Valie Rivoallon takes a look at France's leading high technology commercial houses. Available in French and English.
After a rather flourishing decade, the beginning of the '90s marked a net decline in the area of animated advertising. Only after about five years did we see a certain infatuation with the genre reappear, thanks to computer graphics and digital special effects. Today France has acquired a certain international reputation on the basis of a handful of very high level companies.
The First Wave
The pioneers of the genre are the Duran and Buf companies. The first was created in 1983, and the second a year later. Buf Compagnie emerged from Buffin Seydoux Computer Animation, whose original objectives were to create a complete 3D program (modeler, animation, rendering) and produce computer generated films for television and advertising. It was renamed Buf Compagnie in 1990. The two companies developed and diversified bit by bit as they both introduced departments dedicated to special effects for feature films.
Duran diversified into music videos, narratives, documentaries, video games and Internet sites as well. In the past 15 years, Duran has edited and completed special effects for nearly 1,500 advertising spots in a variety of different styles ranging from creating the most realistic universe ("Levis" by Michel Gondry, produced by Midi-Minuit), to the most dreamlike ("Kenzo" by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, produced by Bandits), to the most deliriously comic ("Red Orangina" by Joan Kamitz, produced by Molotov). As for short clips, some 1,200 have proven the talents of Marc Caro, Olivier Kuntzel and Florence Deygas, or Florent Siri, to name only a few. At the same time, the crew has contributed to the making of numerous television broadcasts, including documentaries and magazine shows, game shows and talk shows, of which the first, Tele Liberation, was commissioned by Canal+. Since then it is rare to find a channel that has not used their services for interstitials. Quite recently the people who created Skinner Box teamed up with them to create some new video games and the software programs on which to run them.
For their part, Buf Compagnie has chosen to limit its activities to the three areas of advertising, special effects for feature movies and television interstitials. Thanks to the teaming up of graphic artists and engineers, the company has applied itself to adapting technology to the artistic desires of directors. To these ends, all the programs necessary for the creation of a film, from rendering to shading, through modeling, motion and 2D painting, were developed without forgetting the necessary interfaces between 3D tools and Softimage.
The public and professional success of the feature City of Lost Children by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro led John Dykstra, supervisor of special effects for Batman and Robin to contact the company. For the first time a French business contributed 56 effects sequences to an American production, among them the love powder, magic grains and freezing of the town sequences. This experience incited Buf to open a unit in Los Angeles, which since then has worked on various local projects for advertising and feature films.
A New Breed
Between 1987 and 1989, three other production companies saw the light of day, namely MacGuff Ligne, Z.A. Productions, and Ex Machina. MacGuff Ligne owes its name to the celebrated director Alfred Hitchcock, who cited the MacGuffin, the thing which propels the plot, but which is ultimately not very important, as the origin of each of his suspense films. MacGuff's areas of expertise include advertising, special effects for features, music videos, CD-Roms, rides and virtual installations. Their most recent credits are an advertising spot for "Evian" directed by Jean-Pierre Roux, and the feature film Dobermann by Jan Kounen. The "Evian" spot was inspired by the aquatic ballets in American 1940s films, and pictures a swarm of jolly babies with hilarious realism. As for the feature, it scares one stiff! Five months of work yielded 107 scenes, divided into 19 sequences, utilizing a dozen specialists to make multiple, seamless special effects.
Z.A. Productions, an independent company, originally received recognition for producing The Quarks, one of the first television series produced using 3D computer graphics, 35mm film and High Definition Video. Since then the company has enlarged to include projects for special events and the application of virtual reality technology to the fine arts field. In this area, they have been involved with preparing Maurice Benayoun's art installations, notably Is God Flat? Is the Devil Curved? and Tunnel Beneath the Atlantic (a tele-virtual event connecting the Centre Pompidou in Paris with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal for five days in September, 1995), then for The Paris-New Dehli Tunnel (connecting the NINR Exposition of the City of Sciences to the Virtual Gallery in India in January, 1998). In the area of advertising, some of their best credits stem from Japanese commissions, such as a spot for the launching of DVD, "Panasonic DVD Dream," for Matsushita which was based on Kurosawa's film Dream. However, the great majority of their time is devoted to creating their own production tools, in particular real-time programs and motion-capture.
Ex Machina has mainly been active in the fields of advertising, rides (dynamic cinema), and some other big projects, like for example stereoscopic films. Recognized for the quality of their digital 3D images, the company can claim a special expertise in animating characters. "For almost three years, we have turned out ad after ad. That has permitted our animators and graphic designers to master the array of tools better and better for the creation of advertising films: storyboard, shooting, animation and post-production," declares Lionel Fages. "For this reason, we are frequently commissioned to direct the entire production, rather than just be involved with effects or post-production at the end. Pierre Coffin has over time nurtured a graphic style all of his own, which has led little by little toward the making of film in which the character animation is predominant. Today he directs not only ads like that for Vichy lozenges, or most recently Electrolux for the British agency BBH, but also some series, like Pings, which Canal + is quite interested in." Pascal Vuong, Herve Loizeau, Dominique Pochat and Tanguy de Kermel are also artists who follow the same path making commercials for products like Seat (Lara Croft), Vahine, Yoco and MacDonald's.
"In 90% of cases, it is the production companies to whom we have regularly sent our demo reels that contact us to offer us the artistic direction of films, or the creation and animation of characters. In the other 10% of cases, the agency bypasses an intermediary and orders a spot made entirely in 3D directly from us. Thanks to our acquired experience, we always start with an animatic without going through a storyboard stage, which saves us considerable time and gives us consequently an ease in producing the final animations."
The two most recent companies are Medialab and Sparx, both created at the beginning of the 1990s ('92 and '94 respectively). The reputation of Medialab is built around animation in real-time and motion-capture. That is why they have found a choice place in the creation of characters for television spots, and series such as their first series, Chipie and Clyde. But as far as advertising goes, aside from Donkey Kong commercials, the technique is little used. To this end, Medialab was one of the first to make use of the flame* for compositing. The income from advertising constitutes a quarter of the company's business, though special effects work, especially for television films, is in constant growth. "This growth can be explained by a saturation of American enterprises monopolized by ambitious projects with feature films. Furthermore, for them, we're a little like the Third World, because we're cheaper... Then there's also directors like Roland Joffe who prefer to work in France, even if it's for the English!" explains Pierre-Jean Joulia, director of communications.
For Sparx, a subsidiary of the Humanoids Group, special effects like the new flame* technology attract clients. More than a dozen different spots pass through the hands of their post-production and special effects workers each month. Half of the projects are commercials which need special effects techniques added, while the other half are for more artistic films. "When we set up Sparx, there were seven of us. After modest beginnings, we have experienced a sharp rise in output that has led us to enlarge our staff to 60 people, and little by little build up a studio in Vietnam which today also employs 60 people. It is the spread of low-budget special effects and the rise of digital special effects that have led to this," declares Guillaume Hellouin, co-president with Jean-Christophe Bernard.
Title sequences (Crying Freeman won a prize at Imagina in 1996), series, TV specials, and soon, feature films (Funny Little Chick by Serge Elissalde), have been the principal forces in the creation of 3D digital images. Thanks to the efforts of these companies, digital techniques, so berated until now, seem finally to have found their place. But much still remains to be done to convince some in power that digital effects are at the center of the world of the image and communication of tomorrow. Translated from French by William Moritz.
Originally a screenwriter, Valerie Hamon-Rivoallon has worked in journalism since 1988. On the editorial staff of BREF, a magazine devoted to the short film, she has specialized in animation since 1993, preparing special reports on such topics as the state of animation in Slovakia and Belgium. As a member of AFCA (The French Association of Animation), she has organized the monthly programs of the Animatheque since September 1997, and has been involved with reorganizing the National Festival of Animation on Theater Screens.