The Two Popes, directed by Fernando Meirelles, stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as current pontiff Pope Francis in a story about one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the Catholic Church’s history. The film follows a frustrated Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) who in 2012 requests permission from Pope Benedict to retire because of his issues with the direction of the church. Instead, facing scandal and self-doubt, the introspective Benedict summons his harshest critic and future successor to Rome to reveal a secret that would shake the foundations of the Catholic Church.
London’s Union was approached in May 2017 and supervised visual effects on location in Argentina and Italy over several months. A large proportion of the film takes place within the walls of Vatican City. The Vatican was not involved in the production and the team had very limited or no access to some of the key locations.
Under the direction of production designer Mark Tildesley, the production replicated parts of the Vatican at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, including a life-size, open ceiling, Sistine Chapel, which took two months to build.
The team LIDAR-scanned everything available and set about amassing as much reference material as possible — photographing from a permitted distance, scanning the set builds and buying every photographic book they could lay their hands on.
From this material, the team set about building 3D models — created in Autodesk Maya — of St. Peter’s Square, the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. The environments team was tasked with texturing all of these well-known locations using digital matte painting techniques, including recreating Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
The story centers on two key changes of pope in 2005 and 2013. Those events attracted huge attention, filling St. Peter’s Square with people eager to discover the identity of the new pope and celebrate his ascension. News crews from around the world also camp out to provide coverage for the billions of Catholics all over the world.
To recreate these scenes, the crew shot at a school in Rome (Ponte Mammolo) that has the same pattern on its floor. A cast of 300 extras was shot in blocks in different positions at different times of day, with costume tweaks including the addition of umbrellas to build a library that would provide enough flexibility during post to recreate these moments at different times of day and in different weather conditions.
Union also called on Clear Angle Studios to individually scan 50 extras to provide additional options for the VFX team. This was an ambitious crowd project, so the team couldn’t shoot in the location, and the end result had to stand up at 4K in very close proximity to the camera. Union designed a Houdini-based system to deal with the number of assets and clothing in such a way that the studio could easily art-direct them as individuals, allow the director to choreograph them and deliver a believable result.
Union conducted several motion capture shoots inhouse at Union to provide some specific animation cycles that married with the occasions they were recreating. This provided even more authentic-looking crowds for the post team.
Union worked on a total of 288 VFX shots, including greenscreens, set extensions, window reflections, muzzle flashes, fog and rain and a storm that included a lightning strike on the Basilica.
In addition, the team did a significant amount of de-aging work to accommodate the film’s eight-year main narrative timeline as well as a long period in Pope Francis’ younger years.