In addition to being an accomplished director of commercials and short films, Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is perhaps best known for his amazing work as a visual effects artist.
His credits include Gore Verbinski’s The Ring and two Pirates of the Caribbean films—The Curse of the Black Pearl and Dead Man’s Chest. For this summer’s smash hit, Snow White and the Huntsman—starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth—Nicolas-Troyan faced his biggest challenge yet, by serving as both visual effects supervisor and second unit director. His impressive effects created a unique, fully realized fantasy world.
Just before Snow White’s Blu-ray/DVD release on September 11, MM caught up with Nicolas-Troyan to discuss the movie’s innovative effects, as well as why Snow White might also serve as his swan song in visual effects.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): One of the biggest challenges you encountered on the film was making the dwarves, played by normal-sized actors, appear smaller on-screen alongside the other cast members. What were some of the different techniques you used to accomplish this effect?
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan (CNT): Well, first we created a dwarf double of the principal actor with matching wardrobe and extremely precise matching make-up, exceptionally crafted by David White and his team. On some of those shots we did some digital face replacements. We also digitally dwarfed the principal actors, shortening their limbs to make them look smaller. A lot of it was simple 2D compositing. We peppered those shots at key moments to always remind the audience who those dwarves were.
The rest of it was mainly achieved with good old school tricks, of raising the other actors in the shot or having the “dwarf” actors lower than anybody else. The key was the walking style, of shifting the center of gravity left to right instead of forward. Doubles and principals both rehearsed together so they would walk the same way. This little trick is always overlooked but, without it, the whole effect would have fallen apart.
MM: Were there any other major challenges you faced while working on the effects for Snow White?
CNT: You face challenges all the time—change of script, change of heart, bad weather, bad moods, equipment falling apart, all kinds of falling apart. Sticking to the plan is the hardest thing to do and yet it is the one thing that almost guarantee the success of a shot. It is part of the job: We have to be prepared for what is unprepared, that is just the way it is. So I will tell you about the one thing that went exactly the way it was prepared instead … It was the troll sequence. A very challenging sequence on paper and almost the easiest to shoot. The reason: We prepared it, rehearsed it and shot it without changing anything. The result: One of the most memorable sequence in the film. We got lucky.
MM: This was the first big-budget feature on which you were the visual effects supervisor. Did you find this to be a difficult undertaking? How long did it take for the effects to be completed?
CNT: Actually it wasn’t difficult, really. I found it easier than some commercials I have done in the past. A few reasons behind this … First, my long relationship with Rupert [Sanders, the director] and the shorthand we have together, and second, as a VFX supervisor you’re not alone. I was surrounded by an incredible team, very experienced. My co-supervisor, Phil Brennan, and my producer Lynda Thompson, all the supervisors from the vendors’ VFX houses and many more. So I think they made it easy for me. Universal made it easy, too. It wasn’t obvious to convince Jennifer Bell at Universal to let me do the movie, but when she did, she fully supported me all the way and we developed a great relationship on this film.
We only had 21 weeks of post-production on Snow White for 1,300 shots.
MM: In addition to being visual effects supervisor, you were also the movie’s second unit director. Why did you take on both roles? Do you hope to become a feature director yourself one day?
CNT: Well, actually, I had retired from VFX for a couple of years, only working with Rupert when I could. I was a full-time commercial director, so in a way Rupert got me out for a great swan song, I suppose. My camera style is very similar to Rupert’s and I know exactly how he shoots and what he likes, so it was easy for me to shoot seamlessly. Also, with a lot of VFX creatures, it made sense for me to direct this, having designed the creature and knowing them by heart, I could shoot those sequence a lot faster than anybody else.
And as far as becoming a feature director myself, I think ultimately that is what I always wanted to do, but I needed to be ready and learn the craft before I can pretend to do anything. Visual effects was a way for me to explore, gain experience and learn by working with the numerous directors that I encountered during my 15-year career in VFX.
MM: What’s up next for you? Any upcoming projects you can share with us?
CNT: To go back to your previous question, hopefully I won’t have to hope for much longer to direct my first feature. I am working on two projects right now with Joe Roth and Palak Patel to direct, one being set up at Universal. They are both genre movies; I am a big genre fan. No blockbusters by any means, I was not looking for a big, expensive movie for my first feature. Big movies as first movies can make you overnight, but they also can destroy you as fast. With Joe and Palak, I already have a great relationship, and with a mid-sized budget, I know I will have a bit more freedom to show who I am as a director.
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’d offer an aspiring visual effects artist hoping to make it in the business?
CNT: Always craft an effect to sustain and reinforce the story. A movie is about characters and emotional connection with the audience. Visual effects is a powerful tool to help create that. Showing off technological achievement needs to come after. Technology capabilities can cloud your mind. Think first of what you want to achieve… then you will figure out how to do it within the reality of production. For me, creating visual effects is always a reverse engineering process.