2010 Summaries

 Feature films: 4 case studies | Conférences longs métrages : 4 études de cas - Annecy 2010 © E. Perdu/CITIA

Feature films: 4 case studies

  1. Speakers
  2. Moderator
  3. Fantastic Mr. Fox
  4. Planet 51: animation made in Spain
  5. Despicable Me: the Franco-American alliance
  6. The Arthur saga: more and more animated


The presentation of specific cases of animated features always gives the opportunity to go to the other side of the mirror and find out more about how they were made.
After a brief introduction by Patrick Caradec, Allison Abbate looks back over the genesis of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the stop motion feature directed by Wes Anderson, to whom we also owe The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, and others. Released in February 2010, Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Roald Dahl, whose work has often been successfully transferred to the cinema in such films as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach. This film also picked up the Feature Film Cristal and the Audience Award at Annecy 2010.



Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Producer Allison Abbate explains that Wes Anderson always liked the book and as soon as he was able, he acquired the rights with the firm intention of making a stop motion film. To help get a feel of the atmosphere, the director went off to live at Roald Dahl's family home in England. He wanted to soak up the universe of the author and the surroundings in which he lived and wrote. This preparatory work can be felt in the landscapes of the film, as well as in the smallest details of the room sets. She goes on to say that, "There is a lot of brown, orange and red in the sets and the characters' clothes, which was both the perspective of the director but also in the perception of the principal hero, the fox." The designs show that the characters – all made in four sizes, so as to play with the distances on the set – are very human-like, which helped to establish an easier animation.

As far as the voice acting was concerned, the cast included such names as George Clooney, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray. To maintain the natural dimension of the film, the recordings were done on location. Allison Abbate shows video extracts where Clooney and Murray can be seen doing the scene outside in a field. "We not only have the voices but also the whole atmosphere of the film and the right tone in the right circumstances." The storyboard was created alongside the work on the voices. "On this point, as well as many others, Wes is extremely precise," explains the producer. "He did a lot of sketches during the recording, which he incorporated into the storyboard that then provided a fuller document for the different crews." Although the film attempts to recreate the book, a few modifications were nevertheless necessary. For example, Mr. Fox only has one son in the film and the characters of Badger – voiced by Bill Murray – and Petey do not exist in the book.

Each of the puppets were sculpted and applied to a metal frame. Wes Anderson is a fan of "old" special effects and requested that real fur be used for the animals. "Apart from the authenticity aspect of real fur, he also wanted the roughed-up look of the fur due to the animators manipulating the characters to remain visible as a sort of tribute to special effects in early films." Similarly, water is simulated with plastic wrap; glycerine soap illustrates fire and cotton wool smoke.

As a perfectionist, Wes Anderson wanted the character to always be in the centre of the frame and for this, a grid was designed for each camera. Shooting was done on a gigantic set of 25,000 m2, located at Three Mills, with thirty units to accommodate the sets. Each included a camera operator, equipped with a Nikon D3, to work alongside the animators. The associated figures speak for themselves: a year of filming, 4,000 props, 500 puppets and 150 sets (some measuring over 10 m in length) were needed to produce the film. No fewer than 5,229 shots and 621,450 photos were recorded, 120 GB of data was generated daily and 18.5 terabytes were retained in the end.

Planet 51: animation made in Spain

Planet 51

Planet 51 is the first animated feature produced by the Spanish Ilion Animation Studios, a subsidiary of Zed, content and aggregation solution developers for mobile phones and other platforms. There is also another subsidiary, Pyro Studios, specialising in video games and from where the idea came: "Our initial goal was to create a game featuring a human astronaut who landed on a planet inhabited by aliens," explains Sophie de Mac Mahon, Director of Business Development at Ilion, "and we were totally ignorant about anything related to production."

The studio was therefore set up for the occasion and, at the height of production, 250 people from twenty countries were working on the project. Although the crews relied on 3ds Max for the most part, the studio also developed a number of scripts and special plug-ins, including the facial animation tool Mask Creator as well as Asset Tracker and Manager System for project management.

As for the atmosphere, the screenplay, written by Joe Stillman (Shrek and Shrek 2), gives pride of place to the America of the fifties: sets, props, clothes and even behaviour are steeped in this historic period, even though, "everything is round to give both something pleasing to look at and also show differences with the Earth." In all, 450 characters were modelled, from heroes to extras, and each of them had the same animation capacities. "This meant that the directors were able to change the scene very quickly, bringing back characters to the forefront without having to go through rigging and animation phases."

With a budget of 70 million dollars, Planet 51 was co-produced by Ilion, Handmade (the production company founded by George Harrison) and Antena 3 Films, the cinema subsidiary of a Spanish private TV channel. Distribution was handled by Sony Pictures and the film was released across 3,500 screens in the United States, supported by a strong marketing budget of 50 million dollars (equivalent to the one for Dreamworks Kung Fu Panda). The film has already generated 120 million dollars at the box office in the 170 countries where it has been distributed and over 2 million DVDs have been sold.

Zed has also created 4 games for iPhone and other mobile devices, plus a virtual world for PC. Finally, Pyro Studios, the video game division of the group, reused all the sets of the feature for the game, which itself received 10 million dollars for marketing, and is distributed by Sega.

Despicable Me: the Franco-American alliance

Despicable me

Despicable Me is a 3-D CGI animated feature produced by Universal and co-directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, which will be on screens in July in the U.S. and released in France in October. The film was entirely made in France at the Mac Guff studios and is the first feature animation to benefit from international tax credit established by the CNC to encourage foreign productions to come and shoot in France.

Despicable Me tells the story of Gru, a super-villain – or that's how he sees himself – who is set on eliminating his rival, Vector. However, his intentions are undermined by the untimely arrival on the scene of three delightful little orphans. According to Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, Gru was one of the characters that took the longest to create. "Our initial tests showed him like a sort of vampire or a villain from comic books." Six months of preparation were needed to get the final design passed; at the same time, American voice actor Steve Carrell, was making numerous attempts to pitch the voice to the oversize big-chested character with the serious face and skinny legs. It was the same challenge for the animation: "Once the design was accepted, we multiplied the drawings in many different positions, and then went back to the 3D with a basic set up and some interesting poses." The whole thing was pretty complex, because for the first time, the hero is a villain... Pierre Coffin: "He needed to have failings, not so many, but enough for the viewer to pick up on them from the start." Chris Renaud adds: "It needed a skilful balance between what characterises the outside with what is inside, or someone that is kind deep down."

Other important characters in the film, like the three little girls, were also slow to take shape. "At first they were identical in every respect," recalls Chris Renaud, "but we soon realised we would have to give them a uniqueness to make better use of the comedy aspect." "There were many changes. We were first working to a graphic and realistic treatment. Then we ended up with a more cartoon design, a bit like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes," adds Pierre Coffin.

Éric Guillon was entrusted with the design of Gru’s little sidekicks, the Minions. The paradox about these strange creatures is that they are characterised by an apparent lack of characterisation… In fact, they all have minor differences, but the game was to give them a physical body that was more or less common to all. "However, simplification allowed us to put into play a larger population than expected," adds Mac Guff Director, Jacques Bled.

The sets also reflect the conflicting personalities of Gru and his rival, Vector. "One is more of an old-style criminal while the other loves anything high-tech," explains Pierre Coffin. The directors took their ideas from The Addams Family, using lots of wood and brightly coloured scrap metal. In contrast, Vector’s sets are all brushed steel and plastic with modern gadgets and a colour palette of red and white. "This conflict allowed us to play on all the elements of the film, including the clouds of smoke spewing from the two rivals’ flying machines, which were dappled looking and fleeting for one and tapered and straight for the other."

The animation for Despicable Me started in January 2009, shortly after the finalisation of the designs and animations for Gru and the girls.

The Arthur saga: more and more animated

Arthur and the War of Two Worlds

Arthur and the War of Two Worlds, another feature due out on French screens in October 2010, is the third and final instalment of the Arthur and the Invisibles trilogy, directed by Luc Besson, based on the original idea by Céline and Patrice Garcia. Although the first film leads to an obvious sequel, episodes 2 and 3 were created as single films. Luc Besson also oversaw the project in general but most of the work on the imagery has been carried out by Pierre Buffin and his studio, Buf Compagnie: "I’m the interface between the director and the crew," he notes in his introduction. The CG work, seen in the first film, is now playing an increasingly bigger role in the others.

Stéphane Nazé goes on to explain. "On the first film, there were 1,050 shots, with 1,000 in full 3D and 60 minutes of CG created by Buf, along with 50 VFX shots (i.e. integrating animation into live action), for 27 months of production shared out between a hundred designers. Arthur and the Revenge of Maltazard included 1,185 shots, with 1,005 in full 3D, 65 minutes of CG, 180 integration shots for twenty months of production and 150 designers. Finally, the production of the third film has remained unchanged, as well as the crew, but there are 1,714 shots, including 776 with VFX and 938 in full 3D!" This goes to prove that the mix of live action and animation has progressed at an amazing rate.

A smoothly running pipeline

Over the twenty months of production, the Buf teams have been divided into three main areas: set design, character design and storyboard. Yann Avenati explains the timeline: "We started from actual models for the sets, which allowed us to think about the directions and camera movements, but also preview the creation of the 3D sets (modelling, mapping, texturing and lighting). The different stages of creating the characters were set up at the same time: warp, modellisation, skinning, mapping and textures. Finally, we use the storyboard for the live action shoot and the motion capture, with video references. Then comes the editing, animatic, the first version of the animation and low resolution rendering." The finished shots were presented to Luc Besson for approval on a monthly basis before continuing with the second version of the animation and HD render.

Sets, set up and animation

As mentioned previously, many of the sets were initially made as models, such as Paradise Alley. Conversely, the exterior shots are all 3D, based on many references, allowing the Invisibles world to build up progressively from a mix of photo mapping and CG to full CG. Stéphane Nazé continues: "We worked with a basic skeleton for the set up which we then warped (stretched) as needed."

As Luc Besson is primarily a live action director and animation time was very tight, it was decided to shoot the feature, including the 3D characters, in live action. "This was the best way for him to get the film he wanted and also a valuable work tool for us animators," explains Yann Avenati. The same went for the lipsync where all the live references of acting, voices and sound helped to establish the 3D animation.

Arthur and the War of Two Worlds will be on screens in October but not shown in 3-D, as was expected. "The continual transitions between live action and CG make it impossible to consider doing this film in 3-D," explains Pierre Buffin.