Two Popes with Union


Union repaints The Sistine Chapel

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God), The Two Popes is an intimate portrayal of the relationship of two leaders of the Catholic church.   The film also illustrates the story behind one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the Catholic Church’s history.   Brilliantly cast with Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce as current pontiff Pope Francis, this is a meticulously crafted two-hander script, almost a ‘Dinner with Andre’.

Union is a premier visual effects facility in Soho, London. Work recently completed includes VFX on Annihilation, Trust, Outlander, The Gentlemen, and some years ago, Mamma Mia!    Union was approached in May 2017 for this job and worked on the VFX  for The Two Popes on location in Argentina and Italy over several months.

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One of the most frustrating aspects of creating The Two Popes was that the Vatican was not involved in the production, at all.   While it looks like large proportions of the film took place within the walls of the Vatican, the team had very limited or no access to some of the key locations.  I cannot fathom why those behind the walls would not want this story told.  When they were allowed close enough, the Union team lidar-scanned everything available and set about amassing as much reference as they could.  They photographed from a permitted distance, scanning the set builds and buying every photographic book they could lay 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.

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.   Having been in that same bright, awe-inspiring room, the recreation is completely on-point.

“The ceiling was created with high resolution digital matte paintings (DMP) projected onto fairly simple geometry,” explains Union’s VFX Supervisor James Etherington-Sparks. “A lot of the DMPs were created with original photography from an amazing coffee table book called The Sistine Chapel by Antonio Paolucci.  This got us a lot of the way, but even this needed retouching as the images were from the paintings before they were restored, so they had a lot of cracks and artifacts.”

The cinematographer (DOP), César Charlone, had a very clear vision of how the photography and VFX should be lit inside The Sistine Chapel. He wanted it to be very bright, using the windows that surround the chapel to maximum effect.  “Jamie Schumacher, the Environment Supervisor led this part of the project here at Union,” adds Etherington-Sparks.

“As a side note, one of the things I personally enjoyed most on this project were the cutaway close-ups of The Sistine Chapel.  They’re the type of quick non-showy shots that people probably don’t even register, but have a lot of thought put into them.”

“The editor, Fernando Stutz, was a really big creative force on the show and had a vision as to how these shots should feel.  This meant that each shot was of a specific painting at a specific angle with a specific camera move.  Considering the shots are probably on average of 20 to 40 frames, there wasn’t much time to convey this”.

The cameras were effectively static, but there was variation depending on the character.  For energised sequences with Ratzinger, snappier camera movement was prescribed, and for Bergoglio, they used a much softer camera float.

As the DOP’s camera movement had such a unique style, Union found shots that he filmed that had the kind of movement they wanted, so these were tracked and used, with the movement resulting in seamless transitions between VFX and non-VFX shots.


The story centres 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 and this fact is utilised to drop in key facts and imagery.

Union worked on a total of 288 VFX shots including green screens, set extensions, window reflections, muzzle flashes, fog and rain and a storm that included a lightning strike on the Basilica.

The Union VFX team also did a significant amount of de-ageing work to accommodate the film’s eight-year main narrative timeline.   This is a long period in Pope Francis’ younger years.   Inserting dramatic and insightful segues, this brings into perspective the backstory of the life of the present Pope.   “De-ageing was done on both Jonathan Pryce and Juan Minujin, the actor playing Cardinal Bergoglio’s younger self along with his female worker, Lisabetta, played by Cristina Banegas” says Etherington-Sparks. “In all cases, our brief was to take off around ten years.”

“This meant we could tread lightly, just making minor tweaks like reducing lines around the eyes, smoothing the skin on jawlines and removing any marks such as liver spots that inevitably come with age.  The end result was a very natural look that we achieved using traditional 2D techniques with the addition of smart vectors for tracking patches.”

“St Peter’s Square was a fairly complex build,” explains Etherington-Sparks. “Although the shot in question is very wide, we also see it a lot closer up from several different viewpoints, so we needed a higher level of detail in both geometry and textures.”

Etherington-Sparks says the crowd was by far the most challenging aspect of the shot. Of course, they couldn’t shoot in the location and the end result had to stand up at 4K in very close proximity to the camera.

“Recreating believable crowds of 200,000+ at 4K in a fully CG St Peter’s Square environment both during the day and at night was definitely the most challenging element of the job,” he adds.

As with any crowd of this size, the trickiest part is often making randomness feel ‘random’. A lot of the crowd’s movements are done in unison like clapping and bowing to prayer so the key in terms of animation was to make the crowd do all the same movements at the same time, but keep the subtle variations that make people individuals.

A Houdini based system was designed from scratch in a very tight time frame to cope with the unprecedented number of assets and their clothing in a way that could be easily art directed as individuals. This would allow the director to choreograph them and deliver a believable result.  Union also purchased a Perception Neuron motion capture suit and did several shoots inhouse to provide some specific animation cycles that worked with the recreated sequences.  This provided even more flexibility to the team during post-production resulting in authentic-looking crowds.


Related links:


The Two Popes



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