Happy Bastille Day! Directed by the colorful, hyper-kinetic, and very French Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Mood Indigo tells the story of two lovers against the backdrop of Gondry’s typically fantastical Paris. Visual effects supervisor Romain Strabol explains how the team crafted two key elements of Mood Indigo‘s surreal mise-en-scène: a mouse-house and a kooky, groovy imaginary dance called the Biglemoi.
The Effects Philosophy
Boris Vian, who wrote L’Écume des Jours, the novel Mood Indigo is based on, is one of the most acclaimed surrealist authors in France. The book is full of crazy ideas – everything is alive. The kitchen, the house, the shoes – it was all a huge challenge to translate to screen.
Michel Gondry, is a legend in the VFX field and has an encyclopedic knowledge of special effects and the history of animation. He asked me to pick up old techniques from Georges Méliès and the Fleischer brothers and adapt them to digital tools. Stop-motion, models, puppets, animation, screening and matte painting were used to create these dreamlike effects. My job consisted of combining these elements while respecting the visions of both Boris and Michel – arriving at a coherent “effects philosophy.”
At one particular moment, I was working on a hand-made animation of strange vegetables. Michel looked at my work and said “No! It’s too smooth. You don’t have to look at the previous frame when you’re animating. You have to generate chaos.” He was right, it was better and easier that way. I tried each of Michel’s ideas—sometimes in spite of my own preconception about a technique—and they mostly worked.
It was a real pleasure to play with the proportions of the Mouse, a character played by Sacha Bourdo. The production designer, Stéphane Rozenbaum, created a piece of set adapted to the actor’s size (a giant kitchen sink, a real garden, a full-scale bedroom for the mouse, etc.). I then had to match these takes with others that used a small model of the mouse-house or a part of the kitchen, and reduce the original shots to the appropriate size. For some other scenes I needed to use the opposite technique, inserting green-screen shots of Sacha into the real-scale set while respecting the interactions between him and objects or characters. The third type of trick consisted in using shots of Sacha in the set of Colin’s apartment. We put straw on the floor and added a larger version of the same apartment to the background behind the mouse-house windows. This way, the characters living in the apartment seemed huge to the eyes of the animal.
My job was to make sure the Mouse’s existence remained coherent via these three scaling effects, but still consistent with the editing. There isn’t just one way to convince the audience that something unreal is real. It’s a process of alchemy – combining screening, acting, sound effects, editing and VFX (and good information flow within the production team is necessary for that!).
As early as the first week, we had established a good communication with the editing team and we would use mock-ups to test scenes with various timings and effects. When a sequence was hard to edit, the editing team asked us to prepare different versions of the effects so they could make a cut more easily or insist on a detail. The same thing happened when the sound team joined us. We could test a visual effect with the accompanying sound effect, and change visual elements in accordance to the feeling produced by the sound.
To me, one of the most interesting parts of working on the film was creating the Biglemoi dancing effects: a combination of puppetry, rotoscopy and CGI animation. The interaction between the SFX supervisor, CGI team and editor was extremely difficult to orchestrate. This imaginary dance involving elongated limbs, is an important element of the movie because it links the music (Duke Ellington’s “Chloe”) and the characters. The legs were animated by the actors through rods linked to their feet. Sometimes we helped movements or interactions between body parts through traditional animation or other techniques that respect puppetry basics. We even occasionally needed to recreate body parts, like bottoms, with the help of CGI.
These sequences had to be fun, cool and natural. We had to forget the VFX and keep the puppetry effects in harmony with the choreography. It required more people to work on rotoscopy and CGI. I called upon the team BeDigital, based in Belgium, to work on the scenes involving groups of dancers.
Approximately 50 VFX scenes were abandoned or rejected during the editing process. I regret only one. According to the script, during the meeting of Jean-Sol Partre, a ship airdrops some of Partre’s fans above the crowd. I had begun to work on this scene with light beams that created an anti-aircraft defense effect, which I found cool. However, before I could finish the mock-up and present it to the editor, it was cut. The moral is, don’t get too attached to a particular scene. Although it’s hard to swallow, it might be removed for the sake of the movie! MM
Mood Indigo opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 18, courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
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