Image Conscious: A conversation with visual effects supervisor Guillaume Rocheron

Trevor Hogg chats with Guillaume Rocheron about fulfilling his ambition of becoming a visual effects supervisor…

“I always liked painting but I was not good at it,” states French Visual Effects Supervisor Guillaume Rocheron who is based at the Vancouver facility for the Motion Picture Company (MPC).  When a childhood friend introduced him to the idea of creating digital images, the young artist flourished.    “I was doing simple programming.  I was interested by computers and for me it was a good medium because it was that mix of technology and artistic things.  I started to make images at home and little short films; that’s how I got into it.  I saw Jurassic Park [1993] and Terminator 2 [1991].  You see those films and its like, ‘Wow! How did they make that?’  You realize that they made this in a computer and you think, ‘Maybe I can do that one day.’ One of my short films got a prize in a festival in France and a company called BUF which worked on the propriety as well called to hire me.  I was 17.  They offered for me to come to work for them during the holidays while I was finishing university; that’s how I got into it.”  Jurassic Park had a major impact on Rocheron.  “At the time it was truly ground-breaking because those types of things were undoable.  I was with my little brother and he was thinking that those dinosaurs were real.  Today the audience is more used to visual effects; they’re more educated to it. When you see a monster or things like that even little kids know it’s scary but it’s made on a computer. I’ve always kept an amazing memory of Jurassic Park because it was literally the first time we had seen something like that on the big screen.  I can still look at it today and there are some shots that are absolutely amazing in there.”

The career path taken by Guillaume Rocheron was not accidental.  “It was more by design because I’ve always been interested all sides of producing images.  Before I was a visual effects supervisor I was working as a technical director.   You specialize in a discipline whether you do lighting or effects or matte paintings or compositing.  I’ve done a few of them going from one to the other to the other.  Ultimately, I was interested in being able to design shots and put things together not just part of a shot but the bigger picture.  I became a computer graphics supervisor after that; I was in charge of the teams that produced the 3D.  Making sure that the lighting, all of the technology was in place. For me it was interesting because I was like, ‘Okay.  Now I see the bigger picture on how to make the images.’  Being a visual effects supervisor is the ultimate goal because you’re in charge the creative and technical delivery of a show.  You’re in charge of taking the vision of the director and trying to translate it to the big screen and identify what technology is going to be required.  How it is going to be done?”  The ability to observe reality, pay attention to detail, and have a sense curiosity are key elements required to become a successful visual effects supervisor.  “The only way to make things look real is by observing reality as much as possible,” notes Rocheron who sees great visual effects being produced every year.  “We find different uses of visual effects every year.  I don’t think we’ve done exploring everything we can do.  Performance capture can be great if we’re trying to capture emotions and characters.  But in the same way I love being able to make miniatures and CGI to make up sets or big constructions. What is the most important thing? It is always about, ‘How do you design a good shot?’ What is the best way for approaching it?  Is it by shooting a miniature and using CGI to enhance it?   Or is it better to do all of that in CGI?  Or is it better to shoot an actor and replace his head?  Or is better to make the actor completely digital?  I know we can’t make photo-real full screen human but you need to do them so you design the shots to make the audience think it looks absolutely real and you show it in a certain way. That’s where Jurassic Park is fantastic.   When the T-Rex is attacking the SUV in the rain you don’t see as much we would show in a movie today but at the time this what they could show; this was really well designed because it’s effective visually.”

Constant change is normal when it comes to the business of making visual effects.  “It’s a fast moving industry,” states Guillaume Rocheron.  “I remember eight years ago you would do 50 to 100 shots on a film and that would already be quite big.  Now you see those films with 1500 shots.  You have 10 to 20 times more work than you did before and the same amount of time to do it or be it less time.  This is the complexity about our industry. Every year we need to get better and do it more efficiently but always making more complex work and better looking images.”  A current trend is for visual effects facilities like MPC to have in-house Art Departments.  “If you want to put something on the big screen it’s not getting done in a few hours.  An Art Department is there to help us to flesh out ideas, looks and work with the director because that’s the future.  With films having more visual effects it’s about collaborating with filmmakers more than just providing the service.   We were providing a service of 50 shots [amounting to two minutes of work] for an hour and half of film.   Now you get films like Life of Pi [2012] where an hour and a half of the film is driven by visual effects.  More and more you have to become a work relationship.  We’re part of the filmmaking process.”  Rocheron observes, “Every visual look that a director is after has its own set of challenges. Even if you’re trying to make something stylized on the screen you always need to ground it to something that is somehow real.  You need to have some element of reality in there that will tell the audience that this is a stylized waterfall.  You master all of the components of how it moves and looks, and then you alter it to make it look a certain way.”

“They are two important roles that need to work together hand in hand,” states Guillaume Rocheron who does not see the roles of the production designer and visual effects supervisor merging into a single job.  “Unless you make a completely virtual production which is more an animated film than a live-action movie then the production designer becomes the visual effects supervisor because he’d design everything.   You make a Pixar film, for example, it has everything designed in the computer. There is a production designer who is going to design all the furniture and details that you see in the image.  When it comes down to film you still need to build sets, design a certain look for things, and find locations where you’re going to shoot.”  There is still a need for traditional effects.  “Sometimes making things practically makes sense and sometimes making things digitally makes sense.  There is no better or worse.  ‘Can we shoot it?  Do it for real?  Let’s do it for real.’ There’s nothing more real than something you do on-set that is real with real things.  If it’s not doable then let’s use computers and digital effects or blend both.  We can blow up the car but for scale we don’t want to glass in the windshield. Visual effects will add the windshield.  Instead of replacing practical effects or production design it’s more about a better understanding of how to work together and to use every department that’s best.  You can see some beautiful effects shots which are done with a great blend of practical and visual effects.  For me this something which is irreplaceable.  You can decide to make everything digital but is it always smart?  I’m not sure.”

Being a huge David Fincher, Guillaume Rocheron relished the opportunity of having Panic Room (2002) as his first project when he joined BUF.   “We were given the impossible camera move shots – through the keyhole, and the camera moves through the staircase, into the kitchen and through the coffee pot.”  The work in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) required interesting visual research.  “It was the first time you would see the actual code in 3D so the plates and the actors would change into 3D versions being formed by the letters of The Matrix.”  The world created by the Wachowskis had a major impact on the visual effects industry.  “At the time it was a ground-breaking trilogy and that involved a lot of people.”  Rocheron crossed paths with the first instalment of another acclaimed trilogy.  “I was still working in France so Batman Begins [2005] it was one of my last projects in France for BUF.  I did a couple of shots in there with the Scarecrow and the bat coming out of his mouth – a hallucination that Batman has.”  The setting of Gotham City was replaced with one set in outer space.  “Sunshine [2007] was one of my first projects at MPC and I was working as a technical director on it.  I love the visuals of the film.  They have a beautiful representation of the sun.”  Fun animation was produced for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009).  “When the animals become alive in there and are chasing Ben Stiller.  It was a short sequence.  We did 30 or 40 shots.”

A film franchise about a boy wizard allowed the French talent to do some digital magic.  “I did Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [2005] and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [2009].  I was pleased to work on The Half-Blood Prince because we did the quidditch sequence which was the last quidditch game of all the Harry Potter films.  It was a cool project where we pushed a lot of digital humans and faces.  We were trying to find new ways of not limiting the shot design to just actors on the blue screen but being able to transition from an actor to a digital actor back to a real actor and then make some full screen digital players.”  G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) presented a difficult challenge.  “I joined the project only for the last few months.  It was a fun project because there was a crazy underwater sequence featuring underwater models like you would see in the Star Wars movies. Technically underwater you’re not supposed to see anything, especially, under the icecaps so that was an interesting visual problem to solve; to make it look somehow credible and exciting for the audience.”   A career ambition was finally achieved with a story about the son of Poseidon.  “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief [2010] that was my first project as a visual effects supervisor,” states Rocheron who did not have any trouble in making the transition.  “I’ve been doing that work for a few years.  It’s not like I got thrown into it.  I had some experience dealing with directors, and clients.  It was literally what I was doing but doing a bigger part of it.  It was a great experience because I was going on-set and doing all of these creatures.”

Contributing to the visual effects in Life of Pi (2012) has led Guillaume Rocheron to receive his first Oscar nomination.  “The challenge was most shots were three times longer than what we do generally.”  More attention to detail was needed as the minute duration of shots allows audience members to stare at the images without any cuts.  “It was all about helping Ang Lee [Brokeback Mountain] tell the story of the film and making art instead of purely making images.”  The native of France began his creative relationship with filmmaker Zack Snyder (300) during the production of Sucker Punch (2011). “In terms of visual effects it was an interesting project because it was one of those projects where we did a lot of R&D before the project started.  It’s a film that he shot on the green screen with very small sets so the visual effects have a big part to play in there.  That was an interesting project in that sense where we built up methodologies to do some performance capture and digital effects and to put those shots together.  It was fun.  It was Zack’s project.  It was treated from at least our point of view like an art film in the sense that we produced crazy universes with all of those pretty images.”  The latest effort from Snyder, Man of Steel (2013), is getting some assistance from MPC.  “I can’t say much about it because we’re still working on the post-production.  The only thing I can say is that it’s going to be a great film.”  Rocheron believes, “It’s all about having a good relationship and work methodologies. Working as a team with the filmmakers the same way the filmmaker will trust the DOP or a production designer from the film to the other it becomes the thing with the visual effects. We build a common language.”

Many thanks to Guillaume Rocheron for taking the time for this interview.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.