Brain drain, budget woes hamper digital features

PARIS — On the eve of ParisFX’s 25th anniversary celebration of CG animation, French 3-D animators and producers say the industry has hit a dry patch.

While Gaul has had a thriving animation industry with Oscar-nominated 2-D features like “The Triplets of Belleville” and “Persepolis,” Gaul lacks the financial backing to produce mainstream CGI pics that can export well.

“In France, it’s nearly impossible to raise more than E15 million ($18.7 million) to make a 3-D animation film unless you’re a movie mogul like Luc Besson,” says former Duran Duboi topper Pascal Herold, who has just wrapped post-production on “Le Chat Botte” (Puss ‘n Boots).

A series of recent casualities has hampered the mood of French animation producers working with CGI:

  • The production of “Monster in Paris,” helmed by Eric Bergeron (“Shark Tale”) for Bibo Films and produced by Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp, has been halted.

  • Rumors spreading within the animation circuit even have it that the Gaumont’s $35 million animated feature “Rock the Boat” has been delayed because of financial trouble.

On the other hand, cheaper and more profitable 2-D pics like “The Triplets” or “Persepolis” displayed the uniqueness of French animation, with well-

developed characters, strong storytelling and a singular aesthetic, which propelled them into the international spotlight.

Most French producers agree that Gallic CG-animated features don’t travel as well as 2-D pics because they’re poorly written and not sophisticated enough.

“Making CGI animations as inventive as ‘Persepolis’ would take a lot of time, talent and enormous budgets, which we don’t have access to,” according to Thomas Schober, Sparx’s head of production.

Apart from a few breakthrough projects, like $85 million, mixed live-action/animation “Arthur and the Invisibles,” CG toons never took off after the first French 3-D CG pic, the one-minute short “Maison vole,” completed 25 years ago.

“If you want an animation film to become a hit, you need to brand it by bombarding kids with marketing like they do in the U.S., notably with Pixar and DreamWorks features,” explains Buf topper Pierre Buffin, whose studio is producing the animation for the next two sequels to EuropaCorp’s “Arthur.” “French distributors either don’t know how to market films or they don’t have the budgets to do it effectively.”

Most French CGI pics can’t get financing because they’re hardly profitable in a market as tiny as France, explained Emmanuel Prevost, producer of “Arthur and the Minimoys.”

Adds Sparx’s Schober: “Considering that our market is saturated with American animation films of excellent quality with surreal budgets sometimes 10 times bigger than ours, like ‘Ratatouille,’ it’s hard for us to see the light at the end of the tunnel. American CGI studios like DreamWorks, Pixar and Blue Sky not only have more talent, they have a market of 300 million people.”

There’s still a glimmer of hope, though. France is a fertile ground for skilled animators. Art schools like the Gobelins (which has been an official partner of Annecy’s Intl. Animation Festival for the last 20 years) and Supinfocom have been proclaimed among the world’s finest.

But even then, animation producers like Herold fear a brain drain, pointing out that the best animators are often lured away by American studios such as DreamWorks, Pixar and Blue Sky to work on heavyweight animation projects.

“Many of my friends who worked at DreamWorks and other U.S. studios came back to France because they were homesick, but they’re now thinking of heading back there,” says Jerome Duraud, lead animator at Paris-based shingle Def 2 Shoot. “They say they can make more money there and work on bigger films.”

PARISFX

What: Visual effects and animation conference

When: Nov. 19-20

Where: Espace Pierre Cardin, Paris

Web: parisfx.fr

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