London-based BlueBolt have been lending their VFX expertise to film and high end TV since 2009, from Game of Thrones’ first season to Tom Cruise’s stunt-laden blockbuster Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning — Part One.
BlueBolt recently turned their attention to the past — 1793 to be precise — and the decisive battles that saw Napoleon Bonaparte cement himself as a genius in battle and worthy of being crowned emperor.
Ridley Scott's grandiloquent take on the notorious French leader, Napoleon stars Joaquin Phoenix as the titular general turned dictator and charts his rise and fall.
Described as an 'epic' of 'large-scale filmmaking', Napoleon filmed across various locations from England to Malta, France to Morocco. The sweeping harbours and forts all required extensive VFX work to bring Scott's vision to life: 126 VFX shots, covering CG assets, FX and environment work.
As with any revolution, there were plenty of crowd scenes whose shots in-camera did not always translate into the scale and scope of verve needed. This is where Henry Badgett, VFX supervisor and partner at London-based visual effects studio BlueBolt, came in; working with Napoleon VFX Supervisor Charley Henley. "In the edit, it may be decided that the crowd looks thin, so we are required to fill the ‘holes’, which involves rather more roto work, for the main plate and the crowd elements," he says.
"There can be a lot of iterations, for example, how many of the crowd are throwing bottles and stones, and how many flags are being waved."
Ultimately, the final shot had to meet two conditions: "The required numbers for the crowd but also the required crowd energy for that part of the cut."
Badgett's team also conducted extensive work on the locations, so they not only suited the story but also created a seamless aesthetic.
During the Siege of Toulon, three different locations were merged to give the impression of one seamless setting. "[The] fort had three levels — low ground or sea-level, middle courtyard approach, and upper walls — and each level was filmed at a separate location, so by adding the missing locations and the wider harbour environment they can be tied together."
To ensure the CG objects are ‘filmed’ the same way with their CG camera as the real location was, the locations are rendered digitally in a process called matchmove. “The three models are brought into the same scene and positioned for the best line-up that works for the greatest number of shots."
The harbour was where Napoleon's decisive battle strategy mettle was minted. The battle, and the scene, climaxes with the explosion of the ammunition-carrying ship Iris.
"Part of our brief was to add the British fleet in the harbour, with a fully rigged recreation of the British fleet, including HMS Victory, in the Mediterranean for the dramatic battle. We also needed to enhance the battle with a wide range of FX," Badgett said.
To create three or four main ships for the audience to focus on, Badgett had specific references which helped in two ways. "First as a blueprint to create the models — it's hard to believe the flags were that big but they were — and second to give us a general feel for the amount of ships out at sea to make it look busy."
Each ship was also given a specific variation for the design of its flags and the layout of the sails and rigging.
"In addition, to help us with recreating the battle and explosions at sea, we received reference from an element shoot in which production built 1/16th scale miniatures that were then attacked by cannon balls from the SFX department and set on fire."
BlueBolt used their standard suite of tools to accomplish this array of work: Maya and Houdini for 3D, Photoshop for matte painting and Nuke for compositing, 3D equaliser for matchmove.
The Paris riot scene was particularly "painstaking and detailed", according to Badgett. "The crowd in the wide shots needed individual attention, so every person in the front two rows at least had some blood tracked onto them or a limb removed or was from an element we had inserted."
Badgett gives special kudos to his team at BlueBolt, whose work helped secured Napoleon several awards nominations including the BAFTA VFX longlist and the Academy's VFX shortlist.
"Seeing it on the big screen for the first time with all the audio was enjoyable as the horror of the moment builds and reaches a climax with our shots. I was very pleased with it."
BlueBolt’s upcoming productions include Robert Eggers’ Nosferatu, and recently completed work on season four of HBO’s True Detective.