PARIS - In the late '60s, before VHS, many UK parents rushed home before six to make sure their offspring watched "The Magic Roundabout." This thoughtfulness was not entirely altruistic, as the series of five-minute, stop-motion puppet cartoons that ran to 500 episodes was not only loved by children but also achieved cult status with adults. To this day many of the UK viewers still don't know that the cartoon was French. "Le ManÃ¨ge Enchante" was created by Serge Danot and shot in a residential Paris house where the film lights often blew the fuses. The BBC version was masterfully scripted and narrated my Eric Thompson (father of actress Emma Thompson), who turned down the French sound and worked from the pictures only. Thus a raft of puppet superstars were born.
Today, the legend lives on as "The Magic Roundabout" has now been revived - this time in 3D CGI and as a full-length, 85-minute feature (www.magicroundabout.com). Keeping with the original formula, the production is French and sets many firsts for European and world features.
An early task for producer Laurent Rodon of Paris production house Films-action, was to find financing. "We are European and the production is based here, in Paris, and there is a studio in Marseilles at Action Synthese. We are sitting in a country where there is no wide animation culture. Animation movies are expensive and it's very difficult to collect enough money to make them. So with the full budget for the movie of just $20 million, it is a challenge to be successful as we have to use an expensive technology and a lot of R&D."
Rodon describes Pathe's financing of the production as, "A perfect fit. They are the biggest cinema owner in Europe with about 60 percent of French cinemas, and have interests in the UK. 'Magic Roundabout' is famous in France and, perhaps even more so, in the UK, but it has never crossed the Atlantic."
With a record low budget of a fifth or less of other quality CGI feature animations from the USA, Rodon worked some magic of his own. Two years were spent adapting and developing the characters in CGI to give them personality such as mouth and lip sync, and to resemble their original look. Rodon adds, "Moreover, we had to create a story in which we can have a full action movie 'function.' It has taken three years to make, including this development. We have to work the same way as others - such as Pixar. We used 80 people in total but the animation team was just 20, so we were compelled to find a very productive workflow to achieve the best quality. This gave us a lot of challenges."
The hardware was HP - as has been used by other CGI feature animators such as Pacific Data Images. Films-action formed a partnership with HP to have the most productive rendering process using 300 computers. "We also developed a lot of software ourselves," adds Rodon. "One of the biggest challenges was the main character, Dougal the shaggy dog. We worked for eight months to develop specific hair for him. And you may remember that Dougal's hair is always interacting with everything. And Softimage|XSI, the main software used for making the feature, will not manage this kind of activity. So we had a very strong arrangement with Avid Technology and [Softimage] to have the best hair in the world!"
Overall, care was needed for all the characters to make sure that each did not take too long to be calculated in the 2K format chosen for the film. At 24fps, there are 100,000 high-quality frames that took 10 months to complete after initial development.
"We used Mental Ray, which is very heavy in the workflow because it takes a lot of time to calculate each frame. But in addition to this, our people involved with lighting interfered frame-by-frame to improve the images. And at the end we have very specific rendering and lighting. Mental Ray can look a little bit cold - too perfect - so we have added more detail, reality and sensitivity to the images. We wanted the detail to have more variety of possibilities, and be more fairy-like, or magic-like. "The Magic Roundabout" is for children and it's a fairytale with a strong visual design. You can lose this fairytale look with CGI, so, in addition to the Mental Ray lighting technology, we put in 11 months to get this look."
Films-action relied on Avid systems. Having completed the image side and transfer to 35mm, voiceover dubbing and mixing for the characters was added. France has their own celebrity voices, while the UK version features Robbie Williams in the key role of the much-loved Dougal, Kylie Minogue as Florence and Sir Ian McKellen voicing the spring-propelled Zebedee.
Miramax will release the film in the US at the end of 2005/Q1 2006. They will re-cast it using American celebrity voices. Rodon sums up Films-action's achievement: "This movie proves that we can have very high quality in the CGI world - even inside a very tight budget, and that a European company can now be competitive in the international CGI market."