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Searching for That Special French Vfx Touch

Alain Bielik surveys the expanding 3D world in France.

Rodolphe Chabrier and his Mac Guff Ligne lead the French vfx revolution with impressive work like Blueberry. © 2004 Mac Guff Ligne for UGC Images/Ajoz Films/La Petite Reine.

Rodolphe Chabrier and his Mac Guff Ligne lead the French vfx revolution with impressive work like Blueberry. © 2004 Mac Guff Ligne for UGC Images/Ajoz Films/La Petite Reine.

They have never had the chance to produce work on the scale of what is being done in Hollywood, but none will argue that, in terms of creativity, virtuosity and color, French vfx artists are hard to beat. Is it due to the fact that they have far more creative freedom than, say, American artists? Is it because, when working on a commercial, they always deal with the director, not with the agency? Or is it because a French CG artist is several years in the training? Perhaps all of this and more.

One of the most respected French studios is Mac Guff Ligne, a company co-founded in 1986 by visual effects director Rodolphe Chabrier. Right from the start, the studio broke new ground by producing what was probably the first full CG series ever, Animals. From then on, they never stopped innovating, relying on a powerful suite of in-house software. Our whole pipeline is now proprietary, although we do use other tools such as Maya, Chabrier says. The decision was an economical one: using in-house tools has allowed us to expand our workforce we now own about 300 workstations without having to worry about software licenses. It was also a creative one: being able to modify our tools on a daily basis has put us in a position where we could easily adapt our technology to the demands of our clients.

As Chabrier is quick to point out, Mac Guff is one of the few companies that didnt suffer too much from the current crisis of the visual effects market in France. Since 2001, budgets have shrunken dramatically, and major projects have been cancelled. As a result, several effects powerhouses (Duboi, Mikros Images) have filed for bankruptcy, while others have entirely disappeared (Medialab, Ex Machina). It is a difficult time for visual effects studios, especially if your activity is focused on the French market, Chabrier admits. Fortunately, Mac Guff does 70% of its business in foreign markets, mainly Japan and the United States. In those territories, projects are financially more rewarding than what has now become the norm for commercials in France.

Less Clients, More Competition

The other issue that Mac Guff is facing is the increased competition between effects vendors in France. Ten years ago, digital effects were produced by a handful of large companies, but today, many boutique shops have entered the market, and these newcomers have definitely hurt the big players. To make matters even worse, the explosion of digital technology has allowed production companies to set up their own visual effects departments. People that used to be regular clients are now producing a large part of their effects in-house

In this new business environment, Mac Guffs strategy relies more than ever on innovation. The only way for us to survive is to do very well the things that very few people can do, Chabrier observes. We have to offer state-of-the art visual effects, along with creative input on every aspect of a production. Providing our clients with a global approach makes a real difference. I should mention that the core group of people that started Mac Guff is still here today. It means that we bring almost two decades of experience of the field to any given project, which no boutique shop or in-house unit can do. Besides high end contracts, we also target simpler projects that must be produced on a very tight deadline: thanks to our versatile staff and massive processing power, we are able to deliver high quality work in a time frame that is unreachable for most of the other studios.

Jean-Christophe Bernard and Sparx* fell into 3D animation through a chance encounter. Courtesy of and © Sparx*.

Jean-Christophe Bernard and Sparx* fell into 3D animation through a chance encounter. Courtesy of and © Sparx*.

Although Mac Guffs activity is mainly focused on commercials and music videos, the company also tackles feature films and TV work. Their psychedelic work on Blueberry has impressed their peers, while their character animation for A Species Odyssey has set a new standard for CGI on French television. To be honest, these projects are not really viable from an economical point of view, Chabrier admits, but they keep the staff busy and they add high profile credits to our resume. They also offer opportunities to break new ground as commercials have become increasingly calibrated. Indeed, Mac Guff has embarked onto several ambitious feature film projects, including character animation on a prehistoric comedy and a CG-animated movie by Michel Ocelot (Kirikou and the Sorceress). On the latter, our mission is to produce CG animation that wont look like CGI, Chabrier adds. Its the kind of unusual challenge that we love to tackle. After all, we founded Mac Guff because we just loved doing visual effects!

The Coming of CG Animation

As explained by Chabrier, the market for visual effects in France has significantly decreased in recent years. On the other hand, CG animation seems to be on the rise and one of the major players in this field is Sparx*, a company co-founded in 1995 by Jean-Christophe Bernard. Initially, the founders ambition was to produce digital effects for feature films, but an encounter with the developer of a 3D animation software led them to CG animation instead. It was plain luck that we took this path, as we found a sweet spot in the market, Bernard explains. We got our breakthrough with Rolie Polie Olie, an Emmy Award-winning TV series that was sold in more than one hundred countries. It established us as a provider of large volume and quality CG animation. We recently applied this know-how to Twice Upon A Christmas, a full CG feature film that will be released in November as a direct-to-video by Disney. We produced 1/3 of the animation, while Blur Studios tackled the rest in the United States. It was an interesting experience as we got to compare our production methodologies. We mostly work on a Maya/RenderMan/inferno-flame pipeline.

Sparx* produced an advertising campaign for recycling recently. © 2004-H5.

Sparx* produced an advertising campaign for recycling recently. © 2004-H5.

Working for a major company in the United States has given Sparx* a taste of American-sized budgets. In France, our clients want their effects done for 10% of the price that we ask for, Bernard remarks. When we are lucky, they will go up to 50% and, once a while, there will be a high profile project on which we will get 70% of our initial bid. This is especially true on feature film projects. On the Disney movie, we were awarded a budget that we could never have hoped for in France. The difference is the market of the movie: a Disney production is released worldwide, while a French production has a limited number of foreign markets in which the investment can be recouped.

The situation has led Sparx* to open an office in the United States, hoping to attract clients with its distinctive French touch. The studio is facing tough competition from British effects companies who benefits from tax-incentive programs. Producers can save up to 10 or 15% of their budget if they assign the larger part of their visual effects work to a British company a mechanism that is judged illegal by French authorities. Since the sales and lease-back program has been implemented, the British effects industry has exploded, notes Bernard. In reality, artists in the U.K. cost much more than their equivalent in France, but because of this tax mechanism, they keep getting huge contracts from Hollywood.

Attitude Studio, the largest CG animation studio in Europe, is working on Renaissance, a CG-animated feature film co-produced by Touchstone. © Onyx Films/Millimages/Tinefirm Ltd./Luxonimation/F2 Cinema.

Attitude Studio, the largest CG animation studio in Europe, is working on Renaissance, a CG-animated feature film co-produced by Touchstone. © Onyx Films/Millimages/Tinefirm Ltd./Luxonimation/F2 Cinema.

The Asian Connection

In order to be able to compete, Sparx* made the unique decision of setting up an animation unit in Vietnam. The studio acquired an existing cel animation company and trained the animators for 3D work. The unit now has a staff of 125, while the Parisian headquarters house between 50 and 100 artists. Obviously, the purpose is to lower the cost of 3D animation, Bernard explains. The labor cost is much lower in Vietnam, but the talent is real. In this regard, I am concerned about the emergence of visual effects companies in Eastern Europe and Asia. Within five years, they will have gained enough know-how to really compete with us at a fraction of the cost. The only way for us to preserve our market share is to keep on increasing the quality of our work.

Although Bernard acknowledges that Sparx* doesnt make any money on French-produced feature films, the company still accepts the assignments: We hope that, one day, French cinema will produce more effects-driven movies. With this perspective in mind, we have to position our studio on this market. Unfortunately, 99% of French filmmakers have no interest in visual effects. They favor intellectual, character-driven movies, which is not a bad thing in itself. It is just frustrating to see that all the projects we wish we could work on are produced in Hollywood or in London, knowing that we could do at least as good a job.

Knocking on Americas Door

Two other French digital effects companies have opened office in the United States, both successively represented by Valerie Delahaye. The French-born CG manager offers a unique point of view on the industry, having worked at executive level on both sides of the Atlantic. A former 3D manager at Digital Domain, Delahaye joined French effects powerhouse Buf in 1999 as a production manager in California and coordinated high profile projects such as the two Matrix sequels and Oliver Stones upcoming Alexander. She now is director of business development for America at Attitude Studio, a newcomer that has become the largest CG animation studio in Europe. The company is presently at work on Renaissance, a CG-animated feature film co-produced by Touchstone, and is also animating a new TV series called Skyland. With 80% of its clients in America, Attitude Studio was little hurt by the current crisis of the French market. In fact, it has a staff of 150 in France, plus another 30 artists in Luxembourg. That makes it a real giant by French standards.

In my opinion, character animation is the future of visual effects, Delahaye says. France has all it needs to become a major player in this market. French artists offer a unique blend of technical expertise and artistic sensibility. The country is blessed with amazing animation schools in which students are taught the art of movement, but also art as a whole. They learn much more than how to use the tools; they learn how to create, how to innovate. The result can be seen in the demo reels of companies such as Buf, Mac Guff or Attitude Studio: everybody is copying them!

Specialization vs. Versatility

Delahaye also noticed a major disparity between France and America in the approach of CG pipelines: In the United States, artists are specialized in one area: if you are good in tracking, you will do tracking and only tracking. In France, it is quite different. Artists are welcome to tackle different parts of an effect. Having first hand experience of every step of the creative process adds a lot to their expertise. This is one of the reasons why most of the French artists who come to work in the United States eventually go back home. They have far more opportunities to be creative in France. Actually, it is not unusual there for one artist to tackle a complete shot from modeling to rendering. Mac Guffs Chabrier is even known to have almost single-handedly produced entire CG-animated commercials!

In the TV world, Attitude is animating the series Skyland. © Method Films, Nine Story Ent., France 2, Luxonimation.

In the TV world, Attitude is animating the series Skyland. © Method Films, Nine Story Ent., France 2, Luxonimation.

In a market that is becoming increasingly global, French effects studios have yet to learn to play the game by American rules. When we bid on a project, we are completely honest, as a respect for our clients, Delahaye notes. For example, we tell them that we need six months to do the job. Then, an American studio comes in and claims that it needs five months only and they get the job. However, once the contract is signed, they will take any excuse to extend their deadline, adding a day here and another day there. In the end, it will take them eight months to do the job two months more than us and the client will be contractually obliged to pay them anyway! I have seen it happen several times! Plus, Delahayes work has been made very difficult due to the British lease-back mechanism: I actually had producers telling me that they wanted to work with a particular French company, but were obliged by the lease-back to work with a British studio

Breaking New Ground

Along with other effects powerhouses Duboi, Mikros, La Maison and Éclair Numérique, one of the busiest studios in town remains Buf. The prestigious company can always rely on its world-class demo reel to attract clients from across the globe. Co-founded in 1984 by Pierre Buffin, the studio is hard at work on two feature films, producing more than 200 shots for Alexander and animating the synthetic characters of Luc Bessons production of Arthur et les Minimoys. When it comes out in 2006, the latter is certain to break new ground with its innovative blend of technologies. Arthur et les Minimoys tells the tale of a young boy who is reduced to lilliput size and discovers a whole world of very little people the Minimoys living secretly in his grandmothers garden. It was actually first a best-selling children book written by Besson. The first volume will be published in the U.S. in May 2005 by Harper-Collins.

The movie will feature digital characters integrated into virtual environments that will be 3D reproductions created via image-based rendering of miniature set pieces. This unique approach allows the director to move the camera freely in the environment, while retaining the texture quality of the models. Who would have expected less from the studio who pioneered the first use of the so-called bullet time technique on a film-based project? That was for a Rolling Stone music video, three years before similar effects in The Matrix were deemed revolutionary by memory-less medias

Alain Bielik is the founder and special effects editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He contributes to various French publications and occasionally to Cinefex. He is also art directing a special effects exhibition that will take place next year at the International Museum of Miniature in Lyon, France.