Disk format: DVD 9
Directed by: Christian Volckman
Starring: Daniel Craig, Catherine McCormack, Romola Garai, Jonathan Pryce, Ian Holm, Sean Pertwee
When people tell you that they've just watched a black and white film, you make a number of assumptions. One is that, all things being equal, it's likely that the film was made some time before then 1950s. But a more fundamental assumption is that the film won't literally be black and white; it'll also have shades of grey.
When it comes to Renaissance, a film made by a French computer graphics studio, both of these assumptions turn out to be wrong.
The film is entirely made in CGI, and it attempts (and largely succeeds) to be the ultimate film noir. The imagery is, with a few exceptions, rendered so that objects are either deep black, or brilliant white. In the first minute or so, I wasn't sure whether the technique would support a full-length feature film - it's a pretty radical approach, and it removes many of the tools that a director normally has to play with in terms of scene setting, atmospherics, mood, emotion, and distance. As a result, I was pretty surprised by the fact that the film held my attention right through to the very end. It's an interesting story, tightly and intelligently plotted, and the somewhat dystopian vision of Paris, set less than fifty years in the future, is well executed, if a little confusing from time to time. Considering the conventions of film noir, I was delighted to find out that the story didn't play out at all like I had expected; it was much better.
The computer-animated cast are one of the film's strong points - the unusual rendering approach helps tremendously, and I was initially convinced that they'd used rotoscoping to create most of the characters. In fact, they're CGI from the wireframe up, moving in accordance with motion capture recorded at the graphics studio's office.
The English voice talent is front-line, with Ian Holm and Jonathan Pryce in particular lending gravitas to the proceedings. The DVD box, of course, comes with a sticker pointing out that Daniel Craig lends his voice to the protagonist, and the latest James Bond makes for a convincing maverick super-cop. There's a great temptation in animated films to go over-the-top in terms of the vocal performances. Luckily, the director has reined in the performances and apart from the occasional supporting cast member hamming it up a little too enthusiastically, they're refreshingly low-key and totally in keeping with the film noir approach.
What intrigues me most about the film is that it wasn't made using a traditional film studio. Performances were recorded using motion capture; there were no sets to speak of. The company responsible wasn't an established film company, yet they've managed to produce something that stands up against the big-budget CGI extravaganzas like Shrek or Polar Express. For that alone, they should be congratulated, but in addition to this they have ended up producing something both distinctive and memorable.
As this is a DVD review, what's the disc like? Not bad, with a short proof-of-concept film and a "making of documentary" to back up the English 5.1 surround audio. The visuals are clean, crisp, and (of course) super contrasty - I'd be interested to see how an LCD television copes with the picture.
Update (December 2007): I've tried the DVD out on my new TV via an upscaling DVD player, and it looks fantastic.
The only disappointment for me was that, as this is a French film, the DVD didn't come with the French language soundtrack. In addition, the titles and credits are rendered in a ludicrously small font, so if you have any interest in finding out who did what on the movie, you'd better make sure your DVD player has a zoom facility. But these are minor niggles about one of the most interesting discs that I've come across this year.
Chris's rating: Four Stars