Annick Teninge profiles Sparx*, one of France's leading CG studios that seems to be following in the path of the U.S. majors -- turning commercial and service work success into short film success and then moving into the feature realm.
Animation and digital visual effects studio Sparx* was founded in 1995 by colleagues Jean-Christophe Bernard, trained as an architect, and Guillaume Hellouin, a businessman. Today a major studio in Europe, Sparx* has gathered many awards for its work in the motion picture industry: the opening sequence for Crying Freeman (Christophe Gans), a 5-minute full 3D sequence for Thomas in Love (Pierre-Paul Renders), CGI effects for My Life in Pink (Alain Berliner), and the credits and trailer of Gangsters (Olivier Marchal). Known for its high quality effects using "transparent technologies" (3D photo-realism, compositing), the studio has completed over 1,000 TV commercials that have aired on five continents. Among their latest creations are two commercials for prestigious perfume brands. "Miracle" by Lancôme, with Mathieu Kassovitz as actor and director, was shot almost entirely in 35mm in a natural setting in the Canadian wilderness. Several natural elements, such as the bridge and water, were entirely recreated at Sparx* and added in post-production. In "The Perfume for Men by Hugo Boss," featuring two young men in a cavern, the entire background was digitally reworked to create a monochromatic metal effect with emerald overtones.
Sparx* produces TV idents (TF1, France 3, 13th Street, Teletoon, Cartoon Network, Euro Sport) and title sequences (TF1 evening news, TF1 weather report and Euro Sport). The studio also works on television series (Rolie Polie Olie, Bob & Scot, Molly Star Racer and the recent Youri The Spaceman), representing a total of one hundred 26-minute episodes. Sparkling*, Sparx*' wholly-owned subsidiary, is currently co-producing with Egmont Zoé Kézako, a 26 x 13 3D animation TV series, based on the children's book by Véronique Saüquère. The series is directed by award-winning director Serge Elissalde (Raoul et Jocelyne), who has been working with Sparx* for many years.
Last year, the company widened its sphere of activity and Sparkling* produced its first animated short: Les Filles, L'Ane Et Les Boeufs (Red-Light Christmas), a 13-minute 3D animation short film written and directed by Francine Chassagnac. The film was selected at many festivals and received a special mention at Cartoons on the Bay 2002 for "a sophisticated story told with powerful production design." It recently got the "Court Premier" award at Paris' Short Film Festival 2002 and the Jury special prize at the 25th Grenoble Festival. Following this animated short, Le Cirque Bougie (The Candlelight Circus) by Jérôme Estienne, currently in pre-production, will be the first feature-length 3D animated film produced by Sparkling*. The pilot of this €10 million film was presented at Cartoon Movie in 2000.
The Building of the Studio
Building Sparx* was like bringing together a family. Prior to its founding, Guillaume and Jean-Christophe had already worked together in several companies, including one they created together in 1990, which failed. They also had long-term business relationships with many of the people who are now key figures in the company, including the executive producer, Corinne Kouper. Guillaume's role models are the producers that put their hearts and souls into their projects. His passion is infectious and resonates with his staff; he says that his young, motivated team feels like they are in the same world as the Nine Old Men! Sparx* started with five people, equipped with five Silicon Graphics stations and one Flame, and worked eighty hours a week. The studio was mainly producing low-end commercials. Guillaume recalls now, "It was good schooling. When you have a small budget, you have to be creative. It developed in us the culture of ambition and rigor." Recognition came early with their work on Pierre et le Loup (Peter and the Wolf), a 26-minute TV special which, in 1996, won a 7 d'Or (the most prestigious award for French TV programs) for best animation. This award brought new projects to Sparx*. It also encouraged the studio to come up to the mark.
Today, Sparx* owns two studios, one in Paris, and one in Saigon. They can handle simultaneously over 40 commercials, one feature film and one TV series. The company has three production lines and can produce 26 minutes of animation per week per line. It employs 250 people spread out over the two locations: 150 people in Saigon, 100 in Paris. The series are produced half in France, half in Vietnam. Both studios have R&D departments and production facilities. They do the same work, except for the compositing and Flame work for commercials, and special effects for live-action films, which are only done at the Paris-based studio. The two studios run in perfect synergy, and thanks to their proprietary software and Internet-based asset management tools, Sparx* can operate as if the two studios were on two separate floors of the same building. Guillaume insists on this aspect of the operations, which doesn't stand for reason. Over the years, they have worked on winning the trust of their Vietnamese employees, by using top-level translators and developing the same management/house style as in the French studio. He admits that salaries are lower there than in France, it's quite evident, but adds: "We put an emphasis on human values and strong artistic skills, and we reward talent. Employees are actors in the economic development and we, as a company, have a moral responsibility toward the country and its economy." The Vietnamese studio was bought in 1997 from Pixibox, Sparx*'s sister company within The Humanoids group. When Pixibox originally moved into Ho Chi Minh City in 1994, it was the largest 2D digital animation studio in Europe, hiring 600 people; 250 of whom were working in Vietnam. Sparx* developed a method in France to convert traditional 2D pencil animators into 3D animators. They applied it to Vietnam exactly as they had done in Paris and over two years trained over a hundred people. It represented a huge investment for the company, but they were able to finance it with the highly profitable commercials they were producing in France. And as Guillaume puts it: Sparx* struggled for ten years before 3D animation became an industry, so it was okay to struggle for two years to set up a studio in Vietnam!
In 2000, the development of Sparx* led them to create a new entity, a production company. Headed by Corinne Kouper, Sparkling* is Sparx*'s wholly-owned subsidiary, which works exclusively with the studio for the production of its films, while Sparx* continues to work for other production companies. Guillaume explains that Sparkling* was created to clearly differentiate the various activities of the company, which sometimes are contradictory. The production company's goal is to develop projects. A studio's goal is to always be under a full load. If the studio is also the production company, it might be tempted to launch a new project, even if it's not ready yet. Another advantage is to facilitate the collaboration between the studio and other production companies that would not want to have a production company as their negotiator.
Technology to the Core
Sparx*'s original vision was to have an artistic approach through the use of digital technology. Apparently, they have succeeded in creating an innovative fully-digital animation and visual effects studio that puts itself at the service of the artists. With Zoé Kézako, the 26 x 13-minute TV series currently in production, one of the challenges was to respect the author's original drawing style, thereby having a 2D look masking the 3D process. Véronique Saüquère had always pictured Zoé as a 2D cartoon but was curious about 3D. She was delighted to see that Sparx* was adapting to her drawings and not the other way around. Guillaume comments that today, from a technical standpoint, every tool can answer a production's needs, however, each project has its own specificity and needs its own pipeline. Sparx* devotes itself to bringing technical solutions to each artist's request and maximizing visual impact through technological solutions. They feel very strongly about this demand for accuracy. Besides, adds Guillaume, it's worth it: a few more points in the quality means dozens of more points in terms of market shares. He is giving this same speech to his investors (the Humanoids Group and private investors), emphasizing that success will bring money and asking them to keep this in mind when making strategic decisions. Guillaume, who likes proverbs, mentions the Chinese saying: "When one points to the moon, only the fool looks at the finger."
Why did this established digital effects company take the risk of launching into the decidedly non-commercial world of animated shorts? While Les Filles, L'Ane Et Les Boeufs is a nice calling card for Sparx*, they will never recoup costs through distribution and this 3D animated short supposedly cost the company a fortune. Guillaume Hellouin agrees: "The company image is important but not essential. The main goal is that a project meets the expectations of its creators. First, we look at the artistic value of the project, and its potential, then we study what Sparx* could bring to it from a technical standpoint. Another goal is to establish a relationship with an artist with the perspective of developing other projects with him in the future. Another important aspect is the possibility for us to experiment with new methods, new techniques and new teams. Something we cannot afford to do when we work as a service company on heavy projects. Finally, it establishes the company name as a full production company. After Polie Olie, we felt we needed recognition as a production company. We had received numerous awards for our technical performances, but still were not recognized enough in the industry to be able to cut a deal for a 3D animation feature film. We had to create various experiences to develop the company's brand image and producing a 3D animation short film was one of them."
With Les Filles, L'Ane Et Les Boeufs, the company tested its new production structure. According to Guillaume, this short film was a real technical challenge. In order to respect the director's artistic vision, Sparx* had to test new creative processes, textures and colour techniques. The R&D team developed a new technique to obtain a watercolour-style rendering, fundamentally different from what had previously been done in 3D animation. Depending on each shot's requirements, they combined several techniques, from simple mapping to the most cutting-edge. It is worth noting that, for this film, the company benefited from a grant from the CNC (National Cinematography Center) as part of a government initiative to support short films and new production technologies. A pre-sale to France 2 Television network also gave the company comfortable means for R&D and pre-production, giving the film the opportunity to achieve its full potential. Building on this research, an original software program has been developed and implemented on the feature film now in production. It will help fine-tune the lighting and give Jérôme Estienne's film an original visual atmosphere.
A Bright Future
Guillaume feels very confident. Sparx* is a leading animation and digital FX studio in Europe. They do not really have competitors there for 3D series or 3D animation feature films. In the U.S., they are faced up against majors such as Pixar, DreamWorks and Blue Sky. Guillaume feels closest to Blue Sky, which developed a true expertise in technology through the production of high-end commercials, made an Oscar-winning short and then made a brilliant move into the feature film business. Today, the market is going through a huge shift, like it did at the end of the silent film era, or with the arrival of Technicolor. The day has come for 3D companies to reposition themselves on the market. And hopefully, Sparx* will find its place. Guillaume finishes by saying: "The budget for Monsters, Inc. was over 200 million dollars. We feel we can produce the same film with 10% of this budget." A joke? Typical French arrogance? Let's wait and see... Le Cirque Bougie awaits its green light and then Sparx* will be able to put this new paradigm into motion.
After five years as AWN's general manager Annick Teninge returned to France, where she is now in charge of production and distribution at La Poudrière in Valence, an animation school offering a 2-year program where students study the process of filmmaking and develop their own film projects. She is also heading AWN's marketing and public relations efforts in Europe. Annick began her animation career as assistant director at the Annecy International Animation Festival, a post she held for six years.