Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal’s retelling of the classic fairy tale starring Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron and Chris Hemsworth, debuted on blu-ray yesterday with the usual compliment of extras, knick knacks and DVD gewgaws. Among them is a commentary track by director Rupert Sanders, co-editor Neil Smith and visual effects co-supervisor Cedric Nicolas-Troyan. The track itself isn’t necessarily as illuminating as the best tracks can be, but it’s much better than average with all three men fully engaged by the film they’ve made together. Of the three, Nicolas-Troyan (who got his start working in commercials before graduating to feature work on films like The Ring and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl) is easily the most enthusiastic and what immediately comes across is his interest and knowledge, not just in his own terrific effects work, but about every other aspect of the film as well. I spoke with Cedric by telephone from France last week in anticipation of the film’s blu-ray release and it turns out he’s got very good reasons to be focusing on more than just the film’s effects.
Craig Kennedy: You’ve described yourself as just a kid from a small fishing town in France. How did get from that place to being visual effects supervisor on a major Hollywood motion picture?
Cedric Nicolas-Troyan: I’m in that small fishing town now as a matter of fact in the southwest of France. It’s just one of those things where I loved movies. In 1977 I went to see Star Wars at a small cinema where I lived and it was the first time on my own without my parents and I was just blown away. I wanted to live there. I came back and told my mom I wanted to move there and she was like “What are you talking about?” After that I just really loved movies and I loved comic books. I was one of those geeks. I just loved that stuff. And frankly, where I’m from, making movies in Hollywood is not really an option. You say you want to make movies and people just laugh like you want to be an astronaut or something. So, as I grew up, I never really knew if I could make movies. I was a pretty good illustrator though, so I thought about doing comics or whatnot, and then eventually I just said “You know what? I’m going to go to Paris and try to do this.” From there I ended up in Santa Monica and Hollywood and now I’m like a kid in the candy store. I’m living the dream. Somebody said the American Dream is dead, but it’s not for me. I never would’ve believed I could make it this far.
CK: You’re actually living that dream.
CNT: I absolutely am. I remember at the Visual Effects Society Awards a few years ago I was nominated for a commercial and I saw Gore Verbinski who I’d worked with on Pirates of the Caribbean and he introduced me to George Lucas. Obviously I didn’t say anything to George Lucas, but inside myself I was just like peeing my pants, you know? (laughs). It was just amazing. When I did The Ring at Dreamworks, I remember we were looking at shots at Steven Spielberg’s hacienda on the Universal lot and he came in one day and I shook his hand and I’m like peeing my pants all over again (laughs). It’s amazing to me and I’m just happy to be here.
CK: Was visual effects always your final goal in movies or did you have bigger ambitions?
CNT: I’ve always been completely passionate about movies and I think the ultimate goal for me really was to direct, but I always say there are two types of directors. There’s the guy who wakes up in the morning with genius ideas and they’re just born that way and then there is the guy who just has to work and to learn and to go to school and to sit on the back bench and learn and learn and learn and I was more the second guy. I thought, “I’m a good illustrator and I’m a visual type of person,” so visual effects seemed like a good way for me to be able to work and to learn about making movies and I was pretty good at it. So I thought, “If I’m good at this, I should do it until I have nothing else to learn” and that’s what led me to Snow White really.
CK: And on Snow White you got the chance to actually direct second unit for the very first time, right?
CNT: That was a great opportunity. There was so much work for John Mahaffie the second unit director to do so I had to step up. Thanks to Phil Brennan, my co-visual effects supervisor, I was able to free myself to do that which was amazing. From that work I’ve now signed on with producer Joe Roth to direct two upcoming projects.
CK: That’s right, it was recently announced you’ll be directing the black listed script Bethlehem which is sort of a vampires vs. zombies movie.
CNT: Exactly, which is just amazing to me. It’s been so great working with Universal because they’ve been very supportive of the project and of me. At the beginning they were like “Woah, who’s this guy?” but once I signed on they were supportive 100 percent. The dream just keeps going.
CK: On one of the DVD extras you’re on the set during the troll scene and you’re sort of growling and jumping around, acting as the troll for the actors to play off of. That’s a big jump from being the guy who’s working behind the scenes on visual effects. What was it like that first day you came on set and were working with actual actors? Were you nervous?
CNT: I just like what I do and I love actors and I got really lucky because Chris Hemsworth and Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron are wonderful. It was really easy to work with them. It was not like they were these big stars who are impossible to talk to or whatever. They were the easiest to work with. And it was a difficult film because there was nothing there for the actors [in terms of the effects] and it was very physical work. Luckily Chris is a very physical guy and so is Kristen by the way. She hurt herself sometimes. But it was so easy to work with them and it was the same with Sam Claflin (who plays William). They were all really easy to work with. I don’t have any stories of bad actor behavior because there was none really (laughs).
CK: Of all the great effects in the film – there’s the magic mirror, the bridge troll, the dark fairies, the enchanted forest – what was the biggest challenge?
CNT: In pre-production the biggest challenge was the dwarfs because everybody was really nervous about how we were going to make average sized actors look small.
CK: Those dwarf effects are kind of unique in the film because they were mostly done practically with camera angles and not as much CG, right? You had to make Ian McShane and Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone look small compared to the other characters?
CNT: Yes, and it was a strain for the actors because they had to go through four hours of makeup every morning. But they were lovely guys. They’re a bunch of pranksters, really. But when everyone realized that doing it practically was working on the editing table and we were making the days, the whole problem disappeared. By the time we got to post-production, we weren’t even talking about it when it had been the most problematic topic in pre-production. That was a big success too because at the end of the day you watch the movie and you think about the troll and the dark fairies and the enchanted forest but you don’t think about the dwarfs. I’ve had people say they didn’t even realize that it was Ian McShane from Deadwood or Ray Winstone who is 5’10”. They thought they really were small guys (laughs).
CK: Why did you decide to go practical instead of digital? That sounds kind of risky.
CNT: My technique was to do the dwarfs digitally at certain times just to remind the audience what they look like full on, and then the rest of the time you just have to bridge the gap. The audience doesn’t really grasp that it’s just a cheap trick. That approach saves you millions of dollars, but it’s kind of a hard sell to the studio. That’s really where I come from. I try to find those tricks that cost less and they also let the actors do their performance. It’s not like we take the head of some dude and put it on the body of another dude or we make a CG body and this and that. This way gives you a lot of freedom but it still works.
CK: It’s interesting watching the original Star Wars movies which are all models and practical effects. There’s something tactile about those effects even if they don’t look 100% real. They’re real enough that your brain does the rest and they have a quality you just don’t get with digital.
CNT: Absolutely. That was a big part for Rupert and myself, to keep it as organic as we could so we didn’t end up in a big green vacuum. I’m not a big fan of green screen and full CG stuff. I just don’t like it. It’s not my style. As a director I would never come up with a solution like that because I think it takes a lot of things away. We’re not doing magic, we’re doing illusion. We’re making believe we’re doing magic, but we’re not really doing magic. We’re doing tricks. The overuse of CG is trying to make magic, trying to make real magic. But it’s not. We’re just trying to make the audience believe that it’s magic.
Our good friend Craig Kennedy runs Living in Cinema