Director's Chair: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan —  'The Huntsman: Winter's War'
Issue: April 1, 2016

Director's Chair: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan — 'The Huntsman: Winter's War'

French visual effects veteran Cedric Nicolas-Troyan was the VFX supervisor on the 2012 global hit, Snow White and The Huntsman, which grossed nearly $400 million and won him an Oscar nomination for his work. Now he’s back for the prequel, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, but this time he’s moved up to the director’s chair for his feature film directorial debut. 

The fantasy action-adventure once again stars Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron in their roles from Snow White and the Huntsman, joined by Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain. As evil Queen Ravenna, Theron betrays her good sister Freya (Blunt) with an unforgivable act, freezing Freya’s heart to love and unleashing in her an icy power she never knew she possessed. Retreating to a kingdom far to the north, Freya raises an army of Huntsmen as her protectors, with the only rule that no two of them should ever fall in love. As a war for domination escalates between the two queens, the hero standing between them is Freya’s most elite Huntsman, Eric (Hemsworth). Alongside fellow warrior Sara (Chastain), the only woman who has ever captured his heart, Eric must help Freya vanquish her sister or Ravenna’s wickedness will rule for eternity. 

So who will win the war between good and evil? He isn’t telling, but here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Nicolas-Troyan, who was still deep in post at press time, and whose VFX credits include work on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, The Ring and One Hour Photo, talks about making the film, the challenges involved, and his love of post.

You definitely jumped in the deep end for your directing debut. How did you prepare for such a huge, complex production?

“I didn’t have much time as the train was moving and I had to jump in. I was actually developing other projects with Joe Roth, the producer on this, and with other studios, to direct, and I felt ready. It was finding the right opportunity to cross over into directing, and suddenly Joe called me about this after Frank Darabont left the project, and he offered it to me. It was already in pre-production and I had no time to agonize over it. I just jumped.”

Did you get any advice from directors you knew on how to handle the job?

“Luckily, I’ve been working with top directors for 20 years, and as a VFX supervisor you’re always there early in the project and you’re the last to leave. So you sit on the set beside them, and that was the best ‘directing school’ you can have. You watch and learn so much that way, and after doing also second unit on Snow White, I knew I was ready to direct. And obviously my background in VFX made it a lot easier to take on a movie like this. I know what can be done and what can’t, and how to spend wisely. The big thing was trying to make the best decisions for the movie and sticking to them”

What sort of film did you set out to make?

“It’s actually a ‘sprequel’ — a prequel and a sequel (laughs). I wanted to stay true to the world established in the first one and expand from there.” 

What were the biggest challenges of making this, as it’s always tough trying to top a huge hit?

“The big one for me was the tone. You don’t want it too declamatory and Shakespearean with the actors, or it’ll be too over-the-top, but you don’t want to make it too modern either, as it’ll look just like a guy in a costume. So you have to walk a very fine line between fantasy and reality. It’s a tone departure more than anything else. Visually we stay in the same world, just not as dark, and tonally it’s not as dark. The story has dark points, but I was interested in being a little lighter and getting in and out of darkness and drama, and not staying too gloomy. I love humor and I like a bit of self-deprecation, so it was important not to take it all too seriously.”

How was the shoot?

“We shot it all in England, at Shepperton and on location in Wales and Somerset. It was just 74 days — I finished a day early — which is pretty fast. We had just 14 weeks of prep — not enough for a movie this size, but we managed to pull it off.”

Where did you do the post? How long was the process?

“We did all the editorial here in LA at Tribeca West, and we’re still in post and it’s been over 27 weeks so far. We’re in the middle of mixing at the Hitchcock stage on the lot at Universal, and then we’ll do the DI at Technicolor in Hollywood.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I do, a lot. As a visual effects supervisor I’ve spent a lot of time in the past 20 years in post production, so it’s very familiar to me. But to be honest, I actually prefer being on the set with actors. I think that’s my favorite part of making a film, more than prepping and more than post. But I’m very comfortable in post. The weird thing is that for me, post is harder than filming. It’s where you put the whole movie together and you have all this time to think about it and start second-guessing yourself. When you shoot, you’re under the gun and you’re just going. It’s like being on the battlefield. But in post you sometimes have too many choices. I have a military background in part, so I have this sense of making a quick decision and sticking with it and moving forward. And sometimes in post there is a bit of a lag happening, and even though I’m used to it, I miss that forward movement. But I do love post and seeing all the hard work come together.”

The film was cut by editor Conrad Buff IV, who won the Oscar for Titanic and who cut Terminator 2, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Snow White and the Huntsman, among many others. How did that relationship work?

“As we worked together on the first one, we already had a close relationship, and when I got this it was very clear to me that he should also cut this one. Look at his resume — he’s a legend. So he was at Shepperton with me, and he’s always very calm, warm and very easy to work with. There’s no ego, so it’s a perfect relationship as I also lean a lot on him. I don’t sit behind him looking over his shoulder wondering what he’s doing. I let him cut the movie. He’s had so much experience and he knows how to cut this way better than I do, so I trust him completely. And trust is very important. Of course I have my ideas and things I want to try and so on, but I was learning so much from him every day. And he’s also very respectful. There’s no agenda or attitude with Conrad, just because it’s my very first movie. There was no ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.’ He just wants to make the very best movie he can.”

Was it strange working with a VFX supervisor on this, or was it a nice change?

“It was a bit strange but good. For me, when I’m on set or in post, I’m trying to really focus on my job as director, and you can’t really do two jobs at the same time. But on this, I was very involved obviously with all the visual effects, and I still designed the creatures, because I’m also very opinionated about it. There are things I like and don’t like, things I want to do and not do, and I’m very precise and specific, especially when it comes to creature design, such as the goblins and goblin king, and the hybrid between a polar bear and a snow leopard. So I worked very closely with Paul Lambert, the VFX supervisor.”

How many visual effects shots are there, and what was involved?

“Over 1,000 shots. We did most of the VFX at Double Negative in Vancouver and we talked every day, and they’d show me stuff via CineSync, and I could draw on the frame, and it was just like we were in the same room.”

What was the most difficult effect to pull off?

“It was something we never expected to be a problem. In Freya’s castle there’s this high, spire-like church steeple made of ice, and the throne is right underneath, and she stays there. And there are all these ice particles constantly falling down around it. So first we tried doing the ice particles in camera, and did many tests, but nothing worked, so we thought, we’ll just do it in post — that’ll be easy! But it wasn’t easy at all. In fact, it was a nightmare. In the end, it took both Dneg and Pixomondo working together for months and months to finally figure it out, it was so hard. We all thought the hybrid polar bear creature and the goblins were going to be hard — all the big creatures — but it was these tiny little ice particles falling into the frame that caused all the headaches. And I never saw it coming, as you do atmospheric stuff all the time in VFX. You do snow, rain, fog — no big deal. But creating these ice crystals was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

The DI must have been crucial to the film’s look?

“Absolutely. Michael Hatzer is the colorist, and for me, the DI is as important as the mix. You can go to the next level with the DI, and this is a fantasy, a fairy tale, and not as dark as the first one. It’s a lot more pop, so when you embrace that, the DI becomes the visual keystone in the whole movie. It’s the tone thing again. If you make it too modern and realistic, it’ll be too dull, and if you make it too poppy, it’ll look too garish. So you have to come in and out of the looks and walk that fine line, just as you do with the acting.”

What’s next? I assume you want to keep directing now?

“Yes. This was a great experience and I definitely want to keep directing. I have several projects I’m developing, but they’re not necessarily films full of VFX. One of them has hardly any. For me, I never did VFX just for their own sake, to show off. I always tried to use them as a support for the story and characters, and I always think the best VFX are done that way.”