These are exciting times for previsualization software users. Different designers and different shows have different needs. An ever-expanding array of previsualization software choices makes it more and more likely that a given goal can be reached using one or more of the options available today. That said, when it comes to pre-viz, an often-ignored segment of the entertainment industry is television. It doesn't have to be that way.

One of the main distinctions among pre-viz software packages is whether or not they connect to a lighting console. An advantage of those that do connect is the ability to write cues and see them happen in real time on a virtual version of the set. You're ahead of the game and able to work at optimal efficiency when you show up on-site with a cue structure already in the console.

Life's a trade-off, however, and pre-viz software is no exception. Generating real-time cues comes at the expense of photo-realism. In pre-viz programs that hook up to a console, the quality of the shaded views varies, and, at this time, none can touch the extremely realistic results from packages that do not connect to a console. A combination of the two forms may best suit the needs of a television LD, allowing for cue generation while still coping with shadows, reflected light, and overall light levels. With a little finagling, files can always be imported and exported between different types of software, minimizing double handling of the drafting.

Another aspect central to television lighting is camera placement. Ideally, you would get your hands on a camera plot ahead of time, but that's not always possible. With pre-viz, if you don't know where the director will put the cameras, so what? Real cameras are expensive, but virtual ones are cheap. Put them in the 3-D drawing where they would go in a classic camera plot. Then put some in the places you really wish they were; add others in places only a lunatic would put them. They're virtual — aside from a moment of drafting time, they cost nothing. You can change perspectives from one camera view to another within your drawing, seeing what you want to see, things you're surprised to see, and, very likely, things you hope you won't see on-site but probably will. This is an excellent opportunity to head off problems before it's too late.

Plunking down in one place and never moving on-site is understandable — consoles aren't known for their mobility. In a virtual venue, however, it's a piece of cake to range around the “set,” easily finding the black hole in the reverse shot or the camera flare that is more annoying than artistic. It's simple to see the show from the camera operator's vantage point, which is, ultimately, the audience's view.

Now, maybe you're thinking this is a waste of time. Here you are, creating looks and correcting the major flaws for cameras that may never enter the venue. The value is that you are prepared, no matter what gets thrown at you on-site. Your (very limited) time can be focused more on coping with changes, and there are always changes.

If it's possible to hook up with the director ahead of time, pre-viz software allows you to showcase your design and discuss the overall plan for the show. The director will see the virtual version of what you've put together. Because you took the time to check cameras, you can give the director a heads-up so your big moments don't get lost in close-ups. By the time you're done with the director, the two of you will be clearer on the overall objectives and have a better idea of the show's organization. There is usually so little time on-site that this preparation can be invaluable.

Emmy award-winning Bill Berner of Bill Berner Lighting Design took this concept one step further. He was directing Between the Lions, a children's puppet show, and he had a musical number to work out. The puppeteers worked on platforms that Berner had to keep out of his shots while trying to maintain a music-video look. As an added constraint, the presence of the platforms limited camera mobility severely. The focus here was on shot composition, not lighting.

“I broke down the pieces lyrically in order to determine character focus,” Berner says. Next, using pre-viz software, he rendered individual shots, creating a digital storyboard. “By changing the parameters of my cameras, I could emulate different focal lengths in order to get a wide variety of looks without moving the cameras themselves.” The final step was to print the images and distribute them to his camera operators. The result? “Worked like a charm,” says Berner. He added that, given the time frame of his shooting schedule (tight, tight, tight), pre-viz allowed him to get the shots he needed with minimal camera rehearsal. “I had more time to concentrate on the visuals, rather than the technical, during the shoot.”

These examples of uses for pre-viz software don't even touch on the ever-ubiquitous video application. There was a time when the big deal with video was content creation and integration with the lighting design. While coordination of video and lighting remains an active issue, a new problem is that audiences are accustomed to seeing video projected on a flat screen. The design challenge is to come up with innovative ways to present the images. Some new ideas make use of LED walls, Element Labs' Versa TILE, or the 3-D freedom of Barco's MiPIX, to name just a few. There is a veritable cornucopia of options, and all of them take time up front to achieve the desired results.

3-D modeling software (such as 3-D Studio Max, Maya, and Lightwave) allows you to map video images to any 3-D object, including moving objects. Playing back a video on your computer shows you content but not context. Until you see the set, lights, and video all together, there is no way to fully coordinate the production.

For example, take G-Lec or other low-resolution video walls. The pixel spacing is about 2 1/2" apart, making for a lot of black space in the image. The time to decide if that is going to work for your video is before the equipment order goes in, which is no problem if you see it ahead of time using a pre-viz package.

At the end of the previsualization process, the various elements exist to put together a complete presentation. If the need arises, you can show your ideas using an AVI or Quicktime movie to anyone needing proof of concept.

In the end, it's all about naming your goals, choosing the software to achieve them, and doing as much work in advance as possible. Preparation can make a huge difference in the final product — particularly these days, when lighting and video design often are the production design, but time on-site hasn't stretched to accommodate the greater work-load.

Kim Grethen and Rodd McLaughlin are co-owners of Prelite NY, LLC, a previsualization studio in Manhattan. (www.prelite.com)