A Napoleonic Quest
Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 10 (October 2002)

A Napoleonic Quest

The life of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is so astounding and his accomplishments so grandiose that his biography appears more fantastical than factual. Born in 1769, this legendary leader from Corsica rose from obscurity to dominate France, then all of Europe, ruling over tens of millions of people. His demise occurred nearly as quickly as his rise to glory. Following his defeat at Waterloo in Belgium, he was banished from the lands he once ruled and exiled to St. Helena, a tiny island 1000 miles off the coast of Africa in the south Atlantic, where he died in 1821.

Napoleon's true-life exploits have been exhaustively re-created with historical accuracy in a $57 million international production for television, expected to air late this fall on the A&E Channel in the US. For an authentic period look, most of the miniseries was filmed in France, Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary, while some additional scenes were shot in Quebec. In extensive detail, director Yves Simoneau physically replicated Napoleon's past—from the exact style of the military uniforms, to the architecture of Paris, to the military strategy used by the emperor, to the terrain on which Napoleon's battles were fought. Despite these efforts, there were instances when re-creating the time period through traditional cinematography became impossible. In those cases, Hybride Technologies, a digital effects and production facility in Piedmont, Quebec, augmented nearly 300 shots with photorealistic digital effects to create the desired historical reality. That work included generating armies and crowds, re-creating historical landmarks and sites, enhancing explosions, and creating an abundance of 3D objects.

For Hybride, using digital effects to generate fact rather than fiction was a different mandate than the studio usually has for projects, including Spy Kids 2 (see "Eye Spy," pg. 20, September 2002). "With digital effects, you always want to create something dramatic," says Pierre Raymond, president of Hybride. "But for Napoleon, we had to represent the reality of the time period with imagery that was visually interesting, but more important, totally accurate."

To create a French army camp, artists began with a raw shot, to which they added 3D models and separately filmed elements, resulting in the final scene.

Napoleon's rise to power paralleled his military career, which spanned four decades and dozens of countries, including most of Europe as well as Russia and Egypt. Therefore, it's hardly surprising that some of the battles from Napoleon's campaign are depicted in the six-hour television series. To simulate particular clashes, Simoneau used 700 extras and tens of thousands of digital reinforcements. Each battle was carefully choreographed to match detailed records and notes; the present-day French army also provided invaluable resources.

"Napoleon was notorious for maintaining records, which is why so much information about him exists today," explains Raymond. "Moreover, there are many people from around the world who are extremely knowledgeable when it comes to Napoleon, and they know all the battles by heart. So we had to be extremely accurate when staging them."

Simoneau used film footage of the live actors in nearly all the close-up shots, "since they were obviously the most realistic," notes Raymond. However, when additional troops were needed, Hybride generated reinforcements through two different techniques—by integrating composited multi-pass film footage and by adding 3D computer-generated models. "Our approach was to compose the shots using the real actors whenever possible," he adds.

According to Raymond, there are no still frames in the series, so the entire production was shot using a motion-controlled camera. Although expensive and time-consuming to use compared to a locked camera, this setup also allowed the director to film multiple passes of an attack scene, using identical but dramatic, wide, sweeping camera moves. Using Discreet's inferno, compositors then blended an average of 10 to 12 passes, or layers, thereby generating more than 7000 soldiers. "Once we composited the layers, we showed the footage to the director. If more men were needed, we'd create them in 3D," recalls Raymond. In the final head count, only 30 percent of the armies consisted of actual people from original or multi-pass footage.

The remaining 70 percent of the ranks were computer-generated models built with Softimage|..XSI using a variety of PC-based workstations from Hewlett-Packard, Dell, and Intergraph. The digital actors may not pack the same visual punch as their real-life counterparts who appear in close shots, but their presence was vital in supporting the battle scenes.

Since both the live and digital actors appeared simultaneously in many of the shots, it was imperative that they be indistinguishable from one another. The key to accomplishing that, says Raymond, was the use of photorealistic textures. Early in the project, a series of high-resolution pictures were taken of a soldier from each army represented in the film—16 in all. The photos were later digitally scanned, and the 2k textures applied to the XSI models using Adobe Systems' Photoshop. As Raymond explains, the French army constantly changed the style of its uniform during Napoleon's rule. And because the battles occurred at different time periods, a new French uniform, in addition to the opposition's, had to be generated for each of the eight featured invasions. As a result, the modelers had to ensure that they dressed their CG soldiers in the appropriate uniform before sending them into battle.

Artists added wireframe versions of some of the 3D soldiers to a composited shot containing real soldiers. The final rendered shot appears at bottom.

Once the models were completed, it was time for the animators to make them move with the same degree of realism. The team created a wide range of animation cycles—walking, running, falling, kneeling, and the like—for the CG actors as well as for the digital horses that were also integrated into the battle scenes. The group then generated sophisticated crowd animations and movements using a beta version of RTK, a new software module integrated into Softimage|XSI 3.0, which was released this month. The toolkit features a behavioral animation and crowd simulation system with behavioral scripting, visual state-graph editing, and dynamic motion synthesis for automating interactive object behavior.

"The soldiers had to fire at each other as they advanced, and the opposite army would eventually diminish as soldiers were struck and then fell," explains Raymond. "This fighting action obviously couldn't occur in an organized, straight line; during a battle, such behavior appears random and unorganized." When a breach occurred in the lines, the opponents intermixed, and the software had to determine how the characters passed by one another (to the left or right) and what type of action they would perform (falling, running, and so forth).

Furthermore, as the 3D soldiers attacked, they had to follow the natural landscape, just as the live soldiers did. To ensure that the digital troops understood the lay of the land, Hybride used Science-D-Vision's 3D-Equalizer to track the actual landscape from the set location. According to Raymond, after some preliminary tests, the group found that it was able to achieve greater accuracy with 3D-Equalizer than by using the tracking file from the motion-controlled camera. Next, modelers generated a CG representational grid, based on the actual landscape, for the RTK-cycled characters to follow. The group tested the grid in inferno, verifying that the characters indeed followed the landscape. Then, Hybride composited the digital characters into the appropriate scenes using Discreet's flame and inferno.

"We typically go for the biggest visual impact in our animations—that's what usually counts when creating digital effects," says Raymond. "For this production, we had to simulate actual documented movements whenever we could by ensuring, for instance, that certain sections of the armies approached or retreated from the correct sides of the battlefields." Therefore, some of the RTK-generated crowd animation had to be refined to reflect particular movement during each battle.

For some backdrops, artists painted mattes of historical sites as they appeared during Napoleon's rule. Animated 3D objects were added to bring the scenes to life.

The film crew shot scenes throughout Europe in an attempt to simulate Napoleon's real-life travels, going so far as to sail for four days to the remote island of St. Helena, where Napoleon died. Other countries, such as Hungary, were chosen because their present architecture resembles that of France in the early 1800s. In some instances, artists helped alter the cityscapes by digitally erasing antennae, graffiti, and other modern artifacts using Discreet's smoke, flame, and inferno, while da Vinci System artists color-corrected building facades to represent the vibrant colors used in Paris, or turned the greenery of summer to the orange/brown of fall and then to the white of winter. At other times, the rolling landscapes were modified by eliminating or adding geographical features. Moreover, the scenes were filmed in so many different locations, under varying lighting conditions, and under different types of overhead skies that the team spent more than a month performing color corrections and similar fixes using smoke.

While the majority of landscapes are real, there are a few instances when the director opted for beauty shots rather than realism—for instance, to illustrate the grandeur of the Parisian architecture. For these scenes, Hybride artists generated digital matte paintings containing particular buildings and locales, such as Versailles. Despite the illustrative nature of these backgrounds, they still have an authentic bent, achieved by using reference material and textures gleaned from photographs. "In one scene, for instance, we had to erase part of the Notre Dame Cathedral, because that portion had not been built at the time," says Raymond.

After the 2D matte paintings were generated in Photoshop, artists used XSI and Mental Images' Mental Ray to create 3D animated imagery, including horses, carriages, trees, birds, people, and even reflective water, which they added to the backgrounds to make the scenes more lifelike.

Conversely, for the sequence in which Moscow burns, the artists generated a 3D matte painting, created with XSI, Photoshop, and Mental Ray, and composited in inferno. In those shots, which contain panning camera moves, Napoleon's army marches into Moscow, only to find that most of the citizens have already fled. The emperor soon discovers the reason; prompted by his advisers, he opens a window and finds the city awash in smoke and flames, which were created with composited film footage and computer-generated particles in XSI and NewTek's LightWave.

Crews shot live-action footage at locations throughout the world, including scenes from Morocco, which were used to simulate the Egyptian desert. Color corrections and other digital fixes were done in smoke to provide a cohesive look for the shots.

In addition to generating the digital armies and scenery, artists created numerous 3D objects that were dispersed throughout the production. The scenes of the French encampment, for instance, contain approximately 40 layers of 3D models and particles, multi-pass imagery, and color-corrected passes that were composited using flame, inferno, flint, and fire.

In a decision that was unusual for a long-form project such as this, Hybride used smoke—a short-form production editor—to assemble the final edits. As expected, the team was plagued with memory-capacity issues, but Discreet programmers helped alleviate that problem by reallocating library memory space. "Now that we know this is possible, we will use the smoke setup again," says Raymond.

In the end, the benefits of using smoke far outweighed the disadvantages. For instance, smoke has a robust set of compositing tools compared to most other editing systems. Therefore, whenever additional compositing help was needed, a smoke editor could assist. "We were working simultaneously on two big projects (Napoleon and Spy Kids 2), and sometimes we didn't have enough compositing stations available," explains Raymond. "Also, we found the compatibility between Discreet's product family extremely valuable in that it allowed us to move our flame setup directly onto the smoke station, and everything was ready to go."

Hybride reaped the biggest benefit from using the smoke editor when it had to create multinational versions of the miniseries—French, English, German, and Italian—in which approximately 30 percent of the content had to be altered (mostly due to the differences in the languages). According to Raymond, smoke automatically tracks and then imports only the altered scenes, rather than the entire project, making the process faster and easier.

Napoleon, which was produced by GMT Productions in France and co-produced by Transfilm in Canada and Spice Factory in the UK, is scheduled for international broadcast in North America and Europe. The program will be the first television series to be broadcast in all participating European countries simultaneously.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior editor for Computer Graphics World.

A Grand Entrance

Hybride spent nearly six months toiling over hundreds of visual effects for Napoleon that most people will never notice because they were designed to blend seamlessly into the live action. For the 2-minute introduction, however, the effects house was able to spread its creative wings by generating a conceptual opening that incorporates a unique blend of digital technologies, including 2D and 3D graphics, as well as composited elements. "The opening is distinctive and has its own signature look," says Hybride's Pierre Raymond.

The group selected nearly 70 shots from the film that provide a condensed overview of Napoleon's life, then used several image-processing techniques in Adobe Systems' After Effects, Sparks plug-ins to Discreet programs, and other tools. Next, the artists created a large 3D Napoleon title in Softimage|.XSI, and assembled all the imagery in Discreet's flame. When the title moved across the screen, it magnified and distorted the underlying imagery, making the word appear as if it were crystal or glass. "The result is an organic feeling that was acquired from non-organic elements and achieved by using many types of software," says Raymond. —Karen Moltenbrey

Adobe Systems www.adobe.com
da Vinci Systems www.davsys.com
Dell www.dell.com
Discreet www.discreet.com
Hewlett-Packard www.hewlettpackard.com
Intergraph www.intergraph.com
Mental Images www.mentalimages.com
NewTek www.newtek.com
Science-D-Vision www.sci-d-vis.com
Softimage www.softimage.com