3-D Animation in France
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by Olivier Cotte
It has been said that four countries have provided leadership in 3-D computer
animation: the United States, Japan, Canada and France. One could expand
that list to include other countries, such as England; but in any case,
France is certainly one of the leaders.
A Little Bit of History
Three-D computer animation is not new in France. Its history goes back to
the 1960s and the experimental works of Peter Foldes at Service de recherche
de l'ORTF, an experimental art/technology lab run by Pierre Schaeffer. (Its
beginning, of course, actually dates back to the flight simulators used
by the French Army, which are much the same as those that now run on personal
computers.) Soon after, a firm called Sogitec emerged from this prehistoric
period and eventually became the largest company of its kind in Europe,
and is now known as Ex Machina.
At the time, more than 15 years ago, the computers being used were big,
expensive and slow. The pictures Sogitec/Ex Machina generated were flat,
ugly and expensive. Very few classically trained were interested in this
new way of making films.
In the early 1980s, the French government gave a lot of money to spur the
growth of this new industry and a film festival, Imagina, was set up to
showcase 3-D pictures from all around the world.
Production companies, and especially post-production companies, began to
buy equipment to produce 3-D pictures for TV commercials and advertising.
They used, and still use today, a very complete software package called
Explore, from Thomson Digital Image (a division of Thomson, a French company
specializing in computer and hi-fi equipment). And when these companies
could not find the right software to create the images they wanted, they
wrote one themselves.
Today's Hardware and Software
As is customary elsewhere, a variety of software is used in France. A large
percentage run on Silicon Graphic work stations, a platform that uses the
old, but powerful Unix operating system. It is a very flexible platform,
which allows each individual animator to customize his or her own setup
with small, personalized programs. The amount of software that runs on UNIX
is large and today even includes small applications written for personal
computers. These work stations are often linked with PCs and Macintoshes,
where one can prepare the "maps" (the textures you can see on
the shapes of the 3-D objects). Frequently, several programs are used in
making a single film: each one has its own niche, as an all-purpose software
still doesn't exist.
The hardware and software used today are the same around the world. The
main exception being the in-house software developed for internal use at
various companies. For instance, MacGuffline has developed an excellent
program to do morphing; Duran has a program that quickly integrates several
layers of imagery, while Ex Machina has one that one can handle muscle distortion;
K.O. Kid was made at Buff with software that creates an animation
of a "3-D flat" character; etc., etc.
Who Works in 3-D?
Dino Island produced by Ex Machine for Iwerks
© Iwerks Entertainment
Different kind of people work in 3-D: There
are those who model the shape and volume of objects (an object can be anything
you want-a character, an animal, furniture, etc.), others paint textures,
animate and do the lighting.
For complicated shapes (like animals), artists start by sculpting the objects
with plaster. Then, the object "appears" in the computer by inputting
coordinates from a series of points drawn on the shape with a special pen
linked to the computer.
Today, more and more traditionally trained animators are coming into 3-D
animation. An increasing number of artists who create textures come from
a traditional painting background. In other words, these two separate worlds
are now becoming one. The war between the two universes (traditional/computer)
There is a new way to animate, known as motion capture, which has been around
for a few years. It's a kind of "rotoscoping" that involves shooting
a real person in a special studio, with sensors attached to key points on
the body (with some on the clothes or even the skin). The system provides
a computer all a person's coordinates while he or she is moving, which can
then be reproduced by the computer with great accuracy. The interesting
thing, of course, is that you can change the character while keeping the
movements intact; for instance, a realistic dancer can be turned into a
cartoon one, while continuing to do the same dance.
Another interesting development, in the field of virtual reality, is being
done at MediaLab. Every day, in France, you can see puppets being animated
in real time on the Canal+ cable network. Two classical puppet animators
wearing data gloves make the character act: one handles body movements,
the other works on the face. Of course, this sort of technique needs a very
powerful computer. More amazing, though, is that the system is used with
an interactive TV game: the players, sitting at home, call in to indicate
the route a pizza delivery man has to take through a city "built"
just for the game, which is seen in 3-D, in real time.
MediaLab, as its name implies, is a kind of laboratory that specializes
in TV production. In the field of virtual reality and real time 3-D animation,
they probably have a two or three year lead over everybody else.
Another spectacular system was created by I.N.A. (Institute National de
l'Audiovisuel). A background, a car, or any other solid object is photographed,
with several graphic targets included on the field or the object itself.
A computer then analyzes the movement with absolute accuracy and you can
then change whatever you want. For instance, you can put a synthetic car
in real landscape (like in a film made for Renault, the French automobile
company), or you can do the exact opposite and create a 3-D landscape for
a real car (used for advertising Italy's Lancia). I worked on these projects
and I can assure you that the system is very impressive.
So, What About the Pictures?
Companies specializing in 3-D each have their own unique styles. If you
want to generate a ride (dynamic cinema) the power of Ex Machina is the
best. If you want to do special effects for 35mm theatrical films, Duran
has the most experience (they just won a prize at Imagina for their work
on La cite des enfants perdus - The city of the lost chidren).
The principal markets for these companies, which include both the domestic
and international markets, are: advertising films (including TV commercials)
done on videotape or 35mm film; the occasional industrial film; special
effects for feature films; TV specials; and films used for theme park rides
and exhibitions. Several studios work on video games, with the most important
company in this area being Cryo.
In Europe, France's major competitors are Great Britain, Italy, Germany
and Switzerland; other European countries have 3-D computer animation industries,
but most highly developed are in the UK or France. It is to these two countries
that European producers usually come to get to realize their projects.
© Olivier Cotte
Things have changed considerably since the first experiments came out of
the labs in the 1960s. We are now in the industrial age of computer animation.
It's difficult to guess what the future will be. The more advertising agencies
and film producers use these techniques, the more it will generate new talent
and fuel its growth. With the proliferation of personal computers, more
and more independent animators are bound to explore this fascinating world.
Art schools now include special courses in this area; prestigious schools,
such as the Ecole des Beaux Arts de Paris and the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs,
have 3-D computer animation departments. Several general consumer magazines,
including some in television, provide an increasing amount of information
to the public at large. The future is already here. The doors are wide open.
We just have to make it live.
© Olivier Cotte
Olivier Cotte is a Paris-based director and computer animation artist,
whose credits include Terra Igconita.
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