The directors and producers of four feature films reveal the secrets of the work that goes on behind the scenes. Some made a pilot to attract exhibitors, others worked on a multimedia business model. Some focused on creating a storyboard, videoboard, or a colour script, others based their work on live action shots.
After having looked at the strategies of studios concerning their working methods, this session explored, using the examples of 4 features at varying stages of development, the artistic, economic and technical visions of 5 directors and producers, focusing on the main challenges they are or were faced with.
Soul Man is an ambitious stereo 3D animated feature film with a transmedia approach by Guillaume Ivernel and his company, Blacklight Movies. Before working on this film he made Dragon Hunters, with Arthur Qwak in 2008 for a budget of €12M (Futurikon).
"We had almost 600 000 entries in France, and the film was the fifth highest ranking in terms of entries for French films in the world that year", said Guillaume Ivernel. Soul Man is inspired from a personal experience, and also has its sources in the character of Barbarella, created for Jean-Claude Forest’s graphic novel: a female character with an undeniable erotic power. For Soul Man, Guillaume Ivernel insisted on working with novelist Caryl Ferey, author of Zulu. It was on reading the biography of Hollywood producer Robert Evans that Ivernel decided to go into production: "during the golden age of Hollywood, most producers came from the grass roots, a fact which gave them a certain understanding of the reality of our own individual activities with all the constraints they have within them".
The first stumbling block was wanting to be both producer and director, which encountered some negative feedback, particularly given the project’s ambitions. To convince people Guillaume Ivernel decided to makean 8-minute pilot costing €1M. To optimise this budget as much as possible, and strengthened by his experience, Guillaume Ivernel chose to have a complete previsualisation of the pilot at Les Androïds Associés. Apart from a very detailed storyboard, a number of video references were used to create an extremely precious working document, which was then handed over to the animators.
He also included Digimage, along with Def2Shoot, Piste Rouge and XLRender. "To maintain the production deadlines, we sent out the rendering of the CGI sequences to XLRender, based in Switzerland, Lyon and the US. The pilot was made with Maya for the modelling and mental ray for the rendering. The recording of the American voices was done in the studios of Piste Rouge, who also did the 7.1 mix and sound design".
Guillaume Ivernel is currently working on financing (€30M) his feature, and is planning on making a trilogy in the transmedia universe: "transmedia, multiplatform, marketing, branding and licensing deployments are the main elements in the Blacklight Movies’ strategy around the Soul Man concept. The main idea is to position, exploit and monetarise the film’s assets as a real franchise and a real brand, available on several media (cinema, games, TV, books, mobiles, PCs, tablets, clothing, goodies, toys, etc.), each with its own appropriate content".
One of the main aspects of Soul Man business model is to leverage a sustainable cultural franchise, exploiting several existing and future media (MMORPG, e-business, virtual goodies, toys and figurines, music, TV and web programmes on demand in partnership with major brands, groups, television stations and distributers). "The concept is not to exploit a film licence, but to have a sustainable cultural franchise, which can create content, is in constant movement, adapting to new audiences and new media".
Collodi’s novel is one of the most translated in the world. Surprisingly, although the author is Italian, it has never been adapted in animation in Europe. "We had the Disney version, which is wonderful, but which gives a rose-tinted image as it corresponds to the time when it was made, and is also a very American vision", said director Enzo d'Alò, for whom this is his fifth feature. "I took the book as my starting point, and very quickly the idea of working with Lorenzo Mattotti became obvious. In 1993 he published an illustrated version of the book and I found that his approach, his texture, perfectly matched what I was looking to do". In 2001, Alò presented a pilot of Pinocchio, but competition with Roberto Benigni’s live action project meant that he had to put his own film on hold.
The film, which should be released in 2012, is coproduced by Cometa Film (Italie), Iris Productions (Luxembourg), 2d3D Animations (France) and Walking The Dog (Belgium). It is supported by the Région Poitou-Charentes and the Département de la Charente. It has been pre-bought by CANAL+, TPS Star, Ciné Cinéma and will be distributed by Gebeka Films.
The main challenge for Alò, who is used to working in traditional animation, was to switch to a totally paper-free system. "After several tests, we finally chose to use Toon Boom softwarewhich is more usually used for series than for features, but which is closer to my own sensitivities than other tools. We had many discussions with the development teams to make it even more coherent for the production".
The first change was the storyboard. Enzo d'Alò explained that "in my first four films I worked with a team of 6 or 7 people, sequence by sequence. Here I have a storyboard supervisor, with whom we have already designed a pre-board. I have also produced a number of drawings with Lorenzo Mattotti, that we have scanned in PSD format, to be used as references. The storyboard took almost 10 months to resemble the final vision".
Alò also added Lucio Dallo’s original music and the English voices to the storyboard, creating what he calls the videoboard, which became, in a way, "the film’s bible. It lays down the rhythm of the animation, the camera movements. In short, it is a very precious document". Alò also focused on Mattotti’s colours and textures, "that we tried to reproduce in Photoshop, particularly the grain. It took a great deal of work on the levels and on transparency. The advantage of digitising is that we can play around with the layers, even later on in the production".
The layout, done by Walking The Dog, in Belgium, needed the addition of a "small team to clean-up the images".
After presenting an extract of the videoboard from the green fisherman sequence, which was not in the Disney version, Enzo d'Alò concluded by explaining that the animation phase will soon be completed. "It is a real challenge for me to work on the computer – it makes me think differently and I need the support of skills I don’t have".
On the question of using English voices for a European film based on an Italian novel, Enzo d'Alò replied that "they are the final voices and have already been recorded in Montreal. The choice of English is purely commercial: we hope it will sell better".
Prima Linea Productions is a company founded by Valérie Schermann and Christophe Jankovic in 1995. They have got several films to their name including U, Fear(s) of the Dark, Loulou et autres loups and more recently The Man in the Blue Gordini. Zarafa is a 2D feature which tells the true story of a giraffe that was given by the Pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to Charles X, King of France, in around 1830. It was the first giraffe to be imported into France, and ended its days at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris… In the film, a young giraffe, called Zarafa, accompanied by a young boy, called Maki, go on a long journey from the Sudan to Paris, travelling through the desert, the cities of Alexandria and Marseille, by boat and even by hot-air balloon.
"It was the first time we received a script first", explained Valérie Schermann, "with a duo made up of Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christophe Lie, the director of The Man in the Blue Gordini. Rémi, who is used to making live-action films, literally fell in love with the style of that short film, and the alchemy between the two men has been working perfectly for 2½ years". On the financial side, Zarafa has received investment from Pathé (for the distribution), France 3, CANAL+. "Everything went very quickly with Scope Pictures a tax-shelter, we entrusted the animation to a Belgian studio, under the guidance of Satjit Matharu, who has worked on a number of films, such as Curious George or Nocturna."
Before starting the production of this historic story, the production wanted to do a lot of research to guarantee authenticity in terms of the pre-Haussmann architecture, and also in the costumes and other props. A lot of research was also done with sculptures to serve as reference guides for the animators. The storyboard phase was initiated by the duo, with "Rémi giving the outlines, and Jean-Christophe finalising the whole", said Christophe Jankovic. All in all, it took five months to complete this phase. As always, the dramatic construction of the characters was based on the voices, which were recorded beforehand, there again to help the animators in their work. Among the voices are Simon Abkarian, François-Xavier Demaison and Fellag.
On the initiative of Jean-Christophe Lie, the production decided to set up a team of experienced animators at the storyboard phase who took part in all the phases of making the film – once again for the pipeline to be optimised later on in production. In parallel, a colourscript meant that it was possible to define all the chromatic atmospheres of the film, avoiding the problems of too many night scenes. "It was not obvious on reading the script, but the colourscript proved how useful it is. We changed some sequences to day scenes so that the atmosphere wasn’t too dark".
The rest of the production went very smoothly, and the film should be released in France in February 2012. Christophe Jankovic noted that an increasing number of live-action directors are moving into animation, such as Patrice Leconte (for The Suicide Shop). "I think that they have a great deal to contribute in terms of camera angles, framing and directing the performances. The Zarafa twosome have proved this".
Directed by Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando, Chico & Rita ells is a love story between a Cuban jazz player and his muse, a singer, in late 1940s Havana and the United States. Music has a dominant role and is the backbone of the film, even in the direction. "The initial choice was to use jazz standards, but Fernando Trueba thought that it would be just another compilation, but with pictures", said Tono Errando. "So we decided to get famous musicians, such as Bebo Valdés, Idania Valdés, Jimmy Heath or Michael Mossman, to compose original music in the period style".
The film was designed in 2D, although a number of 3D elements were integrated. Thousands of photos of Havana were used as reference documents for the layout teams. Alongside this, the three directors decided to film the sequences in live-action, with real actors, covered with trackers to capture the camera angles. The shots where then edited in Final Cut Pro to become the live version of the animatic. "We never had the intention of using rotoscopy", explained Tono Errando, "although it would have made the work much easier".
Around two frames for each second of live-action footage were done in TVPaint , before they were integrated into the animatic. These images were then printed and integrated into a traditional 2D production pipeline, with rough animation, animation keys, ink and paint cleaning before compositing. The live-action footage was also used to create the backgrounds, in 2D, 2½ D or 3D. All the 2D animation and colouring were done using Toon Boom Harmony.
One of the many particularities of the production was that 7 studios were involved, with a total of more than 200 artists: Estudio Mariscal in Barcelona, Animagic Studios in Madrid, Lightstar Studios in Brazil, Magic Light Pictures on the Isle of Man, HolyCow! Animation in the Philippines, Jet Media in Latvia and Kecskemét Film in Hungary. To build safe and fluid bridges between the 7 studios and 26 workflows, the production chose to use HoBSoftproduction tracking software. After deciding on a single file format structure and choosing to use Toon Boom Harmony, the HoBSoft teams set up a task automation pipeline, managed in one single environment. This meant that each studio could deposit their work as it came in, and the validation processes of the directors or supervisors were visible by everyone. Versioning is often a source of mistakes, but this problem was removed with the history of the modifications on all the assets. With this the studios were able to see which was the latest version to work on.
"The singularity of the subject and the production method forced us to find new ways of finalising the production of Chico & Rita, in 18 months, without compromising quality at all", concluded Tono Errando.