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Mill Film Spices Up 'Chocolat'
By Bjorn Thoresen
January 26, 2001 06:01 PM PST

Caught in the icy grip of winter, frozen by the stifling monotony of "tradition," the inhabitants of the provincial French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes find themselves liberated by the arrival of a mysterious stranger who sets up a chocolate shop opposite the village church just in time for Lent. Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche) and her daughter Anouk (Victoire Thivisol) hope to make a fresh start in the town, but find an immediate adversary in the Comte de Reynaud (Alfred Molina), who is offended by their challenge to his authority. While Reynaud tries every measure in his power to shut down the chocolaterie, the town's citizens succumb one by one to the sensuous temptations on display, finding their passions rekindled by the delightful catalyst of Vianne's confections.

Adapted from a novel by Joanne Harris, Lasse Hallström's "Chocolat" is a celebration of sensual pleasures -- the frisson of a sip of hot chocolate spiced with chili powder, the decadence of an elaborate banquet sauced in chocolate -- that uses the atmosphere of a fairy tale to address issues of prejudice and intolerance. The film's visual style -- hazy, diffused -- and color palette -- soft, pastel -- are key to establishing a sense of a heightened, almost magical state that is nonetheless firmly grounded in the rituals of everyday life. Likewise, the film makes use of a number of transparent digital effects, created by Mill Film, to enhance reality with a little bit of magic.

"Town Before"
In all, Mill Film supplied "Chocolat" with nearly 60 effects shots ranging from simple fades and dissolves to sky replacements and season changes, and also produced the opening and closing credits for the film. Mill Film used a Quantel Domino Complete scanner and workstation for its compositing work on "Chocolat," with 3ds max used for 3D animation and SceneGenie for 3D tracking; some additional paint work was done in Matador and additional compositing in Media Illusion. According to digital manager Dan Pettipher, the film's opening sequences required the most complex work. "The initial and the main thing they were after was the opening shot," Pettipher said. "More shots followed, but that shot was their initial focus." "Chocolat" was filmed on location in Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, France during the first half of May, with additional exteriors shot in the West Country of England in late May and early June, and interiors filmed at Shepperton Studios in London from mid-June to mid-July. While the lush greens of the spring Flavigny countryside were appropriate to the film's second half, digital enhancement was required to create a suitably desolate winter landscape for the film's first shot, an aerial view that sweeps down from the clouds, moves across the valleys surrounding Flavigny and closes in on the town's central square.

"Town After"
Mill Film began by stabilizing the aerial shot, then applied color correction to strip the landscape of its color and painted a dusting of snow over the fields. "We first had to smooth out and stabilize the shot," Pettipher said. "It was a helicopter shot, so obviously it wasn't perfectly steady. We then color corrected the landscape so it would have a cool, wintry feel. We were lucky that the weather was semi-overcast when they shot the footage -- there were no strong areas of shadow, which made it easier to create a gray, early-morning feel. We also tracked in individual patches of snow on the trees in the foreground and the road. We didn't have to create any falling snow for that shot, although we did for the shots that followed."

Pettipher noted that the complex camera movement in the opening shot made it more challenging to track. "The opening shot was difficult to track because it was moving in all directions," Pettipher said. "It wasn't a simple crane -- it cranes up and sort of slowly moves forward, so there were a few parallax issues we had to lock down, and we were slightly limited as far as how much snow we could add. Luckily, the production team didn't want the 'blanket of snow' look, because that would have meant tracking in between individual roofs and houses and buildings. Once we stabilized the shot, that helped simplify the move, but there was a lot of tracking involved to get all the little bits working together. The Domino has a good tracker on it, though, so we were able to achieve that effect."

"River Bank Before"
Mill Film also applied titles, designed by Nina Saxon at New Wave Entertainment, to the first shot of the film, which opens with a white backdrop of clouds through which the camera moves to look down on the town. "There were about 1,000 frames worth of clouds that dissolved into the main shot, which was another 900 frames, followed by an interior sequence in the town church. The interior sequences also had title cards, however -- there were about 30 cards in the whole sequence, which was 4,000 frames total. The longest section was the transition from the clouds to the main shot, which was a seamless shot lasting nearly 2,000 frames. The file sizes for the sequence were fairly large, given that each frame was 18 MB. The Domino's resolution is 3K by 2K and the files are stored on D16, which is very fast. The reason we kept everything on Domino was because we needed to quickly and easily archive these long shots."

"River Bank After"
The river that girds Lansquenet-sous-Tannes plays an important part in the storyline of "Chocolat," serving as the route of entry for several important characters -- Vianne, and a community of riverboat travelers including Roux (Johnny Depp) -- and also as the site of significant action -- the developing romance between Vianne and Roux and the fiery destruction of the travelers' boats. However, unlike Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the real-life town of Flavigny is not surrounded by a river, so an additional facet of Mill Film's work on the opening shot was the creation of a river to match the one seen later in the film. "We had to create a CG river and track that into the plate as well," Pettipher said. "When you see the difference between the original footage and what we ended up with, it's a fairly radical change."

The river was created by Mill Film artist Evan Davies. Mill Film sent drafts back and forth to Hallström and the film's editing team to get approval on the final look of the river. "We went through early mock-up stages -- we would paint something really rough and then e-mail it to the editor and the director for them to look at it," Pettipher said. "They would either e-mail us back or give us direction over the phone. They wanted a nice, wide, flowing river. It wasn't supposed to be frozen -- we had to put some movement in to show that it was flowing. We went through a couple of versions to lock down the position of the river and its size in the frame, and then it was just up to us to lock it and track it to the moving plate. The river was the main geographical change we made to the opening shot, other than removing the odd tree or two for aesthetic reasons. We were mainly adding to the shot rather than removing things."

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