Interview with Mikael Genachte
It is evident from your résumé that you studied graphics and illustration before specializing in 3D after leaving school, but what was it that prompted you to pursue this particular branch of computer graphics?
After graduating from a drawing school (Ecole Pivaut in Nantes), I worked at a graphic design company for four years. One of our clients was a local radio station and every week I had to make some flyers and posters for them. It was really enjoyable because they let me do pretty much whatever I wanted.
Then a friend showed me some software called Bryce 3D. He created a sphere and placed a chrome shader above it. I was very impressed. I later asked my company to buy Bryce, Poser and Amapi, and I started testing my new toys on the flyers and posters for that same radio station that still gave me a lot of freedom.
One year later, I finally decided to specialize in 3D and I studied 3ds Max at a school in Lyon (Ecole Emile Cohl) for one year. There, I made a short movie with a colleague in four and a half months, which allowed me to get a job at BUF Compagnie nine years ago, before moving on to the Moving Picture Company and Rhythm and Hues.
As an environment artist you cover a number of disciplines, but from your list of tasks what do you spend most time doing and which do you enjoy the most?
There are two things I really enjoy. The first one is matte painting in Photoshop. That's the most time-consuming task and involves the greatest amount of amendments.
The second one is camera mapping. I'll never get tired of seeing a matte painting come to life through an animated camera.
That being said, as I started my career as a generalist at BUF Compagnie, I still love to be given the opportunity to work on as many aspects as
possible. Most of the time we need to create the models ourselves and from time to time we need to set and animate our own cameras and do some compositing. I find this diversity very interesting.
Is matte painting something you have learnt during your employment or at school, and what is the most difficult aspect to get right generally?
I think that it has been the logical consequence of all my previous experiences. Illustration school taught me proportions; to observe what's around me and to pay attention to detail. The graphic design company taught me Photoshop and at BUF I learned all the 3D technicalities, especially camera mapping, so when I had to find a specialty to go abroad, the choice was obvious for me.
The most difficult aspects vary according to the projects and the shots, but generally speaking, I think what really makes a matte painting work
successfully is consistent lighting and accurate perspective. If we work from a plate and manage to catch both of these aspects then the matte painting will naturally fit.
Your reel breakdown outlines your work on various projects, which include a lot of camera mapping. Which of the films proved the most difficult to work on in this respect and why?
On 10,000 BC, for the mammoth hunting sequence, we had to make the ground and the animals' legs interact. To do that, we had to erase the ground on each plate, replace it with dirt, and then add CG grass that was reacting to the movements of the mammoths. The motion covered very long distances and for each shot we had to create lots of cameras in order to avoid stretching (some shots required more than fifty cameras just for the ground, plus another twenty for the surrounding background). For The A-Team, we had to cover a gigantic area of 28,900 hectares and create an environment capable of receiving some 360 camera movement.
On each movie, all shots with wide motion coupled with a rotation are the trickiest ones and a real hassle as you need to avoid texture stretching.
Tell us a little about your work on Yogi and the challenges it posed?
Yogi was the first stereo movie for Rhythm and Hues. We had to adapt our equipment as well as the pipeline. We could no longer "cheat" as we had often done (for example; adding simple planes to complete geometry without modeling it entirely). The fact that we had to render through two cameras (one for each eye) to create depth and relief required that we accurately modeled each object: ground, mountains and trees etc, and then place them accurately in space.
Our department worked primarily on three sequences: the opening sequence, Yogi's flying machine sequence (all the sky, ground and mountain environments) as well as the river pursuit. It was a pleasant experience and everything went really well. Seeing one's own work in depth and relief through 3D glasses was really enjoyable.
Can you talk us through the Narnia shot with the collapsing pit and explain the process and techniques you used to produce the sequence?
For this shot, the FX department gave me the geometry making up the inside of the pit and the animated ceiling collapsing in several pieces. The "ground" part of the matte painting covered the meadow and the inside of the pit. So the camera projection encompassed all parts at the same time and each part that collapsed needed to keep its allocated texture piece. We asked developers to add this feature to their projection software. We had another camera viewing the pit from below, adding dirt to the "underground" sections of these pieces.
It appears that you had "carte blanche" over the fireplace scene in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. What were the most demanding aspects of this shot?
I would say the head integration and interaction with the fireplace. We had animated plates that we had to assemble like a jigsaw puzzle (logs arrangement, flames etc) to achieve the desired design and angle and, as a result, an animated matte painting. From this one, we made a model of the fireplace and projected the texture onto it. We then had to blend in Sirius's CG head: texture, animated embers,
particles, flames and interaction with logs. Finally, there was some serious compositing to be done to make everything consistent and realistic.
You have worked across a number of different genres within the film industry, but are there any particular types of projects you favor over others?
All movies on which I can work as freely as possible so that I can contribute on as many aspects as possible: matte painting, projections, modeling, lighting and more, like we did on The Hunger Games city.
The movie I had the most fun working on was probably Silent Hill. Firstly, it's a horror movie so it's fun by nature. I was given two gory shots and was simply told to do something bloody. I really enjoyed using all the available tools to make it as nightmarish as possible, especially the shot with Pyramid Head who twists his victim's skin to pull it
off. For the final quartering, I even modeled the heart, stomach and the intestines falling down as two separate parts, but motion blur and blood spatter hide most of it.
All types of projects are interesting in their own way. I really liked working on The A-Team. I loved watching the TV series when I was younger and the sequence in the clouds we worked on was really faithful to the spirit of the TV series. We had to cover a very huge area and this type of environment is very pleasant to work on.
Finally, comedies like Night at the Museum 2 also provided a lot of freedom and let us use our imagination.
What do you feel have been the biggest advances in CG during your career so far?
Maybe the fact that CG animals are increasingly realistic and better integrated into their environments (all the latest kids movies involving talking animals are more and more hyper-realistic). Also fluid simulations are becoming more and more impressive.
I saw Avatar last year. I like to compare it to Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (released in 2001) as they both synthesized the latest progress made in 3D computer graphics.
Many thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, Mikael.
Thanks a lot. It's been a real pleasure to answer your questions