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April 12
2021

ISSUE

Spring 2021

GUILLAUME ROCHERON: OSCAR-WINNER PURSUES HIS PASSION PERFECTING IMAGERY FOR STORYTELLING

By TREVOR HOGG

Rocheron stands with the Academy Award that was given to him in 2013 for his contributions on Life of Pi.
(Image courtesy of Guillaume Rocheron and MPC) 

 Currently based in Los Angeles and enjoying being a father to his year-and-a-half- old daughter, Guillaume Rocheron was born and raised in Paris, and has gone from making personal CG short films to being rewarded with Oscars for Life of Pi and 1917. 

“I wasn’t particularly good at drawing but always had a passion for photography, and learned early on how to use and understand a camera,” shares Rocheron. “I was developing a video game that I had written and worked with a few artists to help me conceptualize it. One of them introduced me to computer graphics. I was amazed by the possibilities that were way beyond what I could draw and photograph.” 

A fascination with creating moving images that were lit like photography led Rocheron to produce a series of short films on his personal computer at home. “I was using 3D Studio 4 on DOS. My computer wasn’t powerful enough to install Windows! A lot of time was spent flipping through the 500-page software manual as well as conducting trial and error experiments. One short film revolved around a group of ants trying to climb onto a sofa to watch their favorite TV show.” 

 The short won a prize in the independent category at Imagina and caught the attention of an acclaimed Paris-based visual effects company. “I was 17 years old at the time and BUF got in touch with me. I remember going on the BUF website and discovering that they did the gunshot sequence in Fight Club. That was when I realized what I was doing could be applied to movies.” 

While attending École Georges Méliès, Rocheron educated himself about classical art. He was also doing freelance work for BUF, starting off as an uncredited modeler on Panic Room and becoming a digital artist on The Matrix Reloaded and Batman Begins. “One of the biggest things that I learned from film photography and my early days at BUF is how similar photography and computer graphics are in concept. Both give you controls like shutter speed and aperture on a camera, or lines of code in a shader, and it is down to you to understand how they apply to making a picture. BUF used its own software at the time and there was no UI. Compositing and shading were scripted, which forced you to understand how an image or a shot was constructed without the real-time feedback you now have in modern software. I learned so much from the way BUF’s founder, Pierre Buffin, designed their approach to visual effects and from some great people there such as Stephane Ceretti and Dominique Vidal.”

 At 25, Rocheron left Paris to work in London at MPC. “It was a thrill to work abroad, but I didn’t speak great English and the working practices were very different in big studios. Nicolas Aithadi was a CG supervisor at the time and he took me under his wing. At BUF I was a generalist whereas at MPC people were specialized, which was a big adjustment for me. I had always worked executing complete shots rather than having a specialization. MPC supported me greatly by giving me the opportunity to work across many different disciplines over the years, from effects TD to lighting TD, 3D matte painter, CG supervisor, and finally VFX supervisor. I learned how to handle the bigger projects, the longer process, bigger complexity and higher volume. It was a less intuitive way of working, and much more calculated and planned.” 

Rocheron gets a second Academy Award in 2020 for his contributions in creating the illusion that 1917 was captured as a continuous single shot along with Special Effects Supervisor Dominic Tuohy, left, and MPC Visual Effects Supervisor Greg Butler. (Image courtesy of Guillaume Rocheron and MPC) 

A facility visual effects supervisor focuses on sequences, while the production counterpart deals with the overall aesthetic of the movie. “It is helpful to come from a facility because you know how a facility works,” notes Rocheron, who served as a production visual effects supervisor on Godzilla: King of the Monsters and 1917, and co-supervised Ghost in the Shell with John Dykstra (Star Wars). “You know the technical language, workflow, and how the shot is being created quite precisely. On the production side, you have to learn how to collaborate with the production designer, DP and director, and translate their ideas into technical and artistic direction for the VFX teams. The challenges are widely different on every film, which is frankly why I love it. You try to find a common language to help the director bring his vision to the screen. It’s the people you work with who make this job the most enjoyable.” 

 

The visual effects team of Rocheron, Bill Westenhofer, Donald Elliott and Erik De Boer celebrate winning an Oscar for their work on Life of Pi. (Image courtesy of Guillaume Rocheron and MPC) 

Rocheron and crew with the 80-camera video rig created for the solograms produced for Ghost in the Shell. (Photo courtesy of Guillaume Rocheron) 

Movies that have had a lasting impact on Rocheron are Jurassic Park, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Star Wars. “The first time that I saw the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park and the trench run in Star Wars, it completely blew my mind. I didn’t know enough about how films were made to understand how it was all possible, but I knew there was something that I found to be incredibly thrilling about the prospect of making them.”

One of the biggest technical challenges that Rocheron had to overcome was the ability to art-direct the ocean in Life of Pi. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and MPC)

For the past decade, blockbusters have dominated the production slates of studios. “Now, between movies and longform content, there is so much demand for volume that we are seeing a lot of innovation happening to facilitate collaboration, rapid prototyping and iteration with filmmakers,” observes Rocheron. “Visual effects are now an integral part of the filmmaking process, but there are still challenges to make it more approachable for directors and other heads of departments. It can sometimes be a slow and counter-intuitive process that doesn’t always quite keep up with how organic the editing process can be. Real-time tools certainly help because you can put things in front of the director and studio at greater speed and more interactively, and hopefully help solidify scenes early to give enough time for the final effects to be finished at the highest possible quality. A lot of the directors I have been talking to recently are getting increasingly interested in how to best work with visual effects in order to explore new storytelling avenues.”

A constant goal for filmmakers and the visual effects industry is photorealism. “Photorealism is whatever the reality of the movie is,” believes Rocheron. “Pre-production with a DP, production designer and director is where you define your language. A movie is an illusion. Sets get made. Actors get lit. Everything that you think is real is fabricated. I spend a lot of time in pre-production trying to understand that language with the other heads of department. If you take Ghost in the Shell, the cinematic language is driven by the drawn manga aesthetic. Translating it into live-action required a level of interpretation in order to create a fantastical world. 

Rocheron was a Co-Visual Effects Supervisor with John Dykstra on the live-action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. (Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and MPC) 

Whereas 1917 had to be photoreal and invisible because of how grounded in reality the movie had to feel like. I find that working on different types of films is incredibly interesting because your definition of photorealistic effects becomes an artistic choice, based on the rules of each film.” 

Rocheron is attracted to projects that offer opportunities to collaborate and contribute to the storytelling. “You don’t do movies for the technique but because you have a specific experience and mindset that will help you work with a group of people. At the very beginning of a project, I love not knowing yet how to achieve some of the work and working with my team to figure it out. It took two years of R&D to simulate the ocean in Life of Pi because we had to come up with a process that would allow Ang Lee to design the oceans like an animated character while ultimately being able to convert it into photoreal moving water. The breakthrough was that we would animate the ocean surface and then drive a thin layer of voxels on top of the surface. Ang would talk about the mood of the waves and how aggressive they should be. It was not just about doing what it said on the page. It was also about crafting his artistic vision.” 

Rocheron has also worked closely with Visual Effects Supervisor John ‘D.J.’ Des Jardin, a frequent collaborator of filmmaker Zack Snyder, who has left a lasting impression on him. “The first movie that [Des Jardin and I] did together was Sucker Punch followed by Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. D.J. was the one who taught me that you have to be bold and not let the technical process put fear in the middle of what you’re trying to achieve creatively. On Man of Steel, we had to find a way to transition from live-action sets and characters to fully digital shots and back again. In the ‘Smallville Battle’ scene, some shots had to transition multiple times over to allow for uninterrupted action. 

Rocheron provided additional visual effects supervisor support for the Heart of Darkness-inspired Ad Astra. (Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox and MPC) 

 

The EnviroCam was created to assist with making the transition between digital and live-action characters and environments for the takeoff and landing sequences in Man of Steel. (Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox and MPC) 

 

Rocheron has learned a lot from collaborating with Visual Effects Supervisor John ‘D.J.’ Des Jardin on films such as Sucker Punch. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures and MPC) 

“To capture environments in their shot-specific lighting, we created a process we dubbed ‘EnviroCam,’” continues Rocheron. “We used a high-speed, programmable and precise motorized camera head called the Roundshot, from a Swiss company called Seitz, that allowed us to capture our environments at very high resolution and very quickly. The Roundshot domes were then used along with some custom tools in Nuke to be aligned to the scene geometry and be color calibrated to the film plates in order to create seamless 2.5D transitions. It is cool to now see Roundshots used on a lot of visual effects sets as it proved to be an incredibly versatile and reliable piece of equipment.”

The most difficult aspect of 1917, according to Rocheron, was not being able to break down the shots into the usual 10-second segments, and the ripple impact that change had on every subsequent shot. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures and MPC) 

An iconic franchise that Rocheron took part in relaunching was Godzilla. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures and MPC) 

 

Rocheron went from being a facility Visual Effects Supervisor for MPC on Godzilla to a Production Visual Effects Supervisor for Godzilla: King of the Monsters. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures and MPC)

Presenting a unique challenge both technically and artistically was the one continuous shot premise of a World War I drama helmed by Sam Mendes. “For 1917, the question was, ‘How do you manage a shot that is two hours long, make it workable in terms of iterations and deal with the ripple effects of each change?’” explains Rocheron. “For example, a tree or a crater added at a certain point could show up again one minute later and still had to work compositionally. Not having cuts meant we couldn’t rely on our usual bag of tricks. We had a specialized ‘Stitch Team’ that became the masters at seamlessly connecting takes together, mixing CG elements, 2.5D projections and incredibly elaborate comp tricks, etc. The editing, effects and camera work were all designed to not draw attention, so we did everything we could to make the effects as unnoticeable as possible and to not distract from the immersion. 

“Sam would often say, ‘I don’t want this to feel like a visual effects shot,’” emphasizes Rocheron. “It was so delicate as a movie. There are visual effects in 90% of it, in 4K IMAX. Instead of reviewing a shot that is four seconds long, which is the average duration of a visual effects shot, we had to deal with shots that were three or four minutes long. Life of Pi was technically a complicated movie because the R&D was massive, whereas 1917 was about finding innovative methodologies to handle the specificity of a one-shot movie.”

No two projects are the same for Rocheron. “I love how filmmaking is about teamwork. Each director brings their unique vision and perspective that constantly generates new challenges for me and my team. Growing up in France, I never imagined that I would be working on Hollywood films, let alone winning Academy Awards. I consider myself so lucky that I get to make images for a living!”


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