Disaster Planning
August 7, 2015

Disaster Planning

LOS ANGELES — A catastrophic earthquake strikes California. Major population centers and landmarks are in peril. There to help as the on-screen drama of  San Andreas from Warner Bros. unfolds along the world’s most famous fault line is actor Dwayne Johnson, who plays a search-and-rescue pilot, and a filmmaking team, led by Director Brad Peyton, to realize the film’s high-magnitude imagery and scenes.  

A key part of that process was previsualization, done by The Third Floor, Inc. (www.thethirdfloor.com) in Los Angeles across the major sequences. “It was amazing to work with Brad, with whom we previously collaborated on Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ," says Todd Constantine, previs supervisor at The Third Floor. "On this film, we previsualized seven sequences and storyboarded four others, also creating postvis for hero moments. The goal was to produce detailed and compelling action that represented the director’s vision, could be used as reference for shooting and visual effects, and would serve as editorial placeholders.”

One key scene has Ray (Johnson) flying his chopper into downtown LA to rescue ex-wife Emma from a high-rise during a tremor. The scene was visualized extensively to represent important story beats as well as the path of destruction around the characters.


In another major scene, Ray and Emma race in a boat as a massive tsunami approaches the Golden Gate Bridge and the city of San Francisco. Constantine’s team previsualized the sequence and provided technical previs. “There’s a shot where a man gets crushed by a cargo container for which we were asked to calculate distance and measurements of the container, starting distances to the character, distance to the camera, and heights for everything,” he says. Techvis was also delivered for a section where Ray and Emma search for their daughter in a partially submerged San Francisco building. Key measurements from the techvis, including distances of camera to boat, boat to building floor, etc., were used to build sets and position cameras so the end results could capture the angles and spatial relationships that had been worked out in the previs. 

For a third critical sequence — at the Hoover Dam — The Third Floor recorded stunt motion-capture at Marina del Rey’s Just Cause Entertainment to produce different virtual “takes” of the scene. Back at The Third Floor’s studio, the mocap was synced with the digital previs environments, allowing the director to explore camera coverage with The Third Floor’s virtual camera display.

“One of the challenges on this show was the sheer scope of the sequences and the environments they contained,” says Constantine. “We created many locations from scratch — the Hoover Dam, downtown LA, the Hollywood Hills, as well as vehicles, helicopters, boats, etc., using Maya for modeling and Photoshop for texturing. While we had some assets for San Francisco in our archive, everything from the piers to the Golden Gate to Coit Tower and Nob Hill needed to be re-tailored. Our scene files definitely pushed software and rendering power to the max.”

After creating environments and animating the action, artists added fire, smoke and other elements into the previs to provide a sense of overall physics and timing of the destruction. The team also created water simulations courtesy of Scanline VFX’s proprietary water rig. As previs was produced and approved, previs scene files went out to visual effects companies, who were working on creating final imagery.

“In previs, we would try to find the most compelling paths of action for the characters, then add mass amounts of destruction around them,” Constantine says. “We would iterate that until it fit the director’s vision. The goal for previs was more of having the right timing and scale of what was happening rather than showing the full detail of the destruction, which would be done later on the VFX side. It was a great collaboration with everyone working to move the visuals forward, and of course it’s an interesting job when you get to go to work each day to virtually destroy the place you live!”