Bill Desowitz checks out the digital delights in Valenciennes, including Supinfocom, the Digital Studios and E-magiciens.
Every year it seems that Supinfocoms stellar student animation is represented at SIGGRAPHs Electronic Theater, and after visiting the school in Valenciennes this past December as part of a tour of DCC in northern France (which is both hospitable and cosmopolitan), its clear why: the students are getting an excellent grounding in storytelling as well as animation production before embarking on prosperous careers. The same can be said of the talented students matriculating from the sister Supinfogame program at the Valenciennes campus, as well as the nearby industrial design school, ISD, the data processing institute, IIE, and the audiovisual cluster from the University of Valenciennes known as DREAM.
Trouble is: its hard to keep the local talent in Valenciennes while trying to attract foreign investment in animation and visual effects. Thats where the Valenciennes Chamber of Commerce comes in. Thanks to its generous financial support and passionate commitment to DCC, Valenciennes is slowly maturing. Five years ago, the chamber was instrumental in the creation of the Digital Studios, which houses 21 firms and employs 130 digital professionals from the area. The chamber initially subsidizes the startups until they become self-sufficient. These include Xelios/E-Software, a leader in biometric systems; GB One, a computer graphics, E-business firm specializing in digital conversion and colorization of mangas; and IP4U, which is devoted to multi-media support for cell phone, PC, videogame, cartoons and TV spot content.
But the chamber isnt stopping there. According to managing director Yves Louze, the chamber is embarking on an export project to Pune, India. Last year, it signed an agreement with a financial partner in Pune to set up a digital training campus involving instructors from Supinfocom, Supinfogame and ISD. They are in the process of finding recruits from these schools to send to Pune, with the ultimate goal of videogame development and the creation of franchises from Valenciennes.
In addition, Louze has an even more ambitious goal for Valenciennes: the creation of a new campus to serve as an animation and digital incubator, which would house Supinfocom, Supinfogame, ISD and IIE. The Technopol, as Louze refers to it, would be built in five phases. But this project would require 30 million Euros for the construction of the campus, and so far the chamber has only 10 million to invest. Louze plans to borrow 10 million and raise the additional 10 million from private financing.
Meanwhile, Supinfocom and Supinfogame continue to evolve in Valenciennes as intensive four-year programs under the enthusiastic leadership of Marie-Anne Fontenier, who also spearheads the local E-magiciens student festival (held Dec. 5-8 last year), organized by the chamber and the Industry of the Valenciennes region.
Supinfocom - Valenciennes initially includes two years of classic design and art instruction before preparing for 3D animation (a sister animation school is located to the south in Arles). There are around 50 students in the program and the production classes are equally divided between Max and Maya concentration (students randomly specialize in one or the other). Individual story ideas are pitched to a faculty committee and 16 projects are approved, with collaborative teams of two or three. According to Fontenier, 3D courses will soon be expanded to allow an extra year to flesh out story and animation.
Carlos Leon is one promising Supinfocom student. Hes from Columbia, where he previously served as an English translator in the army, and has already interned at Framestore CFC. With a week to go before his deadline, hes feverishly finishing his 3D animatic along with his colleagues. His graduate project is called Al Dente (done in Maya) and its about an Italian girl that falls into an ogres kitchen. Children are secretly getting pulled into spaghetti while sleeping. There are dancing meatballs, a saturated, cartoony, Disney style and some Dali character inspiration. Interestingly, the project has evolved from a more philosophical approach because the metaphor of being pulled by strings has already been done to death at Supinfocom. Leon has one more year to go and well certainly be on the lookout for Al Dente on the festival circuit.
At Supinfogame, meanwhile, a second-year videogame class is working on its prototype projects. Like the film projects, they are diverse in nature. They include Griffin Penguin, in which Griffins temperature rises and lowers to fight his enemies; The Core, a sci-fi RTS game; Capucine, a non-violent game about the adventures of a little girl, the last life force on earth; and Dirty Racer, a multiplayer racing game in which the drivers try to avoid getting too dirty.
In nearby Lille, which is in the midst of a festive Bombay tribute, there are digital startups too. Ankama Studio, for instance, has already made a name for itself with the popular multiplayer online role playing game Dofus, which continues to expand beyond its 125,000 subscriber base. In fact, according to founder/director Emmanuel Darras, Ankama will soon be relocating to a larger facility and recruiting more staff to support the launch of additional Flash-based games.
Synthetique, founded by Francois Dequidt, is a small 3D animation studio that is in the midst of R&D on proprietary photorealistic human skin capture, which it hopes to someday license for data library repurposing. Synthetique, meanwhile, which utilizes Vicon technology for its MoCap work, is currently wrapping up a short, Bruno From Mars, which will be available on the Internet.
Wipon, another Lille-based animation studio, is partnered with NVIDIA on a plan to rethink the animation process for 3D cartoons. According to founder Marc Antoine, theyve created a realtime animation engine, Matris, using an NVIDIA Quadro card, which translates XSI into Collada and allows you to change camerawork in realtime. Wipon is currently working on a proof of concept for a kids cooking show.
Meanwhile, back in Valenciennes, the 2006 edition of the E-magiciens student festival provided further proof of Supinfocoms pre-eminence, though there was plenty of representation from other parts of France and Europe too. The three-day program, which took place at the Phenix Theater, was a fast and furious event, marked by screenings of 200 shorts from 34 schools and continuous interactive teamwork known as Chained Animation and Webjam. E-magiciens culminated with a Friday night awards ceremony crammed with students donning flashing lapel pins and hurling paper airplanes at the winners as they took the stage (a French tradition that is distracting at first but then infectious).
Among the shorts honored were Once Upon a Time, Bloodflowers and Telerific Voodoo. Once Upon a Time is a clever manipulation of 3D characters (a giant, lanky hero and a gregarious MC) and clips from John Fords Fort Apache reminiscent of Fast Film. Made by Corentin Laplatte, Jerome Dernoncourt and Samuel Deroubaix of Supinfocom -Valenciennes, Once Upon a Time took the Canal + award, which now owns distribution rights, and was a Jury Best Of selection as well. Bloodflowers, from Timothee Lemoine of EMCA Angouleme, is an intensely graphic work about creation, confinement and liberation. And Telerific Voodoo, from Paul Jadoul of La Cambre Bruxelles, is a bouncy musical tribute to the history of evolution.
An interactive videogame winner was the jovial Pirates of Pelican from ATI, Paris 8s Sylvain Grain, Célia Demere, Vanessa Jorry and Antoine Ferrieux. And The Perfect World was a sly Orwellian satire that was honored in the collaborative Webjam category focusing on ubiquity and Big Brother.
Other highlights of E-magiciens were a special tribute to North American student shorts presented by Shelley Page of DreamWorks and Laura Dohrmann of NVIDIA, and an opening night offering of favorite shorts by guest of honor Michel Ocelot prior to a digital screening of his exquisite new animated feature, Azur et Asmar.
The North American program included Memorial (USC), 9 (UCLA) and Things That Go Bump in the Night (Ringling), and the Ocelot program included Une Bombe par hazard, Next, Au Bout du Monde, Anna et Bella and his own Les Trois Inventeurs.
It is a golden age of animation, Ocelot told VFXWorld. What we need are auteurs and films that touch you in the gut and the heart.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.