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Ben Hur Rides Again with Oblique FX

Oblique completed all of the visual effects for Ben Hur – a new two-part miniseries that revisits the Charlton Heston classic tale of a man betrayed and sold into slavery by his friend.

Press Release from Oblique FX

Montreal: April 8, 2010… Oblique completed all of the visual effects for Ben Hur – a new two-part miniseries that revisits the Charlton Heston classic tale of a man betrayed and sold into slavery by his friend. The series, an international co-production of Montreal’s Muse Entertainment, Spain’s  Drimtim Entertainment in association with Zak Productions of Morocco, Akkord Film of Germany and FishCorb Films of Spain airs on ABC Television in the U.S., CBC in Canada, Antenna 3 in Spain and ProSieben in Germany.

In total, the Montreal-based facility delivered over 140 visual effects shots, including matte paintings, set extensions, and CG character animation, along with CG fire, smoke and water.

“I couldn’t have been more pleased with the work that Oblique did on this project,” said Director Steve Shill, who previously helmed HBO’s award-winning Rome, as well as Deadwood and Showtime’s The Tudors. “I wanted to put the money on the screen where the audience could see it.” Along with period costumes and historical settings, Ben Hur features a great deal of spectacle, including a sea battle, gladiator fights, and the famous chariot race.

Creating an Epic Look for Television

“Oblique helped brilliantly raise this film into an epic,” said Shill. “Our $20-million TV miniseries looks like a $100-million studio movie. Everything was photo-real and beautiful. I particularly loved the gorgeous matte paintings of Jerusalem and the authentic look of the ship scenes with their ravishing sky-scapes and flared-out sunlight. So much of this work is about the exercise of good taste and Oblique has that in spades.”

Oblique, formerly the film division of Buzz Image Group, handled all of the shots in house. The facility did not attempt to replicate the look of the earlier film. The environment and the script were designed more to reflect life as it was in ancient times, rather than imitating the look of the 1959 Hollywood blockbuster.

“Ben Hur was a really ambitious project completed under very challenging circumstances,” explained Shill. “We shot two 90-minute action movies in 44 days. Visual Effects Supervisor Mario Rachiele worked closely with our DP, Ousama Rawi. I was really impressed with how professionally they managed the whole pipeline from start to finish. I can’t wait to do it again.”

Naval Warfare – The Way it Used to Be

Mario Rachiele has worked with the team at Oblique on a number of projects in the past. One of the reasons he chose the facility for Ben Hur was their expertise in water simulation. This was especially important for the pivotal naval battle scene. “We designed CG pirate ships, CG Roman ships, along with CG Romans and pirates to put on the ships,” said Rachiele, “but the real challenge was the sea, the sky, the fire and the smoke.”

Planning these scenes was an interesting exercise for the team at Oblique. “We had an historian with us who suggested a few moves,” sad Rachiele. “I remember sitting on the floor with Steve Shill with little paper boats trying to design the whole sequence. What did pirate ships look like in those days? What did Roman ships look like? How did they attack? We had a lot of fun working it all out.”

CG work was done largely in Softimage XSI. For particle effects, such as fire, smoke and water some real elements were added to final composites, which were completed in Nuke.

It’s About Teamwork

“We’re particularly proud of our work on the naval battle,” explained Pierre-Simon Lebrun-Chaput, CG Supervisor at Oblique. “Most VFX shots have just one or two elements, but in this case we had to do everything: water simulation, model the ships, animate the interaction between the ships and the water, create CG sky, fire, smoke, and the characters on the ships. It took many steps to put all those pieces together. This was a real example of teamwork with artist teams handing off parts of the job to the next team.”

“They’re very streamlined visual effects house. They have a lot of experience,” agreed Rachiele, “I have worked with Benoit Briere, president of Oblique, for more than 10 years now, so we know each other very well. For me, working with Benoit is like playing a game of hockey. I can pass the puck without looking, because I know Benoit will be at the right place on the ice to finish the play.”

Giving the Director Lots to Work With

“We have a relatively small team at Oblique,” Lebrun-Chaput added. “Our focus is to push the artistic side. We try to please the director and the editor first and foremost. We do this by coming up with many different concepts as early as possible.  We create animatics and pass them on to the editor, so it’s like having a selection of shots to choose from. We want to give as much freedom as possible to the editor and the director. This way we can make the key decision very early on. It means much less back-and-forth later on and makes the whole process much smoother for everyone.”

“We’ve worked with the team at Oblique for over 10 years and they consistently deliver fantastic work," said Evan Tussman, Co-Producer at Muse Entertainment, a production company with a wealth of experience in international co-productions. “They have helped make Ben Hur the success that it is”

Oblique has posted a video showing how they created many of the visual effects in Ben Hur at: http://www.obliquefx.com/#en/projects/benhur

Ben Hur stars Joseph Morgan, who plays Judah Ben-Hur, (the role that won Charlton Heston a Best Actor Oscar in the 1959 epic), and Stephen Campbell Moore as the life-long friend who betrays him – Octavius Messala. The cast also includes Emily VanCamp as Esther, and Hugh Bonneville as Pontius Pilate. Episode 1 aired April 4 on CBC Television in Canada, with Episode 2 scheduled for April 11. The ABC Television Network has not yet announced an air date for the miniseries.

About Oblique FXOblique FX was founded in February 2008 when Benoît Brière, former 3D Director of Buzz Image Group, and partners purchased the Film Division of Buzz. Oblique offers high-end digital visual effects services for the film, television and commercial industries. It specializes in photoreal visual effects that integrate seamlessly into live-action plates and environments, including character and crowd animation, matte paintings and virtual environments, special effects and natural phenomena, CG integration and compositing. Projects completed by the team at Oblique FX include 300, Brokeback Mountain, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Aviator, and The Fountain. For more information, visit http://obliquefx.com.

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