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SIGGRAPH 2022 – meet the team behind the Best in Show short film “The Seine’s Tears”

Reading time: 10 minutes

In the last few years, students from French digital & creative school Pole 3D created some very powerful shorts. Migrants (2020), for example, received multiple awards (don’t forget to check out our interview of the team behind the short film). “The Seine’s Tears” is yet another success for Pole 3D: this short film will receive the Best in Show award during SIGGRAPH 2022 (3DVF is an official media partner of the event).

Here is the trailer, followed by our interview with the directors.

Algerian workers take to the streets in October of 1961 to protest the mandatory curfew imposed by the Police prefecture.

Directors: Yanis BELAID, Eliott BENARD, Nicolas MAYEUR, Etienne MOULIN, Hadrien PINOT, Lisa VICENTE, Philippine SINGER and Alice LETAILLEUR
Music: Ibrahim Maalouf, Pierre-Antoine Naline, Luis Galceran
Sound Design: Lisa Vicente
Final Mix: Thomas Rouvillain, Nextsoundlab
Distribution: Patrick De Carvalho – Je Regarde

3DVF: Hello, and thanks for agreeing to tell us more about your short The Seine’s Tears! This animated short film is based on what happened in Paris in October of 1961: Algerian workers (Algeria was a French colony at the time) took to the streets to protest a mandatory curfew imposed on them. The police reacted to this demonstration with violence: between 38 and 200 people died, depending on the sources.  The long-denied actions of the police were denounced back in 2021 by then French President François Hollande, who used the term “bloody repression”. Why did you choose to focus your short on this massacre?

Yanis BELAID: I descend from Algerian and Polish immigrants who settled in France, therefore this event is a part of me since my family, including my grandfather Mohammed Belaid, talked a lot about the Algerian war, including in the North of the country. I deeply wanted to discuss this topic. When I pitched the short film, what surprised me the most was that most of the team had never head of this event, even if it only took place 60 years ago. This resonated with the group: we had to make this piece of history known to the vast number of people who aren’t even aware of what happened.

3DVF: Who did what on the short film?

The team behind The Seine’s Tears: We each had various roles on this short film, but the team was divided in 3 groups: animation, art and tech. The animation team was led by Eliott, Philippine and Alice were also in this team. Yanis led the art team, Lisa and Hadrien worked on the lighting/compositing. Nicolas and Etienne handled all the technical side: FX, tool dev, environment modeling, rigging, crowds, shot finaling.

3DVF: You chose to show us the short through the eyes of Kamel, who is fiming the demonstration using a camera. What led you to this artistic choice?

The goal of the first part of the movie is to present the facts, and a handheld camera was a perfect way to achieve this goal. The viewer is immersed at the heart of the demonstration and follows the Algerian workers. This also allowed us to work a lot on the sound design, so that the viewer can live and feel what happened thanks to the short film. The movie follows the real path of the demonstration, and shows key locations of Paris (directly on screen or using various visual elements). We wanted to stay as close as possible to the real events, with similar environments, and we also wanted to stick to what happened on that very evening. We therefore did a lot of research to achieve this.

3DVF: Around the 3 minute mark, the main character, Nabil, is beaten up by the police and thrown into the Seine (the river that flows through Paris). The film then takes a completely different approach, mixing real events (people put into buses, thousands of them sent to a location called the Palais des Sports to check their identity, where many of them would eventually be the victims of police brutality) and fiction (a concert with policemen and Algerian workers dancing together). Can you tell us about this artistic choice?

For the second half of the film, we wanted to keep telling the story of what happened on October 17th, 1961, but we also wanted to bring in our idea, our vision, of a communion. It is very important to remember the past of our country, to accept the fact that these dark events took place, in order to build our future. And this party, this communion, is a symbol of this idea.

3DVF: Can you also tell us about your thought process when it comes to depicting violence? This is a sensitive topic, and there is no single answer. We have seen various approaches in the last few years: French director Denis Do chose not to show too much violence directly on screen in Funan, his movie about a Cambodian woman during the Khmer Rouge revolution. Bastien Dubois on the other hand, in his short film Souvenir Souvenir who deals with the Algerian war, chose to depict violence in a much more “frontal and cartoonish” way, as he told us in an interview (in French). How did you decide what to show, and how to shot it? More specifically, how did you approach the end of the concert, which features a lot of blood?

We did not want to be accusers. We wanted to show the facts. Our goal was to make people aware of this event, and to make them want to look for more information. We didn’t want to show violence just for the sake of it. This would have been like pouring oil on the fire, and doing so on such an important and touchy subject was the opposite of what we wanted to do. Which is why we had to be clever with what we were showing, we had to find the right balance.

3DVF: Did you get some feedback from survivors of the event, witnesses, or even people close to those who attended this demonstration back in 1961?

We received some very touching feedback from people of immigrant background, and/or from people who have someone in their family who lived this event or similar ones. During some festivals, some people got in touch with us just to thank us. To thank us for discussing this topic, this event. This shows that there is a real need to talk about topics such as this one.

3DVF: Can you tell us about the character design/modeling, the surfacing/grooming? 

Character design was the first step when trying to nail down the visual style of the film. This included creating our main character, Nabil. We gathered CG and stop-motion visual references, then we worked directly in CG to find the right look and to craft the visual appearance of our characters. We wanted to create a gap between the topic of the short film and the visual style. The “puppet” style was a good fit, since it creates a distance with what we wanted to tell, and it can also be watched by a younger audience. Once we had found the right design, we were able to work quite fast on the surfacing and hair. The approach was similar to what we did on the modeling: we wanted to create real materials, reminiscent of stop-motion animation and reclaimed materials, while conveying the idea of small scale characters.

3DVF: The first part of the short film has stop-motion vibes, with the slow framerate of the camera used by the character filming the scene.  How did you approach the animation? Were there any unexpected challenges?

Our intent was to convey the idea of realistic camera motion, similar to what you can find in archival footage from handheld cameras. We managed to push the level of detail on the camera motion thanks to a tool created by Etienne that uses a gyroscope to gather motion data from a physical box. This way, we had complete control over the framing and the camera motion, which we then tweaked within Maya. As for the characters, we wanted the animation style to fit the visual appearance of the short film: the animation had to remind the viewers of puppets, with small imperfections. That being said, we still wanted to achieve a CG visual style, and we did a lot of experiments before finding the right balance between all these ideas. Since the style we chose is close to 12 frames per second, motion blur and simulations were quite challenging: every other frame was repeated and this created computing issues and everything was quite complicated. We decided to tweak our animation style so that every other frame is not completely identical to the previous one. This allowed us to simplify the following steps of the production process, while keeping the same visual style.

3DVF: A few words on the environments, such as the streets of Paris and the area near the Seine?

We used several approaches to create the environments. First of all, we used hard surface modeling for the main environments and the foreground. This allowed us to get a high level of detail when relying on our visual references. We stayed as close to possible to the appearance of the buildings of Paris, since we wanted the viewer to recognize them at a glance. We also stayed true to the real locations of the iconic locations of the city. The buildings in the background were created thanks to a procedural system: with just a few settings and using satellite views to get an accurate location, we could create basically any Haussmann building [Editor’s note: an architectural style commonly found in Paris] we wanted. Once an environment was created, we added many props (created using hard-surface modeling). We also used photogrammetry for some key elements: by shooting many photos of a real object, you can create a 3D scan of this object and put it in your CG environment. This was quite helpful to create the buses and the police cars: we scanned scale models to stay true to the “miniature” look we wanted to achieve.

3DVF: There is obviously a lot of work in efforts put into the lighting/rendering/compositing. Which shots were the most challenging, and why? How did you get this look?

The underwater shots halfway through the short film were the most challenging, because they are used as a transition between the two parts of the movie and their very different lighting styles. We had to find the right balance between these two opposite styles, while maintaining the idea of underwater shots. We started with the first shot, Nabil falling into the water. Lots of FX to create splashing water and air bubbles. We also cheated a little bit at the compositing stage to find the right balance. Another challenge was to nail down the “upside down” sequence, with two water surfaces that had to be similar, while keeping this feeling of emptiness where Nabil is located.

3DVF: How did you approach the concert from an animation standpoint? Can you also tell us about the crowd, and your choice to use slow motion & frozen time effects?

For this part of the short film, the direction of the shots was built upon the song “True Sorry” by Ibrahim Maalouf. Everything was built upon the music itself, to fit the emotions conveyed by Ibrahim Maalouf playing the trumpet. To create the shot themselves, we used several layers: one for the animated characters in the foreground, another with animations created using instancing and offset animation, and sometimes a crowd layer. As for the frozen time sequence, we wanted to create it as if it were a fresco focused on Nabil. We then added visual ideas to make it more believable, such as confetti: a CG shot that is completely frozen looks quite strange, therefore we had to add some motion to make it more credible.

3DVF: Can you also tell us a little bit about the FX?

Right from the start of the production, we faced many challenges. For example, we had to create a packed and believable crowd, and there was a lot of work involved in creating fluid simulations. We created the FX using Houdini FX. To create a big crowd, we had to create lots of predefined animations. We used a crowd simulation for some of the crowd, but we also created smaller groups of people using crowd sims: animators could then place these groups by hand wherever they wanted. This allowed them to fine tune the composition within each shot. We created several types of FX, fluids and smoke effects. We worked together to perfect the visual style. The blood on the cheering crowd at the end of the movie was quite a challenge, both from a visual and technical standpoint.

We therefore decided to work on these steps very early on, this way the FX team was able to overcome all the challenges they faced.

3DVF: How did Covid-19 impact your work?

Obviously, the pandemic did not really help us to give life to what is essentially our child. We relied on remote work for most of the project. It took 2 years to create the movie, and we were able to get back to school for the last 5 months. We won’t lie: those 5 months were quite challenging! But this is what we like.

3DVF: How do you feel about the project as a whole?

Honestly? We really loved doing this. Working on a topic that was really important for us, with people we really likes, was terrific. Of course, there were ups and downs, especially during lockdowns. But this was still a very positive experience and we are very lucky, the adventures goes on thanks to movie festivals. This is only the beginning! Last, but not least, huge thanks to 3DVF for featuring our work!

A making-of video of the short film

For more information

  • “The Seine’s Tear” has been named Best in Show for the upcoming SIGGRAPH 2022. You can register for SIGGRAPH 2022 on the official website (full event, virtual access only, Computer Animation Festival Electronic Theater only… The choice is yours!)
  • An article on the Paris massacre of 1961 on Wikipedia.

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