French VFX powerhouse MacGuff – with headquarters in Paris and offices in L.A. – is using proprietary artificial intelligence tools, in particular Face Engine and Body Engine, in a broad range of VFX projects.
Current projects in the pipeline include Season 2 of “Lupin” for Netflix, “Hôtel du temps” for France Télévisions, and Christian Carion’s “Une belle course,” starring Dany Boon. The studio also used AI tools in Éric Rochant’s political thriller series “The Bureau.”
“Hôtel du temps” is a perfect example of the power of Face Engine since it brings historic figures back to life, such as late actor Jean Gabin and Princess Diana, to be interviewed by hard-hitting French journalist Thierry Ardisson.
MacGuff has an in-house R&D department that has been developing proprietary AI tools by mixing open-source software with proprietary code. The AI developments are being overseen by co-founder and joint director Rodolphe Chabrier and MacGuff’s veteran VFX supervisor Martial Vallanchon.
MacGuff recently received a 200,000 euros ($230,000) grant from France’s CNC to expand its AI engine, as part of the CNC’s $11.4 million technological modernization scheme launched in 2021, which has provided support for 20 French studios and digital post-production companies.
“Our AI tools can make people look younger and older, or even bring people back to life!” explains Philippe Sonrier, MacGuff’s other co-founder and joint director. “We were the first studio to develop these tools in Europe. They deliver new narrative options and the chance to make more complex characters.”
Sonrier adds: “AI is totally different from the method that we have known for the past 30 years, primarily based on complex and time-consuming synthesis methods [modeling, rigging, motion capture, photoreal rendering]. AI brings elements of reality in effects. It’s amazing how it makes the images more natural. For example, you can film the movements of an actor and a dancer and then merge the two. It’s going to revolutionize our industry.”
MacGuff was founded in Paris in 1986. In mid-2011 it split into two companies. Universal bought the animation department, renamed as Illumination MacGuff, run by Jacques Bled.
Sonrier is also co-president of FranceVFX, the French visual effects vendors association, created in 2017, which represents 12 studios: MacGuff, BUF, Digital District, Mikros Image, Trimaran, Solidanim, The Yard, Autre Chose, Les Androïds Associés, Reepost, La Planète Rouge and D-Seed.
FranceVFX is a lobby for VFX interests and also serves as a liaison mechanism between the participating members. It has facilitated joint cooperation on more ambitious VFX projects.
One recent example was Martin Bourboulon’s historical drama “Eiffel,” with 560 VFX shots made by Buf, MacGuff and CGEV, for which the overall VFX supervisor was Olivier Cauwet. Major VFX work is also being developed for Bourboulon’s upcoming “The Three Musketeers – D’Artagnan” and “The Three Musketeers – Milady,” a $85 million two-part saga based on Alexandre Dumas’ masterpiece.
“Collaboration on VFX projects between various studios is a new model for France that has been tested successfully in the U.S., Canada and the U.K.,” explains Sonrier. “It permits us to be more secure. If one vendor has a problem with a project, we can help each other out. The position of the VFX supervisor is emerging in France.”
MacGuff works on major international projects as well as French films and series. It produced VFX work on Julia Ducournau’s 2021 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, “Titane,” including the CGI sequences that created the car baby.
“Our culture is inevitably very French,” explains Sonrier. “We like to be very close to the creative decisions and become involved in each project as soon as possible. That’s part of our DNA. ‘Titane’ is a good example. Initially the director tried out animatronics solutions but wasn’t happy with them. We used CGI to create the car baby. It’s something we’d previously tried out in 2006 when creating a fetus for the French documentary ‘L’odyssée de la Vie’ by Nils Tavernier.”
“VFX work is always very risky in both creative and financial terms,” says Sonrier. “This is particularly true in the French tradition, because of the status of the director as the auteur and supreme decision-maker.”
For major international films and series, Sonrier considers that it is easier to lock down the logistics, but sometimes at the cost of becoming more like a factory pipeline. MacGuff has forged a strong relationship with Netflix, which was cemented by its VFX work on its gentleman thief series “Lupin.” Another major VFX job produced for Netflix was Alexandre Aja’s 2021 survival thriller “Oxygen,” where the VFX work alone was budgeted at over € 1 million ($1.14 million).
MacGuff is now working on a major international series, which involves coordination between several VFX studios. It is also working on a major animation project between France, Belgium and Canada, and an ambitious French robot-themed project that will begin lensing in mid-2022.
More international projects are coming to France in the wake of the change introduced in 2020 to France’s Tax Rebate for International Production (TRIP) scheme, which now offers a 40% rebate on all eligible expenses – including for live action spends that are not VFX related – for international projects whose VFX expenses surpass €2 million ($2.27 million) spent in France.
High-profile projects attracted by this change include Ridley Scott’s 14th century period epic “The Last Duel,” with VFX work done by Mikros Image. Another example is the 16th-century Medici drama “Serpent Queen,” produced for Starz by Lionsgate Television and 3 Arts Entertainment.
Smaller-scale international projects can apply for other support mechanisms such as the CVS scheme for ambitious visual and sound projects. The CVS scheme was used on the Lithuanian-French production “Vesper Seeds,” for which the VFX work was shared with Mathematic, Mikros Liege and Excuse My French.
This dystopian pic, set after the collapse of the Earth’s ecosystem, is the third feature from Lithuanian helmer Kristina Buozyte and French helmer Bruno Samper, who co-directed a short segment for the 2014 American horror anthology “ABCs of Death 2.”
MacGuff is also producing VFX work for the documentary “Corridor of Power,” produced by Dror Moreh, having previously worked on other projects produced by him, such as Oscar-nominee “The Gatekeepers” and “The Human Factor,” which won the Grand Prix at Fipadoc 2020.
Other recent French productions handled by the studio include Nicolas Giraud’s “L’astronaute,” starring Giraud and Mathieu Kassovitz.
MacGuff is a long-time collaborator of French-Argentine helmer Gaspar Noé and did the VFX work on his latest feature film, “Vortex,” in terms of stabilization of the frames, rotations, small morphs, retiming and adjustments to the split screen images.
The studio also provides VFX for documentaries, such as “La rafle des notables,” produced by Victor Robert’s 10.7 Productions, based on Anne Sinclair’s book about French concentration camps during World War II. It is also working on a docufiction from 10.7 Productions “The Last Secrets of Humanity,” directed by Jacques Malaterre, about the prehistoric period in China, including VFX work to recreate prehistoric animals, jointly produced by Mikros and MacGuff.
The company is developing VR/AR and immersive projects, primarily commercials, via its subsidiary Small.