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Dariusz Wolski ASC • Napoleon

Dec 18, 2023

(Published in Cinematography World – Issue 018 November/December 2023)


By Ron Prince

Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski ASC’s latest collaboration with director Sir Ridley Scott is the spectacle-filled Napoleon, detailing the rise and fall of the iconic French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Against a stunning backdrop of large-scale filmmaking orchestrated by Scott, the film captures Bonaparte’s inexorable journey to power through the prism of his addictive and volatile relationship with his one true love, Joséphine de Beauharnais. It also showcases his visionary political and military tactics in some of the most dynamic battle sequences ever brought to the screen, including the Siege Of Toulon and the Battle Of Austerlitz, before Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle Of Waterloo and ultimate exile to the remote Atlantic island of St Helena.

DP Dariusz Wolski ASC on the set of Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

The Apple Studios-financed film was written by David Scarpa, and stars Joaquin Phoenix (also a producer) as Napoleon Bonaparte, Vanessa Kirby as Empress Joséphine, alongside Tahar Rahim playing politician Paul Barras, Rupert Everett as Napoleon’s principal military rival Arthur Wellesley, Duke Of Wellington, and Édouard Philipponnat as Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Napoleon runs at 157 minutes, although Scott has a near four-and-a-half-hour Director’s Cut in the works, to be released after its initial theatrical run.

Wolski, who is of Polish descent, was born in Warsaw and studied at the renowned Łódź Film School, before moving to the US in 1979 aged just 23, where he found work as a camera assistant on low-budget films in New York and LA, before eventually becoming a cinematographer. Napoleon represents his ninth collaboration with Ridley Scott.

Rubert Everett and film crew on the set of Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

“Historically, Napoleon is regarded as a hero in Poland, as he kept the idea of Polish independence and freedom alive for a short period, after defeating the Prussians and creating the Grand Duchy Of Warsaw in 1807,” he says. “This was the first attempt to re-establish Poland as a sovereign state after partitions in the 18th-century, and it covered the central and south-eastern parts of present-day Poland. Napoleon is looked upon favourably by Polish people, and when Ridley told me he was going to make a film about his life I was instantly intrigued.

“I liked how Ridley wanted to intertwine the epic with the intimate”

“I liked how Ridley wanted to intertwine the epic with the intimate – whilst there were going to be battles and grand ceremonial moments, the movie was also going to be very much about the personal relationship between Napoleon and Joséphine.”

Wolski says that along with reading historical biographies about Napoleon, he also studied famous paintings, such as ‘The Coronation Of Napoleon’ (1807) by official painter Jacques-Louis David, depicting the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor at Notre-Dame de Paris. The oil painting has imposing dimensions, being almost 10-metres wide and almost 6-metres tall.

“Paintings like that were essentially big, promotional ‘advertisements’ for Napoleon,” says Wolski. “Everything is dramatic, he’s always God-like in the spotlight, and we wanted to imitate those as accurately as possible. However, in reality, paintings like that started with basic sketches, before being completed in the artist’s studio using doubles and lookalikes. So many of these artworks were simply made-up, invented impressions and interpretations, with the bright light shining on Napoleon and everybody else falling into the shadows. I knew that lighting grand scenes like those was going to be quite a task.”

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte and Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

Along with taking-in some of the many movies that have been made about Napoleon, plus Scott’s The Duellists (1977, DP Frank Tidy BSC) for its period setting and costumes, Wolski says films such as Waterloo (1970, DP Armando Nannuzzi AIC), directed by Sergei Bondarchuk and produced by Dino De Laurentiis, proved inspirational in staging some of the epic battle scenes in the film, which required up to a dozen cameras shooting simultaneously. However, the use of thousands of authentically-dressed extras in those old movies would have been financially and logistically impossible on this production, and Wolski knew that modern CG crowd replication techniques, plus constant liaison with production VFX supervisor, Charley Henley, would be essential pre-requisites throughout. 

“I had a lot of discussions with Ridley and all of the HoDs, but especially with Charley and Arthur Max, the production designer, regarding the choreography of the battle scenes and the coordination of extras, horses, stunt-people, grips, camera crew, as well as the repeat takes that would be needed by VFX for cloning later-on. Arthur made large-scale models of the different battlescapes which were very helpful in our camera-placement planning, especially as one battle scene actually involved shooting at two separate locations. Also, you can only run horses so much before they get tired, and don’t want to perform any more.”

DP Dariusz Wolski on the set of Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

Production on the film took place largely in the UK, commencing in February 2022 and concluding 60 shooting days later in May. The crew reportedly spent a week preparing Lincoln Cathedral, which stood in for Notre-Dame de Paris, for the two-day shoot of Napoleon’s coronation. Filming at other English locations included, Stowe Avenue and House, plus West Wycombe Park, in Buckinghamshire, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Petworth House in Sussex, and the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, London. These all variously doubled for Parisian or European settings, especially after Henley altered rooflines in VFX to make them appear distinctly French. The film also shot in Malta for three weeks, during May 2022, at Fort Ricasoli in Kalkara, which was dressed and transformed into the site of the 1793 Siege Of Toulon, where Napoleon had his first victory.

Wolski selected ARRI Alexa Mini LF cameras, shooting in ARRIRAW, with Angénieux EZ-1 and EZ-2 lightweight zooms for the mainstay of the exterior scenes, plus Panavision Vintage 65 lenses for night and low-light interiors. The film was framed in classic 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio for an appropriate sense of scale and grandeur. 

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON.

“When you see the scale of the battle scenes there are just so many places to position the cameras, as we had already pre-determined during prep,” says Wolski. “We had them on 50ft cranes, tracking vehicles with arms and remote heads to shoot separate profiles of the infantry and cavalry charges, as well as cameras buried in the ground and moving handheld in the thick of the action. 

“Shooting in huge, historic spaces, meant we had to be very careful”

“It was all carefully choreographed in advance, but was quite a technological undertaking, because you have to transmit the pictures from those cameras wirelessly to the video village half a mile away.”

Discussing his lens choices, Wolski says, “The Panavision 65 Vintage lenses are fast, typically T1.4, and were designed to evoke the feeling of an image from the past, with soft contrast and a gentle transition between coarse and fine features. We generally carried three sets, but this number grew to five when we shot the night-time scenes of the Siege Of Toulon.”

Wolski is a self-confessed fan of modern zoom lenses, and explains, “The concept that zoom lenses are not as good as prime lenses was true in 1975, but it’s not so now. The optical quality of modern zooms today is so good that you would be hard-pressed to find the difference between them and regular primes when you compare them. 

Joaquin Phoenix and crew on the set of Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

“I also like zooms for the way they help to support the shooting schedule. Set-ups and reframing were much quicker, as we didn’t have to worry about time-consuming lens changes with primes. We were always ready to roll and this supported the absolute need to complete production in 60 days. We generally used the shorter Angénieux 20-60mm and longer 45-135mm zooms. We also carried a long Panavision SLZ11 24-275mm T2.8 11:1 Primo Zoom lens to shoot the perspectives from the opposing camps during the Battle Of Waterloo, which were almost a mile apart.”

Vanessa Kirby stars as Empress Josephine in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

Napoleon is noteworthy for a panoply of looks, some very painterly, others monochromatically atmospheric. Whilst many cinematographers develop LUTs to help create a particular aesthetic, Wolski says, “I hate the word ‘LUT’, that’s not for me. It’s unnecessarily complicated and I prefer to create the look in-camera scene-by-scene.

“I hate the word ‘LUT’, that’s not for me”

“Like any DP who came from film, I was originally very resentful towards digital technology. So, I have always worked with my gaffer to decide the colour temperature of a scene, and my DIT to then do simple on-set grading of the dailies. It’s not that far-removed from when you lit the film negative and then colour-timed the rushes at the lab.

“Essentially, I graded Napoleon on the set with my DIT, Ryan Nguyen, as we went along and stuck with that. The film was close to the final look when we went into the DI, with Stefan Nakamura at CO3, and that’s the best place to control a sky or adjust a face up or down a little.”

Rupert Everett stars as the Duke of Wellington and Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte in Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

When it came to finding crew to operate so many cameras during the battle sequences, Wolksi enthuses that he had, “a great pool of young, open-minded day-players, who have honed their skills on independent and blockbuster productions shooting in the UK. They were pretty incredible in understanding the huge puzzle of shots that had to be choreographed and filmed in-sync with one another. During the production, we often shot with dual Steadicams, operated by Daniele Massaccesi and Shaun Cobley, who both did brilliant work.”

Joaquin Phoenix stars in Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

Wolksi says he was also impressed with the collaborative efforts of gaffer Jonathan Spencer.

“Shooting in huge, historic spaces, meant we had to be very careful and really could not do much with lighting fixtures. Jonathan was very resourceful. We pushed a lot of light through windows using HMIs, and sometimes had simple front-light on the main characters, with helium balloons way-up overhead to add a bit of fill light here and there, which helped when it came to imitating the look of the classical French painters we were trying to emulate.

Crew filmming with cast on the set of Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

“Intimate candle-lit scenes were much more tricky, as we were not allowed to use real candles much at all in those prestigious estates. Yes, we could use a few just candle for close-ups, but anything against the walls, and chandeliers, had to be artificial light.

“So we wired-up all the chandeliers, and all the candelabras, with small, thin LEDs that gave a nice warm colour temperature, which Jonathan created specially, and flickered those lights from the dimmer-board to give the correct overall effect of candlelight. We did very precise tests with Charley, and filmed a real candle beside our fake candles. He then put the real flames over our LED lights during post production, which was quite another job.”

Wolski says he did not light the battle scenes, remarking, “You have to go with what nature gives you. I really try to avoid lighting day exteriors.

Director Ridley Scott and Joaquin Phoenix on the set of Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures theatrical release of NAPOLEON. Photo by: Aidan Monaghan

“We generally had great weather, but when we shot Napoleon watching the Battle Of Waterloo, passing clouds meant that the light changed all the time. So we shot the close-ups on him in two different ways, one with the sunlight, the other when it was more overcast, so that Ridley could choose whatever he preferred during the edit.”

A further crew member noted by Wolski is key grip Darren ‘Dutch’ Holland.

“Dutch was brilliant at supervising the multiple camera-tracking cars, plus all the crane and dolly work. But there was something else that I admired very much,” Wolski reveals. “The old tradition, especially in the UK, was that bluescreens, especially big ones with static scaffolding, were always managed by the construction team. These could often be problematic to shoot against when you needed flexibility. In the US, it’s different because bluescreens are handled by the grips as an extension of the camera team, and they understand the shots you need to capture.

Crew filmming with cast on the set of Apple Original Films NAPOLEON, released theatrically by Columbia Pictures.

“Because there has been so much American production in the UK, things have changed, and Dutch and his team were exceptional. During the big battle scenes, Charley needed a huge number of blue or grey screens for the VFX work, and it was really impressive how Dutch studied what was needed and trained his crew to quickly manoeuvre Manitou cradles with 30 x 20ft bluescreen frames around the location. They could align a 300ft wall of blue in a matter of minutes, super-fast, amazing!”

Looking back at his time on the film, Wolski concludes, “It was a joy to work with Ridley once again, with a wonderful crew, and to meet to the challenges that his way of making large-scale movies presents. As a subject matter, it is very special, very close to my heart, and the final result speaks for itself. The Director’s Cut will be even more captivating.”

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