Colin Green's employees have spent months inside the Matrix, chasing bad guys and perfecting their kung fu skills. But they didn't have to worry too much about that nasty Agent Smith, because they controlled the action. Green's company, Pixel Liberation Front, creates a shot-by-shot rough draft of movie scenes, before filming starts, using 3-D animation software.
The technique -- called previz -- has been around since the 1970s. Visual-effects guys began using it more in the 1990s, but solely to plan explosions, etc. Green's great innovation was to reimagine previz as a project management tool for movie crews. His team of 13 employees helps clients anticipate how long it will take to shoot a sequence in a movie. Filmmakers then use the data to set budgets and schedules. Director David Fincher, who hired PLF to work on Fight Club and Panic Room, says that with previz, "I knew ahead of time what I was going to do in extremely accurate ways, and that helped me make a better end product."
Green, 35, went into business because he hated the peripatetic nature of working for visual-effects studios. For years, the company he designed effects for would shut down between movie projects, leaving Green with no access to hardware and software for months at a time. "There was literally a padlock on the door," he recalls.
In 1995, Green scraped together $30,000 from a few investors, bought a computer and a copy of SoftImage software, and started PLF. His first big break came when Sony's visual-effects studio, Imageworks, tapped him to work on the 1997 alien-insect flick Starship Troopers. He arrived in the middle of filming only to find that the crew had been bogged down for two weeks trying to get just one spaceship motion approved by director Paul Verhoeven. After Green set up his 3-D program, Verhoeven began approving three or four shots per day.
This led to an offer to work on directors Andy and Larry Wachowski's first Matrix movie, but Green declined because he didn't have enough cash flow. Happily, the directors came back to PLF to work on both sequels -- the second Matrix is due in theaters May 15. This time, PLF, which has roughly $2 million in annual revenue, was able to send a team on location to Australia for several months.
As previz becomes de rigueur on the hottest projects in Hollywood, Green is sure competitors will sprout up. Sony Imageworks is setting up its own in-house previz team, for example. And the barriers to entry are few. Since previz versions of movies use only the most basic graphics, Green doesn't need the fastest computers and the latest software applications.
Still, the market for previz is largely untapped, according to Robi Roncarelli, author of the annual Roncarelli Report on the Computer Animation Industry. While Green works mostly on action and sci-fi flicks, he could easily apply his system to other genres, Roncarelli says. Some studios are even toying with the idea of making full-length virtual films to test on audiences before green-lighting them. PLF has already been approached to work on one such project, Green says. Sounds lucrative -- but would Morpheus approve?
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