Buf at 30: VFX Studio Reshapes and ‘Smart-Sizes’ For the Future

Company preps commercial release of its f/x software

Buf Matrix Reloaded

“When filmmakers want a shot that’s never been seen before and don’t know how to do it, they come to us,” says Pierre Buffin, CEO of Paris-based Buf Compagnie, neatly encapsulating the service behind the growth of his company, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Buffin still owns the company he founded, one of the longest-running vfx studios in the business.

The company boasts an impressive list of repeat clients — including the Wachowski siblings, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher and Wong Kar Wai. It pioneered such proprietary vfx techniques as camera mapping on “Fight Club,” Bullet Time in Michel Gondry’s musicvideo “Like a Rolling Stone” and on “The Matrix,” Batman’s sonar vision in “The Dark Knight,” and the tiger’s deep-sea 90-second dream sequence for 2012 Academy Award winner “Life of Pi.”

“Pierre Buffin took my hand when I first stepped into the film and illusion world,” helmer Gondry says. “Together we constantly explored and developed new ideas.”

Buf won the vfx prize at the 50th Taiwan Golden Horses Awards for “The Grandmaster” by Wong. “Pierre is a grandmaster of the visual arts,” says the Chinese director. “I thank him for his artistry and friendship.”

“Pierre Buffin is the Jean-Pierre Jeunet of vfx,” says Franck Priot, COO of Film France. “He’s an excellent example of France’s open attitude to cinema — he’s able to work with Hollywood studios, and Asian and French auteurs.”

But given the current wafer-thin profit margins for vfx on studio pics, Buf is reshaping itself for the future. It has decided to “smart-size,” focusing on auteur-driven projects, and procure new revenue streams.

While the company has maintained its veteran core staff, freelancers have been slashed by 70% — from a total workforce of 600 in 2010, when Buf was simultaneously servicing studio pics and ambitious French projects such as Luc Besson’s “Arthur and Invisibles” animation trilogy — to a current level of 150 in Paris, plus a 100-person capacity in the company’s units in Montreal and Brussels, which opened in 2012.

“The vfx business has changed dramatically over recent years and as professionals, we don’t know how to protect ourselves,” Buffin bemoans. “You can easily become a slave to your overheads. It takes time to build for a big studio pic and if production is rescheduled, the knock-on effect is huge. You have to learn to stay small and humble.”

India Osborne, Buf’s managing director, says “Competition is forcing vfx shops to cannibalize each other. This business is all about ebb and flow — you have to know who you are, and what you bring to the table, to survive. We’re interested in storytelling and projects that leverage our inhouse talent.”

In 2007, Buf launched inhouse production unit Angele & Fine, which recently acquired rights to Georges Bataille’s 1928 erotic tale “The Story of the Eye.”

“I loved the book as a child, because it explores the domain of dreams,” Buffin says. “It’s an opportunity to produce images that will take viewers by surprise and generate emotional shock.”

Buffin spent his childhood immersed in comicbooks and graphic novels. He founded Buffin Seydoux Computer Animation (BSCA) in 1984, in partnership with Henri Seydoux, son of Pathe owner Jerome. Five years later — when the two parted ways — the company was renamed Buf. Since then it has become known for its proprietary vfx software, which it built from scratch.

“I’m an explorer of images,” says Buffin. “I built the boats that enabled us to sail into uncharted waters.”