Issue: November/December 2023


Napoleon, from director Ridley Scott, tells the story of the French leader’s rise to power, his volatile relationship with his true love — Josephine — and his ultimate downfall and exile in the early 1800s. Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix stars as Napoleon Bonaparte, with Vanessa Kirby playing his love interest. The film is presented by Columbia Pictures and Apple Original Films, and premiered on November 22nd, before streaming globally on Apple TV+.

Once again, Scott called on frequent collaborator Dariusz Wolski, ASC, to shoot the feature. Wolski has partnered with the filmmaker on nine projects, dating back to 2012’s Prometheus, and more recently on 2021’s House of Gucci. He calls the director a “star,” which is why they were able to shoot the film — including its epic, historic battles — in just 60-days.

The film presented numerous production challenges. The French Revolution and Napoleon’s rise to power take place before electricity, so Wolski had to work within the era’s limitations when it came to artificial lighting.

“It’s not my first period movie, so you always photograph the movie based on whatever the period looks like,” he explains. “It was just fireplaces, candle lights and the windows.

“Technology is pretty remarkable right now,” he continues. “My first candle-light movies were shot on film, and it was a bit of a struggle. But right now, actually, it’s pretty amazing.”

Wolski relied on Arri’s Alexa Mini LF for much of the shoot, as well as the larger Alexa LF. Napoleon’s battles with England and Austria employed as many as 11 cameras at times, but Scott is known to use multiple cameras on smaller, more intimate scenes as well.

“Normally, with Ridley, we use like three to four cameras, even inside — even intimate scenes with three actors," he explains. "I’ve used [the Alexa Mini LF] for like the last four or five movies,” he continues, adding that his lighting choices always start with natural light.

“You compliment, but you compliment as little as possible,” he explains. “Sometimes you use very big lights, but it’s just to make sure that you don’t feel that they’re lights.”

While he is shooting, Wolski says he is cropping the frame about 10 percent to allow for repositioning and visual effects. And while this film was filled with production challenges because of the scale of its battles, he points to the “Siege of Toulon” as a highlight because of the way it was composed. 

“It’s basically taking over the harbor fortress at night, and then destroying the English fleet,” he says of the sequence. “We did exteriors (at) a real location. We build the top of the fortress. And then, when you look down from the fortress, it was blue screen. Then all the elements of the boats exploding, we shot at sea. So that’s a combination of three things.”

One of the tall ships was practical, along with various rowboats, while other large ships were represented during production by barges that were equipped with lights. The setup provided practical lighting during the shoot for explosions, with CG boats ultimately being composited over them.

Wolski sets his color grade on-set, creating files that were passed on to Company 3’s Stephen Nakamura.
“We just basically give him a sketch,” says the DP. “We give him the look of the film. What Stephen has to do is basically control the skies,  control the faces through the windows here and there. But the look, the color, everything is basically designed while we’re shooting.

“The camera records raw, and then there’s some kind of a look-up table,” he continues. “We use it at the beginning…It’s a pretty desaturated color tone. Most of it’s greyish, because two battles are fought in the winter, so [it calls] for kind of a grayish, monochromatic look. The Battle of Toulon is more warm, because it’s South of France…I travel with one DIT all over the world. He travels with me and we create color on the set… Of course Stephen does an amazing job fine tuning it.”


Charley Henley served as the film’s visual effects supervisor, overseeing just over 1,000 shots for the feature, which were spread out across several studios, including MPC, ILM and BlueBolt. MPC is home for Henley, and their locations in Montreal, Bangalore and Mumbai all contributed to the studio’s individual effort.

Napoleon’s invisible effects work included replacing electric lighting used during production with CG candles, and adding CG fire to fireplaces. The film also used VFX to enhance architecture, making buildings that were shot in England look like they were, in fact, located in 1800s France.

MPC created a dramatic shot that appears early in the film, as Napoleon is about to launch his siege on the British fort. Just as the battle begins, his horse is struck by cannon fire, killing his steed and throwing him from the mount.

“I love the beginning of that scene because Joaquin played it so nervous,” says Henley. “It was giving us this impression of being right in front (of a) major battle…and he looks scared!”

Henley describes the shot as “a good mix” between special effects and digital effects. The team built a practical rig in the shape of a horse, with an exploding chest, and figured out the motion needed to replicate it rearing up and being hit by the cannon ball. The motion was then programed into the rig, sending the rider and the rig over in reaction to the artillery hit.

“We got the real rider doing the right performance, and then we replaced the horse with a digital horse,” Henley explains.

BlueBolt handled the VFX for the “Siege of Toulon” battle, in which the French army takes over the British fort and turns its cannons on the tall ships guarding the harbor.

“We had a great tall ship that we used for a number of those shots,” Henley recalls.

ILM handled the visual effects featured in the “Battle of Austerlitz.” In the scene, the French army draws the Austrian army, unknowingly, onto a frozen lake, and then unleashes a wave of cannon fire that breaks up the ice, sending many soldiers and cavalry into the water.

“We didn’t have real snow,” Henley recalls. “There was an incredible amounts of special effects snow, but we also needed to extend the sets. We shot that over three different locations and needed to stitch them together to create this effect of a lake…So we developed some techniques for that, which are quite good, and it turned out really well in the end.”

Henley says the goal of the battles were to make them as authentic looking as possible, and as such, the production relied on stunt people to create the massive armies.

“You can do a lot more [with] digital battles now, for sure, but they really wanted it to be as real as possible,” states Henley. This meant bringing in a large-scale crew, with hundreds of extras and stunt people.

“I think our biggest day [was] around 700 real stunt men and actors playing in the armies. But the biggest shot that you see, we got up to around 40,000!”

Henley is referring to the “Battle of Waterloo,” where the French army is initially fighting the British, while the Prussian army approaches to create overwhelming odds.

“It’s the biggest shot, and it’s really about the camera angle being in a place where you can see it…You see the trail coming over the hills and those 40,000 (soldiers) in there. We had about 200 infantry and probably another 200-odd real cavalry in some of those scenes, but we’re doing a mix between duplicating the real people where we can. That’s a choice for close ups, but then we’ve got digital army beyond that, which [we] built off the real actors, effectively, in the real costumes.”


Editors Claire Simpson and Sam Restivo met while working on the pilot for the 2020 Max series Raised by Wolves, which Ridley Scott executive produced. They’ve gone on to collaborate on additional projects together, including Scott’s 2021 Oscar-nominated feature, House of Gucci.

When it came to cutting Napoleon, the duo shared duties based on availability, with the film’s epic battles serving as a sweet spot.

“That’s what we love to do editorially,” says Simpson of the film’s massive battles, “because it’s good fun, and you’ve got a lot of stuff you need to deal with.”

“With Napoleon, we would sit there on the day and get the dailies, and we would just watch them,” Restivo adds. “With Ridley, there’s like umpteen cameras, so there’s all these different options all of the time…On a given day, there will probably be four or five different scenes that were shot, and we would just kind of watch a few of the circle takes and then look at each other and [say], ‘All right, who wants that?’ And then just kind of go from there. Once we had things assembled, we would show them to each other and get feedback.”

The editors cut on Avid Media Composers and worked from several different locations throughout the film's production and post production timeframe.

“We were based in Twickenham Studios in London for the shoot,” Restivo notes. “And then, the director’s cut was in France, where Ridley resides. We were also in Malta for three weeks. And then we finished the film back at Twickenham in London.”

Making sense of the numerous battles could have been an overwhelming editorial challenge, but Simpson says the director had a very clear vision of what he was aiming for.

“Historically, you always hear about scripts saying, ‘The Indians charge.’ It’s just one line that may take about 20 minutes of screen time,” Simpson explains. “The thing about Ridley…he loves the detail of battle. And he also does very, very detailed storyboards. Everything is storyboards in huge, beautiful detail.”

From an editing perspective, Restivo and Simpson each call attention to a few sequences that they worked on. For Restivo, it was the initial passes he made on both the Waterloo and Borodino battles.

“From a physical point of view, that’s just so much footage,” he explains of the scenes. “But it was just a really stunning thing to dive all the way into it. I’ve been super proud of the work we did there.”

He also points to the coup, where Napoleon takes power. 

“We got to lean into the humor a little bit more with both the cutting choices and the music choices, and we got to really let Joaquin’s performance kind of sing,” Restivo says of the scene. “We both had a hand in making that one work. And that was a pleasure to be part of.”

Simpson says she enjoyed working on a number of sequences, including The Battle of Austerlitz. 
“I pushed for some material to be shot for that,” she recalls of the segment.

She also points to an early scene in the film, where Napoleon is joining Josephine for tea and just beginning to get to know her.

“It’s almost like she is tempting him in a very interesting way,” the editor explains. She’s telling him about her backstory, the terrible things that happened to her while imprisoned, and questions whether he would even want her?

“At the end of it, she opens her legs and says, ‘If you look down here, you will never want to look away,’” Simpson explains. “Just the construction of that scene, with the back and forth, and the meticulous little details of the actors’ performance — and in particular, Napoleon’s reaction to her. And also, choosing a piece of music for that scene, which I think was absolutely perfect in the way that it built to a kind of climax. That was the most fun to do!”

As a sign of appreciation for their work, the director ultimately gifted the editors a huge book full of his original storyboard artwork. And when Post spoke with Simpson and Restivo, they were already working on their next Ridley Scott feature together — Gladiator 2, which is set for release in late 2024.