It might be called the French Revolution. That's how Andrew Ruhemann, one of the founders of acclaimed U.K. animation shop Passion Pictures, sees it. He woke up to it a few years back, while attending a conference on European animation. Alongside with the ILMs and Digital Domains, a someone named Pierre Coffin stepped up to the podium to speak. "Who is this Pierre Coffin?" Ruhemann remembers thinking. "I've got to sit through 45 minutes of this! But he turned out to be utterly charming, and the CG animation he showed was just fantastic and reminded me of [Pixar founder] John Lasseter's work - very characterful, beautifully observed, performed and designed stuff. I thought, How did this guy come up without me knowing about it? We're very normally sharp on spotting people, but I think our radar was programmed to cover the U.K. and the U.S.; it wasn't aimed at France."
Now, of course, Ruhemann's radar is especially tuned into the country's talents. He's carved out a space on his roster for directors like Coffin, who recently conceived charming animated characters in the U.K. for Vizzavi and Flora Margarine, including the latter's "Jack Spratt," featured last year at Siggraph and the Ottawa International Animation Festival; and other innovators like the animation team known as soandsau, who created oddball CG creatures for a U.K. Munchsters campaign and French KissCool gum. It's hard not to notice the considerable wealth of innovators elsewhere. Of course, there's the ace sibling team of Michel Gondry and Olivier "Twist" Gondry, with their wonders like the breakthrough White Stripes animated Lego clip and spots for Levi's and Earthlink. There are also pioneers like Buf and its landmark work on City of Lost Children, and recent forays like Fight Club, Panic Room and Human Nature; as well as a wealth of commercials for both the U.S. and Europe.
The list goes on. There's Mac Guff Ligne, the post shop responsible for classic effects scenes like the Busby Berkeley-inspired Evian water babies, and Jodi Foster's morphing countenance in Contact. Recent projects include "winterizing" spots for Walgreens and a host of effects for Neue Sentimental Film director Nico Beyer: the brightly colored animation that streams through a time-traveling automobile production line for Mercedes and Merkley Newman Harty, and all-CG automobile innards for Mazda and Mobil. La Maison, perhaps not as well known in the States, should be, considering the mythical and sultry otherworlds it created for JWT/N.Y.'s gorgeous Thermasilk campaign, along with spots for Nintendo and Leo Burnett.
"France has always had a very strong tradition in animation and effects," notes Nico Trout, executive producer at Mac Guff. At least when it comes to its skilled CG artists, "the industrial background in France was more appropriate for 3-D to evolve." Compared to the U.K., which had developed a tradition of compositing and layering with its Quantel systems, France, by the late '80s, already had a burgeoning community of CG mavens, thanks to the emergence of major 3-D software companies. That led to highly publicized CG festivals like Imagina, and the formation of pioneers like Buf and the now defunct ExMachina, which probably served to attract the interest of future artists. Schooling also plays its part; animators don't just check into a six-week class and expect to land a job, after all. French shops get to pick from a host of talents enrolled in highly respected schools like Supinfocom or Les Gobelins, where students study for years to get the equivalent of a master's degree in animation. And of course, there's the country's rich creative tradition. "We have a very big culture of comic books, cinema and painting," Trout adds.
So does all this promote a look that's distinctively French? "People call it the French touch, which for me is the best marketing invention ever made," jokes Trout. "It may be an approach to the job that may involve more artistic content, but, being French, it's sometimes difficult for me to understand what's behind it." From an outsider's point of view, Passion's Ruhemann notes that at least in animation, there are tendencies toward slightly expressionistic, heavily stylized and art directed approaches, as opposed to the cartoony and performance-oriented work coming from the U.K. and U.S. "They seem to have a sort of eccentricity about them," he notes. "They're not so steeped in the classic tradition of Disney and Warner Brothers. I don't know if it's a French 'sensibility,' but they have a real focus on textures and lighting. They're also not frightened of darkness; they will play more with dark imagery. The shadows will be heavier; they'll work with quite complex textures." Ruhemann points to the surreal effects classics of the Jeunet-Caro team, the directors behind hauntingly twisted flicks like Delicatessen and City of Lost Children. But this can also be observed in the recent work of animation directors like Passion's soandsau; and Partizan's Numero 6. Featured in last year's Saatchi New Director's Showcase, the latter brought their shadowy, pixelated vibe to Coca-Cola and Capital Radio. There are exceptions, of course, notes Ruhemann, like Passion's own Coffin, whose animation, although full of the complexities mentioned above, shows the strong characterization of traditional animation. And France doesn't have a stronghold on surreal imaginings either, if you consider the abstraction of Brits like Tim Hope or U.S. collective Psyop.
"Certainly, we have a feeling that being from France, we are more concerned by emotion in the images, rather than pure technical challenges," offers Kuntzel + Deygas. Represented out of London's Nexus, the Paris-based animation/artist team has done videos for bands like Sparks and spots for HSBC and Natwest. Most recently, they conceived the title sequence for Catch Me If You Can, a stunning design tour de force that would do Saul Bass proud. Taking old-school techniques to a new level, they combined 2-D print-block animation with digitally constructed backgrounds and 3-D camera moves, maintaining a completely handmade feel to the '60s-flavored complex interplay of images. "But we know only our own direction, and it's impossible to predict for others," they insist. "We're not driven by a desire to reach a style; we work as artists through a conceptual approach. French people hate to look like the others. They try to be original. It's the same for the 'real' French artists. They hate to be categorized or attached to a tendency." Such thinking also may serve to promote a largely boutique-driven industry that encourages fresh thinking from newbies and veterans alike. "In France, each individual is a potential artist and opportunity is given to any beginner to try something, which is good for the ego and permits some revelations," add Kuntzel & Deygas. "But the problem of that system is that it makes it difficult to gather together and maintain a crew. Sooner or later every individual prefers to be a single artist and strike out on his or her own. For that reason, big projects are sometimes difficult to achieve, but this attitude is perfect for a 'haute couture' approach to animation."
Nevertheless, France's strained budgets, not just delicate egos, may also play a part in fostering the wealth of innovative and resourceful talents in the country, notes Cedric Nicolas, formerly of French shop Mikros, who now works at L.A.-based Method (whose CG department happens to be 99 percent French). "In France, the economy and budgets are so low, you have people who come to you and say 'I have $2 and I want to do Star Wars tomorrow,' " he claims. "Here, you have $2 million and two years to do Star Wars. In France, there's the same demand but sometimes 10 times less money and time, so basically, if you want to do something that's not too pukey, you have to come up with good solutions and tricks. You have to be very creative." Nicolas points to the country's music video scene as an example. "If you turn on MTV now, you see tits and ass, bling bling and big cars," he notes. "You see the same thing three hours in a row. Effects-wise, can you tell me the last music video you saw and thought was great? I did a video for Kid Loco in France. We shot it in Bombay with like $3, and we just shot an elephant and three Indian impersonators and it was so cheap looking, but it was cool. Not amazing, not super-slick, but it was cool. It was creatively open - something here that doesn't really exist."
Work also remains creatively fresh because of the auteur-like influence of the directors. "They are much more involved," Nicolas adds. "Most of the time here in post, you just deal with the agency. In France, the directors tend to be more involved and try to fight more about what they want to do. That tends to be how we are, in general. It's really easy for us to get into an argument. Maybe that's why people consider us a little rude. We just talk about what we think; we fight harder, but not in a bad way. It's cultural for us. You can say, 'Your stuff looks like shit and that's not the way to do it.' Here, you can't quite say that because it won't be well received.'"
In any case, Nicolas and the his compatriots at Method are hardly complaining; they're very happy to be working in the States. "In France right now, it's very, very slow," notes Laurent "Biddy" Lescu, another expat at Method. "A lot of companies closed last year and it's hard to find good jobs and good projects. People are just trying to survive." Most companies have to go overseas to stay afloat. "It's a necessity," says Mac Guff's Trout, who maintains about 50 percent of business overseas. "The market has been terrible. Obviously, there's the world economy and the events of September 11, which hit us as well. There's been a major revamping of the post industry, where companies have been closed or acquired. These are not fun times, so we're lucky that we work in the U.S."