The fantastic places that modern filmmakers are able to take us are visually stunning in a way never before seen. While the focus is always the emotional touchstone of the characters featured in these films, these stories are realized on the screen with a convincing reality that is woven into the human experience. As an audience, we’ve come to accept superheroes, aliens, and the like as part of our reality, if only so in the movies. Much of this owes a debt to film professionals like Bob Yong. Directors are able to manifest their fantastic visions for films because of previs shot creators like him. The difference between storyboards and previs shots is literally the difference between a drawing and moving film. Granting directors the ability to see impossibly costly and dangerous shots and infuse the emotional intensity to their film; all of this is commonplace for Bob Yong. Each fantastic few minutes of adrenalin fueled excitement for filmgoers is the product of weeks of Yong’s skill and attention to detail. Though Bob may never appear on camera, the absence of his contributions would make for a considerably less fantastic film.
The cast of Spider-Man: Homecoming is impressive. BAFTA Award Winning Actor Tom Holland as Spider Man is supported by Oscar Nominated Actors Michael Keaton (as The Vulture) and Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark) as well as Oscar Award Winning Actresses Marisa Tomei (Aunt May) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts). Supplying some essential support off-camera was Bob Yong as the previs shot creator. As a part of the Third Floor Inc. team for Spider-Man: Homecoming, Yong was key in achieving some of the most thrilling moments of the film. Present day filmmakers have the benefit of talented artists like Bob who are able to manifest action on a grand scale and with its cataclysmic potential. When Vulture’s weapons tear the Staten Island Ferry in half or when a plane crashes on Coney Island after an ensuing battle, it’s a product of Yong and his team. These descriptions are far too general to describe the emotional torrent of the scenes because the very nature of what a previs shot creator does is to grant the audience a vantage point that is nearly impossible. From a filmmaker’s standpoint, it materializes their ideas perfectly while at an infinitesimal fraction of the budget that practical effects would cost. Yong is most fond of a scene that takes place on the outside of a plane travelling at 600 miles per hour. He conveys, “It was both fun and challenging to figure out how to best shoot the scenes as Spider-Man tries to get into the plane without getting blown off. My favorite shot that I got to work on in the sequence is when Spider-Man barely latches on to the underside of the plane after losing his grip on his web. The timing of his movement along with the camera catching up to the action and his positioning was essential in selling the shot.”
More recently, Yong served as a previs shot creator for Universal Pictures and Legendary Entertainment’s Pacific Rim: Uprising, the highly anticipated follow-up to the first Pacific Rim feature film. BAFTA Award Winning Actor John Boyega (also known as Finn in the most recent Academy Award Nominated Star Wars trilogy) stars as Jake Pentecost who is one of the new generation’s pilots of the massive fighting machines that hope to save Earth. When the Kaiju-Jaeger drones (a hybrid of the monsters and robots) mount an attack on the Pacific Rim homebases, these shots were designed to include VFX later as well as a camera shake effect, necessitating careful planning of the timing in these sequences. There’s an ample amount of psychology in Yong’s work for such scenes as he reveals, “The first segment took place outside of the base whereas the second involved the drones breaking into the base. We see the people sheltering inside panic as one of the drones successfully makes its way in. The camera for the shots in the previous sequence was placed in such a way that the viewer was a spectator but in the 2nd half of the sequence, the camera is now sharing the point of view of the civilians. In doing so, the scale of the drones is exaggerated and makes them look more menacing than before. I tried to create a sense of suspense while producing these shots as the drones get shut down just in time, saving the lives of the civilians.” In addition to the early test shots of the Jaegers flight path created by Bob, his shots of the rocket engines coming to life became the guide for the VFX shots of this scene. Accepting the believability of the massive creatures and warrior robots in the film who were featured alongside average sized humans was a concept that transitioned from imagination to visualization through the work of Bob Yong and his team members for this film.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Bob Yong and those like him is that this kind of exceptional skill has led to film audience’s acceptance of the impossible as normal. Modern film requires much less imagination on the part of viewers because what we witness, thanks to previs artists like Bob and their VFX counterparts, is easy to believe because we see it with our own eyes. Bob Yong sees every incremental evolution of the magnificent scenes he helps create so, how does he “lose himself” in the film when he knows the secret to its creation? He muses, “It’s great to see the final version of these films, that never gets old. I’m really happy when my family back in Malaysia gets excited about my working on these big films. There’s a strong sense of personal achievement as well. If I went back in time and told myself, a young boy then living in a small south east Asian country like Malaysia, that I would get a chance to work on a comic book character that I was such a fan of, I wouldn’t have believed myself.”
Writer: Coleman Haan