Have you ever wondered what your home town looked like millions of years ago? Was the ground your house now stands on once a swamp, a mountain or a lagoon? The fabulous new documentary film, France, A Journey Through Time ,recently gave the people of France a chance to see exactly what their country looked like pre-humanity thanks to new techniques that overlap present-day images of monuments like the Eiffel Tower onto landscape footage from places around the world that are today as France was then. Thibaut Camurat, Producer with Les Bons Clients, joins Julia Schulte, Head of International Sales, and Victoire de Monès, Sales Manager, for documentaries at France tv distribution to discuss this unique film and its potential for export as an excitingly adaptable format.

The Interview

France’s past meets present in fabulous new doc film

UniFrance: France, A Journey Through Time turns the clock back two billion years to put Paris in the middle of a mangrove swamp… How did you come up with this idea?

Thibaut Camurat

Thibaut Camurat, Producer with Les Bons Clients: The idea came from a meeting between three people: a scientist, a filmmaker, and myself, a producer. First, the geologist Arnaud Guérin presented me with a documentary project about the geological history of France. I found it captivating but was worried that it would be inaccessible for the general public. So I decided to suggest to France 2 that we tell the story, not from the start billions of years ago, but by going on a journey across the France of today. My idea was simple: demonstrate how today’s France – its landscapes, heritage, regions and identity – is the result of its long natural history. Michael Pitiot, the director, had the cinematographic idea to bring together the past and the present in some spectacular shots. They stay with you long after you watch the program. Seeing Paris in a mangrove swamp is extraordinary but makes perfect sense: the French capital would never have existed were it not for the limestone with which it was built and which was formed within that swamp. Those shots really sum up the film: a mix of entertainment and knowledge.

UniFrance: How did you decide to tackle the geological history of France?

Thibaut Camurat: I certainly didn’t want to promote the geological angle as it often dredges up bad memories from school lessons! The idea was to tell the geological story without saying so. Very quickly, the program pitch became: discover the fabulous story of France before humanity. At the heart of the project, we always intended to create something marvelous and inspiring, even though the whole thing is completely science based. That is how this spectacular documentary film in which we discover the incredible past of our little country was born. It shows a huge mountain range that has since disappeared but which is the eroded ancestor of Brittany and its sharp cliffs; the region of shallow warm-water lagoons that gave rise to Paris; a lagoon with azure waters with a secret link to the château of Chambord; a strange underground jungle that offered up coal; an immense ice cap that covered the Alps right up to Lyons at a time when Brest and Bordeaux were hundreds of miles from the sea…

UniFrance: Tell us about the special effects used.

Thibaut Camurat: The special effects are one of the film’s main draws. The idea was to create previously unseen and spectacular shots that bring together past and present. We used cinema techniques like 3D modeling and matte painting which involves overlaying shots in different settings. It allowed us to create surprising and hyper-realistic shots such as Chambord in a lagoon, the Champs-Élysées in a mangrove swamp, and Cannes under the fiery clouds of an erupting volcano. The technical measures used in this project reflect the level of our ambition: 22 designers worked for six months to produce more than 25,000 images that resulted in 76 fabricated images that look totally real. Thanks to them, we were able to break down time frontiers.  

UniFrance: Were the shots of past France also created using computer modeling?

Thibaut Camurat:
Absolutely not! We wanted to retain a documentary style: all the landscapes of past France were shot in real settings. Thanks to the knowledge of the members of our scientific committee, all of whom are paleo-environment specialists, we were able to identify the exact places on the planet where they still exist. We filmed Brittany’s past in New Zealand, for example, and the coral-filled past of the Loire region on the Great Barrier Reef to the north of Australia. We filmed France’s ice ages in Iceland, along with its volcanic genesis. We worked systematically and scientifically to find places that look today the way France would have been millions of years ago.

UniFrance: How do you explain the film’s success when it was aired during prime time on France 2?

Thibaut Camurat: It’s true that we took a real chance! After some very good press, I really hoped that the film would attract viewers; after all, that is the only reason we make films! So, drawing nearly 3.5 million viewers, 14% of audience share at prime time on France 2, when we were up against a powerful and well established program like Koh-Lanta on TF1, is a huge reward. The program performed really well within the family viewing target, and that is doubtless the reason why we attracted the second highest number of viewers for a documentary in France this year. It’s not easy to analyze the reasons for this success. Viewer feedback highlights several things: the breathtaking images, the inspiring footage, the film’s beauty, the spectacular special effects, a story that has never been told before. Basically, it’s the perfect meeting of entertainment and knowledge.  

UniFrance: Why did you choose to produce the film? It’s a bet that paid off!

Thibaut Camurat: I decided to produce the film for one reason alone: from the first day, I was convinced that if it was told well, with great images, the history of France from the dawn of time had the potential to inspire people of all ages. A bit like a fantastic story that your grandfather tells you by the fireside at Christmas. Except here, it’s a true story!   

UniFrance: Do you think the program is suitable for export?

Thibaut Camurat: Absolutely! Several countries have already purchased rights to the film. I think the French “brand” is generally inspiring. It’s not for nothing that we are the world’s number one tourist destination.  With this film, we are offering people a new and unique chance to visit our country and to rediscover it with sublime images of the present and the past. And throughout this journey through France, we focus on world-renowned sites: the Mont-Saint-Michel and Normandy, Paris and the Champs-Elysées, Chambord and the châteaux of the Loire valley, the Champagne region, Chamonix, Mont-Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi, Cannes and the French Riviera… And for anyone interested in a local version of the program, we would love to work with foreign broadcasters and producers. It would be awesome, for example, if one day we could make China, A Journey Through Time . And the format could be adapted to lots of other countries!

UniFrance: Why did you choose to represent the film internationally?

Julia Schulte, Head of International Sales, and Victoire de Monès, Sales Manager, for documentaries at France tv distribution: We were immediately attracted to this crazy project and won over by Thibaut’s enthusiasm. He showed us photos of the Paris métro invaded by mangrove swamps and the châteaux of the Loire valley in the middle of a lagoon. He spoke of his desire to tell the story of the French landscape in an accessible way, almost like a fairy tale. And then there was Michael Pitiot conducting the whole thing! All these elements quickly convinced us to back the project. We could already see the potential of the film’s spectacle. And of course we know that France is a source of fascination the world over. It’s a brand! And the promise of discovering iconic places like the Mont-Saint-Michel, the vineyards of Bordeaux, the Champagne region, Chambord, and the Eiffel Tower in this original way made us really want to support Les bons clients. The breathtaking images of France’s original landscapes (shot in various locations around the world) and visual promise of the film sealed the deal for us. We also quite quickly saw the film’s potential as a format that could be pitched to local producers who could then make their own Fabulous Journey in anywhere from Germany to China, Canada or Italy. We saw we could offer them specifications regarding technical aspects and narration as well as access to all this footage that represents the landscapes of the past and which was filmed across the globe.  

UniFrance: What feedback have you had from buyers?

Julia Schulte and Victoire de Monès: Right from the start, there was interest and curiosity among our buyers, particularly regarding the film’s visual aspects. We presented the film in March 2020 during Les Rendez-Vous Doc. We pitched it alongside Thibaut Camurat and showed a few short extracts. We immediately saw buyers were enthusiastic and wanted to see more. The buyers were very curious about the original and daring approach taken, with present-day images of certain sites overlaid onto ancient landscapes. As well as the film’s visuals, its editorial approach also generated a lot of interest: telling a local, nation-based story while taking the viewers on a voyage to exotic countries in another era. The film was screened in its entirety in Biarritz and at MIPCOM so that buyers could see the final version. And since these two markets, we have already made sales and received interest from around the world. 

UniFrance: What does the future hold for France, A Journey Through Time ?

Julia Schulte and Victoire de Monès: As we have already mentioned, along with the producers, we are currently thinking about the best positioning for the film. We are looking at selling it as a format for foreign export to be adapted for different local markets. The producers have created a new editorial concept, an original way to tell the story of the birth of nations that can be adapted to other countries, and have also developed their know-how in the use of specific animation techniques and a bank of footage of landscapes that could be used for local production. The next stage of our adventure is just beginning, and we are very excited!