Union Re-paints Sistine Chapel for 'The Two Popes'
January 7, 2020

Union Re-paints Sistine Chapel for 'The Two Popes'

The Vatican is one of the most notable locations in the world. It is also one of the most mysterious. Even those areas open to the public, there are strict rules one must follow, among them limitations on photography and filming. So when the film The Two Popes was being made, this presented a problem, solved through, among other solutions, the use of visual effects.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), The Two Popes stars Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as current pontiff Pope Francis in an intimate story about one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the Catholic Church’s history.

Frustrated with the direction of the church, Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) requests permission to retire in 2012 from Pope Benedict. 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. Behind Vatican walls, a struggle commences between both tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, as these two very different men confront elements from their pasts in order to find common ground and forge a future for a billion followers around the world.

To tell this story, Union was approached in May 2017 and supervised VFX on location in Argentina and Italy over several months during filming.

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 that took two months to build.

The team Lidar-scanned everything available and set about amassing as much reference as they could – photographing from a permitted distance, scanning the set builds and buying every photographic book they could get their hands on.

From this, the team set about building 3D models in 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 re-creating Michelangelo’s masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The story centers around two key changes of Pope in 2005 and 2013. These events attract huge attention, filling St Peter’s Square with devotees eager to discover the identity of the new Pope and celebrate their ascension. News crews from around the world also camp out to provide coverage for the billions of Catholics all over the world. 

To re-create 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 were shot in blocks in different positions at different times of day, with costume tweaks including the addition of umbrellas, to build a library to provide enough flexibility during post production to re-create these pivotal moments at different times of day and in different weather conditions.

The group also used Clear Angle to individually scan 50 extras to provide additional options for the VFX team.

No question, this was an ambitious crowd project: Shooting in the location was prohibited, and the end result had to stand up at 4K in very close proximity to the camera.  

Union designed a Houdini-based system to cope with the unprecedented number of assets and clothing in a way that they could easily art-direct them as individuals, allowing the director to choreograph them and deliver a believable result.

The crew conducted several motion-capture shoots in-house at Union to provide some specific animation cycles that married with the occasions that were being re-created. This provided even more flexibility to the team during postproduction, resulting authentic-looking crowds.

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.