This fall, students around the world complete the annual ritual of returning to school. But some students are returning to cooler schools than others. Thanks in large part to two schools in Paris that are among the best in the world for teaching animation, a wave of French animators are making their mark in the U.S. and abroad.
The schools' names are Gobelins and Supinfocom, which may sound a bit like characters out of a Harry Potter novel. And the connection is not so far off, since Framestore, the London-based animation studio responsible for a lot of the special effects in the Harry Potter series, has hired many students from these two schools.
"Framestore has the nickname 'French Store,'" said Eric Riewer, who was the former head of Gobelins and is now in charge of international development. "They prize French animators because of their obsession for pushing the envelope."
Framestore isn't alone. Pixar, Dreamworks and other major studios have large French contingents. Notably, Pierre Coffin, the director of Despicable Me, learned his chops at Gobelins. Supinfocom boasts the creator of "Madagascar Carnet De Voyage," which was nominated for an Oscar last year.
"French animators are appreciated for their intellectual and artistic audacity," Riewer told InnovationNewsDaily.
Props for preparation
Gobelins – situated in Paris – has been a force in visual arts for nearly 50 years. The animation department opened its doors in 1975.
"Gobelins name is quite well known around the world," Riewer said. "We're the Harvard of animation."
And like the real Harvard, it is very hard to get into Gobelins. Only 25 students are selected each year out of close to 1000 applications. The school expects applicants to already have all the artistic fundamentals. Students don't go to Gobelins to learn to draw, but to make their drawings move, Riewer said.
Gobelins' "college rival" is Supinfocom, which is short for Ecole Supérieure d'Informatique de Communication. In addition to two campuses in France, Supinfocom has recently expanded to India.
"Supinfocom was one of the first schools to teach computer graphics," said former student Fx Goby. This gave them a head start "to try different things and learn from their mistakes," he explained.
Goby and one of his classmates Matthieu Landour partnered up after graduating to form a company called Fx and Mat that produces animation and short films. They recently hit it big with an ad featuring a Coke-swilling dragon that made the line-up of last year's Super Bowl.
But the duo's first success came in 2007, when their student film, En Tus Brazos, about a crippled man's dream of dancing again took the Excellence Award at SIGGRAPH – the world's biggest computer graphics festival.
"We were competing against Pixar," Goby recounted. "To win as students was very prestigious for us."
But this sort of success has become par for the course for French student films. A clear example is Oktapodi, a short film created by a group of Gobelins students that was nominated for an Oscar in 2009. And every year, fresh graduates release their final projects to the delight of animation aficionados.
"There is a positive competition between the students," Goby says. "They feel stimulated to do better than last year's class."
The French touch
With so many French animators around, one might wonder what influence they have had. Riewer finds it hard to put his finger on a specific style that can be called "French animation."
"The French touch could be a certain elegance in movement," Riewer said. "There is a tendency in animation to over-exaggerate a character's movement, but French animators will often tone it down to something more subtle."
Perfecting this kind of subtlety can be time-consuming, say Goby and Landour. Advances in computer technology have sped up certain elements of the animation process, but to make a drawing "come to life" takes human trial and error.
"The computer makes images that are too clean," Landour said. "You have to create your own chaos in animation."
Although they learned the basic approaches at school, Landour and Goby are always having to learn new techniques, as well as develop their own.
"Animation is a hard road – both technically and artistically," Riewer said. "Don't go into it if you have other choices. Only do it if you are not satisfied with static drawing and desire movement."
The reward for those who take on the challenge of going to a school like Gobelins or Supinfocom is that once they graduate, "there's no limit to their imagination," Riewer said.