Magazine article American Cinematographer

Paris Circa 2054

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Paris Circa 2054

Article excerpt

Although widely employed in video games, the animation technique known as motion-capture (mo-cap for short) has had relatively little exposure in feature filmmaking. The technology blurs the line between production and post, as well as that between live-action filmmaking and traditional animation, by "capturing" real-time information about an actor's movements in three dimensions and then mapping that data onto a computer-animated character. The thriller Renaissance, which is set in Paris in 2054 and will open in U.S. theaters this month, tries to push the technology in new directions.

Renaissance pits a hardboiled cop named Karas (voiced by Daniel Craig) against a vast corporate conspiracy he can only vaguely fathom. When a brilliant young scientist named Hone is kidnapped, her employer, the Avalon Corp., sends Karas on the hunt. But what begins as a routine missing-person case soon deepens into a morass of conflicting loyalties and doublecrosses over nothing less than the possibility of attaining eternal life. Matching the dark plot is a starkly graphic look that uses animated chiaroscuro "lighting" to split everything onscreen into pools of inky black and shards of sharp white, with almost no gray in between. The filmmakers intentionally sidestepped the issue of photorealism; Renaissance instead looks like a cyberpunk crime comic come to life, offering stylized animation, dizzyingly detailed Parisian backgrounds, and fluidly realistic performances by digital characters.

The visuals the filmmakers had in mind took nearly a decade to realize. Director Christian Volckman started developing the project in 1998 with Marc Miance, a 23-year-old who showed him a short test of the distinctive chiaroscuro look at an animation festival both men had entered. Over the next six years of fundraising, testing and script-writing, Miance launched his own animation company, Attitude Studio, to meet the production's escalating technical demands, which included 90 virtual Parisian sets, more than 100 characters, and 200 dynamic props and accessories ranging "from the small ashtray that sits on the Avalon boss's desk to all the moving vehicles," according to Volckman.

Production began in 2004 and took more than a year, although the mocap workflow dissolves many of the traditional distinctions between production and post. "It's very complex because you have all the problems normally expected on a 2-D animated feature, all the problems of a 3-D animated film, and all the problems of a live-action cast, such as post syncing," says Volckman. "It's a huge amount of work, and sometimes you go nuts."

For one thing, the work of framing shots and editing them together proceeded virtually in tandem on Renaissance, "which is bizarre because it's usually the other way around," says the director. "Normally in live action, once it's shot, it's all over. You go to the editing room, and if you're missing anything, you're screwed. But with mocap, it's reversed. You still have to think of the framing you want, but when you're with the actor you mainly work together to anticipate the [shots], because only later, in editing, do you choose exactly what your coverage is. If you look at the cut of the scene and think you're missing a necessary closeup, you just go back into the mo-cap machine that has the action recorded in a 3-D volume and say to your collaborator, 'Can you make a close-up of her at this moment?' The process is actually very organic."

Volckman's collaborator in this process was Henri Zaitoun, whose title was digital camera supervisor. Zaitoun's post duties often paralleled those of a traditional camera operator, except his "camera" was a weightless cube in virtual space that was moved with a mouse instead of a dolly or geared head. "We could play each scene from this camera's point of view and follow the action in real time with our mouse," explains Zaitoun. "It was really fun to do, just like following actors on a set with a real camera. …

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