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The VFX Factor: Listening, Understanding and Dialogue with Stéphane Pivron

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The Mill's creative director on crafting beautiful synergy, starting from scratch and making a good playlist to get a project started

The VFX Factor: Listening, Understanding and Dialogue with Stéphane Pivron

Stéphane Pivron has 22 years of experience in the image industry. After a double degree in Physics and Cinema, he joined a film school to specialise as chief cameraman. During an internship in a film laboratory, at the bend of a corridor, he discovered the visual effects equipment and software, for which he had an immediate crush.   

In 2000, Stéphane Pivron joined the Mikros group in Paris, where he put his passion for cinema and photography at the service of digital images. First assistant, then Flame Artist, he became VFX supervisor in 2004. 

Over the last 20 years, Stéphane has worked on numerous high-end visual effects projects, award-winning films and music videos, directed by world-renowned artists such as Johan Renck, Jean Baptiste Mondino, François Rousselet, Cary Fukunaga, Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, Wong Kar Wai, Romain Gavras, Rob Marshall, or Jean Jacques Annaud…


Films:

CHANEL N°5 / Être Ce Qui Va Arriver: Johan Renck  

Perrier Heat: Cary Joji Fukunaga 

Prada Luna Ocean: Johan Renck 

YSL Black Opium: Jonas Lindstroem 

Dior J'adore: Jean Baptiste Mondino 


LBB> There are two ends to the VFX spectrum - the invisible post and the big, glossy 'VFX heavy' shots. What are the challenges that come with each of them?

Stéphane> Invisible post is what I do most. The challenge here is not only to copy reality, but also how to sublimate it in a realistic way, how to bring in a sequence an extra degree of emotion? The goal is not so far with big VFX. The question is “What do we want to deliver to the audience?” And I think the way to do it is the same: from references to concepts to mock-ups, we try to find the right balance, the point where the shot or the sequence owns its own truth. When it is found, it is only a question of manufacturing.

 

LBB> As a VFX person, what should directors be aware of to make sure you do the best possible job for them?

Stéphane> Listening, understanding and dialogue are the key points.

Regarding VFX, it is always very important to take time before the shoot with the director and all his team, make concepts, so that everyone understands what we are doing, where we go, and why we are filming this way. We can’t do anything without the Set Designer, the DOP, the Grip, the Editor, etc... The best jobs I’ve done have this common thing: a beautiful synergy with each of these people, and this is the director who made it happen!

From a creative idea, our job as VFX supervisors is to find the best way in budget and time to make it the best possible. And it happens when the director is receptive during the entire process, from the pre-production where we define the VFX, the shooting where we make sure it will work, to post-production where we build the VFX. During this time, we’ll have many meetings with the director, to validate the key steps, it can be the animation, a first CG render, compositing, finalisation… It is crucial that he is present during these steps because it is very difficult to go back.

 

LBB> VFX is a true craft in the classic sense of the word. Where did you learn your craft?

Stéphane> Nowadays, most of the people in VFX come from school. 

I started 22 years ago from scratch, I knew only a bit of Photoshop, and I learned my job with people as an assistant. I had three mentors in my life, very generous guys who taught me the basics of this job, but more than the basics, they showed their tricks, their way to start a shot, their philosophy in VFX. I spent two years following my mentors, doing their rotoscopy, doing some shots, first small then bigger, and I kept wonderful memories of those times. Knowledge transmission by real experts is the true craft!

Then I started to lead projects on my own, to supervise, and find my own recipes. Our job is in a constant evolution, being curious led me to test and try new technologies, with always the desire to do better. And I think it is the key to my actual craft.

 

LBB> Think about the very, very start of a project. What is your process for that? Do you have a similar starting point for all projects?

Stéphane> First, make a good music playlist, to give the general mood! Then explore without any limits what the final project could be, in cinema, advertising, clip, documentaries, photography, art... and grab many references.

With this first material, I take a pause to see the goal, and then I start to look for the key talents for this job with my VFX productor. Depending on the project it can be a generalist CG supervisor, an Animator or a SFX artist... Once done, I share with them all this material, then we decide together how to achieve it the best way.


LBB> We imagine that one of the trickiest things with VFX is, time issues aside, deciding when a project is finished! How do you navigate that?

Stéphane> I always work with the timeline.

Like many of my colleagues, I’m challenging my team, and I will never let a shot with a problem go out. But I won’t push it too much. I always see it in the timeline with the others. During the review with the team, we decide ‘oh this shot needs more work, and so we go further, we push the level until something happens, a balance comes in the timeline, it becomes true. It is the moment I know we are close to the end.

 

LBB> Is there a piece of technology or software that's particularly exciting for you in VFX? Why?

Stéphane> For a while, I've been very excited about AI. Each year, from a technical point of view, it makes my job so much easier, with a huge gain in productivity. But what I like even more is the creative possibilities it brings, it seems infinite! 

Recently I worked on a Heineken movie with François Rousselet, a great director I love to work with. In this project, he asked us to create a map of the world as it was designed and drawn by Saul Bass. I gave this sentence to an AI algorithm, and some results were great and totally crazy, things I would have never thought. With this we went to a concept artist to keep what we liked the most. It didn’t change the process, it just brought more craft!

 
LBB> Speaking of that, how have you navigated your role during Covid? Was there a big shift to remote? Tell us about your experience.

Stéphane> I had a very special experience during the first Covid. 

I was just starting a big commercial, a Chanel film starring Marion Cotillard on a gold moon with Johan Renck. In one week, The Mill did an incredible job, providing us all the equipment we needed to work remotely in a professional way. Despite this, it has been very difficult. My apartment in Paris is not big enough to have a third office (we are 3 in the family), I had to take the living room, and it quickly becomes awful to work here; always on call, disturbing my family. It lasted TWO weeks, and I came back to our office in the centre of Paris, with a special authorisation, followed by the key supervisors and artists. We were something like ten in a one thousand people building, it was great! We’ve been of course very cautious, and delivered a great project. I still remember the travels between home and work by bike during this time, it was incredible to cross a totally empty Paris, and I felt so lucky to be able to do it.

 

LBB> Are there any lessons you've learned / experiences that you've had from working during Covid that you'll be looking to keep with you once things hopefully get back to some form of normality?

Stéphane> Yes, one thing certainly. The quality of verbal exchange, I learned to take more time to speak with my team. Being locked down, there was an extra feeling to share. You are not alone by your side, where all together live the same situation, it makes the team spirit stronger.


LBB> How did you first get into the industry? What was your very first job in the industry and what were the biggest lessons that you learned at that time?

Stéphane> I was in a school to learn the job of DOP, and during an internship in a laboratory, I came across an Editing Box, the Flame’ Ancestor. And I felt in love with what we could do with this computer! I asked for an internship with Mikros, now The Mill Paris, and two months later they hired me. I started to learn rotoscopy and cleaning dust on film scans. Two difficult jobs, where I learn patience and observation. Specially for rotoscopy, when you take time at the beginning to understand how the objects or people are moving, you can be so much more efficient!


LBB> What was your first creative milestone in the industry – the project you worked on that you were super proud of?

Stéphane> I think the very first one was Dior J’adore ‘Egeries’, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. The challenge was huge in 2011, to make some full digital faces of well-known actresses. It took some time, something like nine months, but we did it! From a double performance, we animated Grace Kelly, Marlen Dietrich, and Marilyn Monroe. It had been very difficult, we were working on something totally new, something no one had done before, and it was great!


LBB> From a VFX perspective, which ads have you seen recently that you've been particularly fond of and why?

Stéphane> I think the Burberry ‘Open Spaces’ from Megaforce. In terms of VFX, it is very simple, but the idea is great., and the way they did it was clever.

We are talking about people flying. Generally, we do it on a blue screen, and it is always a bit fake at the end. For this one, they shot in situations, in the fields, in the forest, with the natural light, great performers, and a special clever rig. It brings all the beauty and the poetry to this masterpiece!

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Mill Paris, Mon, 06 Jun 2022 15:20:32 GMT