Julien Meesters
Courtesy of Mikros Images

VFX productions include Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle”

Confirming its status as a driving force on France’s animation scene, Mikros Image Group, the Paris and Montreal-based animation/VFX house, is working on a new “Asterix” animated feature project that follows up its 2014 hit “Asterix: The Mansion of the Gods.” Details are being kept under wraps but the movie is once again expected to be directed by Louis Clichy – who worked as an animator on Pixar’s “Wall-E” and “Up” – and Alexandre Astier, “Mansions’” screenwriter.

Produced by M6 Studios and distributed in France, and sold abroad by SND, “Mansions” sold 3 million tickets – about  $24 million in gross box office – in France from a Nov. 2014 bow.

The group’s Montreal operation – that delivered “Mune” and “The Little Prince” in 2015 – is also working on two further animation movies: a yet undisclosed toon feature and  “Sahara,” directed by Pierre Coré and produced by La Station Animation.

Produced by ON Ent., “The Little Prince,” which had grossed $103 million B.O. outside France by mid Jan., “Asterix: The Mansion of the Gods” (€14 million: $15.3 million in B.O. outside France) and “Mune” (€7.6 million: $8.3 million) all figured in France’s Top Ten export hits for 2015, judged by theatrical B.O.. outside France.

Mikros’ gameplan to ramp up animation work played a key role in the company’s acquisition by French multinational Technicolor in April 2015.

“Prior to our acquisition by Technicolor some projects were difficult to approach because of our financial resources,” explained Mikros’ creative director, Julien Meesters.

He continued: “This had some impact on VFX projects and was a major concern for large animation projects. For ambitious projects, you need to provide the studios with legal guarantees, including due diligence requirements. As part of the Technicolor group we now have a much stronger backbone. Now we’re one of the players able to deliver feature length animation projects produced in multiple countries. This is big change for us.”

The Technicolor group includes three other leading VFX shops – MPC, The Mill and MrX – but Meesters considers that the acquisition has not diluted Mikros’ own brand.

“We’re still completely separate as a distinct brand, with our own DNA and identity. We’re a brand competing against the other companies.”

There are nonetheless synergies that Mikros has benefited from, including contributions from Technicolor’s R&D division, financial and legal expertise and human resources management.

The company has been reinforcing its international operations, with three main operation centers in Paris, Belgium and Montreal, and offices in Montreal, Los Angeles, Belgium’s Liège, Brussels, Luxembourg and Milan.

This international structure enables the company to leverage tax benefits available in France, Belgium and Canada. The recent hike from 20% to 30% in the French tax rebate scheme has provided a further boost.

“In technological terms, we can now operate on the same film across our different facilities,” says Meesters. “We have a single pipeline and the same DNA throughout the world.”

The company also aims to capture work in each local market rather than just develop everything from the Paris H.Q..

In Montreal, in addition to its animation work, the company is providing VFX services and commercials work for the North American market.

The office in Liège is also developing separate business, including VFX work on David Charhon’s  “Shipwrecked” starring Daniel Auteuil. It is starting VFX work on Jérôme Salle’s “The Odyssey,” starring Lambert Wilson and Audrey Tautou, and sold by Wild Bunch.

Notwithstanding the interest in expanding its animation work, VFX continues to be a cornerstone of the company’s DNA.

Mikros has excelled in producing innovative work for some of the world’s leading auteur directors, including Palme d’Or winners such as Jacques Audiard’s “Dheepan” (2015), Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013) and Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012) as well as other leading auteur titles such as Audiard’s 2012 Cannes-player “Rust and Bone.”

Upcoming projects handled by the French office include Paul Verhoeven’s family drama “Elle” starring Isabelle Huppert, Roschdy Zem’s “Chocolat” about France’s first black circus artist and film actor, starring Omar Sy (“Jurassic World”), Christophe Honoré’s “Les malheurs de Sophie”, and Bruno Dumont’s burlesque comedy “Ma Loute.”

The company is also touting more VFX-driven projects.

“It’s a very exciting period,” said Meesters. “The two areas of auteur films and VFX-driven films are evolving – the lines are more and more blurred.”

“Our goal is not to try to emulate companies such as The Frame Store, MPC or Digital Domain. Instead we aim to work on a certain amount of VFX sequences where we can bring some added value, something distinctive that no-one else can provide.”

Meesters is particularly interested in using VFX to explore dream sequences and the workings of the human mind, citing his work on the “crazy sequence” inside Charlie Kaufman’s mind (played by Nicolas Cage) in Spike Jonze’s “Adaptation” (2002).

“Some of our directors are exploring new kinds of movies,” says Meesters. “We are delivering more and more distinctive feature film projects and working with new clients who want to explore new territories.”

He cites the example of Nicolas Saada’s “Taj Mahal,” which will serve as a casestudy at the Paris Images Digital Summit (Jan 28-30).

“This film posed some complex challenges, including spectacular flames and explosions in a very controlled environment. We really wanted to do it as well as possible.”

Mikros Image has received six nominations – the highest of any VFX shop – at the Paris Images’s Digital Creation Genie Awards, which will be announced on Jan. 28.

The projects include “Taj Mahal,” and TV series “The Returned” and “Panthers.”

“I’m obviously delighted to have six nominations,” said Meesters. “It means that there is industry recognition for our work. But we can never rest on our laurels. Even though we’re one of the oldest firms in the business, we constantly have to reinvent ourselves.”

Meesters is particularly satisfied with his VFX work on recent TV series. In addition to “The Returned” and “Panthers,” he is delighted with the three-seg mini-series “En Immersion” about an undercover drug cop, directed by Philippe Haim, for Franco-German channel Arte.

Mikros Image completed all the post-production work, including the title sequence. One of the main challenges posed by these sequences was the need to illustrate the cop’s mental illness.

“What is happening in European TV series is a bit like what happened in U.S. TV shows,” says Meesters. “We’re pushing the envelope in terms of quality and craft. Since our strategy is trying to chase high-end projects, we help our clients see the possibilities that VFX work offer. I’m completely against the idea that TV is cheap. We still seek an auteur strategy. The challenge is to work with the director and find out how to tell the story with a different budget and shooting strategy.”

However Meesters doesn’t believe that VFX work alone can ensure export success for a TV series.  “The overall quality is the key selling point. People continue to be attracted primarily by the story. You have to find an approach that works – find a story that clicks.”

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