In 2001, Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould won his first Oscar for his work on Ridley Scott's historical epic, Gladiator. Now more than two decades later, his latest Oscar nomination comes for another Scott-directed historical epic, Napoleon. "Ridley Scott loves the realism of blending SFX and VFX," explains Corbould.

"Napoleon showcases two disciplines marrying up, weaving into one another perfectly," he adds. "I defy anyone to pick a shot and identify what is practical and what is CG because it is very difficult to tell."

Napoleon brings the true story of Napoleon Bonaparte (played by Oscar winner Joaquin Phoenix) to the screen on a major scale, exploring the notorious French ruler's rise and downfall through a number of key battles. Corbould, along with Visual Effects Supervisors Charley Henley, Luc-Ewen Martin Fenouillet, and Simone Coco, were tasked with realizing Scott's visions of those iconic clashes.

At the 96th Oscars, Napoleon is up for three awards: Best Costume Design, Best Production Design and Best Visual Effects. Henley says the latter nomination was especially unexpected. "I never really had that impression when I started on Napoleon," he admits.

"But we realized there was something special about it. It feels like an old-time epic, where you could have 50,000 people available," Henley explains. "You can't do it today, but it has that feeling. That's why I'm so pleased with the end result, especially watching it after a while. The nomination is a nod towards that."

From Waterloo to pigeon poo, the team reveals to A.frame what went into Napoleon's Oscar-nominated visual effects.


A.frame: There are VFX and SFX, and Napoleon has a lot of crossover. On set, how often did the reality of any given day match the plan? Ridley Scott does very clear storyboards, but many of these locations also presented challenging environments.

Neil Corbould: The thing with Ridley is that he does plan everything with his storyboards to get his vision across to us. I've been fortunate, because I've worked with him several times, as has Charley, so we know what we're getting into. You can plan and plan, but when you get to day one of the shoot, Ridley takes it to another level, so we have to be super prepared. I briefed all 25 of my floor crew — which is unheard of — to cover the multi-cameras that Ridley shoots. We had a minimum of eight cameras, going up to 16 with crash cameras and everything, so the crew was briefed to expect the unexpected. The tricky thing was camera operators would pick shots, and you've got to try to find where they are. Ridley would say, 'Get some smoke in front of B camera or G camera,' and you'd think, 'Where the hell is G camera?' There was a lot of running around to try and find where these people were.

There are a number of impressive set pieces in Napoleon, the first being the moment with the horse and the cannonball during the Siege of Toulon. That was shot from multiple perspectives, but not many takes. 

Luc-Ewen Martin Fenouillet: We couldn't do many takes, bearing in mind the reset time it would take to do the explosion. The chest cavity had a real charge, so it needed to be loaded if we wanted to re-shoot it again. Neil made this amazing animatronic that was essentially the bust of the neck and the head for the horse, and we had a stunt person that was really falling off the rig. It didn't have any legs, so we knew we had to replace the legs, but then it was a jigsaw puzzle of figuring out what from the real elements was most valuable for us and what needed to be done or replaced. There were many fantastic details from the animatronic horse, including some of the guts and the innards exploding towards the camera, and the neck wobbling in this unnatural but fascinatingly morbid manner. We decided to keep most of that and all the little bits of blobs getting stuck into the fur. All of those fine details would be really time-consuming to do in CGI, so we decided to keep as much of that as possible and focus on the rest of the image we didn't have and needed to recreate from scratch. It was a great mix of practical and VFX in the end.

Charley Henley: It was tough for everybody while we were shooting it. Ridley drew these pictures early on, and everyone was like, 'How are we going to do that in the middle of this battle?' Neil did a lot of stuff up front before we started filming to figure it out and work out the moves. He showed us some animation of the move that was in a programmed rig, so we could throw the guy off the horse many times — and we did — but we couldn't do many chest explosions. We had multiple cameras shooting it simultaneously, which was run-of-the-mill for most of this film.


The Battle of Waterloo is another case of blending in-camera elements with VFX to make it look epic, especially considering the mass of people required for the sequence. How did you go about that?

Henley: Luc was on VFX for that. We had about 500 soldiers and about 100 horses, and then Luc made that into the number we needed. Neil took the lead on location. He was there blowing things up, firing cannons and all of that. We had 14 real cannons that would fire, smoke and kickback, so there were a lot of practical effects on a smaller scale that were the basis of it all. 

Corbould: We designed an air-firing cannon, because we didn't want people standing in front of live black powder-firing cannons. We came up with this compressed air and had talcum powder wads in the end, creating a giant plume of white powder that looked surprisingly like smoke. Then, we put a mechanical recoil in. The great thing about that is you could get people right in front of it, and the safety factor was very high. They were also relatively quick to reload. That was something new that we developed, especially for this movie.

Each of the battle sequences — including Waterloo and the Battle of Austerlitz — feature so many soldiers dressed in different uniforms. How did you tackle that?

Simone Coco: We recreated all the armies with different variations on body, shape and so on. We also integrated supplementary accessories, which meant we could introduce diversity for each one. From that, you select what you want for each of the 10,000 people, so you tell the system that you want a different combination across everything, creating a pipeline that allows us to do that very quickly. Charley and the team spent five days or a week on motion capture, so they shot a huge number of different motions from running to dying, falling from horses or horses running, different motions from the horses, or a battle with five or six people together, and then put those together and put it into the system. That was when we could pick it up and decide which action we wanted and which soldiers to pick.


Much of what Ridley Scott had drawn out in his animatics was very detailed, down to the weather he wanted if it wasn't captured in camera. How important were those to the VFX process, and did much of that change?

Henley: The Battle of Waterloo is quite an excellent example of this, because he started drawing these boards in color but hadn't done that the last time I worked with him. These boards were incredible and could bring another level of atmosphere to a particular scene. With Waterloo, it was going to be really nasty weather. He said, 'There are going to be these storm clouds. It will be dark, moody and rainy at the beginning, and these clouds are going to cast shadows across the landscape.' That was all in his boards, rather than the script. I don't know whether Ridley has a direct line to whoever controls the weather, but we got this amazing weather when we shot. On the first day, we had real rain, sleet and wind, so the flags were blowing like crazy in this wind. Neil had his own rain there, but because of the natural wind on the day, the rain he created was going sideways.

Corbould: Our rain towers were about 50 meters up, and it would have just been horizontal, which was useless.

Henley: It was a 10-day shoot, and the weather wasn't always like that, but we had that at the beginning so we could reproduce it.

Martin-Fenouillet: Whenever we had a shot without the rain at the beginning of the sequence, we'd have to add the rain, but then later down the sequence, when the sky cleared, the sky started to become too blue and pretty, which didn't work for the epic third act battle so we had to add stormy clouds for the end to tie in with the rest of the drama.

Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of 'Napoleon.'

We've talked about the epic sequences, but the devil is often in the details of this film. One example in Napoleon is the pigeon poop.

Henley: We found the birds in his drawings, and he really liked them. You always have to watch out and ensure that you get everything that he's drawn filmed on the day, because otherwise, we'll add it later. He remembers it. Getting the real pigeons doing the right thing on the day wasn't going to happen, and the poop was something that came up in post-production. It was Ridley's idea, and it was like, 'Well, we've got the pigeons on camera!' In the movie, Napoleon has turned up, and it's not looking good. Everybody has left and deserted, and he's going on a downer, sitting on the old throne in the Kremlin. He said, 'What else do we need to emotionally tell the story and also add a certain mood to it? Can we add this pigeon poop, please?' We ended up shooting it in our VFX office with a mix of paint, splatting it on this little bit of blue screen, and then comping it in. Our in-house team does a lot of work on little things like that and other odd details or requests that come up last minute. 

In Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock famously used chocolate sauce to get the right consistency and appearance for blood in the shower scene. Did you have similar trials and conversations to get the poop to look right? 

Henley: We had our own little meetings and discussed the consistency. [Laughs] I wouldn't say it was a big meeting, but we did have a few goes at it.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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