jackie Chan genius.

You got a job at Marie Calendar’s because they tasted your grandma’s signature apple pie recipe. Now you work the line building pies. There are fifteen stations of the Marie Calendar apple pie. Your job is to cut the apples. The guy down the line puts marshmallows in the apple pie, because they sold 80 million applemallow pies in China last year. You wish you could make your grandma’s apple pie, but hey, it’s a job.

The Non-Linear 3Viz Process

I did some motion capture for God of War and some other games. One day I walked past a sound booth on the way to the mocap stage, where a sound designer was working on the sound for today’s mocap shoot. This broke my linear filmmaking brain. How can you predict what the sound design will be for something you haven’t even shot yet?

Game design, and 3D filmmaking in general, is not a linear process. It’s a spiral. I snapped this photo of the game design process during a Unity presentation:

This isn’t a revolutionary way of thought. This is how great action and comedy were made almost a century ago. Sometimes, great ideas are very old. The process also applies to virtual production, which is when 3D engines and filmmaking cross paths. In a virtual production, you can motion capture animal movements and stream it live onto an LED wall or into a green screen, composited on the fly, and tracked with the camera movement. Once disparate processes of filmmaking suddenly collide into the same moment. The auteur’s vision can be executed at every second, but only if he can grasp the tech.

That’s the moment I took a right turn from the traditional, live-action world and began learning Unity, Unreal, MotionBuilder, and the Xsens system. We created action scenes using these tools, pitching them as high-end 3D pre-viz, which I dubbed 3Viz. With 3Viz, we could shoot and edit the pre-viz, or we could ship it to the production and let them do it. Reshoots and re-edits in 3D were as simple as moving some camera icons around, altering the timeline a little, and re-exporting. A reshoot might take a couple hours for a single person. The alternative was the live model, which meant getting our 15 stuntmen together again at the gym and re-shooting and re-editing everything.

The goal of 3Viz is to get the director’s action vision solidified before post-production, before cameras roll. The director might want to change the environment to accommodate the action. He might want a character to be 30 feet taller. Or move the sun 90 degrees west. All of this is 3D modeling 101 and requires a few clicks. Finishing the 3Viz mocap, shoot, and edit requires a team of 4-8 people, who can work remotely from cruise ships or hot springs at the same time and see live updates. The film is pre-finished this way.

The 3Viz is sent to all relevant departments. Art department replicates the textures when painting the set, carpentry builds the set that the director devised for the action, wardrobe is looking at the asset costumes, and camera team has a very defined shot-list. Any shots they can’t accomplish practically have already been sent to VFX, who are using the camera animations created in the 3Viz to build those VFX shots. VFX also have the motion capture files, character assets, and anything else for creating VFX shots in post. Publicity are using the assets for creating posters and social media posts to promote the film. Sound department is designing a soundscape based on the 3Viz edit. The composer has already playing to the 3Viz, and his music can be played on set like Morricone’s.

Cameras haven’t even rolled yet, but the film is almost done. During shooting, production can change the lighting on the fly to reflect the 3Viz using LED walls, and other lighting setups were pre-programmed weeks ago. Dailies are passed to the editor, who edits to the same 3Viz edit that he’s supervised for the past few months.

Post-production? What post-production? Clean it up, take a week-long vacation, and release the movie a month after shooting completes. The result is an action vision that is exactly the way the director planned it.

Cabin Fever is a demonstration of the 3Viz process which allows continuity of vision throughout the entire production. 3Viz can be a pre-viz and just stay that way. Only shoot what you need. Mocap for a day, edit for 2 days, and it’s done. Iterate away. But all the assets acquired during pre-viz can be kicked up to production and be worked into the final product.

In the case of Cabin Fever, the 3Viz IS the final product. With some facial capture, finger capture, asset creation, additional lighting and all that, we could have made it look as good as a Pixar film, but the action and the comedy, the bread and butter of the project, remain the same through all this. We hope you enjoy the short, but even more we hope you like the process. We cover that at the 5-minute mark.

Email me at eric@superalloyinteractive.com if you’d like more info, or if you wanna give it a shot.

Credits:
WRITTEN & DIRECTED BY ERIC JACOBUS
PRODUCED BY ZAC SWARTOUT
ERIC JACOBUS AS “THE MAN”
DENNIS RUEL AS ZOMBIE, ROBOT, AND “BERNIE”
SET TECH/BEHIND-THE-SCENES/TITLES MARK R. JOHNSON
MOCAP SUPERVISOR/UNREAL TECH/MOTION EDITOR MIKE FOSTER
MOCAP TECHNICIAN CORDERO ROCHE
LIVE VCAM OP JEREMY LE
PA’s – CHRIS CORTEZ & DANIEL SHEPHERD

MUSIC: “HOME ON THE RANGE” BY CHRISTIAN LABRECQUE
“DAWN OF THE DEAD” THEME BY GOBLIN
“A HAPPY DAY” BY Z80
“GODZILLA THEME” BY ARTIFICIAL FEAR
“TERMINATOR THEME (COVER)” BY NEON FRONTIER

POST-PRODUCTION BY ERIC JACOBUS
BUILT IN UNREAL 4.23
SHOT USING GLASSBOX DRAGONFLY
SOUND DESIGNED IN ADOBE
MOTION EDITED IN AUTODESK MOTIONBUILDER
SPECIAL THANKS TO TJ GALDA AND ALINA KLINAEVA

CREATED WITH 3VIZ
COPYRIGHT SUPERALLOY INTERACTIVE 2020 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

If you’re near Poznan, Poland on October 20th, 2019, come see Eric Jacobus talk action design, motion capture, and the anthropology and neuroscience of violence at the GIC show. There you’ll also get the chance to see the incredible success story that is the Polish games industry. The country that birthed games like Shadow Warrior, Cyberpunk 2077 and Dying Light, Poland is on the edge of global game development. Don’t miss this show!

Eric Jacobus’s action design company SuperAlloy Interactive is now collaborating with Jacob Dzwinel on his sandbox fighting game. Jacobus is handling the choreographed action design and developing moves as well as performing for the main character using SuperAlloy’s in-house motion capture system.

Come join us for an Ask-Me-Anything session at Vancouver Film School on Apr 16th, when I’ll talk stunts, motion capture, beards, action choreography, working in the industry, more beards, and so on. Hope to see you there.

You can visit the Eventbrite page here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/ama-masterclass-series-with-stunt-professional-filmmaker-eric-jacobus-tickets-59906664446?aff=erelexpmlt

Reposted from Firstpost. Thank you Devansh Sharma.

In an industry obsessed with deifying the star, the spotlight often evades those who work tirelessly behind the scenes. The success of a film is often attributed to its face but seldom to those who constitute the spine. And so, in this column titled Beyond the Stars, Firstpost highlights the contributions of film technicians who bring their expertise to the table.

The recently released action comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, directed by Vasan Bala, has been hailed worldwide for inventively choreographed action sequences. Firstpost got in touch with its action director, Eric Jacobus, for an exclusive interaction on how he came on board the film, why an action film has a lot to say, and how Mumbai served as a great setting for stunning action pieces.

Devansh Sharma: You are a widely recognised actor, stuntman and martial artist in the US. How did you get on board Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota as the action director?

Eric Jacobus: Vasan Bala contacted me because he had seen my indie action film Rope-A-Dope on YouTube, recommended by Mumbai stuntman Prateek Parmar. In Rope-A-Dope, we, the action team, were responsible for everything from the writing to the camera angles, final edit, and sound design. It was an action film to the bone. Vasan asked me if I could create Rope-A-Dope action in Bollywood. I joked, “I can’t even make Rope-A-Dope action in Hollywood! They don’t like the action team dictating the camera angles or the edit. And the actors have to do their own stunts!” But Vasan was dead-set on making it work for Man Who Feels No Pain (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota).

Jacobus (action director), Dennis Ruel (fight coordinator) and The Stunt People prepping choreography in Oakland, CA at The Open Matt.

DS: Director Vasan Bala has claimed that the film is a tribute to the 1980s action heroes, predominantly Indian film stars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Chiranjeevi and Mithun Chakraborty. Were you familiar with their work before you came on board? How did Bala familiarise you with the styles of these influential Indian action stars?

EJ: I knew Bollywood action before stepping foot into India. I also knew how Vasan wanted to innovate within that genre. He referenced these ’80s films all the time, and how Bollywood stuntmen had speaking roles and they weren’t just generic bodies being thrown about. He wanted every stuntman to have an acting role. So, similar to how the actors did all their own stunts, the stuntmen had their own acting roles. They show up in later scenes with bandages and can even steal the scene. So the actors and stuntmen are playing by the same rules. The actors aren’t gods, and the stuntmen aren’t dirty. It speaks to a global change, when Tom Cruise is doing stunts and stuntmen like Chad Stahelski are directing movies, a total convergence of the two domains.

DS: Bala has also revealed that global action icons of that era, like Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow and Buster Keaton, have also shaped the action of his film. How did you incorporate the styles or signature moves of these stars into the visual narrative?

EJ: If we only copy moves or gags then we don’t get at the heart of what makes Jackie Chan and Keaton so great. The standard action hero is built within a house of cards replete with shaky camerawork and choppy editing to create an illusion we can believe, but that house of cards falls very quickly today. The global audience is far too smart because they’re all critics and they all make their own movies. We know when it’s a stunt double wearing a bad wig, we see the green screen or when a wire stunt defies physics. Keaton and Jackie didn’t build a house of cards to hide their tricks, but instead used a very deliberate style of filmmaking that helped us believe everything they were doing, and that’s why those films stand up to this day: They’re trustworthy. So we took this same philosophy: We need be trustworthy and not hide anything. The actors need to train to fight like stuntmen, like real action stars. This way we don’t lie. Then we ask, Now what can they do? How far can we push them? Can we have Gulshan fight 100 men in a single-day’s shoot while hopping around on one leg? We pushed and pushed, and the actors were happy to reciprocate. The gags and techniques revealed themselves and it’s all very unique and specific to Bollywood, so we’re not stealing anything directly from Keaton and Jackie, but their influence is all over this film.

DS: How did the central character theme of the protagonist Surya’s (Abhimanyu Dassani) inability to feel pain factor into how you designed the action? Did it lead to innovative Deadpool-esque stunt sequences?

EJ: This “disability” that Surya has is why I took the job. When you’re given a job directing action for a typical action scene, you’re always looking for that variable which drastically affects the action. You could almost call it a ‘multiplier’ in that every single movement from the hero calls back to that variable. Zatoichi’s multiplier is his blindness, and Surya’s is his ability to walk head-first into a punch. But whereas Deadpool heals over time, Surya is a young man who pushes himself too far, and when he runs himself into the ground, he gives out. That’s a major disability. So his choreography involves a lot of mental calculation: how not to get dehydrated, how to check whether his body is injured, how to react appropriately to pain (“Ouch”). It’s no longer a matter of technique; it’s all character. That’s a choreographer’s dream, when choreography keeps popping up everywhere you look.

DS: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota also boasts of a leading lady who is anything but a damsel in distress. But she is also not a dominatrix. Through her action sequences, how did you strike the balance between contemporary sensibilities and the template of a B-grade action movie from the 1980s?

EJ: As coordinators, we’re always tempted to make feminine women into better, faster, stronger fighters, because that’s the easy way. But she’s fighting men much bigger than her, and we had to avoid descending into fantasy. And her co-stars have these insane “multiplier” effects like painlessness and fighting only on one leg. So if she’s not vulnerable, she’s not human, and we lose her. So we play her as smart and more determined than anyone, which was exactly her character. She uses props like her jacket and a glue bucket, anything she can get her hands on in the environment. We paint average guys as real threats because that’s the reality for a woman half their size, no matter their skills. We push her to failure because that’s how she became so smart and capable in the first place.

Radhika Madan in Man Who Feels No Pain

DS: How did you design action around the various props in the film? Can you talk about the most frequent ones like the water tank and pipe of Surya (the only chink in his armour), Supri’s stole and Karate Mani’s crutch?

EJ: Vasan created the water pack and Mani’s crutch, and we created Supri’s shawl with the sharp metal charms during the pre-visualisation process. These are the multipliers that open up so many action opportunities. We then ask: What happens when they lose these things? Karate Mani is a tactician and a precision kicker with his crutch. We based it off the one-legged man in Born to Fight. But without his crutch, he’s a one-legged raging bull. When Surya has his water pack, he’s cocky because he can go for hours. Without it, he treads on thin ice, or he exhausts himself. Supri’s scarf can be used to wrap and tie up weapons. When it’s cut in half it becomes like brass knuckles, and without it, she grabs the next available object and improvises.

DS: Mani is the only character that is in constant pain because of his one legged stunt scenes. How important was it to also show pain and fallibility in an action film essentially about a man who feels no pain?

EJ: If our heroes don’t feel pain, we don’t feel pain. You have to hurt the audience so they know what it means to feel good. Surya’s pain is mental because he takes on such insane odds. We give him extreme highs so he can have extreme lows. Mani’s dedication to Karate created a strong façade that’s saddled with a mix of shame and resentment toward his brother. The pain experienced in a fight goes to another level when it comes from the story.

DS: How did the landscape of Mumbai lend itself to the action? Can you talk about how you used settings like an office floor and an under-construction building compound?

EJ: We didn’t know any of the locations until a few days before shooting. We choreographed all the bits and pieces (the words and phrases) in a gym, but the location is what shapes the words and phrases. We did a walk-through a few times to figure out how to integrate all the gags, where to build walls, place desks and tables for stuntmen to fall into. Then we take all that and re-shoot the pre-vis, which is more like a reference-vis, cut out half the choreography that simply won’t fit, integrate all the new environmental factors, block it out with all the performers, and even add some dialogue with Vasan’s help. I then shortlisted everything, taking into account the size of the crew, sunlight, fixed lighting, and makeup continuity. Then we shoot, and it goes smoothly. The fight in the office is a great example. There’s a gag that the elevator is taking too long, and all the bad guys decide to take the stairs. Then the elevator comes. We did this because the elevators in that building were called “High Speed Elevators” but they’d take four or five minutes every time. It was a natural fit into the scene. Vasan’s agile and can incorporate things like that very easily.

Eric Jacobus (right) on the sets of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota
Jacobus and Ruel On the set of Man Who Feels No Pain

DS: Vasan has maintained that cinema begins from action films and that even a B-grade action flick is laced with social commentary. Do you also echo the idea that action films have a lot to say?

EJ: Action films are the artist’s resolution to a cultural crisis, which he solves by directing human bodies. Bodies (and their language) speak to the audience in a way the royal drama can’t. A man’s mouth says, “I’m only a peasant” but his body says, “I am royalty”. The pleasant, ritualistic movement of Crouching Tiger and The Matrix in the year 2000 spoke of a time when violence was predictable and pleasant. Then, only a year later, after the terror attacks of 9/11, the violence became random, and Jason Bourne’s movement in The Bourne Identity has to reflect that. Tony Jaa’s body reflects Thai rage against human trafficking in Ong Bak. Iko’s constantly moving body, violently cutting apart enemies, reflects anger and rage against drug cartels and police corruption in Indonesia in The Raid. When the physical action language and all its filmmaking modes reflect the current crisis, that’s called “code-making”. Human bodies needed to code-create to reflect that cultural mindset. This way the audience doesn’t have to decode anything because the code underlies the very experience of watching the movie. With Man Who Feels No Pain, we code-made the action with this in mind: This Bollywood film is confidently hitting the savvy, global market. We’re 100% percent confident it can compete with the best out there.

DS: With CGI-dominated huge action sequences taking the foreground globally, what scope do you think hand-to-hand combat or forms like martial arts have in movies around the world?

EJ: There will always be a demand for physical bodies to take on the current cultural scene. This is how Kayfabe works in the WWE or Japan Pro Wrestling; a body acts out the audience’s pent up resentments and trauma. He’s their cathartic outlet, the way the warrior dance was. As the news media globalises, people in the US, India, China and everywhere else in the world are beginning to experience the same news stories and live the same trauma, so they demand the same movement from human bodies. Global hits are made by teams who can successfully code-make according to that cultural crisis, and by performers who can successfully embody that code-making.

Vasan Bala’s Bollywood action comedy Man Who Can Feel No Pain has a new trailer in anticipation of its premiere at Toronto International Film Fest’s Midnight Madness.

Eric Jacobus action directed the project, and Dennis Ruel served as fight coordinator. The two of them spent a month in Oakland with The Stunt People previzzing the action scenes.

After that, Jacobus and Ruel traveled to Mumbai, India for two months meticulously shooting the action scenes with a sizable stunt team from all over India, alongside some truly gifted actors like Abhimanyu Dassani, Radhika Madan, and Gulshan Devaiah.

The Man Who Feels No Pain premieres at the TIFF Midnight Madness at midnight on Friday, Sept 14th. Jacobus and Ruel will be there with the director and cast. Perhaps we’ll see you there!