The feature film The Evolution Man, produced by Pathé, with Boréales and Marc Miance (Let’So Ya!) as executive producers, is a motion-capture film starring Jamel Debbouze and directed by him. Shot on 60 cameras on a 150m² set, it also uses special headgear for the facial motion capture or mo-cap. For financing and localisation purposes, several characters’ faces were adapted from actors in Italy and China in order to draw in investment money and generate additional buzz for the film’s release in these countries. All of the post-production (lighting, rendering, compositing) was done in India’s Prana studio.
Le Film français
Pathé, Let’So Ya, Miance, Jamel, Mo-cap, motion capture, headcam, key-frame, Androids, master shot, facial capture
At the origin, The Evolution Man is a 1960 novel by Roy Lewis that follows life and (r)evolution in a prehistoric family group. The Boréales production company founded by Frédéric Fougea acquired the screenplay rights about 18 years ago, first intending to shoot a live-action feature before moving toward animation. Marc Miance, of Let’So Ya! mentions in introduction that "this film had three separate lives before its true birth. After optioning for a live-action project, the MacGuff Ligne studio worked on a first development involving key-frame CGI animation and two teams of directors: Pierre Coffin on the one hand, Thomas Szabo and Tanguy de Kermel on the other". Co-produced by Pathé and designed to be cartoon-esque, the film turned out to be quite expensive: "lots of hair, leaves and characters."
When financing proved hard to secure, the initial animation adaptation was dropped. Marc Miance, founder of Let’So Ya !, then came in on the project in 2009. "We decided to call on the French actor and comedian Jamel Debbouze, to help a little with financing." Jamel dove even deeper into the project: from voice-casting the main character to re-writing dialogue, on through to scripting and directing.
The choice of mo-cap was evident. In all, the film has 85 minutes of mo-cap and 10 minutes of key-frame, especially useful for managing characters’ finger movements.
"Above all, you need a connection", Marc Miance notes. "For us, this meant creating a prehistoric ancestor for Jamel. We also needed to allow total freedom for a comedy of this scope, and that meant digital work, while avoiding the 'photorealistic trap'. Last of all, we also needed to leave the actor enough space for him to work behind the camera too."
The second key to the "success" of such a film is to design characters which are not just digital stand-ins. Therefore thorough preparation was done beforehand to create precise links between character design and actor casting so as to flesh out digital characters whose design was based on real actors.
Finally, the aim was to provide a photography and editing angle that were as cinematographic as possible, drawing from real film footage. To succeed, teams of camera operators and editing experts with live-action backgrounds were chosen. "For this we called on the Androids company, founded by former Attitude Studio employees," Marc Miance’s previous studio. The last point meant choosing just the right skin and hair shaders, two crucial features in a "prehistory" story.
For the 2,275 frames of the film, "the average shot lasted 2 to 2.5 seconds. This is close to live-film shoots and shorter than usual in animation."
It took 6 months to physically train the actors; half of the time their acting had to be done while crawling on their knees. These six months were followed by 3 weeks of rehearsal and 45 days on the set.
The latter, 150 m² in size, could accommodate 12 to 15 actors for simultaneous filming. Facial motion capture was done through a headcam set designed by Laurent Martin and Jean-Paul Dasilva. This revolutionary headgear was light, precise and sturdy, weighing in at only 350 grams. It fastened with snaps so it "didn’t give headaches and could fit all different shapes of skulls." A Horus camera recorded the facial acting, while voice recording was done wirelessly, thanks to a HF pouch that actors could slip onto their belts.
The film shoot took place in Stains, on the outskirts of Paris. There were 60 cameras in addition to the headcams, recording with a combined resolution of 240 K for 100 i/s. "At times we had 80 people on the set, with a lot of prep work involved, but it was a fantastic work tool," Marc Miance states. In spite of the mo-cap shoot, the production people wanted to add physical elements to facilitate immersion into the story: a cyclorama 35 x 8 metres was printed as a huge jungle backdrop to set the tone and steel cable background elements served as branches "so there was a magic tie-in between acting and set."
The Manchester company Kubik Motion handled the data processing at 150,000 € for the first pass: "That’s not excessive for a film of this scope", according to Marc Miance. He continues: "The advantage of our facial mo-cap tool is that the direction of gaze is pretty definitive, not like other systems. This is a key point in production optimisation here."
In order for the director and Pathé, the producer, to get a better grasp of how shooting was progressing, a "viewing" phase was set up. "We put all the items shot on set – backgrounds, cyclo, low-def FX – into MotionBuilder and projected headcam-captured footage onto the 3D characters’ faces. It’s during this step that Jamel Debbouze chose the cameras and tested various staging options, as is done on a live shoot." Marc Miance posits the idea of master shots serving as markers in a sequence: "The rendering and compositing were done and checked on master shots, so that we were able to work on the same settings through the full course of each sequence" in order to save time.
"We chose to tip the budget scales in favour of quality", states the producer of Let’So Ya! To help avoid the potentially-problematic trap of forced localisation for financial reasons, "We suggested a clear-cut sale in Italy by including in the character casting a design based on four famous Italian actors, easily identifiable by viewers." The same was done with a star in China: "This way we were able to maintain most of the production’s localisation in France," or 80% of the budget. Also of note: the production had secured image/footage rights concerning the late French actor Louis de Funès (d. 1983) to complete the cast. The production did, however, delegate to an Indian studio, Prana (which acquired Rhythm & Hues in March 2013) all the asset surfacing, lighting, rendering and compositing. To supervise, Marc Miance moved to India for a year. "In most productions we share out the front- and back-end equally. In our case we chose to concentrate on the directing (front-end), contracting out the post-production and giving us more funds up front." An additional 15 minutes were commissioned in June 2014 and should be added to the film, slated for release in April 2015.
Drafted by Stéphane Malagnac, Prop'Ose, France
Translated by Sheila Adrian
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