After producing the visual effects for the films Asterix at the Olympic Games and Asterix & Obelix: God Save Britannia, the MPC Paris team tackled the latest film in the Asterix franchise directed by Guillaume Canet: Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom. Over a period of 9 months, our artists produced more than 285 VFX shots supervised by Hugues Namur, with mainly CG crowd effects for the battles and environment effects for the 4 palaces. Edouard Valton – Executive Producer, Hugues Namur – MPC VFX Supervisor and Louis Maëro – Crowd Supervisor explain their work on the film:
How was the collaboration with director Guillaume Canet and Overall VFX Supervisor Bryan Jones?
Hugues Namur: We had already collaborated with Bryan on Santa et Cie, where we had some significant creature effects and environments. Bryan was very happy with our visual effects, and he naturally consulted us for Asterix & Obelix: The Middle Kingdom. This time, complications with Covid-19 did not allow us to participate in the shoot but we stayed in close contact during the long and complex production. Alongside the screenings, we exchanged a lot of reference images, tests and models, which proved very useful when it came to recreating the landscapes and palaces of ancient China from scratch.
Edouard Valton: For projects of this scale, the directors rely on a pairing hired by the production. For this new Asterix, Bryan Jones as « super-supervisor » and Pierre Procoudine as « super-VFX-producer ». Not forgetting the executive producer and post-producer from Tresor Films, Xavier Amblard and Nicolas Mouchet and Delphine Lasserre as « super-producer-VFX » at MPC Paris! We all made a great team of Gauls 🙂
What were the approaches and expectations for visual effects?
Edouard Valton: The production wanted visual effects worthy of blockbusters! It was a good thing,
because so did we! 🙂
Hugues Namur: The director’s ambition was to get away from the deliberately pastiche visual universe of some of the previous opuses to offer a real adventure film. Some elements of the film obviously quote the comic book, such as the famous « Flying Romans », an obligatory figure for all the films in the franchise, but the staging of the armies on the march or in battle was intended to be more epic.
What are the biggest challenges in a 3D crowd generation?
Hugues Namur: The challenge was not only to create this crowd, but particularly to combine it with the real crowd in the image. Even if the digital crowd only takes over at a certain distance from the camera, many details remain legible in the accessories, materials or facial expressions. But these rendering efforts will be in vain if the animation does not work. The movements of the stuntmen or extras had to be faithfully reproduced in CG, which meant that a motion capture shoot with the film’s stuntmen with solid preparation was necessary beforehand.
Louis Maëro: On Asterix, the 3D crowds were a challenge because, as Hugues said earlier, we had to extend a filmed crowd. The extension is complex because it is necessary to succeed in giving the viewer a realistic continuity of the crowd. It was therefore necessary to provide crowd assets of the same quality as hero assets. But having more than 80,000 hero assets in a scene is no easy task! In addition, the animation was a real challenge. The performance of the film’s stuntmen was essential to ensure that the captured animations were as close as possible to what was filmed: there was no distinction between the filmed soldiers and the CG soldiers when they were next to each other. Another difficulty that we did not necessarily imagine was that of the costumes. The fact that they were all identical soldiers in armour, uniformly distributed in a military manner, gave a 3D fake look that was difficult to break. This was even though each soldier had a variation in size, face, textures and animation.
What was your approach to recreating the Middle Kingdom Palace?
Hugues Namur: The different palaces attacked by Caesar were all the subject of detailed research, but the Deng Palace which appears at the end of the film has many different axes and required a substantial 3D fabrication. To this end, the glazed tiles, the dougong (characteristic structural elements), the ornamentation, the colour schemes, and the stonework were all studied in detail and required multiple trips back and forth between design and production.
What was the most complicated sequence or plan to manage and why?
Hugues Namur: The environment of the final battle is shot at almost 360° and the lighting conditions during the shooting were particularly changeable. Some shots were even captured in quite thick fog. Considering the distortion of the anamorphic lenses, the detection of the ground on the battlefield was sometimes problematic as it could change its appearance as the shooting progressed.
Louis Maëro : For the generation of the crowd, the most complicated sequence to manage is without a doubt the final battle scene. On the one hand, this sequence is the one in which we had the most shots to make, but it was also technically complex. In this sequence, the armies come together, with shots in which we see them all, which implies wide shots with many characters on the screen. On the other hand, the immersion shots in the center of the battlefield show soldiers particularly close to the camera, with a very large number of combat animations to manage, implying a very large number of contacts and collisions between the soldiers to consider.
What kind of references and influences did you receive?
Hugues Namur: The final battle of Kubrick’s Spartacus was one of our references, especially the movement of the battalions on the hillside. In terms of architecture, the medieval city of Ping Yao was one of Bryan’s inspirations for the Deng Palace visible at the end of the film. You will recognise the glazed tile patterns on the central body around the main gate.
Tell us about other visual effects you have made!
Hugues Namur: We built a digital dubbing for a stuntman who flies in sandbags during the street fight in Shanghai, we made the barbarians in Bibine’s bar and the Romans in the first sequence of the film fly from the ceiling.
What is your favourite shot or sequence?
Hugues Namur: Probably the arrival of the Roman army in front of the Deng Palace at the end of the film, with its multiplication of viewpoints. It was necessary to show the situation of the fortifications backing onto the mountain, to provide a relationship of scale between the palace and the opposing armies. I also really like the shots at the foot of the ramparts, with the view into the fortress.
Louis Maëro : For me, these are the shots where the crowd is no longer a simple extension of the scenery but becomes the subject. This happened several times, during charges in battle, or when the imperial army arrived. These shots bring the crowd to the fore as a character, often resulting in impressive shots.
What is your best memory of the making of the film?
Edouard Valton: As Hugues said, we couldn’t be present on the set because of this damn virus. On the other hand, I had the chance to go to the Shanghai set during the shooting, with Delphine Lasserre, our super VFX producer, and I was dazzled by the realism and the details of this superb set. And my funniest memory is when, at the end of the production, I got a call from Nicolas Mouchet saying: « Hello Nicolas » and the answer was « Hello Edouard, it’s Guillaume Canet » (the director)! He wanted to congratulate us and ask us for some final small changes. Clever Asterix 😉
Hugues Namur: The process of making the battle shots was quite heavy, with the processing of the motion capture sessions, the selection of animations in the crowd management tool (Golaem), the positioning in the shots, the lighting etc… However, when the first versions of the compositing are released en masse and start to feed into the edit, we feel rewarded for our efforts. I have very fond memories of those first viewings.
Louis Maëro : Without a doubt, the Motion Capture sessions. For the crowd, it was a turning point in the making of the film. The gap in quality between the models made with keyframe animations and the implementation of motion capture was really striking for us. It was also a key moment, which required a lot of preparation because we had to capture the animations needed for all the shots, from all the sequences, even those that had not yet started at the time of the capture.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
MPC: Dedicated page about Asterix & Obelix – The Middle Kingdom on MPC website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2023