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"Arthur and the Invisibles" is, ironically, the most visible movie product in France at present, as a giant promotional campaign has seen Luc Besson's silver-haired imp smiling out from magazine covers, hoardings and even bank facades.

Buf Compagnie, the special-effects house that produced the animated sections, is hoping the movie's high profile will have a knock-on effect for its fortunes.

After a distinguished track record on such big-budget, English-language pictures as "Alexander," "Fight Club" and the "Matrix" trilogy, "Arthur" is Buf's biggest Gallic contract to date.

The movie involved 27 months' work for a team of 250 specially hired animators. Using software developed in-house, Buf created its own way of working to render the magical world of Arthur. "We didn't look at what Pixar, DreamWorks and others are doing," company boss Pierre Buffin says.

Since Buf was working with a live-action director, it was decided to have the scenes acted out in real life with a dozen video cameras rolling. The animators then observed the action from the various angles to render their images on computer screens.

"We succeeded in finding our own style, which is closer to marionettes than a computer-generated 3-D image, which I don't like," Buffin says. "And the director is comfortable because he's still working with cameras and actors."

Buffin says his company brought in the animation and effects work about 30% under the initial budget, which was in the low-eight-figure range. "But I want people to knock on our door for the quality, not because we work at a discount," he says.

Despite the success of "Arthur" in France and several other top-flight projects in the works, including the Vin Diesel starrer "Babylon A.D.," Buffin says his company is struggling to maintain share as a simple service provider.

"Buf used to be the biggest in Europe, but now we're surpassed by several U.K. companies. If we want to exist and become a real studio, we have to produce ourselves," he says.

The company has five projects that it is developing in-house, one with "Amelie" producer Claudie Ossard. Three are literary adaptations destined for animated films, one from a Jules Vernes novel, another from Lewis Carroll. Buf also has two live-action projects in the works.

Buf is already in discussions with U.S. studios on some of the projects and is in the process of producing pilots. "I hope ('Arthur') shows the studios that they have another possible partner," Buffin says.

His case will be strengthened if "Arthur" can replicate its success on home turf when the Weinstein Co. bows the film in limited release Friday in the U.S.

Charles Masters can be reached at cmasters@wanadoo.fr
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