Recreating epic battle scenes was just part of the challenge on set.”Napoleon” with the director RidleyScottsays the Polish-born cinematographer Dariusz Wolskiwhich screened the biopic on a large scale at the Camerimage film festival in Poland on Friday.

Achieving the realism necessary to capture the enormous brutality of the battle of Austerlitz or Waterloo, Wolski says, depends, of course, on extensive planning and coordination, but also on some impressive juggling.

“You’re basically creating a big event. You have army personnel, you have extras trained to behave like 19th century soldiers, you have people on horses, then we have armor, you have professional effects people, explosions, and then you have main characters. You basically design the entire battle.”

Keeping track of all of this would be a challenge even for an experienced director, Wolski notes, but in Scott’s case, he actually films them all at once, while making sure he gets every shot and angle needed for the scene. .

Dariusz Wolski
Courtesy of Cosmo Wolski

“You basically edit while you film,” Wolski said, with eight or more cameras filming battles simultaneously, all monitored at the same time. Few directors he knows could imagine keeping track of so many angles and compositions this way, Wolski says.

But Scott, now 84, has perfected the method for years and somehow it works for him, the cinematographer explains.

Some CGI effects are incorporated, Wolski told the Camerimage audience, but overall, the mass formations of soldiers, cavalry runs and cannon fire were real, just without lethal munitions. Effects are primarily used to magnify the scale of battles by cloning troop formations, Wolski says, allowing for filming with 450 to 500 extras, unlike the epics of years past, which would have required thousands of extras to obtain. the same appearance.

But “Napoleon,” which opens Nov. 22 in the United States and the United Kingdom, is about more than just meticulously recreated historical battles.

Joaquin Phoenix’s version of the Emperor is consumed by both his obsession with the regal, brilliant love of his life, Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine, and his pursuit of victory and glory, leading to scenes of increasing intimacy (and tension). between the two. They fight for power and dominance, as illustrated by the opulent sequences in palace rooms that Wolski shot in wide angle, rich in period detail in which sparks fly far beyond the bedrooms.

“Napoleon”
Courtesy of Apple TV+

Wolski’s approach to capturing the push and pull of egos caused by Josephine’s passionate spirit but her inability to provide Napoleon with an heir was to allow the actors room to improvise for the camera, he says. The technique allowed him to film displays of physical aggression exchanged with tenderness that were spontaneous, but had to be captured at the first try or missed.

“Very emotional actors, improvised actors” were essential for the scenes, says Wolski.

The story of one of Europe’s greatest military strategists and most controversial figures has proven to be almost too much of a subject for many filmmakers.

The great auteur Stanley Kubrick planned to film the story of Napoleon’s life for decades, amassing vast research on settings, costumes, customs and battles, but he never managed to get the project off the ground; although, as Wolski points out, Kubrick’s research was not in vain: he has inspired a seven-part series directed by Steven Spielberg still in development for HBO.

And “of course,” Kubrick’s work also helped inform some scenes in Scott’s “Napoleon,” Wolski says. The intimate candlelit shots capturing court life filmed in authentic palatial settings using primarily natural lighting were influenced by the great director’s 1975 work on “Barry Lyndon,” he explains.

Wolski, who in addition to years of working with Tim Burton and Rob Marshall, also filmed for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, says a useful lesson in capturing the nuances of pre-electric lighting is to counteract the concerns of historical settings. . Many do not allow candles or fireplaces to be lit, creating a difficult dilemma between authentic palatial rooms and the appearance of real candlelight.

“Napoleon”
Apple Original Movies

Looks were an essential element for the “warm scenes” that Scott wanted to contrast with those of vast armies fighting their way through icy landscapes in bluer tones, such as those depicting Napoleon’s ill-fated attempt to conquer Russia, a decision that proved in great losses. for his imperial army.

The disastrous Russian campaign, which led to Napoleon’s exile, sees the emperor reduced to a ridiculous figure under Wolski’s lens, cheered by peasants as he parades down a dusty road in full military regalia.

Wolski, an exile of sorts, immigrated to the United States during the Cold War and now works abroad, but he notes that attentive viewers will find a Polish insignia and flag among the film’s armies. After all, as the cinematographer says, “Napoleon had an army from every European nation.”

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