In Ridley Scott’s bio-epic Napoleon we see the French general at the battles of Austerlitz and Waterloo, in his tent, standing outside his tent, on a horse – waiting, waiting, waiting, writes Adrian Pennington.

“Those wars were gruelling and probably not very exciting for the most part because it involved lots of strategy and waiting around for days,” said Dariusz Wolski ASC, the film’s cinematographer speaking to IBC365. “We have to make them more concise, more exciting and clear for the audience to follow.”


Behind the Scenes: Napoleon

Doing so involved a whole army of production crew who exhaustively reccied, plotted, discussed and manoeuvred cast and kit on 3D models prior to shooting a single thing.

“First it’s just planning, planning, planning and logistics,” he said. These include “conversations about whether we can run horses at full speed, ensuring the terrain has no rocks or holes so they don’t break legs. Austerlitz was combination of three locations, so what background plates do we need? We have 500 extras to coordinate. We have a lot of rehearsals. We discuss with armorers and military experts and horse experts and stunts people, SFX for explosions, the camera team and VFX, production designers, AD, producers and so on. When battle planning everybody is involved in setting up a huge event.”

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It was also important on Napoleon to understand the facts and strategy of the battles from historians. “How was it won, which are the dramatic moments.”

Behind the Scenes: Napoleon – The Sets and VFX

Production designer Arthur Max created a physical 10x8-foot scale model of each battle scene to represent the landscape, the hills, trees and valleys of the shoot location which also takes account of the background plates and VFX required to simulate the actual battleground. They could move toy soldiers on the board to simulate positions of their extras.


Behind the Scenes: Napoleon

“Everything is scanned topographically so that its accurate. The very first meetings in the office are with that model and that model travels to the location where we repeat discussions over and over.

Once we’ve done all this we hypothetically place all the cameras - which we are pretty good at by now. Two here, two there, a crane there and you’re done, so that when you shoot you have what you want in your mind.”

The first day of battle shooting involved horses. “I am proud of the horses’ performance in this film. It is spectacular. You can only run horses so many times. You have to be very, very efficient. We really wanted to them charge full speed. To achieve that you truly have to have fresh horses. They are not going to gallop like this on take 7. You have to capture it by take 3.”

While real horses were trained to swim and enter and exit the water on location via ramps, mechanical horses were filmed falling through the ice in a water tank.

Scott is also famed for drawing ‘Ridleygrams’ or storyboarding each shot. His drawings are “inspirations,” Wolski said. “This is how he thinks. A lot of times he does the storyboards very early and then he redraws them once we see the locations. Ridley drawings are like key frames which we always start with and then elaborate on. He is always drawing shots and angles.”

Wolski makes it sound a breeze - which it clearly is not - but it’s a practice he has honed with Scott on all the director’s movies since Prometheus including Kingdom of Heaven and The Last Duel. Earlier in his career Wolski shot Crimson Tide and The Fan for Tony Scott who had perfected multi-cam before his brother.

Behind the Scenes: Napoleon – Shot in Two Months

For the battle scenes in Napoleon recreating Waterloo or Austerlitz they shot with up to 11 cameras simultaneously. A practical reason for shooting with so many cameras is simple economy of time. Instead of shooting dozens of takes from different angles, lighting for each setup, Scott attempts to capture everything they need in as few takes as possible. Three in the case of Austerlitz.


Behind the Scenes: Napoleon

“You pause after each take and analyse what can you improve,” Wolski said. “When you do the main event three times it become very apparent what details you have to pick up.”

Feeds from all the cameras are radio transmitted to a trailer where Wolski can instantly view the material on monitors and talkback to his operators.

“If there’s something very simple I will operate camera but if do that for complex sequences

I will miss 80 percent of the action,” he said. “It’s all about design. Ridley and I are constantly brainstorming the whole thing.”

For this reason (and also because the director publicly admits to being restless on lengthy shoots) they photographed the movie in just two months. Impressive for movie of this scale.

Despite the storyboards and meticulous planning both director and DOP leave room for spontaneity from their camera operators and the actors.

“No matter how fancy you are with camera cars and cranes a lot is simply handheld. Plus, you can only explain so much to the operators – that the French army will come from here, the Austrians from over there.

“The amazing thing is everyone is so professional that you can move so fast. You explain just enough in the beginning and still leave room for improv. Some operators have a great eye of their own so they can quickly find an angle.”

Of the battle scenes it was the opening one in the film depicting Napoleon’s capture of British held Toulon which was most tricky, mainly because it was shot at night.

“Everyone gets tired at night and so you don’t want to shoot too long. It was complicated because the whole battle, when the French blow up the ammo depot and erect ladders to mount the walls was shot on a real fort but its actual height was too short so we built another set for the top of the wall. Once the French go over the top we are then shooting on a set that stretches to the other side of the fort where there’s a huge blue screen. That’s where the English ships are in the harbour (a VFX shot).”

It wasn’t just multicam for the action sequences either. Scott’s modus operandi even on two-person dialogue scenes is to roll four cameras. In these and the battle sequences Wolski likened his own approach to that of a documentary photographer.

“It’s like when you look at really fine reportage photographers like Sebastião Salgado or New Deal photographers of the Great Depression in the 1930s or, later, Life Magazine photographers from the 1950s - they were on the street. They were not designing everything. They were capturing a moment. But those images are beautifully composed with a huge consideration for their subject – the expression of the person, for example. They exhibit great observation of lighting too. If these documentary photographers comes into any room to capture its atmosphere they don’t have lights or ask people to pose. They just capture it.

“What we do [as filmmakers] is create an environment. We do light but we try to light unobtrusively and naturalistically. All the rest is observing the scene properly. Is it better to be next to the window or better to be in silhouette? You sculpt the space. Once you start thinking this way you don’t think about shooting just one frame and filming becomes easier. Working with a director who is very visual helps with this of course.”

It’s a remarkable thing to say when so many DOPs will compose for particular frames yet, if nothing else, Napoleon looks almost at all times like a painting hanging in the Louvre. Not just any painting, but those of the era. Indeed, Wolski studied paintings by Jacques-Louis David and Eugène Delacroix and then seemingly captured this essence using a highly complicated multicamera technique.

The secret it seems is experience and skill. “My logic makes sense,” he insisted. “Anyone can walk into a room and ‘see’ [capture or film] a painting there. That’s where you put the camera. There are paintings everywhere.”

Wolski’s lighting requirements appear simple and quick, even though his knowledge of placement stems from years of work.

“In Napoleon it boils down to, if it’s night there will be fireplace or candles and if its day it will be windows. These are your main sources. That’s how people saw the world at the time. You might then put the couch in the right place for that light but I always allow actors to have room to move and not have to stick to marks. When I started out my career lighting was a bit more crucial or specific because film negative was not fast [sensitive] enough. Now the camera technology is incredible and so liberating.”

Behind the Scenes: Napoleon – Cameras

For the record he shot mainly on Alexa Mini LF using Panavision 65 and Angénieux EZ zooms with a Panavision 11-1 zoom, a package he has used for several movies before. Smaller DJI cameras were held by stunts riders.


Behind the Scenes: Napoleon

The look of the film tends toward the bluer cooler tones for battle and warmer sunlit moods for scenes with Josephine, at least in their happy days in Paris. Wolski said he relied on DIT Ryan Nguyen to help him tweak colour during the day of photography, later working with Stephen Nakamura at Company 3 to grade.

“It starts with design and costume but myself and my DIT decide on a colour pretty much during the day we shoot. Of course, if it’s dusk and dawn and sunrise we make it cooler or warmer but ultimately, we colour reference while we setting up. Ridley gets involved too – because he loves this. Sometimes they conspire against me – Ryan and he. Usually what they come up with I don’t object to because we’re on the same wavelength.”

Behind the Scenes: Napoleon – Being Intuitive

Also by his side on all but one of the movies Wolski has shot for Scott is A camera operator Daniele Massaccesi, who is now a DOP in his own right (The Matrix: Resurrections].


Behind the Scenes: Napoleon

“I inherited the whole operator’s team when I started working with Ridley and I found Daniele the most responsive and smart and just understanding Ridley. It’s all about understanding Ridley. It’s not second guessing so much as being intuitive. That’s the number one reason why Daniele is instrumental.

“Number two is that when you’re bringing in a lot of operators, I can’t be running around and teaching them all what do to. Daniele shares this responsibility with me. He understands the whole picture.”

He elaborates, “Our core team of operators are fantastic but when you need so many more they are in a little shock at first. Like, ‘What are we doing!? they say. Because every operator thinks their frame is their frame but with Ridley you are part of a much bigger puzzle. Since we’ve worked together so much now Daniele is an extension of my thinking. Between Ridley, Daniele and I is another brain pulling everything together.”

Since the location shoots were mostly done in the UK, those additional camera ops were British. “They are an amazing young generation of operators who did so much good quality work,” Wolski added.

The Polish born DP is now 67 and is currently shooting a documentary about Keith Richards while prepping Nuremberg starring Russell Crowe.

Perhaps the obvious question to ask is whether he thinks the cinematographer’s craft is under threat due to AI.

“The tech is overwhelming and moving so fast and I guess some DPs might be afraid of being replaced by digital visual imagery but ultimately it is a question of taste. As long as people respond to something that is unique filmmaking will be safe. No matter how smart a computer is it is going to be repetitive.”

He argues that if Gen-AI had existed at the beginning of the 20th Century to impact visual arts “a computer wouldn’t figure out that you could completely change perspectives and make a head looking different ways as the Cubists did. It has to be a rebellious human being who said ‘f*ck it, let’s do it’. A computer would never come up with the idea that you could just start painting Coca-Cola cans.”

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