PASCAL HEROLD LOOKS me in the eye and, straight-faced, says: 'Cinema is like a relationship between a man and a woman. It is the most important thing.' He pulls the statement off, too. First, because he says it with a thick French accent and, secondly, because he's in a better position than most to make such a call. Herold is chairman of the Duran Duboi Group, a company that for more than 20 years has been providing the French film industry with cutting-edge visual effects, and which grabbed international attention when it took on a Hollywood franchise, along with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in 1997's atmospheric Alien Resurrection. More recently, the company has moved into the world of Computer- Generated Imagery (CGI), that catch cry for the new century, and the technical development that has turned the film industry on its ear. Now, Herold has teamed with illustrator-turned-filmmaker Enki Bilal to produce Immortal, a dazzling and often bizarre story lifted from the pages of Bilal's comic books. It's full of strange characters (a woman who cries blue tears, a falcon-headed Egyptian god given seven days to live on earth before he is killed), uses both animated and real actors, and is set is a remarkable reworking of a futuristic New York City. It opened last year's French Cinepanorama in Hong Kong, and is on general release from today. Jill (left, played by Linda Hardy) and Nikopol (Thomas Kretschmann) embrace in the sci-fi action drama For Herold, CGI work has been a natural - and challenging - progression. 'When we started the company we wanted to use the skills we had as illustrators,' he says. 'We were lucky because it was the dawning of the truly digital age in the film industry and we were really the only ones in France who could provide these special effects. 'We had dabbled in the cartoon industry but I found the 2-D imagery restrictive, so then we didn't really know what to do with ourselves. When 3-D animation started to become possible over the past decade we got involved as soon as we could. 'I've always been mad on science fiction, in people like [author] Philip Dick, so a project like [Immortal] is exactly what we were hoping to become involved in. We developed our CGI department about six years ago, and it took about two weeks for someone to ring me and say 'Pascal, do you know Enki Bilal?''. Bilal is something of a legend in the world of French illustration. He was born in Belgrade in 1951, but his family moved to Paris in the 1960s where his creative impulses flourished. Drawing on the chaos in his homeland, he created a dark vision of life and conflict in his comics, particularly The Nikopol Trilogy, from which Immortal is drawn. 'I knew his comic books and I knew the special world that he creates,' says Herold. 'He comes from a very dark place - you never know who is right and who is wrong. You have to know where he comes from. He grew up surrounded by so much turmoil in his homeland.' Immortal certainly creates a dark world. No one seems safe from corruption, the characters are often confused about where fate lands them, and they never really know who they can trust. In the end, if not for the visuals, it would be a tough watch. And that's something Herold accepts. 'The most interesting part for us was taking Bilal's visions from the pages of his books and recreating those on the screen,' he says. 'Of course we can use a more graphic design and we at first were using human characters and providing the backdrop for them. But then he said he wanted to use CGI characters and that's where the challenge was - how to combine the two. I think the backgrounds are really successful. The images of this new version of New York are fantastic. With the characters, though, things became more complicated.' Luckily for Herold and his team, when presented with problems in the development of the images they were using - did they work, were they too 'unreal' for a cinema audience, did they seem at home in the backgrounds they were creating - the solution more often than not lay in another part of the business: video games. Pascal Herold 'My company also makes video games,' he explains. 'So we had the luxury of this: Whenever we had a problem with working out how to do something for the film, we would develop a video game to help us, to test various things out and give them trial runs. And that works out to be a cheap way of doing it. You could develop a character as part of the game and then say 'I don't want that' and change it.' Another obstacle - originally at least - was the fact that Bilal's work is so enormously popular in France. He admits that many fans of the comics were wary of any screen adaptation - as they are with similar projects taken on in Hollywood. 'The important thing is to not listen to anybody. If you listen to people you could take something like what we did with New York and people would say 'you can't do this or do that'. 'So why listen to anybody. It just means you can't do what you want to do. It is all about challenge. And that's what this film was - a challenge.' Immortal opens today.