French effects shops step up pace

Companies try to keep up with studio demand

As visual effects have become an important piece of global filmmaking, French companies have been behind the curve.

“The truth is … we don’t have a vfx culture,” admits Yann Blondel of Paris-based vfx shop Laboratoires Eclair Blondel.  

The French have excelled in animation, but vfx, he says, “is not our thing. It doesn’t come naturally, and that’s not what we’re known for.”

Even so, despite disadvantageous exchange rates, the language barrier and a work culture that stresses quality over productivity, French companies are determined to prove they can compete with the world’s leading effects shops.

And they are getting a foothold: Buf, Duran Duboi, Mac Guff, La Maison and Laboratoires Eclair have worked on major studio releases in recent years, including the “Matrix” films, last year’s “The Prestige” and the Warner Bros.’ revived Batman franchise.

“The work we get from (French) companies reflects the national character. Work can be very innovative, fresh and different,” says Warner’s Chris deFaria, exec VP of visual effects, animation and digital production.

The Hollywood studios value the French eye for aesthetic and savoir faire. U.S. vfx houses often import French artists and teach them to work at the frantic pace now required for studio tentpoles.

French companies, however, don’t adapt as speedily as individual French artists.

“The productivity demands are the same, but there is a clear cultural difference,” says Buf producer Vanessa Fourgeaud.

“American companies like the look of our visual effects. We’re like a boutique of haute-couture visual effects,” Fourgeaud explains.

But, she adds, “Our work methods are different. … We’re used to working a la francaise (laid-back). We have to adjust when we start working on American productions. It’s like two universes fusing.”

A leader of Gaul’s vfx industry, Buf recently worked on “Spider-Man 3” and now is busy on Warner’s 2008 Batman sequel “The Dark Knight.”

But Paris shops like Buf face serious disadvantages.

In the U.K., Canada and Australia, vfx companies have ballooned with the help of generous tax incentives.

“The fact that France does not have a government that supports international business put them at a disadvantage,” says Warner’s deFaria.

That may change, though. Industry leaders plan to propose new tax breaks in line with the policies of Gaul’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who aims to raise France’s international profile and adopt the U.S.-style economic liberalism.

The weak dollar has also driven up the price of French vfx work at a time when competition is emerging from Eastern European and Asian countries with low labor costs, especially India.

Until recently, French companies could underbid their U.S. rivals. Now French rates match and sometimes exceed U.S. companies’ prices.

Even the venerable Éclair Group has experienced backlash. The studio sold 43% of its stocks to Tarak Ben Ammar from rival Duran Duboi last April to compensate for contracts lost to companies offering more competitive rates.

“It has become very expensive for us to stay in the race,” Fourgeaud says.

“It’s basically the survival of the fittest,” she adds.

In the end, though, Blondel says, “Americans will always come to us when they want quality work, when they want to stand out. If they want industrial work, they go to local companies, but if they want an artful object they come to us.”

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