French Frights: The Making of Christian Volckman’s Renaissance

Before The Room, Christian Volckman directed Renaissance, an animated sci-fi thriller. Here’s the story behind it.

Meet Karas, Renaissance’s main protagonist

At the beginning of it all, there exists a single drawing, an idea Olivier Renouard once had. A black and white picture with no shades of grey. A concept so out-there, when Renouard showed it to Marc Miance, the 23 years old designer knew he had to animate it⁶. Miance gave himself one mission: to create the perfect mix between Frank Miller’s comic book aesthetic and a movie⁵. Graphics and reality.

To do this, Miance hired four actors. All he needed was a room, a bunch of technicians and their computer, a few cameras and a filmmaker, of course. Looking at the making of¹⁴, you can clearly see how mocap appeared brand new at the time, to everyone involved from the actors to the director himself. See, to be able to finish his project, Miance hired Martin Arnaldo. Eventually the team would release Project BW, a one-minute short ending on a cliff-hanger. Through a dense back and white form, hence the title, it tells the story of the night devouring the world at the turn of the century which was yet-to-come. This concept, which Miance so deeply believed in, he would show it at Imagina 1998³. A now-defunct French festival centred around new technologies.

Martin Arnaldo’s Project BW

At this exact same time, Christian Volckman was also touring for his short film Maaz. With Maaz, the 26 years old filmmaker also wanted to mix art and animation⁴. Deeply passionate about paint, he had himself drew every background in his short film before integrating his characters on his canvas through a green screen procedure using Painter — the ancestor to Premiere or After Effects. To make this short possible — his second — Volckman created Onyx Pictures with his childhood friend Aton Soumache. The short won 32 Awards and was even nominated to the Cesar Awards — one of the most important French distinctions. So it was really no surprise when Volckman, having stumbled upon Miance’s Project BW, fell in love with the concept³.

Christian Volckman’s Maaz

Truth is, Volckman had always wanted to do a film noir⁷, to pay homage to classics such as Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of the Dr Calligari, Fritz Lang’s M -which he already saluted with Maaz, and even Orson Wells’ Citizen Kane. Something in the German expressionism movement, be in pictorial form or in movies, attracted the young director. And the technology Miance had created seemed ideal to attain this goal, it was a new form of expression, something which would not age, thanks to its black and white tones. A pictural technique to play with. Still they needed a story.

Enter Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière, both of whom were recruited by Soumache as writers², even though Renaissance would be their really first feature film. Both screenwriters wanted to make a thriller, something dark, which would go smoothly with the graphics, something between Ridley’ Scott’s Blade Runner and James Ellroy’s work. Soon, the team agreed it would be cyberpunk, for, all five being Parisians, they missed never having witnessed a cyberpunk vision of Paris onto the silver screen. An animated cyberpunk thriller taking place in Paris in 2054 would need a lot of manpower. With this idea, Miance and his friend Boris Hertzog created Attitude Studio in 1999, always keeping at the back of their mind that they would once work on Renaissance, the movie they had shaped by investing Project BW.

Thing is, this type of project would need a lot of funds and so the team did what was to be done at the time when you wanted to produce a sci-fi movie in France. They turned to Canal+ -France’s biggest private tv channel. And it worked, for almost a year, until a restructuration hit Canal+ hard in 2009 and they stopped funding the project. But Miance, Soumache, and Volckman had been smart, they’d made a 3 minutes trailer, they’d show in theatres to possible investors. The design, the settings, helped them secure funding from France 2 and Pathé and soon, through their meeting with Jake Eberts even Miramax/Disney invested in Renaissance⁸. Reading through the book telling the story behind the movie, Soumache is glad Disney got involved, going as far as saying the sole thing they asked was that the movie should be shorter than the two hour and a half length which was first thought of.

No Gravity — Christian Wolckman x Raphaël Thierry

And so, began the pre-production which was mostly about imagining Paris’ future but also integrated a lot of rewrites. Volckman, surely in search of partnership, but also deeply passionate about conveying a sense of reality through a very harsh aesthetic, called upon Citroën to help him design the car, Karas, the hero of the movie would use¹³. The team which consisted not only of people working in 3D animation but also of comic book artist, designed a Paris existing solely through its verticality and its envy to keep its historical nature safe.

Still, funding would stay a problem all throughout the making of the project. In the audio commentary presented on the French DVD, Volckman states that at one point while he was shooting in the mocap studio they choose in Luxemburg, Soumache called him, saying there were no money left and that a bus would come and take every ninety employees who were on set to bring them back to France. This didn’t happen but it somehow illustrates in what state of mind lived all the creators of Renaissance and it didn’t prevent Volckman to make between 15 and 40 takes¹⁰ of each shot he wanted in his 60m² studio. The shooting for which the young filmmaker had handpicked only theatre actors, so that they may not be bothered by the lack of furniture, by the effort they’d have to make with their own imagination, still felt easy to Volckman when compared to the task of editing and animating everything else. And there surely is a bit of truth to that.

You see, when Volckman edited the shots with the help of Pascal Tozzi, the characters were not animated. They were just staring blandly at whatever was in front of their dead eyes. Sure, Attitude had developed glasses¹⁶ to record the eye movement of the actors on set, thinking a helmet, as was used at the time, would be too heavy. But those data had not been processed when the editing took place. Volckman had only three months with Tozzi, so he went on with the task. Listening to the audio commentary, you sometimes hear him say, people looking at each other from a frame to another was pure luck.

Another thing to keep in mind was that the animation of the mouth of every character had to be done frame by frame, as is usual in 2D animation. Editing shots after shots of wide-eyed unmoving puppet appears some kind of achievement in and of itself when thinking about this. If, on top of this, you pile up an always-changing scenario, a filmmaker in his debut and a studio who had only done videogame cinematics beforehand, this is beginning to look like a recipe for disaster.

Paris 2054

Sound was also important in the conveying of the story. You see, the black and white aesthetics was put in place after the graphism, after the animation, after anything else. Which put the lighting team in a tight spot for they sometimes had to erase a lot of work offered by the previous team. Those big black area which gives Renaissance it’s unique tone? They were a problem, not only in terms of cohesion and department conviviality but also in terms of comprehension.

It appears as if the more he worked on it, the more Volckman wanted totally blank or totally black environment, as if he was searching for an abstract formula which had been preyed upon by the trailer he made before, which contained rows and rows of tiny details. Volckman, as he would put it in an interview twelve years later¹, had changed.

This would make the sound really important. Every sound, because if you’re spectator’s only witnessing a blackspot, he needs to heard that somebody is scratching a surface to know what’s going on. This is one of the highlights of the 2006 feature, the care which was given to its sound design, a lot of which was made by hand, as in the olden days. For the voice-overs, Volckman decided he didn’t want famous voices so as not to distract the viewer from the personalities of its characters. Still, he was a young filmmaker at the time, and reading through the books of the movie, he recalled a few problems with the English cast, while stating his unknown French cast was easier to work with.

For the music, Volckman said he cast a lot of composers before picking Nicholas Dodd, who was a chef d’orchestre and really eager to finally share his composition. The score he made was recorded in an old church in London and you bet this is one of the best things in the movie.

Despite all odds, on March 2006, Renaissance was released.

Renaissance Trailer

Let’s not beat around the bush, Renaissance wasn’t a success, it didn’t even make its money back, as is often the case with French movies. Still, with the perspective of viewer talking about this twelve years later, I guess, it had to be done. Maybe, it wasn’t such a good idea to assemble a team of rookies. While the technology behind the film may have aged well, its story of a cop stumbling upon a company trying to developp an immortality serum uses too much clichés to really stand out in a crowded genre.

Listening to every audio commentary present on the French edition DVD of Renaissance, it’s easy to get how the making of this film appeared difficult to Volckman, the directors makes a remarks about hardship probably every five minutes so it’s really no surprise that he left filmmaking altogether for the ten following years. It appears, Volckman thought cinema was too much of a difficult art, so he went back to painting where he thought there would be less compromises. And a reality check happened, nowadays, you can hear him say that even if cinema is built upon compromises, it is still a system in which all workers really do want the best for the fate of the movie.

Attitude Studio closed its gate in 2009, three years after the release of Renaissance. Their pedigree teaching us that this was the sole movie they completed along with two tv series and a bunch of cinematics for forgotten videogames. Marc Miance created a new studio in 2010, Alkymia, which appears to be specialized in mocap.

Matthieu Delaporte and Alexandre de la Patellière both still work as a tandem, with the former having gone on to direct some of their scripts some of which include What’s in a name or 22 Bullets starring Jean Reno.

Anton Soumache, which wasn’t into 3D before Volckman dragged him in, still produce content to this day. He’s been a producer on a few animated tv series, and a bunch of other movies, one of them being the Little Prince, the adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s book.

in 2019, Christian Volckman released the Room, a French horror movie, filmed in English for which he had to fight tooth and nails according to more recent interviews. He seems to think that Renaissance wasn’t good, that his new feature is much better. Agreeing or not, we’ll give the guy a pat on the back, because at 26 years old, Volckman succeeded in making a project which would nowadays appear impossible on French soil.

But maybe, this is what Volckman is all about, making impossible movies.

Renaissance Summary : In 2054, Karas, a silent Parisian cop is tasked to retrieve Ilona, a scientist working for Avalon, a cosmetic company. Along the way, Karas will realize that all is not what it seems, and that his friends may not be the ones he counted on.

The Room — Christian Volckman’s new movie

If you’re interested in movie making of, you may be intested in this paper I wrote on Ryuhei Kitamura’s Alive or maybe you would like to hear about Ring of Fury, the first and only kung-fu flick from Singapore.

Releasing a paper every Friday.

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