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September 2014
Issue: February 1, 2008

SPECIAL REPORT: LES E-MAGICIENS

By: Janice Brown
VALENCIENNES, FRANCE — Over a few days in November, the city of Valenciennes, located in France’s industrial Nord-Pas Du Calais region, annually hosts Les E-Magiciens: the European Gathering of Young Digital Creation. E-Magiciens (www.youngcreation.net) is part film festival and part networking event for students and potential animation and game developer employers. As home to one of France’s leading CG animation schools, Supinfocom, and the country’s first game developers school, Supinfogame, the small city of Valenciennes is heavily invested in developing talent to help grow local industry.

Funded by the Valenciennes Chamber of Commerce and Industry and co-founded in 1988 with Marie-Anne Fontenier, the Supinfocom visionary and its current director, Supinfocom has expanded to incorporate a triumverate of digital art schools: the original animation-focused Supinfocom Digital Director program, the spin-off Supinfogame, and the likewise-funded Institute Superieur de Design (ISD), an integrated industrial design school.

These educational institutions have deep roots in Valenciennes — ISD celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, and Supinfocom marks its 20th this year. Fontenier, Supinfocom and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) are the organizing forces behind E-Magiciens, which showcases student work from schools all over Europe in the various fields within “Digital Creation.” At E-Magiciens ’07, held at the Phenix theater in Valenciennes, this made for quite a hefty program.

E-MAGICIENS

While the extensive program of animated shorts played on the main stage to ballot-wielding audiences, on-site competitions challenged student teams to produce short works in the first 48-hours of E-Magiciens. The halls of the Phenix transformed with the frenzy of students pulling all-nighters to complete shorts for the “Chained Animation” competition, this year to a “Pirates” theme, and interactive works using Adobe Flash and other graphic and sound creation software for the “Webjam” competition. Elsewhere in the Phenix complex, lectures, roundtable discussions, demos of Autodesk’s 3DS Max 2008 and Combustion, and a small technology expo went on throughout the convention. For the first time, E-Magiciens also presented a videogame job fair in a tent located outside the Phenix, where 10 local videogame companies exhibited in a mini-trade show environment.

Among these companies, Planet Nemo (www.planetnemo.com), an animation and interactive gaming producer, and Ankama Games (www.ankama-games.com), creators of the Dofus and Wakfu games, hoped to find significant new hires. In the process of moving from Paris to the Nord-Pas region, with two new animated series going into production — Aloutah for National Geographic Kids, and Groove High in development with Disney International — Planet Nemo will about double in size in ‘08. Meanwhile, also in Nord-Pas, Ankama Games added 70 staffers in 2007, and, according to its director of products Thomas Bahon, seeks about 50 more. “Supinfocom and Ankama are working together to organize a training program, where 20 students will be trained on-site at Ankama,” Bahon noted.

Orchestrated by Fontenier, Supinfocom has always maintained close industry ties, and its educational structure and environment has evolved into a kind of brand as the school expanded to Arles, in southern France, in 2000, and was again applied at Supinfogame, which the Chamber of Commerce and Industry founded in 2002. The Supinfocom model puts students in an environment much like a professional studio, where projects may be conceived individually but are executed through teamwork and time management. Most of the teachers at Supinfocom and Supinfogame are professionals working in the industry, and many of them commute from Paris, which is an hour-and-a-half train ride away.

The CCI also funds the “Ateilier Numerique,” the Digital Workshop, which — through an application process — grants start-up digital content creation companies office space and technical resources to get their businesses off the ground. This incubator-style facility hosts over 30 companies, including multimedia producers, IP4U (Interactive Project For You; www.ip4u.fr) and 3D animation/visual effects company, Meconopsis (www.meconopsis.fr).

The CCI is now planning to build a sprawling ‘digital village’ in Valenciennes, a campus for Supinfocom, Supinfogame, ISD and the Ateilier Numerique, with student residences and some shared facilities. The big buzz at E-Magiciens ’07, however, had to do with another new campus in the works, in India. An Indian investment company, called the DSK Group, is bringing the Supinfocom franchise to Pune, India, investing $40 million to build an educational campus that will house the DSK School of Animation, Gaming and Design Engineering. According to a DSK representative at E-Magiciens, the group “looked at five top schools all over the world, and chose Supinfocom as the model,” finding that it “offers the best employable training platform.”

SUPINFOCOM

Supinfocom, Supinfogame and ISD all offer four-year degree programs — Supinfocom graduates earn the Digital Director degree, Supinfogame offers a Game Design & Production Management degree, and ISD provides the Multimedia Designer degree. Supinfocom’s award-winning student animation work tends to be strong on story and expression and cinematic elements like “camera work” and lighting that may take a back-seat to animation at other schools. Supinfocom students begin sketching simple shapes and live models, telling basic stories, studying art history, color, perspective, visual variables and film analysis before getting into computer graphics. Once they’re working in 2D and 3D CG programs, they’re also “workshopping” story ideas and theatrical expression. By the end of the second year of the three-year Digital Director course, students have mastered 3DS Max, and submit three story ideas each for their final project. They spend their last year in teams working on these faculty-selected short film projects, following a real-world production method.

Similarly, at Supinfogame, the class separates into teams to develop a videogame prototype. This training model breeds team players with an understanding of every production element on the project, including script-writing, animation, visual effects, sound design and soundtrack, as well as project management. Supinfogame students take on distinct roles within their team and work according to a set production schedule.

Take Alice en Pieces (www.alice-en-pieces.com), for example, the game prototype currently in development by one of the five teams in their final year at Supinfogame. Six team members within Supinfogame are working on Alice, but with contributors they’ve recruited outside the classroom, that team has expanded to 40. The six include a creative director, project manager, two game designers, technical director, lead programmer and communications director, who each manage their respectively assembled teams. Sticking to a production schedule that includes marketing and the final prototype presentation, the Supinfogame team is fully engaged in real-world game development.

At Supinfocom, one of the selected senior projects currently in production (there are 11) is Nicolas d’Haussy’s short film about Josephine Baker, for which d’Haussy’s leading a team of four. “Josephine Baker provides a rich and universal story and topic,” says D’Haussy. “This character is also interesting since it works in silhouette, colors and scene.” Previewed in November, Josephine demonstrates some of the Supinfocom ideals — strong visual character, simple shapes and storyline with a poignant subtext. Produced in 3DS Max and Adobe’s Photoshop and After Effects, with original music and sound design by outside composer Tim Zéphir (www.akatim.com), Josephine is on track for its June ’08 completion.

The cultural context of Josephine, an American-born French expatriate performer and civil rights catalyst, illustrates another important educational principle Fontenier will impart to the new school in India. Along with Supinfocom’s structural model, several French instructors will transfer to India to launch the DSK Institute, but Fontenier expects the aesthetic of the school’s work to have a unique quality. “We want to transfer the artistic competence of our students, but also allow the school in India to have its own identity, based on its culture and its students’ individual artistic abilities,” she commented. “We’ll focus on teaching 3D animation because that’s one requirement for the future in India, and we’ll give them our method of production, which is really the know-how of Supinfocom, to make the learning environment more like a studio than a classroom.”

Fontenier notes that the theaters in France will soon be equipped for full 3D projection, which guests to the opening night soiree at E-Magiciens experienced first hand with the premiere screening of Ben Stassen’s 3D feature Fly Me To The Moon.Speaking at the premiere, Stassen expressed, “There are two schools of thought on 3D: one where the screen becomes like a window the audience can look through, and the other (my school of thought) where you get rid of the window and bring the audience inside your 3D audio/visual space. In Fly Me To The Moon, you really leave for the moon with these characters; there’s a physical aspect to it, a gut feeling you get from experiencing the story in this way, and it’s that physical aspect and power that makes me believe that 3D has a long-term future.”

AND THE WINNERS ARE

By the closing night awards ceremony at E-Magiciens, a completely rowdy mob of students filled the main theater at the Phenix. Of the Best-of-Show animated shorts, three came out of Supinfocom — two from Arles (Musicotherapie and The Cold Rush) and one from Valenciennes (Camera Obscura). Other French schools, including Lyon’s Ecole Emile Cohl (Tir Nan Og) and Les Gobelins (Oktapodi) in Paris, represented well at awards night.
Another stand-out short came from a student at La Poudriere, a school in Valence, France, called La Queue De La Souris.