Interview with Patrick Harboun - a digital image specialist 'You can tell unforgettable stories through digital imaging, visualising what only exists in our imagination.' (Patrick Harboun)

Patrick Harboun chose to work in digital imaging after spending his childhood extending the adventures he experienced on the screen in his drawings.

Computer generated imagery – CGI – can be found in video games, virtual reality, animated films and visual effects in films. The world of digital imaging brings together art and technology like no other field. It is composed of extremely different professional profiles, ranging from painters to programmers. Patrick Harboun's role as CG supervisor is to supervise projects, guide teams and oversee artistic direction.

We took the opportunity to ask this 'animation pro' a few questions Read for yourself!

What did you study? How did your training in Luxembourg make you ready for your occupation?

I was in the Art section of the secondary school 'Athénée'. I am infinitely grateful to my teachers at the time, who encouraged me to express my creativity. Beyond basic education, I especially learned to trust my artistic abilities

That is how I managed to get into the higher education institution Supinfocom-Rubika (a private school specialised in video games, animation and design) that only accepted one applicant out of fifteen. I completed my Master's in digital production there in 2005 with a short film, Fin d’été, which was viewed over a million times on YouTube and was used by Skye Edwards, the singer of the Birtish trip-hop band Morcheeba, for the clip of her song Storm. 

And then, what was your first big job?

I launched my career in the field of PlayStation 2 and 3 video games, first in Paris at the Ubisoft studio, then in Cambridge at Ninja Theory, an independent video game development company. 

But after working six years in that field, I was ready for a new challenge and I joined MPC, one of the major London studios producing digital special effects of Hollywood blockbusters.

That's where I really became aware of the scope of my work. My first great mission at MPC was to create a creature for the film Wrath Of The Titans. When this creature was selected to be the poster for the film, it was visible absolutely everywhere, from bus shelters to magazines, from London to Luxembourg.

Throughout the years and projects at MPC, I was able to become a supervisor overseeing films such as The Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge and Ghost in the Shell.

© Disney - Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge
© Disney - Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge

How do you get a job in big productions?

It's a very tough industry. We compete with talents from all over the world, who all share the same dream. What distinguishes the best artists from others is not only their talent, what makes the difference in particular is their diligence. Talent is just the icing on the cake. I have come across artists with incredible talents but who struggled to give their best. Having a sense of initiative, professionalism and team spirit are just as important as artistic and technical abilities.

Could you tell us about 3 significant dates of your lifetime?

In 2015, I supervised the creation of a multitude of pirate ghosts, an armada of ships and a dozen actor understudies (for action scenes) for the film Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge. On 11th June 2015, the film directors visited the studio to check our progress. When they saw the digital version of Jack Sparrow's character and the photos of Johnny Depp next to each other, one of them asked us which image was the photo. Thanks to my team's amazing work, we managed to recreate the actor almost identically.

© Warner Bros. Pictures - Pokemon: Detective Pikachu
© Legendary Pictures - Pacific Rim: Uprising

As a Nintendo fan, I've had the privilege of working on the design of Pikachu for the film Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. Our studio was competing to land this project. Our design won on 18th January 2017. I then met the director Rob Letterman to talk about the transition from drawing to photographic realism of this character that is loved across the globe.

The release of the film Pacific Rim: Uprising, on 15th March 2018, marks for me the culmination of a great personal challenge. In 2017, I left the MPC studio to join DNEG, one of the world's leading visual effects and animation studios for film and television, to see if my faculties were related to my environment. ​ I then found myself facing a huge challenge: the creation of about 20 giant robots and monsters in just nine months, while learning the studio's technology and getting to know a team of 70 people scattered in London, Vancouver and Mumbai. But we made it thanks to this great team's incredible efforts. ​ 

I was then lucky enough to work on other prestigious projects at DNEG, such as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Marvel Studios' Avengers: Endgame.

© Warner Bros. Pictures - Fantastic Beasts: Crimes Of Grindelwald
© Marvel/Disney - Avengers: Endgame

Is the Grand Duchy an ideal location to practice your profession?

That's a very good question.

On the one hand, there are various animation film studios in Luxembourg, and some of them manage to be a great success as can be seen in the fact that Mr Hublot won an Oscar. The virtual reality scene is also growing. I was able to admire it at the VR Pavillion of the 2020 Luxembourg City Film Festival. We also have excellent training courses, such as the BTS (advanced technician's certificate) in animation, film and game design, as well as the Bachelor in animation drawing of the University of Luxembourg. This is supported by the Film Fund Luxembourg, which helps finance projects and also promotes the film industry.

But, on the other hand, I think that the industry is peaking with the current system. Many countries such as New Zealand or Canada have introduced tax credits that encourage major international studios to come and produce films in their country. Not only have these investments proven to be highly profitable for these countries, but they have also led to the creation of multiple post-production, animation and video game companies. ​

As a result of Brexit, many studios located in Great Britain may seek to open a European site. The Grand Duchy would greatly benefit from attracting these companies.

In addition, international professionals would come to pass on their knowledge on to local talent and help develop the national film industry. It would also offer great opportunities for all young people in the country who would like to embark on a creative career without having to leave the country.

After 15 years in Great Britain, you have just moved back to Luxembourg with your family.​ In your opinion, what has changed in Luxembourg over the years you spent abroad? What hasn't changed?

The country has really opened up and it has become even more international than it was twenty years ago. The emergence of this new community from all over the world fascinates me. I'm also amazed by the new music scene in the country which has a lot of talent from rock to rap.

What hasn't changed is the fact that wherever you are, you are close to nature, and you can come across old friends just around the corner. That, and the radio commercial jingles that have been the same for 20 years! (laugh)

What does #letsmakeithappen mean for you and how can your work contribute to Luxembourg's national brand image?

To me, #letsmakeithappen is the antidote to the defeatist retort 'Dat ass awer net schlecht fir Lëtzebuerg' (That's not too bad for Luxembourg) that could be heard as soon as someone compared a national achievement with an international one. With all the assets we have, there's no excuse not to aim high.

In terms of the country's brand image, I firmly believe that a rich audiovisual sector can be a great showcase for our culture A film like Lord of the Rings for example, has attracted a large number of visitors to New Zealand.

In order to do so, it is necessary to represent the country beyond the Kachkéis and banks, and aim at sparking the interest of an international audience. In fact, with our cosmopolitan culture, we are Europe's future.

We would like to thank Patrick Harboun for this interview and we would like to let our readers know that for formatting reasons, some passages of the interview have been summarised.