VFX Q&A – The Two Popes

by Graham Edwards

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

As the Catholic Church faces a pivotal moment in its history, an unlikely friendship blossoms between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Directed by Fernando Meirelles, the Netflix film The Two Popes is set largely within the walls of the Vatican City. Facing restricted access to the real location, the production shot on sets at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, including a full-size – though roofless – replica of the Sistine Chapel.

Union VFX handled an eclectic mix of visual effects including environments and de-ageing, and performed the all-important task of adding the Sistine Chapel’s famous ceiling. Visual effects supervisor James Etherington-Sparks and visual effects producer Jan Guilfoyle led the Union team, with Dan Victoire as 2D lead.

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

CINEFEX – What was Union’s biggest challenge on The Two Popes?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Building a fully CG St. Peter’s Square for the inaugurations of the two popes at different stages in the film. We had to facilitate very wide shots, as well as close-ups from several different viewpoints. Our environments supervisor, Jamie Schumacher, and his team needed to produce a really high level of detail in both geometry and textures.

CINEFEX – The square is packed with onlookers during those scenes. How big were the crowds?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – The crowds were 200,000-strong. That was by far the most complex aspect of the shots. We couldn’t shoot in the location, and the end result had to stand up at 4K in very close proximity to the camera. The crowd was very custom as everything was based on real events and had to intercut with archive footage.

"The Two Popes" - Cinefex Q&A with Union VFX

CINEFEX – How did you go about generating such a gigantic crowd of people?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Our effects team had to design a Houdini-based system from scratch in a very tight timeframe to cope with the unprecedented number of assets and their clothing, in a way that we could easily art-direct them as individuals. This allowed the director to choreograph the crowds and deliver a believable result.

Watch a video breakdown of Union VFX’s work on The Two Popes:

CINEFEX – What about the animation itself? Was that a complex business?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Well, in terms of animation, the crowd didn’t do much a lot of the time. But they couldn’t look static. That’s very hard to achieve in a wide shot. We had agents shifting weight from one foot to another, peering over people’s shoulders and slowly walking through the crowd. We also had shots with more pronounced movement, where a large crowd had to do the same thing at the same time – like breaking into applause or bowing their heads in prayer. That kind of thing can very easily look repetitive. We had our work cut out adding the nuances of timing and movement to 200,000 individuals!

CINEFEX – Did you use motion capture to help drive the performances?

JAMES ETHERINGTON-SPARKS – Yes, we purchased a Perception Neuron motion capture suit and did several shoots in-house to provide some specific animation cycles that married with the occasions we were re-creating. This provided even more flexibility to the team during postproduction, resulting in authentic-looking crowds. And, of course, flags and camera flashes will always be a crowd sims best friend!