This is a brand new section on this website. The main topic are Interviews with creative people and their atypical projects.
First interview is about a documentary film created by Denis Pontonnier: "The Round of Seasons and its Animal Totem"
For this article we worked in collaboration with 3DVF
In order to make this interview a bit more legible, different text colors are being used:
DP - Denis Pontonnier in Blue
3DVF - in Red
Bob - Orange
This article can also be read French and Spanish. The direct links can be seen below or through TAGs on the right side of this page:
The round of seasons and its animal totem - Making of
This is a documentary film about the Cathédrale Saint-Etienne of Bourges and its surroundings. But it's also about "something else". In this interview we tried to explore both topics and also how the film was made.
Seeing The Round of the Seasons and its Animal Totem one can realize that making a film like this needs different kind of knowledges based in a lot of matters, mostly for a lonesome filmmaker. It's a special occasion to appreciate a different approach compared with the "perfect" industrial CG studio production. We are then in front of a peculiar experimental proposal, resembling to a kind of a "Nouvelle Vague" style in this hybrid live-action and CGI documentary.
Bob - I frankly like the diversity of situations and the almost "non-narrative" style of your documentary or "Cinéma pur" narrative to say so. Think they have a unity around the main surface topic and such kind of narrative indeed contributes with it. Does the "animal totem" idea used in the narrative treatment is a clue for the audience about the type of incoming covert cues they are gonna see?
DP - Yes, I choose this because it's a game for school children for learning seasons and in the film, a track game. You can see shortly in the animated title, “animal” appears first as “anima” (not far from “animism”).
With the title I mean that behind our complex historical and religious civilization, we have still the same human universal basing, solstices, equinoxes, references taken from the nature. For me it was obvious that a kind of cultural “virginity”, but ambitious visually, was the point. Not against patrimonial culture, just discreet about that.
Bob - Yes, there's a kind of universal natural basing ...guess its latent presence in its cultural derivatives might be called "cultural virginity" as you say. How does one manage to give the audience a glimpse about something so intrinsic and at the same time implicit in everyday things? Sometimes it looks like there's a kind of metaphoric visuals in your film, probably not obvious for all people, but perhaps I'm seeing more than what you pretended to deliver?
DP - Speaking about signification, hidden parts and “covering the tracks”.
My goal was first to distract the viewer's attention, to move away from an overly rational narration, subtracting significant elements with ellipses even for trivial aspects. In the monument there are several buttocks sculpture hidden in the ornamentation, nobody knows if these Renaissance additions are prank calls.
Editor's Note: For more details, type “Bourges cathedral fesses” in Google Images.
I had 4 plans, one with students calling their professor, other with a guide showing it to aged retirees, another with several whole families and a mother and her little daughter showing to the older sister. Having all of them in one marginal location was unitary and significant no matter the subject. They are all laughing, but at this point it became obvious to me, not showing it, no censorship here... rather being slightly disruptive.
In another sequence, I tried this, the guide was telling to her audience the classical speech, I had 2 damaged or truncated sound segments, one about the large cathedral face and forecourt, different from Notre Dame of Paris, secondly, the north tower fell down (the older was symmetrical to the south tower, what's reconstructed is “renaissance”). When unifying both segments it gave: ‘here it is not like in Paris...” “...And the North Tower also had cracks and indeed, it did collapse”. My intention was just to reflect a distracted audience, always shooting everything with phones, so it was a confused and broken returned description. But giving another perspective, sounds like “exquisite corpses” to me (and sadly Notre Dame was partially destroyed later).
Bob - Very interesting the choice of not showing the frieze. I noticed the audio in the guide part changed but didn't understand what she said - but now that you mention, the "coincidence" with what happened in Notre Dame is a bit spooky. Found interesting also the rainy to sunny day transition with the umbrellas concatenation: the blue to yellow umbrellas first (blue umbrella girl walking backwards, yellow umbrella guy next to the African boy looking at the rain), then to the indoors sequence (guy with closed yellow umbrella) later the little girl dropping and picking up her umbrella, afterwards the old man, and finally the same first yellow umbrella guy exiting from another gate to transition to outdoors sunny day with the African guy with his 3 little children.
DP - Yes, the umbrellas concatenation was a kind of easy motif or cliché I had in mind to illustrate weather.
Bob - Not loose at all, I think the motif is consistent in the scene and with this kind of "collage" narrative. Btw, I've heard the kestrel character is based on a real one ( a kestrel family living within the cathedral ) , can you tell us a bit about this background story?
DP - I discovered on the net several photos of kestrels, taken around the cathedral, also nesting in the heights of the monument, from a young amateur photographer (Tom Sorcelle) also from the press.
I met Laurent Arthur from Bourges Museum (well known here), he tells me that he tracked these birds, he's also a great specialist in bats, anecdotally protecting them when the great portal is opened, because they are nesting just above the doors. About the kestrels, now thanks to their screams, I can see them more often in the sky. Most of the time invisible to townspeople, but sometimes seeing wild nature appearing in the center of the city is, I think, a bit reassuring these days...
Bob - The spinning "O" letter blinking the Round (of the Seasons) refers to the kestrel flying around the Tower?
DP - Yes, originally rotating the “o” letter of the “round”, was obvious, and about the round, by illustrating the circles of birds of prey when they are taking advantage of updrafts. A title too long, but initiating several tracks to follow…
Bob - Does is there other kind of hidden cues?
DP - In a bit "chaotic" sequence, two tourists from an organized tour group almost collide, in another sequence not far from this one, a Japanese tourist contemplates a stained glass window, it's clear that I appreciate his approach more, but I also tried not to be directly polemic, no need to be explicit, nor to judge, too many contradictions, so I preferred to slip on the situations and track down the coincidences. I chose the "Palm Sunday" as the unique religious ritual, firstly because it's the occasion to open the big doors (was scripted in the synopsis) and also because, as the stained glass shows, Jesus is shown as a modest person mounted on a donkey (passing through the smaller entrance to Jerusalem). Should I say I was really happy when I was able to film a real donkey six months later as another animal totem...
Bob - Guess the astronomical clock at the beginning is also a hidden reference to the title since it zooms to the lunar cycle, but what the abrupt change from dark to bright means?
DP - It's a realistic time-lapse in winter, from sunrise to sunset, the night that comes, then the electric chandeliers are lit in the cathedral, if I can bring a strong symbolic meaning, the awakening of consciousness succeeds to the night of the soul. After the sunset sequence, there is another sunny time-lapse at dark night then final electric lighting on the large portal, the two sequences are analog, parallel and probably inspired by "universal symbols" which go beyond a specific religion.
Bob - Very interesting also the whole Angel sequence - it feels ethereal but also metaphorical...
DP - Michael the Archangel, solar symbol, weighing the souls.
Most important symbol for me is his smile, in counterpoint to the previous sequence of the kestrel landing at the top of the north tower (I saw two kestrels this year flying around this tower, impossible to film them).
I was probably also interested in a subtle relationship between the restoration with an approach somewhat betraying the authenticity, sometimes recreating pieces or varying the style in the past, since I myself transgressed the documentary codes ...
At the end of the long traveling from the back of the cathedral, along the street with a young woman carrying a guitar on her back, we finish halfway up the cathedral front near several white statues, they were so damaged that they were totally re-sculpted, then later in the crypt, you can see the authentical damaged statues. Same for the “Last Judgment” tympanum of the central portal including the Archangel, so I reproduced the lighting of the original statue in the lapidary museum. I planned this towards the end of the movie to finish the traveling shot at sunset.Technically, to get a close-up, I rescanned part of the tympanum with a lot of details, photographing from a distance with a very long focal length, mixed with the high resolution 3D portal.
Bob - Interesting also the sequence near the end where the round of the season is closing and restarting again, where we see a group of tourists walking from left to right going behind a tree looking like they are leaving the place and then a new group of tourists with a guide coming from right to left also behind a tree - like a new round of the season. Last takes are also very symbolic: the light beam towards the holy water font, the colored light from the stained glass on the floor and the upstairs travel to the rooftop towards the sky. All them interesting visual hidden messages.
DP - In a fiction movie, this gets done with a smoke generator, at that moment they had just finished to saw the stone pavement, because they began a new restoration campaign for the cathedral since this time it's covered partially again with scaffoldings. It was last shooting except later snow scenes.
...In the film I tried to avoid “clichés” or recurrent spiritual symbols, but not here, like for the Archangel, we are right in it ...and you forget The Raising of the Seal behind the stained glass...
3DVF - Denis Pontonnier, you have produced "The Round of the Seasons and its Animal Totem", an atypical project centered about a Gothic cathedral ...To start with, what's your background, and why did you launch this project?
DP - I was trained in cinema at the Louis Lumière School, I worked as a camera operator, director on institutional films, documentaries and some fictions.
I was interested for a long time in computer-generated image, at first out of reach, I began as an autodidact at the mid-90s, I had the chance to carry out my first broadcast virtual simulations for a TV documentary about bats (“Life upside down”, winning sequences at the Imagina 1999 festival). I persevered in this type of production for television, produced in Bourges (close to the cathedral) for a few years. Seeing little evolution possible towards the creation of a real studio, I extended my exploration with research of development and coding of plug-ins for Lightwave3D software. I provided a rather large set of freeware tools and it became my main activity.
I had recalled my desire to model the cathedral after it was classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, but my first photogrammetry tests, without the current algorithms, quickly moderated my ambition.
About ten years ago, the medievalist Andrew Talon carried out a complete scientific laser scanning of the cathedral, as for Notre Dame de Paris, a cloud of a few billion points. I quickly understood that this research model would probably not be accessible to the public, or in any case would be very heavy to manipulate in order to obtain a mesh or to proceed to its reduction or to extract textures. For my part, I aspired to elaborate an aesthetic or artistic project, rather than a didactic one.
The arrival of an affordable range of photogrammetry software with pixel recognition from a series of photos, opened the door for me.
Bob - I read the synopsis of your film. It's excellently well written. It indeed has a kind of narrative that feels immersive, even with a surrealist Buñuel's feeling at the beginning, hectic and lyrical overall, but through participatory knowledge for the audience. Was this synopsis a kind of script?
DP - To be precise, this was not really a synopsis like written for a fiction, but a “note d’intention’, the “introduction” is close to a kind of synopsis, as far as it is possible to write one for an immersive and hybrid documentary, so the knowledges exposed there are just for the cultural context, and then there's an inventory of probable or possible mini-events. The film is based on natural situations, spontaneous expressions collected from scouting notes, with the writing work extending into the direction and editing.
Bob - How was the mix of live-action and CGI Pre-Production planning? was live-action production first? or does it was parallel?
DP - A few video tests were recorded in HD in 2016 and the CG final stair traveling was rendered same year. But in February 2017 was the true beginning in 4K and continuous rendering. After a few months, I was able to begin matching characters and CG/VFX with possible live-action footage. So it was parallel and interactive. The approach was uncertain the first months, but that was consolidated with the scene of the little girl with the scooter and teenagers in the background. The girl was joking about a boy (friend) off screen, then I let them, went around the whole cathedral in the opposite direction, went to the forecourt and saw them sitting in the steps, ...I was happy to find a continuity at the end of the winter...You might say that not all people will notice this or identify what's going on, but it was enough for me, being at the limit between conscious and subconscious, then was easy to finalize with the women walking on the forecourt, which was shot a few minutes later. So that was the scene giving me the key for a possible relation between real and CG people, which was underlying in the script, but not predictable.
Bob - I precisely was wondering how do you recorded people so that they don't notice but still get some immersive level. Guess must have been very difficult for some shots?
DP - I could say I don’t choose the subject, the subject imposes itself to me. I can say this otherwise, sometimes people are just moving, no sense, but in some occasions they are acting, in major cases they weren’t able to detect me as cinematographer, but I thought subjectively they suspected to be filmed or to be on a stage...
Didn’t think about this when I worked, but I saw Henri Cartier Bresson in a film last week where we can see him dancing around people for shooting, then disappearing, really funny, at least I used similar attitudes for distracting people or not attracting their attention, just complicated because when I was shooting during this time, my hand was my eye ...lot of failures of course.
Bob - At this stage, there was a preliminary offline editing ?
DP - At the end, in summer 2018, after sorting rushes with CG as pivot, I edited separated sequences, progressively reduced the film to reach my 52 minutes total duration.
3DVF - The film contains real images and it's also based on a 3D model of the Bourges cathedral and its environment. A considerable amount of work has been done to create it, including several tens of thousands of photos... Concretely, how did you organize and manage such a massive capture? What strategy and tools did you then use for the photogrammetric reconstruction?
DP - About 50000 photos over 3 years, per session of about 250/300 photos per session, all the photogrammetry was managed with Agisoft's Photoscan software (renamed Metashape), very efficient with the use of GPU, at the end I broke a camera and my graphic card died after the film.
The software manages the camera/photo alignment, produces a point cloud, then a mesh and texture extraction. I started by generating a first portal, which was used as a reference to align everything else...
For each block,I used a high-resolution model as a base and to capture later normal maps and a model reduced by decimation to extract geometries from sculpted parts.
All flat parts or just the edges like archways or repetitive ornaments have been remodelled on a layer over the reduced scan.
The two seamlessly parts are rendered homogeneously by texture baking performed in Lightwave on another UV Map with fewer seams and space optimization.
I followed a particular procedure for trees and vegetation, with my plugin DP Verdure to generate trees, starting from the global form connected then to the 3D scan and using my own instancer alongside the native instancer of Lightwave for the distribution of plants and grass.
The entire model, exterior and interior cathedral as well as the surrounding neighborhoods were oriented and brought to real dimensions, in order to be able to apply a simulation of solar illumination with DP Sunsky (Hosek model) and the animated characters.
DP Sunsky portals were used for lighting the interiors There was no photogrammetry for texturing people, it was a 2D to 3D approach, modifying the mesh in Modeler, baking the textures and manually completing.
3DVF - It was then necessary to rework the different elements: correcting errors, reconstruction defects, non-photographed areas... A task again imposing. How did you approach it?
DP - The absence of a high point of view can be partially compensated by distant viewpoints in long focal length, but there are necessarily limits of wanting to capture a monument of this size without the help of a drone.
The north tower accessible to the public offers an interesting point of view for 360 panos and the environment, I had some memories of an exceptional visit with a guide on the high passageways. I consulted several books and a series of panoramas made by Andrew Tallon, these elements were used as a basis to recreate some of the high paving or to approximate the parts inaccessible or invisible to the public.
The main problems in photogrammetry are most often solved by complementary shots, I was positively surprised by the good extraction quality of Photoscan's textures, except for the pavement, which also constitutes a challenge to obtain the 3D mesh, but all this had to be remodeled anyway to reduce the geometry.
About twenty years ago I was working with one of the first small and very limited digital cameras, to assemble street and house textures on quite simple 3D geometries, but which already allowed me to build complete sets, so I took advantage of all this to straighten perspectives and rectify manually.
I wasn't too seduced by the automatic remeshing or "retopo" techniques, Lightwave sometimes leaves modelers a bit "wanting more", especially for big models, but never worried me about this work, at the arrival the cathedral "weighed" 2 times less (2.6 Millions of polygons) than a single portal scanned in high resolution.
Editor's Note : If you wonder who is the mysterious man in green who appears several times in the documentary, is Andrew Tallon, a Belgium art historian medievalist who made a laser scan of the cathedral. He also made a set of VR panoramas. He died at the age of 48 in New York on in November 16, 2018.
More info about Andrew please see
a) his Wikipedia page
b) Leica to support efforts in rebuilding Notre Dame
Denis Pontonnier added him to the film as tribute.
3DVF - What lessons do you learn from these two steps of capturing and then cleaning/optimizing? Are there any steps you would do differently?
DP - No regret, the first blocks served as test to elaborate the method, up to a daylight simulation to get a glimpse of the possible scope of the project.
The simple fact of having been able to stage the model in all the desired atmospheres and to have reached the end of the rendering calculation, with limited means and in the time I had estimated, fully satisfied me. It's certain that with the experience I've acquired, I could still save time, but it's difficult to improve the quality under these conditions, unless I increase the means.
3DVF - For the shooting of real images, you have chosen a discreet shooting spread over time. Why ?
DP - I defined a contemplative approach of my subject, more anecdotal than linear or narrative, a mosaic composed of natural scenes, to decline a fairly classic seasonal scheme, this excluded any staging in real life. Through my benchmarks and my documentation, and the target spaces in conformity with the 3D model, ended up establishing a sort of probability grid, as we can do in an animal film, guessing without cheating too much and being forgotten, a practice already acquired with my experience as a camera operator.
3DVF - Where did the idea of an "animal-totem" come from?
DP - Faced with a religious monument from the Middle Ages, confronted with today's multicultural society and today's interest in multiple spiritual practices, it seemed pertinent to me to evoke shamanism for is the origin of sacred.
This is evidently a shortcut to situate the point of view of the film, which only superficially evokes history or architecture. With the wink of the kestrel's eye, one simply observes life all around, one looks at the city like nature, I didn't have to look very far for the presence of various animals, all potential "totems", just as it appears to all visitors the presence of an important bestiary in all the gothic imagery of the cathedral.
3DVF - Comment how you rendering phase took place?
DP - I hoped to get another machine, but I had to resolve using not other than my i7 (gaming) station, 16Gb of RAM, 24 hours a day, about 1 year and a half, exception made for the last adjustments of the scenes and the integration of the animations that I worked on an old laptop and the special effects in small work sessions. I had three resolutions of textures for each block, depending on the distance, to optimize the memory, seeking to reduce the loading time of the scenes and the duration of the calculation. The global illumination was pre-calculated for the scene with a separate radiosity cache for character animations. I made the video transfers on the same machine, the shots having taken place over a year, I almost respected a parallel between real and virtual and the real "populated" the virtual as they went along.
3DVF - Compositing was undoubtedly a key element, since it was about marrying real images and 3D rendering. What were the challenges at this level?
DP - Strictly speaking, there are very few film-CG compositions, a total of 4 shots, with rotoscopy and matchmoving, simulation of the same lighting and the same lens, and also one shot with animated matte painting in the background.
For the CG shots representing characters seen in the filmed elements, it was mainly about making or modifying basic models and their skeleton to transfer an animation from a mocap data bank that I had developed with my scripts and plug-ins.
Most of 3D sequences were managed in a rather simple way, mainly a "beauty pass" and alpha sequence, quite a lot of masks to reassemble separate passes for large scenes, or modify colors here and there, adjust the characters, a lot of repairs (partial renderings), inevitable when one economize previews, a management of depth for atmosphere or fog. A color-grading was applied before editing the two sources supposed to sequence each other with the same atmosphere.
Bob - Can you tell something about the beautiful skies in the movie?
DP - In my stats I counted around 30 scenes using less or large use of pano skies, also used time-laps & CG skies
So there are 3 types of skies used in the movie:
1) Standard photography (LDR/ HDR)
2) Time-lapse video
3) CG skies
1) Standard photography with a DSLR camera (LDR/ HDR)
Bourges has an artificial lake with a ‘pontoon’, was the better and not too far place to photograph skies with a leveled tripod, I made a bracketed 6K raw recording with a Nikon D5300 and a 18mm lens.
In 2014, I did 8 sessions at different times of the day. I was waiting for different weathers at home then I walked to the lake, I stayed there one half hour for shooting 6 or 8 skies, waiting 10 or 15 minutes in between, to get different clouds, covered sun by clouds or full bright sun. In total recorded 46 x 360 HDR skies. Used less than half of these skies, sometimes reused in different scenes with a different orientation. In my stats I counted around 30 scenes using less or large use of pano skies, other scenes just uses Sunsky environment color for moody winter white sky or blue sky without clouds, tweaking the Turpidity parameter.
It seamed to me that rendering with HDR skies was too long , so I used tone-mapped LDR skies, first at low resolution (6K) with a matching sun position in DP Sunsky , varying Turpidity and Gamma. then compositing the hires (22K) separated pass because adding it to the model texture list cost too much memory. I had also to remove electric lines or trees near the horizon in a few cases.
Below you can see how some recorded HDR skies are being used in several scenes
Editor's Note : A exclusive scene that not was in the movie can be seen in a special edition of the HDR Panorama Portrait series. More info please see here .
2) Time-lapse Video
Time-lapses were made with a Nikon D5300, 18mm lens. all done with afternoon skies, no compositing, directly rendered as an image sequence in the 3D scenes, 4K front-mapped with one distinct static camera on the part of a sphere, was positioned around the middle of the render 2K camera path, so the render camera had a varying view angle in the projected sky with a correct resolution.
A: Moody time-lapse sky, more to simulate windy clouds, before the kestrel hovering, preceding the first rainy scene.
B: A fake time-lapse 3D scene, accelerating wind in trees, also adding a bit flickering sun lighting, caused by partial cloud occlusions.
C: Downscaled gamma in Lightwave Image Editor for a darker sky, with sun fading away, adding a flare in post.
D: Darker sky with lightning bolt composed in post with bloom effect.
3) CG skies
Some scenes are generated with the LW plugin DP Sunsky
A: Snow (modified levels of Sunsky)
B: Spring (pure contrasted Sunsky)
C: Summer rue Guichet
D: Tower (partial pano for city, top is ‘overcast’ Sunsky)
Bob - How the soundtrack music was composed and who's the composer?
DP - It's mine, composed with a midi compositor, arpeggiator, free symphonic sound bank, a few midi experimentations.
Not sure to have to describe this in detail, it was the last phase and a pain, I’m an amateur musician and sound designer... I wouldn't even explain how I built a surround master sound, or how I restored real sounds crapped with wind, or built fake steps, flaps and else.
Following what we were commenting about subliminal cues insertions, in the VFX sequence “rue Guichet”, when the camera is flying off toward the “rosace” (Rose window), the music is a midi transcription of the astronomical clock Carillon including the sound of the mechanism, transformed with an arpeggiator effect, though I know this is absolutely not recognizable. Also in the time-lapse, the sound is inversed, while we can hear finally the original version and synchronous sound in the last part of the film (CG and live-action). Destructuring is useful to reach a second (third?) state, or an oneiric vision. There are more sounds from the organ tuner (discordant) than from the organ player which is inversed (like the image sequence), I wanted to show spectators sitting in the inverse direction facing the organ and others sitting in the common direction toward the chore. A sensation of destabilization in our time, may be.
Bob - How were the tests for DCP Mastering process ran?
DP - I tested the DCP in “la Maison de la Culture de Bourges’' movie theater. I requested to see the English subtitles (I have also a Spanish version), the test in the theater revealed 2 or three errors in animation, I asked the operator to increase the audio, so then I increase the DCP at the same level, the surround is impressive, not many special pan effects, but having 2 different spaces for sounds and music is better. Colors were a bit different from what I get on my monitor, but I was happy with it. It was just managed with the same video input and DCP O-Matic 2 conversion. Also animation of characters are smoother than Vimeo, especially compared to my first H264 HD720 version.
3DVF - On such a project, which required several years of work, the temptation is great to give up, or on the contrary to want to go back over sequences, to never finish the project and to pursue it indefinitely by excessive perfectionism. How did you manage not to "get lost"?
DP - Perfectionism is all relative, except for 2 or 3 very delicate shots where you can talk about relentlessness, though it's quite common for special effects shots that one consider important. As for endurance, I think that all 3D generalists know and are aware that once the desired quality has been established, it is the homogeneity that must be consistently achieved.
Assuming alone all the decisions and carrying out all the tasks on my own is stressful, difficult for me to be objective about efficiency. Apart from the colorimetric calibration issues I have not looked back, thanks to the three years of preparation.
3DVF - What do you hope to leave as an impression on the viewers who will see the film?
DP - First of all, given the length of this medium-length film and its tenuous conductive thread, I will be first happy that viewers will see it in its entirety.
I'm looking for communicating very simple emotions standing aside from the current, to say the least, turbulent epoch. I hope they won't be troubled by the unusual marriage of 3D virtual images, with the real in a documentary, if I succeed to make this felt agreeably, a few moments of grace suspended, as they say, I will have achieved my goal. This film is not institutional, although bizarrely some may have thought so, nor is it conditioned for particular needs.
If it makes you want to come and see or visit this monument, I would also be delighted.
3DVF - "The round of the seasons and its animal totem" has received an exploitation visa, and is available in 2K for cinema screening. Where are you in your search for a distributor?
DP - Yes, it can be projected in theaters for all audiences and is now fully accessible on Vimeo. Still looking for a distributor, I pass through the difficulties of presenting this atypical film, as you say, though I think, having seen it myself, that there is an interest in seeing it on the big screen.
Bob - We wish Denis much success in his search for a distributor and we invite everyone to watch and share his film. And if you are a distributor, you can contact Denis here.