Franck Balson has a pretty awesome and unique job. In fact, it’s so unique, he wasn’t quite sure what it was when he started. The director joined the LA-based Blur Studio a decade ago, where he works today as a Layout and Editorial Supervisor. Figuring out what that meant was the first challenge. “I originally came to Blur to do what we call ‘scene assembly,'” explains Balson. “Basically, a mix of environment modeling, lighting, rendering, and compositing — because that’s what I used to do. But on my first day, they said, ‘We’re going to have you do a bit of layout first.’ I was like, ‘Wait, what? What’s that?'”
Fortunately, it turned out to be the perfect fit for the previously Paris-based artist, leading to a serious of impressive projects, ranging from video-game cinematics to national ad spots to his most high-profile work to date — the much-loved opening credits for Marvel’s smash success Deadpool movie, helmed by Blur Studio co-founder Tim Miller. After catching Balson’s extremely engaging presentation about that project at last year’s Style Frames design conference, we caught up with him to talk more about his work and find out exactly what “layout” is.
The Building Blocks of a Career
Prior to joining Blur, Balson attended Supinfocom in his native France, before working at Paris-based animation studio Cube Creative. “I started as a generalist at Cube, and over the span of a couple of years, evolved to the position of director,” he recalls. “I worked on a lot of commercials, which was great in the sense that you have to deal with agencies on top of clients. You have to learn how to manage their expectations, as well as your own — knowing only 20% of your ideas might make it through the approval process, constant iterations, etc. I think it was a great thing to learn, especially when you come out of school and you have this idealized vision of the work that’s ahead of you.”
With that experience gained, Balson was especially well prepared for what would be his new position at Blur, where he and his colleagues have to wear many hats at once. And he quickly discovered not only what layout is, but that it was something he loved doing. “The layout phase is where the rubber hits the road: it’s like making short films month after month,” explains Franck. “Our department is there at the genesis of the projects. We basically create the first version of the cinematic, commercial, or whatever format of project it is that you’re doing. The process is a bit like doing a student film — you’re doing everything. We’ll go and shoot motion capture with the director, making it easier to know how we’re going to piece stuff together; it’s very collaborative.”
Franck Balson’s all-CG commercial for MINI and agency Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners
The Life of a Layout Supervisor
This approach means that a lot of more typical pre-production processes often go out the window, with the team diving straight in to the project. “We try to approach our layout like a live-action shoot, so the use for storyboards is pretty minimal,” explains Balson. “We’ll shoot motion capture, piece the performances together in our 3D package to create a complete scene, and then shoot coverage in our virtual world. It’s very organic, and extremely flexible. We’ll then edit those rushes, add sound effects and temp music, and come out of it with a first draft of the story, which is put in front of the director. We review it, iterate on it a few times, and then, once it’s approved internally and by our clients, all of this data gets directly transferred to the animation department. They’ll start animating using the clean blended mo-cap data that we provide and improve on top of it.”
At work in the Blur Studio offices
Working in this fast-paced, all-hands-on-deck environment, Franck’s previous experience with managing expectations came in extremely handy. “One thing that’s a big realization for a lot of people starting in layout is how much you have to put your ego aside,” he says. “We’ll usually create a lot more content than what ends up being in the final cut, so, ultimately, a lot of it is going to be thrown into the trash. It’s just part of the process of exploration. In that sense, that’s how layout might differ from, let’s say, animation. Your sandbox is much bigger in layout than it is in animation (which is liberating and scary at the same time), and a lot of critical choices have to be made at that stage, so it’s normal to have a meeting where a director might say, ‘You know what, I think we just need to start from scratch and rethink this idea.’
“That’s what layout is all about: finding the best way to tell the story within the constraints of the project,” he summarizes. “Hopefully, if we’ve done our job correctly, once a shot enters animation, a lot of key decisions have been made and the animators can focus on the performance of the characters, and not have to wonder where A and B should be in the frame, and so on.”
Of course, with most of their work being done in virtual environments, there are also a lot of ways it differs from traditional video shoots as much as it does from standard animation. “When you shoot with, let’s say stunt guys during a movie, they have to act to the camera, because they’re not going to ‘really’ punch each other — at least not to the point where they hurt each other,” says Balson. “In 3D, we don’t have that problem because, if we want, we can tweak the animation to get the guys to actually make physical contact, or if the script calls for it, ‘cut each other in half.’ The director and the stunt choreographer will come up with the sequence of action that they want, and we’ll go and shoot that in the mo-cap stage. We’ll be there to know what’s happening, to get the choreographer’s input, and also for the technical side of things, like making sure that actions that are stacked — meaning actions that are offset to prevent guys from hurting each other can be properly recombined and realigned once translated in 3D.”
The opening credits The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Franck Balson
Deadpool: The Importance of Initial Impressions
There was a lot of that type of thing happening in the Deadpool credit sequence — a sequence we almost didn’t get the chance to experience. “The title sequence was this odd thing, because it’s basically the first thing that got cut due to budget reasons,” reveals Balson. “However, we knew that at some point it might come back in, and because it was defining a lot of the setup for the whole car-crash scene, I really wanted to make sure that we nailed it down first. This way, if the title sequence got back in the movie, which was what we wanted, we wouldn’t have to pull our hair out because the car was in the wrong spot or the characters in the air didn’t look good.
“I started working on that for a couple of days, and then we left it on the side,” he goes on. “Then, a month and a half before the movie came out, the title sequence got green-lit again. Overall, the biggest challenge, really, was to get people to agree on what we were going to write on those titles, and where to put them in space and in time. The thing with comedy is that the more you watch the jokes, the less you find them funny, so after a while you lose your objectivity.
“The greatest tool we had for that was a series of screenings where they recorded the audience watching the movie. You could see how and what people reacted to. That allowed us to try out different placements and different types of jokes, and it really helped us in finding that sweet spot. We used to have visual easter eggs paired with the written ones, but we noticed that because it takes your brain a lot more time to register a written joke, having the visual ones on the side was distracting the audience and they would miss half of them.”
It was during this research phase where the team made a fascinating find. “The most interesting thing we discovered was the effect the title sequence had on the rest of the movie,” he explains. “The way people would react to the first half hour of the film was very different, depending on whether or not they had laughed during the title sequence. If it wasn’t funny, or they just didn’t get the ‘meta’ aspect of the jokes, it would affect the entire front end of the movie and make it a bit harder for people to dive into the story and the tone.
“Being able to get them in the right state of mind early really helped the overall experience. It was a little bit like a mad-scientist project — the audience being the guinea pigs and us changing the recipe, seeing what was working best, until we got it right. Comedy, I think, is one of the hardest things to master, because it’s all about timing. It’s very tricky. That’s why I have so much respect for the editing process on this, with the editor and Tim making sure that all those jokes weren’t just an avalanche of one liners.”
To learn more about Blur Studio and experience more of their film, video-game, and commercial work, visit them online.