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MPC Visual Effects March in Step on ‘Napoleon’

VFX supervisor Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet and his team jumped headfirst into the famous battles of Toulon and Waterloo, delivering warring armies of French and British soldiers, their encampments and tents, the smoke from their muskets and cannons, as well as the iconic moment when the infamous general’s horse gets shredded by a cannonball. 

When it comes to epic cinematic world building, no one can surpass filmmaker Ridley Scott, and with the assistance of Visual Effects Supervisor Charley Henley and an army of vendors, with MPC leading the charge, he transports the audience back to the 18th century, where Napoleon Bonaparte seeks French military domination of Europe and Russia. The film has recently received several VES Awards and BAFTA Awards nominations.

One of the film’s major historical recreations was the iconic moment when the horse Bonaparte is riding gets shredded by a cannonball during the Battle of Toulon. Animatronic horses were constructed by Special Effects Supervisor Neil Corbould for principal photography.  “There were two massive mechanical horses and a lot of trepidation when the time came,” admits Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Visual Effects Supervisor, MPC.  “We were shooting at night in Malta and Ridley Scott decided to keep that for the end of the shoot.  Everyone was excited and exhausted at the same time.  It was a long preparation to get the horse rig setup.  Joaquin Phoenix wanted to get up on the horse and do the stunt himself.  Everybody, including the producers, dissuaded him and we had a stunt double.  Everyone was startled by the first explosion.  We did a lot of runs.  It didn’t go exactly as planned because the horse was supposed to be hit by the cannonball, take a step back, flip to the side, and the stunt double was going to roll off.  However, we still got amazing footage of all the blood and guts exploding from the horse and all of those little bits shooting towards the camera; that was quite the moment.  We got to keep a lot of it.” 

The mechanical horse head and practical wounds were impressive. “But getting the neck muscles to look life-like and the groom getting wet from the blood was hard to do in CG, so we kept as much as possible from the mechanical head and mane,” explains Martin-Fenouillet. “The horse was on hydraulic rails so you would get the backward motion from the impact [of the cannonball]. There were explosive charges in the chest that would open the wound, creating a massive gash on the torso with blood coming out.  For the wound, we did a mix of full CG simulations of skin getting ripped apart, like layers of epidermis, and CG organs. But it was almost too gory, so we had to roll back to the original footage to get a better balance of telling the story without being over-the-top.  We roto-animated everything to make sure that the CG and plate performances perfectly matched for both the horse and stunt double. It was a bit of a puzzle going, ‘We have to replace one of the two legs that was falling onto the safety mats.’ Essentially, we ended up with pieces of plate and CG that all had to blend seamlessly. The smoke and nighttime helped us; however, that was also a double-edge sword because you don’t have perfect edges. We didn’t use a lot of greenscreen on this show.  Figuring out what parts to keep from the plates and what parts to do in CG was the determining factor and biggest challenge for all of this.” 

Paris and Moscow were recreated using the same UK location.  “We essentially had the same plates, which had to have vastly different architectural styles,” states Martin-Fenouillet. “The palace they found in the UK had a lot of textures to it and we figured out that we could cheat the bottom ground floor of the palace. And whatever we did for the upper floors, we could easily switch between a French palace or turn into the Kremlin.  We used the same location to tell two different stories, spent a lot of time with Charley, and brought in an architectural advisor who would say, ‘This is typical of Kremlin architecture.  If you bring those details here and switch the hue of the buildings, then quickly you can go into more of the Russian architecture.’ Also, we could rely on those massive golden Orthodox churches that are recognizable, and in the Kremlin, there are 26 domes of churches. It was an interesting mix of keeping as much of the plate as we could, grading the plate to turn it into the red of Red Square, doing extensions of the buildings and into the distance to make sure that we have recognizable features that callback to the Kremlin.” 

Reference photography was taken of the Louvre for the Paris redress of Blenheim Palace.  “You have those triangles and gates, but the most recognizable features are the slanted roofs in a blueish tone,” Martin-Fenouillet shares. “As soon as we plugged it in, Ridley and Charley were like, ‘You’ve got it.’  Then it was adding hundreds of sculptures all around the Louvre.  If you are sitting in the center of the Louvre, where the pyramid is currently, and look around, you have thousands of sculptures. Then you have the triangles, which are above each of the gates. And finally, all those blue tile rooftops.”          

Of the major military campaigns depicted in the biopic, MPC was assigned the Battle of Waterloo, where France is defeated by the combined armies of Britian, Prussia, the Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, and Brunswick.  “MPC worked on 200 shots for the movie, and 170 were just for the Battle of Waterloo,” notes Martin-Fenouillet.  “Early on, when Charley Henley contacted me, he said one of the key things was not only the look of the crowds but also the behavior. Ridley Scott was going to shoot with a large number of extras, and every extra was going to be dressed as a soldier.  The costume designers [Janty Yates and David Crossman] did a tremendous job making sure that every single one of the military uniforms was unique.  You have large arrays of unique trousers and jackets. Every single one of the soldiers was wearing a different backpack, had their own rifles, and various levels of grime and dust.  Charley told me that our CG army had to at least look as good as the army they had on set because there were hundreds of soldiers in the French and British armies, and they look fantastic.  Every shot was an absolutely gorgeous array of different shapes and forms. But all of this was still informing the unity.  You could still recognize the armies, whether looking at the British or French side, until everything collapses and collides.  The first thing that we had to do was make sure all our army assets had the variety and complexity that were on set.  We spent a lot of time breaking down and scanning, making sure that we had the different ranks, and it was making sense.”

Not only did the look of extras have to be matched in CG but their behaviors and motion as well.  “That was the biggest challenge, because making variety and creating uniforms, we can do that in CG,” states Martin-Fenouillet.  “It is time-consuming and requires organization.  However, making sure that the armies looked good walking, marching, and patrolling to what was filmed on set with all those wonderful cameras was the main agenda for us.  Aside from some specific battle formations, which took a long time to fine-tweak the crowd simulation, horses were the main challenge.  Having a biped on top of a quadruped and getting it simulated so that all of the cloth and groom flow when the horse runs, or stops, or falls, we entered a world full of pain!  CG Supervisor Stephanie Wanger was a rock star and created an entire cloth and rigging system to make the fur dynamics and cloth simulations on top of the horses.  Very quickly, we thought a horse only looked as good as the mane that came with it and the tail.  If there is no life in the tails and mane, you still don’t have a CG horse that holds up.  To get all those pieces to always have movement and interlocking, whether it’s from the wind or the action movement of running horses, we had to get dynamics to achieve a level of believability.”

Another discussion with Charley Henley was about the amount of smoke coming from the muskets and cannons.  “In truth, you wouldn’t see anything on the battlefield,” Martin-Fenouillet says. “So, early on, we pulled down all the smoke because it’s important to tell the story and not be 100 percent historically accurate. We had to be able to read the strategy and beats of which army goes where and does what.  We wrote an entire workflow to make sure the crowds could fire a musket, and whenever the crowd agent was physically pulling the trigger, it would generate a muzzle flash cache of smoke that would then drift in the direction of the wind that it was set to.  All of this was fully automated, and we had a way of previsualizing it in Houdini.  You could see your musket firing from the crowd directly and get the timing right.  The cannons were more complex because Ridley had a specific choreography in mind.  We decided on the speed of the cannonball and then figured out it only worked for specific angles. In the end, it was mostly hand-animated to tell the story of those cannonballs.”


Two hills were designated for the French and British, with a valley in the center.  According to Martin-Fenouillet, “This was wonderful because it meant that one side could have a clear view of the other side.  The tricky part was that we had a forest in the center of the valley, which had to be painted out. That was complicated and time-consuming to do. We had to make sure it was an open field so that the armies could have a clear march from the French to the British side because the French started to attack first.  They built part of each camp, so we knew where the headquarters of the French and British sides were. They created 15 tents. Essentially, MPC’s work was to keep everything that was built on set and extend it.  In a way, it was straightforward. The only creative side for the environment was to make sure it was logical and you could recognize the French and British sides. Ridley started to play around with the idea, saying, ‘That French would be less here and wouldn’t have straight lines of tents. Whereas the British were a bit more organized and more like straight lines.’ We had big brushstrokes to start with, and then it was up to MPC to find the logic of the organization of the camp, like where you would put all of the horses, so we created stables.  There were books that we relied on for historical references.”

“For the weather, Ridley loves fast-moving clouds,” Martin-Fenouillet continues. “It’s something that he does in all his movies.  It became a story point as the French could not attack the British right away because it was raining.  You can’t have the cavalry charging through the fields because they would get stuck due to the weight of the mud.  Charley did a wonderful job of cutting the shots together to tell the story of the weather changing based on the plates that they had, and then spent a lot of time telling the story of different waves advancing while keeping the continuity of the storm. It did rain, which was great, as we did have real references and added some CG wherever we needed to fill in the gaps to tell the story. The sky never fully clears. It still had to be a stormy Ridley Scott sky!”   

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.