Artsy Effects, Trusting the Audience, and What's Real

Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is a commercials and feature film director. He traveled back into supervising visual effects on Snow White and the Huntsman, and received an Oscar nomination for his effort. Nicolas-Troyan began his career as a visual effects artist in his home country of France, where he was a compositor on several feature films. He came to the US to work for Method on the 2002 film One Hour Photo as a visual effects artist and became a visual effects supervisor for the 2008 film Solstice. In 2007, Nicolas-Troyan received a VES nomination for outstanding visual effects in a commercial. He shares this year’s Oscar nomination with co-visual effects supervisor Philip Brennan and special effects supervisors Neil Corbould and Michael Dawson. Directed by Rupert Sanders and released by Universal Pictures, Snow White and the Huntsman also received an Oscar nomination for best achievement in costume design. The film grossed $400 million at the worldwide box office.

Studio Daily: Why do you think Snow White and the Huntsman received an Oscar nomination for best visual effects?

Cedric Nicolas-Troyan: I thought there was no way we would be nominated. It was really stiff competition. The night of the bake-off, I overheard someone sitting behind me saying something like, “If there were more women in the Academy, Snow White would get nominated,” and I smiled because it’s exactly that.

You always expect visual effects to have big space ships and things in the sky and there’s great value to that. I’m a visual effects person. I love that. What we offered was something a little different, maybe a bit girlish, a bit childish. Nothing destroyed. Nothing exploding. No blue lights glowing. We had mushrooms, birds. Something anchored in reality, something a little poetic, excuse my French.

Rupert [Sanders] and I love fighting, war, explosions, but we always have this sensibility to make things more designed, no matter what it is. Some would say artsy. Some would say artsy-fartsy. We always strive to get into that world. When I looked at all the work [at the bake-off], two movies stood out, The Life of Pi and us, for having another type of design in a way. I think that’s what got us nominated.

Were you surprised when you heard the news?

The day of the nominations, I didn’t even check. I heard someone screaming on my answering machine at 6:15 in the morning. I thought there was a fire in the house. My son wasn’t even awake yet. It was the executive producer Gloria [Borders]. She was screaming congratulations. So, I went online and holy crap. I was so surprised, I didn’t know what to say. Then I opened my email and saw all those congratulations. It’s my first big movie. It was really strange. It was kind of like … I went to the luncheon and I was like a fanboy. All those people and they’re all so fancy. I’m not used to that kind of stuff. I wore a plaid shirt. I asked if it was black tie and they said no, it’s business casual. The next day I got emails. “You wore a red plaid shirt to the luncheon. Well done.”

Why did you decide to work on this film?

Rupert and I have been working together for 10 years; we did a lot of commercials together. He called me and said, “I’m doing my first movie. Do you want to do the visual effects with me?” I told him I’m not doing visual effects. My day job is as a commercials director. He said, “Yeah, but it’s a cool movie.” I thought, maybe that’s better than doing a tomato soup recipe. So, I put that work on hold and he wrote me in to do the show. It was funny because he was the only guy in the room who wanted me. He told them, “I have this French guy. He should do the movie.”

Then, because we had a short period of time, they said, 'Maybe you want a co-supervisor,' and that’s how Philip Brennan came along. We have kind of the same background and style of visual effects. We were both compositors, and we both come from the commercial world where you don’t have a tremendous amount of money or time, so you have to be a little bit MacGyver: Give me a Swiss Army knife and I’ll make you Star Wars. So that’s the way we did the movie, a little bit on the fly. I don’t want to say by the seat of our pants because that sounds too rock and roll, but it was a state of mind. And Rupert likes to work this way. Everything evolves in an organic way. You say you’ll do this, but today we want to do that. Phil was more technical. I scared him a couple times. He’d say, “Dude, what are you doing?” But, together we were really strong.

How did you and Brennan split the supervision?

It depended on the day; what we needed to do. Because I come from design, I designed quite a few creatures. And I was also second-unit director. Phil is a Scot and my family are here in Los Angeles, so in post-production, he went back to England and took care of vendors there. I took care of vendors here in the United States.

Which characters did you design?

I designed the fairies, the little guys, in collaboration with Rupert. And I took on the troll design after Jeff Simpson did the initial work. For the fairies, Rupert wanted to have kids with no clothes but you have to be careful with that. So I said, let’s make them a hybrid between animals and humans. The dark creature at the end was supposed to be a big bat creature. Rupert and I had a big argument about bats. I felt like I’d seen them before and that we should try something different. I came up with the idea of making it from obsidian, using shards that reflect the beginning of the movie. We tested this and that and all of a sudden got this cool looking creature.

How did you divide the work among the vendors?

We decided to divide the work by style. We had four months for post-production. Of course we did turnovers during the shoot, but the last shot was December 20 and we had to be out in theaters on June 1. Because there was so little time, we had to divide and conquer.

By style?

There were different things. The battles were one type of work, and we had Pixomondo do those. The Mill had developed cloth and liquid for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, so we gave them Mirror Man, which had to be close up, and had them just do that. Double Negative is good for cold designs, so we went with them for all the dark designs, the dark forest and the dark creature at the end. For the environments, we went with Blue Bolt, Baseblack and smaller companies.

And for all the warm work – the fairies, the animals, everything that is alive and has a warmer feeling, we went to Rhythm & Hues. No one can do animals like they can. Look at Life of Pi. That’s the end of the story. Because everyone focused on one type of design, all of a sudden, the shared shots were very small. That really paid off.

How did you keep consistency through the film?

That’s a little bit of the reason why I divided by style. It made that work easier. But, what binds everything together was that we always anchored ourselves in what’s real. That’s something Rupert was adamant about; it was the catalyst for all the design. The mushrooms are four or five inches tall, not two feet tall. The obsidian can’t change into a liquid and become something else. So we were always bound by physical reality. For example, there is nothing glowing in this movie. In visual effects, you always make something glow. Someone’s eyes. A pendant. A sign. But in Snow White, nothing is glowing.

Why did you focus so strongly on physical reality?

If you glue moss and flowers to a tortoise in a zoo, that’s what our tortoise in the moss garden would look like. It looks like something you could do. The fairy and troll are more far fetched. The fairy looks like tiny kids, but with fur. The troll looks like a gorilla with elephant skin, but when you see the troll, you see an animal. It doesn’t talk. It doesn’t do faces. When an audience can connect with something familiar, it becomes so much less of a visual effect. That’s the thing that guides me, trying to get the sense of familiarity. Things don’t have to look realistic, but they have to look real. With the dwarves it was the same thing.

How did you do the dwarves?

The creative choice in the beginning was to take famous English actors and show them as characters, and those characters were part of a race of dwarves. When they told me that, I thought, "We cannot afford this and we don’t have the time." We needed to find a way that wouldn’t be a visual-effects nightmare. I explained that we could frame them with wider lenses and use platforms, and only use the visual effects for specific moments to remind the audience that these are little people and the audience will bridge the gap. They said, “OK. So the plan is to trust the audience to bridge the gap in their mind?” And, I’m like, “Pretty much.”

So we tested it. I made myself as a dwarf. Rupert loved it and the studio thought it could work. The key was that we didn’t shrink the actors. We kind of made a hybrid of little people as we know them today and dwarves as a fantasy race as in Tolkien.

What we did with the actors was to make their limbs shorter [in post-production]. That made them have a lower center of gravity. When we walk we move the center of gravity forward, but little people move their center of gravity left and right, not back and forth. Every principal actor had a little person as a double. They trained together so they would move in the same way. That’s what sells the trick.

Were those shots with the dwarves the most difficult?

No. When everyone realized [the technique] would work, it became a non-issue during the shoot. They were like, “OK. Dwarves. Whatever.”

The shot that I thought was the biggest leap of faith was of the great stag. That was the one shot we wondered if we should do in CG. Rhythm & Hues blew it out of the water. At the bake-off, people thought we used a horse.

Do you have a favorite shot?

That’s a tough one. My favorite shot in the entire movie is not a visual-effects shot. It’s when Charlize [Theron] is looking out the window, lost in her thoughts, her hair disheveled. It’s the only shot when you witness the queen as a person, alone without her apparatus, not playing a role. You see her as a girl, as a woman, as somebody who was once a normal person.

As far as visual effects, one of my favorites would be the close up of the troll when he’s breathing and not staring at Snow White, because he’s blind, but feeling. Rhythm & Hues did such amazing work. He’s breathing heavy. Feeling her.

We also used a lot of macro photography, and that’s something you’re not used to seeing. Normally, visual effects are in wide shots. But we had macro photography for the moss, the snake with the flower, the little fairy climbing on the log, the mushrooms with eyes. I particularly love those shots. It’s like Planet Earth. I’m a huge fan of nature documentaries. There’s so much fantasy in the world we live in, I don’t have to come up with something wacky. And, well, mushrooms are always inspiration for everyone.

Will you do this – supervise visual effects – again for another film?

I didn’t plan to do another film as a visual effects supervisor, so this was a little bit of a swan song to crown my career, a really good ending. I have a couple feature projects I’m directing: Project Bethlehem for Universal, and Year 12 — that, we don’t know where it is now. So, I think I want to pursue that. But, you can never say never. You never know what’s going to happen.

Will the films you’re directing have visual effects?

Yeah, they will. It’s part of me. I come from that world where you love monsters, you love magic. When you do visual effects, you have to be something of a fanboy. You have to love Star Wars. Those movies made us do what we do.

I wouldn’t know what to do if I were making a movie without a visual thing in it. I would feel like I’m missing something. I’m a visual guy and frankly, it’s what always makes me interested in a film. It’s not the story, it’s who’s in it. Is that person interesting? After that, I really have to be able to deal with my visual world. I’m not interested in directing a movie with people in a New York apartment who have problems. Unless they’re surrounded by werewolves. If they’re surrounded by werewolves, I’m interested in their problem.