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Time with the Filmmakers: SIGGRAPH Winners in Depth

Heather Kenyon talks to the creators of the award-winning shorts Mauvais Rôle, Our Wonderful Nature and Oktapodi.

SIGGRAPH's Computer Animation Festival ran from Monday, August 11 to Friday, August 15 as part of the massive computer graphics conference, which was held this year in Los Angeles. In the festival's new expanded form, juried awards were presented to the best films and we were fortunate enough to catch up with the creators of three of the four winning entries. Student films -- especially French student films -- were the overwhelming favorites.

Mauvais Rôle, a student film from France's École Supérieure de Réalisation Audiovisuelle in Bretagne, won the Jury Award. Directed by ten students, the film is filled with pop-culture gaming references and tells the story of a put-upon "bad guy," who breaks out of his traditional video game role to find a new way of life. The jury also gave a special "Best Well-Told Fable Award" to Our Wonderful Nature. Directed by Tomer Eshed at Germany's Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Potsdam-Babelsberg, this seemingly innocent piece reveals the true mating habits of the European water shrew. Parodying over-the-top action films like The Matrix and Kill Bill, Eshed takes survival of the fittest to a whole new level as these water shrews' quest for love takes on epic kung fu proportions. The big hit, however, was Oktapodi, which won not only the Audience Prize, but also Best of Show. Six of Gobelins' best teamed up to create this adorable film depicting two octopi in love.

A team of ten students collaborated on the video game-inspired Mauvais Rôle, winner of the Jury Award. All Mauvais Rôle images © Frédéric Fourier.

Mauvais Rôle

Mauvais Rôle was created by Alan Barbier, Camille Campion, Dorian Fevrier, Frédéric Fourier, Frédéric Lafay, Min Ma, Jean-François Mace, Emmanuel Reperant, Jeremie Rousseau and Olivier Sicot.

Heather Kenyon: Congratulations on winning!

Dorian: Thanks! It was already a great honor for us to have been selected, especially in two categories! I must say that, at first, after seeing the work of our competitors (whom I congratulate), I told myself, "Forget it."

Camille: The Jury Award... so unexpected. It's amazing for us!

Frédéric: Saturday morning I woke up very early and the first thing I did was switch on the computer to see the results. And what a surprise! When we started our studies, SIGGRAPH was just a dream. We would never have imagined that three years later our short was going to be awarded. I think this is a hope for every student. If I could give any advice, I would say that you need to work, work and work more on each part of the project (screenplay, drawings, animation, rendering...). This is the key for success.

HK: Ten people are listed as creating this film. How did that work? How did you divide up the jobs?

Frédéric: The organization was not so problematic. One of our big advantages was our complementary skills. Two people were better in animation, two or three others in rendering... As there are a lot of sequences in this film, with very different environments, each of us found something very interesting to do.

HK: The film does break into very specific sequences…

Frédéric: Yes, however, we did have to break up the team for specific parts. Only four of us wrote the story. Every Monday, we told the others our new ideas so they could criticize or give their own ideas. We also had a screenplay teacher who was an incredible help! After we were all happy with the story, other people joined the team to draw the storyboard. I think this kind of organization worked pretty well.

Dorian: I think that although we were all students, each was aware of the fact that we could not make the film without having decided who was going to make decisions! Giving posts to different people on the team following their skill made it possible to "frame" the work for everyone. Plus, we all had one thing in mind: doing something coherent!

Alan: We tried to respect the wishes of everyone.

Camille: Fortunately, we already knew each other well since we had been together for two years. Plus, having fun is most important to doing a good job!

Emmanuel: Our team is the merger between our technical skills and friendship.

HK: Is this your final thesis film? How long did you have to work on it? It is so ambitious.

Emmanuel: Mauvais Rôle is our final thesis film.

World of Warcraft was a particular influence in the creation of the film's hero, Marcel.

Frédéric: Our studies were a little bit different than the other French schools. You have three years and in each of them you need to make a short. I think this is the big advantage of our school, because you acquire a lot of experience. However, you have less time to make your short. When other schools have two years (about 20 months), we only have one.

Alan: It's 10 months, from writing to projection, with 5 months of full production -- no more school lessons, only working on the movie.

Frédéric: So this short is our third and last. The project started in October 2006. The first months were devoted to the screenplay, graphic design and a lot of research. The 3D production part started in January 2007, to end in July 2007. Choosing the team was really easy. Some of us have done three shorts together already. We were about 30 in the classroom, so three teams of ten people. This school was very important for us; we learned a lot.

Dorian: The school gave us a lot of freedom too; this created motivation, the feeling of making your own movie. The school was not very present in the last year, but I think this was the goal. The work is visible on most of our websites.

HK:

How did you come up with the idea? Are you all rabid gamers?

Alan: I used to be a rabid gamer…

Frédéric: As I said previously, this was really hard work. We wrote, wrote and re-wrote the story, trying to find what would be best. You know when ten people work on the same project, you have a lot of ideas that come from everywhere. You need to mix some of them in and simply forget others. At the beginning, we were really excited to make something with monsters, goblins, fights, blood, knights…all that stuff. We were so passionate about the first sequence that we were forgetting to write a good screenplay. So we slowed down and tried to think of the best possible story.

Dorian: During a scenario course, we jokingly imagined our superhero would actually be controlled by a player. But the most fun was to imagine what would occur if the player pushed pause, moved away, and [then] the superhero couldn't move and was with thousands of evil goblins. Or that the lights turned on and the hero takes the Métro and goes home. So voilà, our scenario was born!

Frédéric: We cannot say that we are hardcore gamers. Nevertheless, we played a lot of video games when we were children and it was so funny to revisit things like Crash Bandicoot, Bomberman or Sonic. We tried to find games that everyone has heard about at one time in his life.

Camille: Even if none of us are hardcore gamers, the video game is a fabulous inspiration. We're in the midst of a media explosion and it's particularly topical with games such as World of Warcraft, which greatly influenced the choice of Marcel, our hero.

HK: So you've all graduated now?

Frédéric: Yes. I have worked for one year in a French VFX/3D company called BUF. I have worked on Asterix at the Olympic Games, Speed Racer and currently on Arthur and the Invisibles 2 and 3 -- shading, texturing, rendering the characters. This is a really cool job. But I am also very interested in working in a foreign country. Pixar is one of my dreams.

Emmanuel: I spent eight months in Australia. It was a great experience, but now I hope to get a job as an animator.

Alan: I'm working in a very little studio called Tribia (we are only two). I'm mostly working on architecture pictures and we're creating some internal shorts. I was hired to work on this animation.

Camille: After graduation, I worked on the feature Igor by Tony Leondis and I am now a character animator at Def2shoot on the feature Yona Yona Penguin by Rintaro. I want to stay a character animator. One day, I hope to have the opportunity to work on the other side of the Atlantic too!

Dorian: I try to guide my job keeping in mind my professional goals... One day why not join a team of technical directors in a large studio?

HK: I would say France has the best CGI schools on the planet. Why do you feel this is? And how happy are you to be a part of this growing legacy?

Frédéric: I'm not sure about that. We see a lot of amazing works from German, Canadian, U. S. schools. But when you take the whole population compared to other big countries, then, yes, we could say that we have very talented artists [in France]. And we are really, really proud of that. I don't know where it really comes from. I think France is a very cultural country. You have so many things to see: exhibitions, festivals, movies, incredible land and buildings. This is really important to stimulate our imagination and to have a very accurate eye. But I agree that, this year, the Computer Animation Festival had a very French touch.

Emmanuel: I think there are young talented people all over world but they maybe don't always have the technical or financial means to express themselves. Indeed, in France, we are lucky to have the opportunity to study in good schools.

The mating habits of the European water shrew are explored in the hysterical Our Wonderful Nature. © HFF Potsdam.

Alan: I'm not sure that France's CGI schools are the best on the planet... The success of a movie depends on the student's motivation and work.

Dorian: Yes, I do not think one school is better than another... The people with whom you work push you up, and the school offers the opportunity to work with people like that. Teachers are required to give you the basics, but they are not the ones who hold the mouse and make the film!

HK: Anything else we should know about?

Emmanuel: Oh! I just want to add a little something about a fun part of this production, the sound effects. We recorded real animal noises in a zoo and used fruits and vegetables for the battle sounds. We really had fun. I also want to thank Michel Kervella, who knew how to bring Marcel, our main character, to life.

Our Wonderful Nature

Our Wonderful Nature was directed by Tomer Eshed and is his first film!

HK: What does it mean to you to not only be included in SIGGRAPH's Computer Animation Festival, but also to be a winner?

Tomer Eshed: It's an amazing feeling, especially with this being my first film, and the first time I tried to do anything with computer animation. I was very excited when I got the news about being a part of the festival, which is known for presenting such state-of-the-art work from all over the world. I was even more excited when the film got nominated. Receiving a special award really left me with the feeling that the film was appreciated, and that is a huge compliment coming from an organization like SIGGRAPH.

HK: What is your background? For how long have you been studying animation?

TE: I was born in Israel and lived there until 2000, graduating from the Jerusalem School of Arts, and finishing my military service. After living and traveling in America for about two years, I returned to Israel for a short while, and then decided to move to Germany, in order to study. In order to do that, I had to learn the language, but figured it would be worth it in order to be able to enjoy the excellent conditions for students in Germany. I started studying in 2004 at the Academy for Film and Television "Konrad Wolf" in Potsdam in the animation department.

HK: Why did you decide to study animation?

TE: I always loved drawing, and was doing that ever since I can remember. In the school where I was going in Jerusalem I got to know some friends that were studying in the cinema department, which made me interested in films more from the creative point of view. I never had the chance to do anything about it until I finished my military service. However during the two years that followed, I was mainly considering art and music as the two main lanes of my life. I was always a big animation fan, but it wasn't until Germany that I seriously considered it as a possibility for a career. It seemed to me eventually that animation is a field which would allow me to combine all of my different creative passions, and it proved itself to be that and much more.

HK: This is an absolutely hysterical film. How did you get this idea?

TE: It was intended to be as absurd and as hysterical as possible. I wanted to go into 3D, and was trying to find a concept for a short that would go well with the technique. So, I was sitting in a park one day, and a friend of mine was telling me about a nature documentary that featured water shrews. According to his description, a fight scene was shown -- once in real time, and then again in slow motion. He was very excited about the jumps and kicks that the slow-motion footage revealed, and that was basically it. I figured that if I could reconstruct the scene in 3D, I could really have fun with the fight. The only thing that was added was the female figure, which provided the motivation for the fight, and the solution for the story. At that point, I had no clue what water shrews looked or acted like, but I could imagine this would be a fun thing to work on.

HK: The quality of the "student" films at SIGGRAPH this year was stunning. A lot of them were done by teams, whereas you are one of the sole creators. How did you get such fantastic quality all by yourself? Who helped you and how did it work?

TE: I wasn't the only one who worked on the piece; I was very lucky to find a very talented and enthusiastic group of people that joined in the production, on different steps. The production lasted two years. I was working alone over the first year, fighting my way through the modeling, rigging and animation processes. I [received help from] Internet tutorials and more experienced students. After the film was roughly animated, I started to look around for help, realizing that I wouldn't be able to [face the technical challenges alone].

At this point I met Dennis Rettkowski, who was the technical director of the film. We [worked together on] visual development, which was critical for the project, and spent a lot of time and dedication in reaching a satisfying result. The work on the sound was progressing in parallel, being done by David Ziegler, sound design, and Stefan Maria Schneider, for the music. They were also students at the school. The idea was to push the film to the very limit as part of the joke, which meant a highly realistic look for the environment, high-definition rendering, full orchestration, etc. The fact that we eventually pulled it off proved to me that when a group of people set themselves on doing something spectacular, things can really happen...

Director Tomer Eshed talks about the creation of his film, which was realized with RenderMan, at the Pixar booth at SIGGRAPH. Image courtesy of Tomer Eshed.

HK: Is this your final thesis film?

TE: This was my pre-graduation film, which means I still have to make another film as part of my studies. For a pre-graduation work, this really blew out the proportions, which doesn't leave me much time as a student. I have many ideas for potential films, and I am trying to figure out what would be the most appropriate as the next project, considering the limited time I have left. Another option might be a co-production, which might allow a larger scale. I like this idea a lot, and am still looking for co-producers. It really depends on the conditions, so I can't reveal any details yet, but I would definitely like to pull off another short production before trying my luck in the market. I wanted to go from A to Z with the production of Our Wonderful Nature and try to figure out where I fit the best. I would love to be able to work in any kind of story development, character design and animation in the future.

HK: What was the coolest thing you saw or that happened to you (other than winning...) at SIGGRAPH this year?

ET: This is an easy question to answer, since one of the things that happened as a result of us using RenderMan for rendering the film, was an invitation to present the film at the Pixar booth. This was an incredible opportunity and a huge compliment, to be able to show our work there. We had two very successful presentations, and it's really hard to tell what was more exiting -- presenting the film there or winning the award...

The cartoony, fast-paced and non-calamari Oktopodi was the big winner and audience favorite at the festival. © Gobelins.

Oktapodi

The Octopodi team was composed of Julien Bocabeille, François-Xavier Chanioux, Olivier Delabarre, Thierry Marchand, Quentin Marmier and Emud Mokhberi, who spoke for the group.

HK: Congratulations!

Emud Mokhberi: Thanks. It is an amazing honor to win both the Audience Award and the Best of Show Award at SIGGRAPH. We were quite blown away. We didn't think we had much of a chance when we saw what we were up against, especially the awesome clips from DreamWorks' Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa and Framestore's "Salmon Dance." ??

HK: Both of those were favorites of mine too. Since there was a team of six of you on this film, how did you divide up the jobs?

EM: We were six directors on this film. We first had to pick our group based on the type of film we wanted to make and the medium that we wanted to work in. We were all interested in making a cartoony film that had a good and fast-paced rhythm, a film that was up to par with the previous films coming out of Gobelins in recent years, such as Le Building and Burning Safari, and a film that was fresh and original. We were also interested in exploring 3D animation and applying what we had learned in 2D to push that medium a little bit. We brainstormed and developed the story as a team, but once production started, we divided the tasks based on everyone's strengths, wants and time. The only phase other than the story that we divided up evenly was the character animation. However, we would meet at least once a week to look at our progress, so even though the work was done by one person, it was directed by the entire group. The only drawback to this is the amount of time spent in meetings and discussions.

HK: How does your school operate? Is this your final thesis film? How long did you have to work on it?

EM: The character animation program at Gobelins is a three-year program. During the third year, we spend the first three months on 3D character animation exercises and picking our teams for the graduation films, and then the last seven months on making the film. ??

HK: This is such a well-told story. Can you talk about how you developed it? What was your inspiration?

EM: We developed it through endless hours of brainstorming and storyboarding and re-boarding. I believe the initial idea was about two octopi who are in love and get separated. We thought that the idea of an octopus as a protagonist seemed fresh, and that the animal lent itself to comical situations that we haven't seen before. We were inspired by all the great work that has been done and is being done in animation around the world, and by the research that we had done for our film.

?

HK: None of you eats calamari, do you?

EM: I'm not sure I can speak for all of us, but I love calamari, especially fried, with salt and some fresh lemon. I would never think of eating an octopus though.

HK: Well, I suppose if you want to get technical, squid are different than octopi, but I bet they would be pretty cute too if you guys animated them… So have you all graduated now?

EM: We all graduated and Julien and Thierry are currently working as character animators at the new DreamWorks project in Bangalore, India. François-Xavier is in Nice working on backgrounds for A Monster in Paris, directed by Bibo Bergeron. Olivier is doing animation at Neomis in Paris. Quentin worked at a boutique house in Paris called Add a Dog as a generalist, but is looking to move to California. I just recently moved back to Los Angeles and am now looking for work. We are also talking about the possibility of making another film together. ??

HK: I would say Gobelins is one of the best CGI schools in the world. You and Supinfocom are in a neck-and-neck race. Why do you think France has such great animation schools? What do you think is particularly effective about Gobelins' program?

EM: This is difficult to answer, as there are many things that make the French schools different from American ones. The most obvious factor that gives Gobelins and Supinfocom an advantage is that the films are made in teams rather than individually. This tends to more closely simulate the environment of a real production because other people are depending on your work. There is a sense of responsibility towards your peers, which pushes you even harder. Beyond that, Gobelins is fortunate enough to select its students from a large talent pool and only about one in 20 applicants are accepted. They require that their students come in with extremely high 2D graphic skills and then they focus on teaching them movement, acting and storytelling. The curriculum is organized such that everything that a student does during the week deals in one way or another with the current exercise or film that they are working on. Finally, there is the "French touch," which I am not qualified to talk about, as I am an American!

Heather Kenyon is currently a consultant specializing in animation and children's media. She is the former senior director of development, original series at Cartoon Network, where she focused on the development of animated comedy, comedy adventure, action adventure and live-action series for children 6-11 years old. Prior to joining Cartoon Network, she was editor-in-chief of Animation World Network. A graduate of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, Kenyon began her career in animation at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons.

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