Is the French animated feature, Renaissance, the shape of things to come? If anything, it heralds a new era of filmmaking, just like Polar Express or Sin City did. Mireille Frenette and Benoit Guerville reveal the magic.
Renaissance is a futuristic animated thriller thats filmed in motion capture, animated in 3D and rendered in flat black and white. In the year 2054 in Paris, police and the Avalon Corp. are trying to find a kidnapped researcher who holds knowledge that can transform the future of the human species altogether.
The film was in development well before Robert Rodriguez put together his demo of Sin City and Robert Zemeckis started work on Polar Express. We came up with the first Renaissance concept back in 1997, explains Marc Miance, founder of Attitude Studio, a facility dedicated entirely to the recreation of high-end virtual characters. At the time, we were thinking of an animated CG film shot entirely in black and white with no shades of gray set in Paris.
When Miance met Aton Soumache and Christian Volckman, Soumache had just produced Volckmans short film, the multi award-winning Maaz that had been shot with real actors and then hand-painted frame by frame with Painter. They loved Miances idea and decided to produce a demo together. We were naïve and ardent enough to go out there and pitch our film, smiles Soumache. Very quickly, they convinced French TV channel France 2 and French distributor Pathé to pre-purchase the project.
At the time, there had been no Shrek to prove that an animated feature could appeal to the 15-35 demographic. Moreover, shooting the film entirely in black and white seemed an odd choice, not to mention the fact that sci-fi movies are not a genre that can easily find French financing. Adds Soumache, The first question distributors would ask was Whos the audience? The 15 million Euro budget was considered expensive for a European film, particularly since it was the director and the producers first feature, and that Miance was only beginning to set up Attitude Studio to handle the technical side of the project.
But, continues Soumache, the strength of this film is its singularity. It is unique, ambitious, stunning and different. Renaissance has the French touch, but it deals with universal values that people from around the world can relate to. And so, while some worried about costs and audiences, others were immediately seduced by the project and wanted to be a part of it. Thats what happened to Canadian film producer Jake Eberts who became an invaluable ally in the films financing. He saw the treatment and the three-minute demo, said, Thats Matrix in animation! and took the project to Hollywood.
Disney took the plunge, Its the first time that Disney pre-purchased a French film based on a script and a pilot, says Soumache. Disneys contribution made up 30% of the budget. Beyond France, international financing came mainly from Luxembourg and the U.K.
Another valuable asset was the strong involvement of IBM in the project, which provided the financing of both hardware and software for Attitude Studio (300 Intellistations, 200 render servers, 24 terabytes of storage) as well as valuable consulting assistance on the technical set-up. Attitude Studios new technical director had dealt with us in the past and recommended we meet, says Nathalie Azoulay, an emerging market leader. At the time, IBM was setting up a new department focused on supporting emerging markets and was looking for opportunities. The partnership took off rapidly and IBM stayed the course throughout the financial ups and downs of the project. I think the key to this collaboration was that the same person liaised between IBM and Renaissance from the beginning. Even now that Im moving on to new responsibilities, I remain the contact person for Attitude Studio.
With most of the film financing secured, Miance, with the help of additional venture capital, was soon able to launch Attitude Studio, an essential component for the film. At that time, no studio in Europe could meet our technical needs for Renaissance, says Miance. Indeed, what the trio had in mind was revolutionary: From the beginning, we wanted to make an animated movie that would be staged exactly like a live-action film, explains Volckman. We didnt want hyperbolic camera moves like you can sometimes see in 3D films, and our visual references had more to do with 40s and 50s film noire than with animation. And we decided from the start to use only motion capture to animate the characters.
The idea behind the motion capture was to be able to bring a live performance inside the machine, where it could be reworked to achieve the exact framing and rendering wanted for Renaissance. Contrary to Polar Express, for example, the idea was not to retarget the motion capture to different body types but to have a casting that would closely match the onscreen characters. Its really exciting for a director to work with motion capture, says Volckman. I didnt have to worry about sets, lighting or makeup. I could just focus on the actors performances and let the cameras roll all day long. The shooting took nine weeks, in a rented warehouse in Luxembourg.
But beyond shooting and capturing live performances for a feature film in such an unusual fashion, the team also turned the entire movie production process upside down. We started with a detailed storyboard that soon became a full 3D animatic, explains Miance. We could then see the entire film before actually shooting it. After filming, we were able to frame and edit simultaneously. This new approach to filmmaking is incredibly powerful. It allows the director to have a huge amount of freedom regarding his mise en scène. At the same time, we were lucky. Christian didnt lose himself in the process. With this technique, you virtually have your actors inside the machine and you could go on forever creating an infinite number of versions
Sets and props were refined throughout the framing and editing process. Once the final edit was done, animators keyframed hands and facial expressions by using video references shot during the mocap sessions. To increase the realism of the characters faces, Attitude developed a device capable of accurately capturing the micro-movements of the human eye. We realized that involuntary eye movements, like the contraction and dilation of the pupils or the flutter of the eyelids can make a 3D-animated face truly alive and realistic, says Miance.
Then came the task of creating Renaissance overall black-and-white look. This was done by programming a special shader in Maya. But the flat blacks and whites of the film also required new visual codes to express such classic effects as depth of field, glass reflections and transparencies. Instead of having a simple blur for the depth of field, the background images were first blurred, and then a threshold was applied to regain flat blacks and whites. The result perfectly conveys the out of focus effect. For transparencies, a few flat gray shades were used.
I think weve come to a point where this type of film cannot be called animation or live action, says Soumache. It cant be pigeonholed. Its truly a new genre, where digital tools help artists further their vision. To me, a film is the combination of a project, an author and a vision. Its not about the technique used to bring it to life. A film like Renaissance foretells what tomorrows moviemaking can be.
It is undeniable that the capture systems designed by Attitude Studio, Sony Pictures (ImageMotion) or ESC (performance capture for Matrix) are about to transform the way some films are made. And while it may be a bit early to tell how Renaissance will impact the French and European filmmaking culture, it is obvious that more and more young filmmakers raised with digital technologies will want to try new tools and new ways to tell their stories.
At this time, there is no official release date for Renaissance in North America (handled by Miramax) or the U.K. (handled by Pathé), although summer and fall dates are being mentioned. In France, the movie is coming out March 15, together with a making of book (Flammarion) and a comic book (Casterman). The trailer can be viewed on the films site.
Mireille Frenette and Benoit Guerville have been reporting on digital effects and film technologies for several years in Europe and North America. Through their production company, they are setting up a research lab on alternative filmmaking technologies with a film project already in development.