Effects houses challenge Yanks

French co.'s pics include 'Visiteurs,' 'Alien Resurrection'

PARIS — It may not yet be the Gallic equivalent of George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, but Duran Duboi’s new special effects complex tucked away in a leafy Parisian suburb is a state-of-the-art experience, and an example of the French film industry’s growing reliance on f/x.

What began as a two-man company back in 1983 now has a 300-strong workforce and has, in a relatively short time, become a cornerstone of commercial French cinema. With special effects under its belt for more than 120 pics, most of them French, as well as work on countless advertisements and TV programs, Duran Duboi is France’s FX leader. But there is considerable home-based competition.

One of Duran Duboi’s main competitors, Buf, launched in 1984, is proving it can crack the international market, particularly America, with effects for four U.S. films under its belt, including “Panic Room,” “Fight Club,” “The Cell” and “Batman and Robin.”

A recent survey by the Centre National de la Cinematographie (CNC) says use of special effects in French films has been increasing by about 40% every year.

Duran (the 3D arm Duboi did not exist until 1992) first tried its hand at digital effects some 12 years ago when they collaborated with French FX wizard Pitof to make digital effects for Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro’s compelling debut pic “Delicatessen.”

“After that, we saw there was a real market for digital special effects in Europe, and we began to develop our own technology,” says Pascal Herold, chief executive at Duran Duboi and one of the two men who was there at the company’s founding.

Other flagship pics followed, including “Les Visiteurs,” “Alien Resurrection,” the “Asterix” films, “Amelie,” “Brotherhood of the Wolf” and upcoming futuristic adventure “La Femme Piege.”

Duran Duboi is focused mainly on the French market — though it recently inked a deal to provide effects for “Baobeir in Love,” a Chinese pic helmed by Lu Shaohong and produced by Beijing Rosat Films & TV.

“We’ve designed powerful machines, and can now make a film full of high-quality 3D effects for less than $20 million,” Herold says. “In the United States, I don’t think that’s possible.”

Buf exec producer Olivier Gilbert feels it was more than just savings that led John Dykstra, special effects supervisor for “Batman and Robin,” to pay Hollywood’s first call on a French firm.

Indeed, Dykstra had just seen Buf’s visuals on the Caro and Jeunet film “City of Lost Children,” and was favorably impressed.

“We hope the Americans chose to work with us for our professionalism as much as for our creative ability, Gilbert says. Since then, Buf has strengthened its transatlantic foothold by setting up an office in Los Angeles, targeting both cinema and advertising.

Among Gallic companies, Buf appears so far to have a lock on the U.S. market. But serious competition might not be far off. It could come either from Duran Duboi, in the midst of its most ambitious project yet with “La Femme Piege” or from a clutch of tyro companies which include Est, Ex Machina, Mac Guff Ligne, Medialab and French-based German outlet Mikros Image.

Telema prexy Charles Gassot, who is producing “La Femme Piege,” claims France is far ahead of the U.S. in 3D technology. “There is now a real kind of technological rivalry between our two countries,” he says.

Gilbert offers a more sober evaluation of the French f/x industry.

“The technical and artistic level of digital work in France is not far off that of the Americans,” he maintains, “but at the level of production power, investment and organization, there is an enormous difference.

“Theoretically, we are not far off, but practically, we are light years away.”

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