(Paris, France) Content’s crown as king may be slipping, but creativity inspires. And incredible creativity becomes classic. It is burned into our psyches. We had the good fortune to spend some time with Jean-Marie Marbach, a French Director and VFX Artist, after the release of his music video, “Fiebre En La Disco,” a surrealistic look at abducted disco dancers trapped on an alien ship and forced to compete for their lives. Although we admire this particular example of his work greatly, it is his enthusiasm, persistence and strong vision that most impressed us. We’ll be watching him in the future.
US TIMES INTERVIEWS DIRECTOR AND VFX ARTIST, JM MARBACH, ABOUT HIS MUSICVIDEO “FIEBRE EN LA DISCO,” AN HOMAGE TO COSMIC DISCO
Cirina Catania: This is Cirina Catania with US Times. I am so fortunate today to be speaking with French director JM Marbach, Jean-Marie, he’s a prolific VFX artist specializing in after effects with a particular interest in Particles, and he also works as a VFX supervisor. Besides his contributions to the French movie and commercial industry, he was a VFX supervisor on the 2012 Abu Dhabi Awards and the 2014 Ubisoft blockbuster game, “Watch Dogs.” He also directed the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival opening sequence, has done commercials for numerous clients, including Evian and McDonalds, and he loves creating music videos, for which he has won several awards, including best music video, best VFX, and the Diamond Award at the 2011 California Film Awards. JM contributed to our favorite Trapcode Suite 13 release for the Red Giant software in 2015. You’ve been busy!
JM Marbach: Well, I just had my last 10 years of work summarized. Listening to you felt weird, but felt good.
Cirina Catania: Jean-Marie, or JM, as many people call you, what is Fiebre En La Disco?
M Marbach: It’s a music video I did for Elefant Records and a band from Argentina called MODULAR, it’s an homage to cosmic disco, which was a variation of disco, short-lived one. I mean, disco was already short-lived, but cosmic disco was even more. It was a really fun variation because it was a mix of disco, which was already fun, and science fiction. You can imagine how it looked like, and sounded like. It sounded a little more … It had more electronic sounds than classic disco, and basically, the visuals and the lyrics were much more out there.
Cirina Catania: Well, I loved watching the video, I think it’s amazing. We’re going to put a link on the story to it so everyone can see it. Why did you decide to make this, what about it appealed to you as a creative person?
JM Marbach: Well, so many things. When the label, Elefant Records, contacted me a few years ago, after seeing one of my previous videos, they sent me a few links to a few of their bands. This band I was particularly sensitive to because it mixed 60, 70s and 80s science fiction with retro music, and yet they mixed electro-sound. It was old but it was new at the same time, and I really loved it. A few years later, I went to Madrid, to the label headquarters, and Luis Calvo, the head of the label, told me that the band was working on a cosmic disco track and I didn’t listen to it, but I told him I want to direct their video, because you know, in this day and age, you don’t get the chance to direct a cosmic disco video that often, so I couldn’t let it go.
Cirina Catania: No, you don’t get that chance very often, and I have an addition to make, I lived during the disco era.
JM Marbach: Lucky you.
Cirina Catania: I think I actually even had a pair of white knee-high boots at some point. That’s another reason why it was so much fun to me. You did correct me in the beginning, because I was referring to it as homage to disco, and you very graciously corrected me to say “cosmic disco,” and there really is a difference. How did you come up with the concept?
Argentina, and knowing that there wouldn’t be any budget to bring them in Paris. Without even thinking about the music, I had to find a creative way to use their, at least their face in the video. So this is how I came up with the idea of mapping the heads on the cubes and on the square column. The other thing that interested me in this project, was how to visualize a disco environment in an original way. Disco environment has been done a lot of times, and a lot of times often in a funny way, to get a comical reaction. I didn’t want that, I wanted to be … Even though what I show is surreal, I like to do it very seriously, and I wanted to visualize how disco would look like if it had evolved after a few decades, because disco didn’t last more than 10 years, but if it did, it would have changed visually and even more so how disco would look like viewed by disco-addicted aliens in the future. A good example of this is the disco floor in my video, it’s not just some simple squares, it’s much more complex and at the same time, trying to keep what disco is all about, it was difficult, at times I thought, I was afraid I was getting a little off track, but it’s an interesting mix of all of this.
Cirina Catania: How much of what we’re watching in the video are real, physical sets, and how much is effects laid over that?
JM Marbach: Well, the good thing was that I got a real set, we got to shoot in a huge nightclub which was on several floors. So the set was really refreshing, because when you shoot entirely in green screen like I did on my previous videos, you get very limited in your camera moves and every time you have to show the floor, you have to show the shadows and reflections if there are any, and it’s much more difficult. The fact of having a real set was really a good thing for me. Again, I should be able to show pictures, so it was more than a set enhancement than set creation for once, and that was great.
Cirina Catania: You shot this in Paris? Which disco, which club did you use? Do you remember?
JM Marbach: Yes, it was a club called Metropolis, and production company, I don’t know how they did this, because we had no budget, but they got access to the nightclub for the closing day because they are closed one day a week. It’s usually the day where they clean everything, so we shot there from, you know, we were there from 6:00 in the morning to 1:00 in the morning the next day. It was weird, being in a nightclub during daylight. It doesn’t feel and look anything like when you are in a crowded nightclub at night, it’s kind of depressing. They didn’t clean it, so it was especially dirty, and some scenes, the girls were crawling on the floor during the fight scene, and I was a bit embarrassed for them because the floor was not very clean at all. They didn’t mind at all, and they had fun. That’s it, Metropolis, if you come to Paris, I’ll take you if you wish.
Cirina Catania: I will visit Metropolis, I’m looking forward to it. This is the different between fantasy and reality, right, the club at night full of people and dancing, and during the day when you’re trying to shoot. How many people did you have on the crew, and can you talk about the equipment that you used?
JM Marbach: I had 10 girls, 10 dancers, and the shooting crew was between 10 and 15, I can’t remember. Under normal circumstances, you couldn’t do a video like this with such a budget, we had 2,000 euros from the label and that’s it.
Cirina Catania: That’s amazing to me.
JM Marbach: Yes, but this project benefited from exceptional circumstances. First, regarding the shoot, I knew the production company, it’s called A La Bonne Heure Production, I knew them very well, we’ve worked together for many years, and they were interested in working with me on a music video, so on this one, they took care of pre-production for free, because they were interested in the project. Since they rent shooting gear for regular production all year long with normal budgets, they were able to borrow all the shooting gear for one day. Actually, it’s not uncommon for a renting company to allow this with good and regular and otherwise paying clients. The same happened with the crew, there were many people hired on a regular basis by either the production or myself and as they were all interested in this project, they all worked for free as well. Obviously, I’m extremely grateful because although it was just one day of work, it was a very long day.
Cirina Catania: Well, you’re obviously very organized. Did you storyboard the entire thing ahead of time?
JM Marbach: I did, for the fight scene I knew, knowing who I would get; for the dancing scenes, I did not storyboard anything, because I knew that just having the camera rolling and those girls doing their thing would be … I knew that I would get enough material because they were very good. I storyboarded the ending, the intro, and the fight scene. I storyboarded the fight scene, but the ending and the intro, I did not draw anything, I just, I have this way of describing and making a list of shots and descriptions that only I can understand, even my DP cannot understand a thing, she’s panic when she sees that. It helps me on the shooting because otherwise, I would forget something.
Cirina Catania: Yes, I work with shot lists a lot, too, there are many times you just don’t have the luxury of having everything storyboarded, but you have to have your shot list. Who was your DP?
JM Marbach: She’s called Véronique Billaux-Leclerc, she’s a great DP, and she’s really great because she gets all these great ideas for set design. Not only light, but set designs and she listens to what I feel like I’m doing, and she really takes it into account. I’m just so happy when she says, “Yes,” it’s just a pleasure to work with her. I don’t know that many girls director of photography, but I don’t know, you do, you are? You do photography?
Cirina Catania: Yes I do, and actually the local 600 here is highly promoting women. We’re becoming more and more in numbers, but obviously not as many of us as the men. It’ll come, it’s fine. I think the important thing with the two of you is when you, as a director, find a DP that you can communicate with and you can … I call it dancing together, that’s an amazing thing to find.
JM Marbach: Well, that’s true for, I think, every aspect of the production. The producers and even the editor, I’ve been working with the same editor for years. Yes, you’re right, having this kind of connecting with people you work with is … Again, for this video, I had all the best people I could … The people I could connect best with present and available for this project, and it was the best organization I’ve ever had.
Cirina Catania: When you were approaching the day, was there one shot you were a little bit worried about?
JM Marbach: Not specifically. I was worried about not having time to do everything I wanted to because when you have one day of shooting, you don’t shoot for one whole day. You spend several hours getting the gear, prepping it, getting it ready, and then at the end, you have to take all the gear back in the vans and everything. In the end, you don’t have one-day shooting, you have maybe six hours at best. This is why, obviously, I prefer two-day shootings, or at least coming the day before to prep everything, and then when you arrive in the morning, you start to shoot. This was not the case here, so shooting such a … It’s long, it’s five minutes thirty, it’s long for a music video when there are a lot of different sets. I have a lot of different things going on here, and doing all this in maybe six hours and a half was the thing that worried me most. The dancing which is the main part of the video was what we spent the least amount of time on.
Cirina Catania: Let me ask you a question, let’s move on to post for a minute, where did you post this? Did you use a post house in Paris or?
JM Marbach: No, post production was done at my place, and I used … I had someone on VFX I could exploit at will without any salary, which is myself. Obviously, being able to do all the post on my own is a huge advantage for a director, and in this case, I did around 90% of the post. I asked a friend to give me a hand for the disco queen set when we get to see what’s inside her column, and I gave him references and visual examples of what I had in mind, which was mostly taken from the Moonbase Alpha sets, from Space: 1999. He created the set entirely in After Effects with Element 3D, which I used for three shots. That’s not much in length, but these are among my favorite shots in the video, so I’m really glad he agreed to give me a hand on that. I had another friend helping me for the 3D tracking. I had to do tests in pre-production to make sure that what I had in mind for the cube heads actually worked, and that’s it, everything else from keying to compositing to final VFX was done by myself, I did it at my place in between real productions on my free time.
Cirina Catania: Wow. Well, congratulations.
JM Marbach: Thank you. Thank you very much. It was not … Even if I was in complete control, this project, because the label is great, they leave you 100% of freedom. When you get … Sometimes when I shoot, of course, I’m outside, but when I work on post-production, I work at home. When I work, on my desk, in front of my screen, and when I finish a production, I go into free-time mode and for a few months. Free-time mode meant staying on the same desk in front of the same screen and working on the video. Basically, I was stuck my screen months and months.
Cirina Catania: It’s amazing what you can do with dedication, isn’t it? I mean, you love your work, don’t you?
JM Marbach: Yes. Yes, I do, but not only that, what you can do with today’s tools. I mean, if we can talk about the After Effects, obviously, but …
Cirina Catania: Talk about After Effects and Trapcode.
JM Marbach: The Trapcode tools are an amazing set, they are very affordable and very powerful and speaking of Particles, there’s a lot you can do with it. Obviously, you can’t achieve the kind of fluid dynamic simulation you get in some movies, but on the level underneath, you can do a lot of things with it.
Cirina Catania: I’m sorry, I’m interrupting you, I’m so excited about this. For people who don’t use … For those who are going to be listening to this who don’t use Trapcode, can you pick a scene and describe what Trapcode did that allowed you to create that particular scene? Perhaps look back on some effects that you created using Trapcode that we can specifically show pictures of from the video, and people can use that as a tool to understand a little bit more about how this all works.
JM Marbach: Yes, the explosions and the weapons, the energy discharge, the lasers, these were all done with Particles and more specifically with Trapcode Mir. I mentioned Trapcode Mir in my particle work, but technically it’s not a Particle tool, but it’s working in such a similar way to Trapcode Form. If I can expand on that… Form generates particles in a 3D grid, and then you can displace this grid with a 3D fractal field, and that’s basically it. From there, the possibilities are extremely diverse, the animated fractal field allows very smooth and organic-like animations and therefore you can create smoke, fire, energy fields and anything from a dust cloud to a nebula. There’s a big but, because Form has a particle amount threshold above which it can’t go, no matter how much RAM you have, or no matter how good your GPU is. This threshold cannot be crossed. On the other side, you have this new tool, which is Trapcode Mir, which does not generate particles, it generates a 3D mesh, and so instead of a particle grid, you have a vertex mesh and that mesh can also be displaced with the same kind of fractal field, so the same kind of animations are possible in Mir and Form, but the big difference is that as long as your GPU follows, you can increase your vertex amount as much as you need. Then Mir also renders polygons in between each vertex, basically filling the gap between them, so it allows you to have this very smooth, detailed and high end looking render which you couldn’t have before with Form. In this video, I used Mir instead of Form to create the lasers and the energy explosions, because I wanted to have this almost liquid very fluid kind of effect, but I used it exactly as I would have used Form, and I’m satisfied with the result, because I tried to create this kind of effect in After Effects for years, and I was never fully satisfied until I gave Mir a try. I never thought I would be able to do such a thing in After Effects, one day … It’s very easy to do when your setup is done, it just rolls on almost on its own, and the results are pretty efficient.
Cirina Catania: I’m looking, actually, as you’re talking to the Red Giant Trapcode link here, which I will put up. There’s a shot from your video in there. How does that feel?
JM Marbach: It feels great. I mean, getting in contact with Peder Norrby at Trapcode was great enough, but when Aharon Rabinowitz contacted me to ask me if I had … Just tell me he liked what I was doing and asked me if I had anything to submit to go to the trailers, I was ecstatic. It was great.
Cirina Catania: I was going to ask you what’s next for you?
JM Marbach: I’m currently working on my new music video for Canadian electro band, Tennyson, they’re a new band and this will be a little different for me because there won’t be any shooting involved. It will be mostly particles, and it will be kind of abstract. It’s another thing I wanted to do for a long time, I wanted to … I saw an exhibition in Paris in 2005 where they showed works of Oskar Fischinger and Walter Ruttmann, they were German animators and they did what created the visual music school and basically, they do abstract animations that are completely linked and synchronized on music and at the time it was … I’m talking about the 20s, it was very, very new. I’ve always wanted to do some abstract video, using particles, but with everything completely relating to music. This Tennyson track is perfect for it, and it’s another thing that I wanted to do for years that I’m actually working on now. After that, I have an interesting production coming up, I’m going to spend the whole month in China, creating particle animations that are supposed to be projected on giant water walls. I’m excited about this because there are a lot of obviously challenges with the water, you can’t project video on water like you do on a regular screen, so this is why I have to be there and to make all the adjustments necessary if needed and I’m very excited about that. After that, we’ll see. The fact of already having a new music video on my hands is great.
Cirina Catania: Well, you are now an official member of the US Times family, so we’re going to be tracking you, pun intended.
JM Marbach: Your profile is quite amazing. You’ve been one of the founders of the Sundance Festival, and here we are now, and… You’re still very up to date technically, I mean, much more than I am, much more than a lot of people.
Cirina Catania: No, please. Not at all!
JM Marbach: Yes, yes, yes.
Cirina Catania: No.
JM Marbach: You’ve been through the, you know, what I call the old-school film industry to a digital one and you still have it. How do you do it?
Cirina Catania: Thank you, no … You know, it keeps you young, and I’m around so many creative people every day, I think you can understand this, Jean-Marie, you’re a creative person yourself, aren’t you inspired when you’re with other people who are creating amazing things? Really?
JM Marbach: Of course. I mean, this is a problem when I work on my own on music videos, because the good thing about the label is they let you have so much freedom that it’s amazing, but at the same time, sometimes I’m completely on my own and I would love to have input from other people and when you have input from people you connect with and who are very talented, they not only teach you things you didn’t know, but they also lead you to do something by yourself, but better than what you have done on your own, even though you did it entirely. It’s wonderful, magical chemistry.
Cirina Catania: It is. You have just summarized why I keep doing this because even though I’m really busy on my own projects all the time, whenever I talk to somebody like you, I’m inspired. It’s exciting and it brings energy into my life. That’s why I do it, and also we all have to move towards the future. If you get stuck in the past, you’re not going to be able to create exciting things. I’m so inspired by the new generation of creatives, they’re so brilliant. I also believe that we should bring them together with people who have a lot of the old school experience, who can perhaps help guide them onto their new paths. I work with a lot of young people who say, “how do you do this, how do you do that,” and I say, “Well, back in the old days …” It’s actually about us, it’s about creating synergy in our business for creative people so that I, with the resources I have, can help highlight you and your work, because that gives me a lot of pleasure. I really appreciate your time today, and please you have to stay in touch because we’re going to be watching you.
JM Marbach: I will, I will. My pleasure.
Cirina Catania: We’ve been speaking with French director JM Marbach, he’s a prolific VFX artist, specializing in After Effects with obviously a very special interest in Particles. JM, thank you so much for your time today, it’s been fun talking with you and we hope to visit with you again very very soon.
JM Marbach: Thank you very much, Cirina, it’s been a pleasure, thank you again.