Tag Archives: Union VFX

Recreating the Vatican and Sistine Chapel for Netflix’s The Two Popes

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.

Behind the Title: Union VFX supervisor James Roberts

NAME: James Roberts

COMPANY: London-based Union (@unionvfx)

CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COMPANY?
Union is an independent VFX company founded on a culture of originality, innovation and collaboration.

WHAT’S YOUR JOB TITLE?
VFX Supervisor

WHAT DOES THAT ENTAIL?
Overseeing the VFX for feature films from concept to delivery. This includes concept development, on-set photography and supervision of artists.

WHAT WOULD SURPRISE PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT FALLS UNDER THAT TITLE?
I sometimes get to be an actor.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE JOB?
Working with creative artists both on set and in the studio to develop original artwork.

WHAT’S YOUR LEAST FAVORITE?
Answering emails.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE TIME OF THE DAY?
1am

IF YOU DIDN’T HAVE THIS JOB, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING INSTEAD?
Professional dog walker

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE THIS PROFESSION?
My mother was an artist and my father was a computer programmer… I didn’t have many other options.

My Cousin Rachel

CAN YOU NAME SOME RECENT PROJECTS?
T2 Trainspotting and My Cousin Rachel.

WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
’71 and The Theory of Everything.

NAME THREE PIECES OF TECHNOLOGY YOU CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT.
Headphones, Side Effects Houdini and light bulbs.

WHAT SOCIAL MEDIA CHANNELS DO YOU FOLLOW?
Instagram — I’m @jjjjjjames

DO YOU LISTEN TO MUSIC WHILE YOU WORK?
Yes…… anything and everything.

WHAT DO YOU DO TO DE-STRESS FROM IT ALL?
I spend time away from work with nice people.

Union VFX’s Simon Hughes talks Suffragette’s seamless VFX

London-based Union VFX provided a number of visual effects shots for the film Suffragette, Sarah Gavron’s drama about the early feminist movement and the fight for equality and the right to vote.

As you can imagine, this type of film doesn’t scream VFX, so Union’s work on Suffragette was in the “blending-in” category, such as building extensions, CG crowd multiplication and the addition of vehicles and props — all of which needed to behave seamlessly with the real environments and set dressings.

track beforetrack after

One of the bigger sequences that Union provided shots for was the climactic scene at Epsom race course, which sees suffragette Emily Davison step out in front of King George V’s horse — you can imagine how that turned out. Union’s creatives were called on to help swell the huge crowd who witnessed the tragedy, and to help paint an historically accurate picture of an Edwardian sporting event. This required complex VFX work, involving a compositing plate and tiled elements, and the creation of CG characters, buildings, vehicles and contemporary props, such as betting signs, and even a circus.

“Epsom was easily the largest sequence in the film for us,” reports Simon Hughes, Union’s VFX supervisor on Suffragette, who said this included a series of significant crowd extensions and architectural augmentations.

Simon Hughes

Simon Hughes

“The crowd was built using a combination of Golaem crowd simulations and characters built in Maya from “t-poses” of large groups of extras photographed on set during the shoot. “They are called t-poses because the arms and legs aren’t connected to the sides of the body,” he explains. “These are shot 360 degrees around the body and then used as texture and anatomy for the character builds in Maya. Once built, the characters were rigged with a skeleton to enable animation, using a combination of walk cycle animations and custom animations, such as waving and gesturing. These animations were then imported into Golaem along with the characters and multiplied and randomized to build an enormous crowd.”

All shots were composited in Foundry Nuke. CG was rendered in Arnold, and props, buildings and vehicles were built in Maya. They called on PFTrack and Nuke for tracking.

In addition to Epsom, there was a riot sequence on London’s Oxford Street, a series of explosions, the re-building of Holloway prison and an expanded crowd of MPs and protestors at the Houses of Parliament (which was used as a set for a commercial film for the first time in its history).

“For all of these there was a special effects explosion that visual effects expanded on using effects simulations in Side Effects Houdini. These included rebuilding the post boxes so we could blow the lid and doors off, and expanding the explosion with additional rubble and debris and dust along with the obvious fire and smoke elements that were required,” concludes Hughes.