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'Rome': Building a VFX Bridge Between Features and TV

Tara DiLullo speaks with Rome visual effects supervisor James Madigan about the daunting and exciting challenge of producing feature quality vfx for the new series on HBO.

Already headed for a second season, Rome is a success. A fairly extensive pipeline was set up for the 100 digital artists who worked on the series. All images courtesy of HBO.

Already headed for a second season, Rome is a success. A fairly extensive pipeline was set up for the 100 digital artists who worked on the series. All images courtesy of HBO.

James Madigan, the visual effects supervisor on the BBC/HBO epic series, Rome, knows firsthand that the ancient city was, indeed, not built in a day. In fact, its taken almost a year for his visual effects team, coupled with the set designers, costumers, historical consultants, etc to recreate the lush grandeur of Rome in 52 B.C. An exhausting and expensive (with a reported $100 million budget) undertaking all around, Rome is already a success with HBOs recent announcement of a second season.

For Madigan, it was the scope and commitment to recreating the era that lured him from his film work to television. This is the first project I have worked on for TV, Madigan admits. Usually there is a big difference in how you approach things, depending on whether it is film or TV. With Rome, every aspect of it was approached like a feature film. Probably the most amazing sets Ive ever seen were on League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or The Brothers Grimm, but the sets for Rome were at least as impressive, if not more so, than either of these films with massive budgets. Every aspect of the production took meticulous care with every detail, the costumes, the set dressing, the acting, and the attention to historical fact. As you worked on it, you really got the feeling that Rome was going to look like something we had never seen on TV before, so our [vfx] approach very much wanted to respect that. Everything was shot on film and the shots were scanned at 2K, which is a higher resolution than you absolutely need for HDTV but it guaranteed we could deliver the highest level of quality possible. So really the most enticing thing about it was the level of quality the entire production was striving for throughout.

The first season of Rome consists of 12 episodes dealing with Gaius Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds) return to his empire after eight years warring with Gaul. His return upsets the political machinations thriving during his absence and illuminates the intrigues, betrayals and power fights at the foundation of that society. Madigan admits that his behind the scenes work was just as fascinating and challenging. We had the responsibility of creating a virtual world. One that was based on fact, but was far enough back in history that some license could be taken. I just wanted to be sure that the world we made didnt become arbitrary. We worked very hard to get a consistency to what you see and what you see will be true to what a citizen of Rome would have seen 2,000 years ago. I wanted to be sure that we did justice to the responsibility we were given in creating that world.

Vfx supervisor James Madigan and his team used compositing for the subtraction and addition of elements into the environments to create the ancient Rome. Out of 350 shots, 95% involve green or bluescreen and 80% involved 3D.

Vfx supervisor James Madigan and his team used compositing for the subtraction and addition of elements into the environments to create the ancient Rome. Out of 350 shots, 95% involve green or bluescreen and 80% involved 3D.

Detailing the production intricacies, Madigan says, It was a bit like one long, very long, film. Although the schedule was laid out to go episode-by-episode, we were constantly going back and re-shooting things so at times it was all over the place. As I said before generally it felt like a film because of all the prep and the work from the art department, which was all held to a very high standard and the attention to detail in the lighting. Plus, there was a lot to keep track of over a very long time. I took over from the original supervisor, Joe Pavlo, in November 2004, so there was a lot to catch up on. The shooting was quite frantic with two main units going at all times and 12 scripts to catch up on that were changing constantly. One day we shot scenes from five different episodes. During the shoot my producer (Barrie Hemsley), coordinator (Clare Herbert) and vfx editor (Kevin Ahern) were really what kept things sane.

Rome also follows the television model of multiple directors, including Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough), Jeremy Podeswa (Carnivàle) and Mikael Salomon (Band of Brothers), to name just a few. Obviously, their approaches to the individual episodes were unique, but Madigan admits there was an overall approach to the project that helped create a consistency for the effects department. It seems like the most important factor with a series like this is to keep a consistent look across the episodes. With a different director for each episode, the consistency mostly comes from the producers and HBO. It would be hard to say if any one director were responsible for establishing that, so I would say it would be more down to the producers and the DPs. The model for the series then became to marry the physical sets and constructions with the work of Madigans team for a more organic and less CGI heavy Rome. The majority of the set extensions were about being seamless. I had a friend comment after seeing the first episode that he didnt see any vfx shots, even though there are dozens of shots throughout episode 1. That means we did our job well. However, there are some shots that are definitely about the spectacle of it all, like the big wedding shots with tens of thousands of digital extras in the forum and the shots of Caesars triumphant return to Rome in episode 10. The main objective was to keep our focus on where vfx fit into the grand scheme of things to accommodate and not distract by drawing attention to ourselves. We were really concerned with creating a real comprehensive world. We studied ancient Rome extensively, especially the areas where we needed to add in backgrounds so they are true to what was really there in 50 B.C.

Madigans team was responsible for creating a virtual world. The goal was to be true to what a citizen of Rome would have seen 2,000 years ago.

Madigans team was responsible for creating a virtual world. The goal was to be true to what a citizen of Rome would have seen 2,000 years ago.

All the filming was actually done in and around Rome itself, which was amazing Madigan continues. I was living right down the street from the real ancient Roman Forum, so anytime I needed to get a feel for what these places actually were it was all very accessible. We got some topographical maps of how the seven hills of Rome really were 2,000 years ago and built a 3D topographical model, then using archeological maps of Rome from Caesars time rebuilt the forum and the city around it. We also had a 3D model of the set of the Forum, so we took that and put it in our 3D model of ancient Rome where the Forum should be. So whenever we had any shots in the Forum, we could actually put the camera with the right lens on the actual spot where the shot was filmed and see exactly what the view would have been from that vantage point in 50 B.C. We used this for shots all over Rome. All the different locations are set in real places in Rome. Attias house is on Palatine Hill, exactly where someone of her stature would have lived in ancient Rome. So we can put the camera in our 3D model on Palatine Hill and get the authentic view as a base for the matte painting. Plus, the historical advisor Jonathan Stamp was incredibly valuable. I consulted him constantly about how things should be and look. We all had so many different books on Caesar and ancient Rome that it gets quite academic, so it was good to have Jonathan to give it some human context.

Detailing his technical vfx team and systems utilized to create the effects shots, Madigan explains, Overall, we had about 100 people work on it. We used Shake, After Effects, Flame and Inferno for compositing. For 3D, we used anything that worked. For most things, Maya worked best, but LightWave was used a bit for modeling and atmosphere and all the 3D on the camp shots was done with 3ds Max. Real flow was used anytime we needed to have blood flowing or for bow wakes and water spray on some shots in episode 6, where the Roman fleet is caught in a storm. SyFlex was also used any time we needed some cloth. We used about three different kinds of 3D tracking software. Both mental ray and RenderMan were used for rendering and Photoshop for anything from matte paintings to 3D textures. We had to set up a fairly extensive pipeline and do a good bit of shader writing for the subsurface scattering on the skin. We also had several customized techniques for projecting matte paintings and joining 3D architecture onto the original set. We did as much previs as we could for some of the bigger shots. A lot of the shots in Caesars camps were prevised and some of the gladiator shots as well.

Getting the Rome of today to look like the Rome of ancient history meant Madigan and his team had to use plenty of compositing for the subtraction and the addition of elements into the environments. A great deal of both greenscreen techniques were used (although mostly bluescreen was used, not green). We have 350 shots and Id say 95% of them involve green or bluescreen and probably 80% involve 3D in some way. Almost every shot has a moving camera, so even if it was just a matte painting we had to do a lot of projecting matte paintings onto 3D surfaces to get the right parallax and perspective shifts. For the crowd replication shots, we had a combination of people shot on bluescreen and 3D people. It seems like someone is always getting their head cut off or arm cut off or some kind of horrible maiming, and, since they were a bit reluctant to actually chop off anyones head for real, we wound up doing a good bit of up close dismembering and 3D human skin, subsurface scattering etc.

Every aspect of the series is approached as if it were a feature. The production took meticulous care with every detail, including costumes, set dressing, acting and attention to historical fact.

Every aspect of the series is approached as if it were a feature. The production took meticulous care with every detail, including costumes, set dressing, acting and attention to historical fact.

Madigan says the teams biggest sequences, like many a Roman themed film, featured the gladiator matches. The gladiator arena shots were pretty big. I would say the gladiator shots probably turned out better than Id hoped. Theyre really over the top. It might sound twisted, but they make me laugh. Caesars camps and Alexandria were also pretty big. Most of the camps shots are hard to tell theyre vfx shots because theyre quite incidental. Cinesite did them and the quality of their matte paintings is really why most people look at episode 1 and have a hard time finding the vfx shots. They did great work. The shots in Alexandria are shots that are obviously big vfx shots because there is no way that could have been filmed. The view of the bay in Alexandria is again historically accurate to what would have been there and there are hundreds of little details in the boats and the little CG people running around in the background. Rushes did these [and] they worked really hard on them. The gladiator shots are not about the big spectacle, but were probably the most intense as far as getting every little detail right. There are hundreds of little things in those shots that most people might not overtly notice, but add to the overall look. The Senate [which contributed more than 300 shots] did these shots and worked very hard on getting every shadow every muscle and every drop of blood right. They really did great work.

With a second season now in the works, Madigan says he has already learned scores that can be applied to the new cycle of episodes. When we do it again, we will have a much better idea on how to approach things, not to mention we already have so many things already built so we could be much more proactive about what to offer production.

Rome airs Sunday nights at 9:00 pm on HBO.

Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI-FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites atnzone.com and ritzfilmbill.com.

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