French postproduction powerhouses

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Buf Compagnie

Buf Compagnie founder and president Pierre Buffin really knows how to make time fly. Buf created the "bullet-time" computer-enhanced slow-motion special effect for a Michel Gondry-directed music video and eventually moved its method to the big screen for the "Matrix" trilogy (1999-2003). The ground-breaking look involves a virtual camera speeding through thousands of takes of the filmed scene from any angle, creating a "freezing effect" for the viewer.

The firm has been a high-profile postproduction and special effects partner with American producers for years, building an impressive resume that includes 2004's "Van Helsing," 2005's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" and 2006's "Silent Hill" and "United 93." The company, which also produced the animated sections of Luc Besson's 2006 computer-generated/live-image-animated blockbuster "Arthur and the Invisibles," employs 200 people who work out of a facility equipped with more than a thousand processors, allowing the effects superstars to manage a number of projects simultaneously.

Buf uses only in-house-developed software and is reputed in the field for its team's hands-on, innovative approach to effects and animation. "We're different than other production houses since we design all of our own effects, which is why we're still around," Buffin explains.

In Christopher Nolan's 2006 magician drama "The Prestige," Buf employed a few tricks of its own. Since, according to Buffin, Nolan (with whom Buffin worked on 2005's "Batman Begins") was aiming for subtle effects, Buffin and his team worked to ensure true onscreen "magic."
"As soon as the special effect has the upper hand, you lose the essence of the story," Buffin explains. "We try to tell a story rather than show it. The thrill of my job is finding new ways of expression."

Eclair Group

In 1907, the Eclair Group began developing film and producing 35mm prints for theatrical releases. Now 100 years later, the company has become a full-service moviemaking mecca, offering filmmakers its state-of-the-art studios and labs. Recently, Eclair has made enormous strides in the move from analog to fully digital production and postproduction workflow.

The group, which has 19 subsidiaries including Centrimage, Ercidan, GTC, Tele Europe and Teletota, has become a one-stop shop for all things movies, from the beginning stages of development to film studios to postproduction effects and then later, sound, digitalization, video-on-demand, subtitling, dubbing and storage.

In 2001, the lab digitally postproduced Jean-Christophe Grange and Pitof's "Vidocq," the first feature-length film in Europe to be shot entirely using the new Sony HD digital camera. With more than 60 Avid stations, Eclair also operates the largest editing facility in France and holds the top title among French release print labs, with more than 140 million meters of 35mm film printed annually for major international productions such as 2005's "Munich" and 2006's "Marie Antoinette" and "The Science of Sleep." The group also pioneered the digital intermediate process by realizing the first 2K and 4K digital movies ever postproduced in Europe. It has also welcomed a number of international projects to its high-tech digital labs, including 2006's "Arthur and the Invisibles" and "Asterix and the Vikings," the latest chapter of the popular film series, as well as last year's Festival de Cannes favorite "Paris, je t'aime," which is set for release stateside next month. Eclair also provided full color grading for 2004's "Alexander."

Eclair's vast technology allows its team to pick and choose among visual effects techniques, depending on the film at hand. For current Gallic boxoffice hit "Taxi 4," for example, all of the car sequences were shot on green backing, with 400 shots processed in Eclair's effects department for two months. The company then added a few 3-D shots in order to re-create parts of the taxi when it transforms into a racing car. For Alain Resnais' latest drama "Private Fears in Public Places," bowing stateside Friday for distributor IFC First Take, the team was able to create an entire section of Paris covered in snow by mixing half of the film -- already digitally graded -- with other scenes realized in traditional grading.

"They do good work," says Patricia Colombat, head of postproduction at Mandarin Films, who worked with Eclair on last year's hit comedy "Brice de Nice" and the current French boxoffice sensation "Hellphone," both directed by James Huth. "The team at Eclair was always available and worked hand-in-hand with James on both projects. It was a directly collaborative effort between the director and the graphic artists."

Mac Guff

Prevent Francois Cluzet from being run over by a truck on the highway, give new skin to an Egyptian baby, help a hippopotamus play guitar on a dog and remove a famous French actor's mustache. That's all in a day's work at Mac Guff, a visual effects house and animation studio based in Paris and Los Angeles. Mac Guff is a leading European digital effects facility that specializes in animation and realistic rendering, with a full-service offshoot in Los Angeles that is designed to really focus on its American clients and create a strong pipeline with its more than 100 Paris-based artists. Mac Guff's resume includes 2003's "Irreversible," 2004's "Renegade," 2005's "Unleashed," 2006's "Bandidas" and Guillaume Canet's four-time 2007 Cesar winner "Tell No One."

The company's forte lies in 3-D animation and photorealism, but it also excels in character animation, compositing, flame grading, morphing, dynamics, rendering and visual effects. Mac Guff prides itself on its creativity and distinct approach to individual projects.

"We're less rigid, less formatted than American companies," executive producer Arnaud Boulard says. "Our approach is to combine our own tools with commercial solutions that already exist."

Adds visual effects supervisor Martial Vallanchon, "The effects that no one can notice -- that's what we strive for. Invisible effects."

Lately, Mac Guff has been focusing more on CGI animation.

The company was responsible for the effects in Michel Ocelot's 2006 critically acclaimed melange of 2-D and 3-D animation "Azur & Asmar" and is currently working on another animated feature called "Dragon Hunter."

"We've done many different things together -- from full 3-D to compositing to animation to matte painting," "Renegade" director Jan Koenen says. "My experience with Mac Guff is, above all, the construction of a relationship over the years."

La Maison

La Maison means "the home" in French, and, appropriately, the digital visual effects company by the same name would like to make directors feel right at home. "The company philosophy is to embrace our clients, local and international, by working together with the directors to create some of the most ambitious visual effects possible to imagine," La Maison CEO Annie Dautane says.

In addition to a thriving ad-campaign department, La Maison has been busy developing its features department, whose resume includes 2003's "Demonlover," Steve Barron's 2004 Emmy-winning drama "DreamKeeper" and the 2005 production "Skyfighters."

La Maison provides realistic visual effects such as action shots or explosions as well as more dreamlike visions such as imaginary creatures or virtual worlds. "The most challenging and exciting part of what we do is having clients who ask us to create new images from what they have in their imagination," Dautane says.

Although the company's experience with U.S. firms has been mostly ad-based, La Maison hopes to expand internationally as far as features are concerned. "We're looking to work with the U.S., including getting involved in the visual effects of major productions where most of the effects are done in the states," Dautane says. "The aim is not to be competitive but to be complementary -- what sets La Maison apart is that our technicians have artistic backgrounds and adapt the technical aspects to the artistic and not the other way around."

Mikros Image

In 2000, Mikros Image was a struggling effects house, but all that changed after an avalanche struck. Only two years after the French post house opened its digital visual effects and finishing facility, director Mathieu Kassovitz and his "The Crimson Rivers" (2001) visual effects supervisor Christian Guillon asked the company to use CG technology to create a realistic avalanche, destroying everything in its path, including the film's actors, who were shot on a greenscreen. The stakes were high, and funds were low, but Mikros took on the project.

"We had limited experience in full-CG atmospheric effects at the time, and our visual effects team and R&D had to rise up to this fascinating challenge," CEO Maurice Prost says. "The result largely met the expectations of the director, and the film was successful."

Mikros was founded in 1985 and has been developing DI and visual effects for feature films since 1998 with its fully functional visual effects department. The company, which consists of more than 100 employees, acquires and develops its own in-house software for image creation and project management. Mikros handles all postproduction and finishing -- from 2-D and 3-D CGI to digital video compositing to desktop SFK work and sound mixing, in addition to all combinations of shooting-based and final video-based techniques, both HD and film with digital color grading.

Mikros also was responsible for the 2,000 lemmings that appeared in the nightmare sequence in Dominik Moll's controversial release "Lemming," which opened the 2005 Festival de Cannes. For the film, the effects team used about 20 shots and, for the first time, created small animals with real fur in full CG. "No one, except for specialists perhaps, suspected that these shots were faked," Prost says.

For now, Mikros is in discussion to work on several American projects, but Prost emphasizes that his post house is not looking to compete with big American companies but rather to collaborate with them. "I think that we could handle, without a problem, the visual effects of average American films. We have the technical and human means, and we are competitive in terms of budget," he says.

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