A Ridley Scott epic action movie that recreates the Napoleon battle scenes – Toulon, Austerlitz, Waterloo and many more – and it required an enormous cast of actors who could move and fight like the soldiers of the time. Charged with creating the armies (the French, of course, but also the Austrian, Russian, and British forces) was military advisor Paul Biddiss.
“We ran a bootcamp for our infantry and artillery,” he recalls. “You can’t just take a supporting artist off the street and put them in uniform – they have to be trained in the maneuvers that were used back then in the Napoleonic era. It’s actually one of the more difficult eras to portray, because the drill was extremely technical, and the wordings were very technical as well.”
With so many cameras capturing the Napoleon battle scenes, there could be no faking it and hiding in the background, because there was no background. “Everyone had to know the drills, how to load a musket, how to be in step, how to get himself from A to B, as a Napoleonic soldier would back then.”
Biddiss was very aware, too, that he was working with actors, who would need to portray the mortal fear their characters faced. “The Napoleonic Wars were wars of attrition. People died in mass groups,” he explains. “They all need to convey that in their acting – like they are preparing to meet their death as they march into not only cannon fire, but grapeshot and musket fire.”
Ultimately, Biddiss wasn’t preparing the actors for any specific fight choreography, but rather to be truly ready no matter what circumstances came up on set. “On a Ridley Scott, film, you have to prepare for every eventuality,” he says. “If we get to set and Ridley says, ‘I need the guys to get out and form square from line,’ I can literally say, ‘Reaction to cavalry,’ and the men will react to cavalry and form square immediately, and then adopt the position that they need to. I always adopt a motto from my own regiment: Utrinque Paratus – ready for anything.”
That is the motto of the Parachute Regiment, where Biddiss’s 24 years of service prepared him for his second career advising on feature films. Now, instead of jumping out of planes, Biddis helps Scott decide how to stage the battles, and advise the other departments – stunts, effects, costumes – on how to achieve Scott’s vision. “Military advising is 60% research, and the remainder your experiences in the armed forces,” he says.
And as it happens, this is not the first time he’s helped to stage major Napoleon battle scene. “I’ve taken on Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo three times. Beaten him every time.”
There aren’t many special effects supervisors whose names are recognized, even by cinephiles. But if any are, Neil Corbould is one. Widely respected, his peers have honored him with two Oscars® (including one for his work on Scott’s Gladiator). For Corbould, the chance to work on Napoleon battle scenes was an easy call. “Another Ridley Scott epic – one of those that a special effects supervisor can only dream of working on,” he says. Napoleon presented so many challenges: cannonball explosions, flipping horses, beheadings… even a battle scene that called for horses to fall through the ice on a frozen lake. “When you’re in the middle of a battle, Ridley wants it to be messy,” says Corbould. “He brings the audience into the battle. More blood, chucking blood and dirt around, wet the dirt so it sticks to the actors, stuff coming in from different directions, lots of smoke.”
Perhaps Corbould’s shining moment was creating the ice lake for enemy horses to fall into as Napoleon orders his army to shell the surface. Once again, it was the filmmakers’ vast experience – especially Scott and Corbould’s – that provided a clear way forward. “I’ve done something similar before – an ice drop – but it was in a tank in a comfortable studio. The difference here was to do it in the field,” says Corbould. “I stuck my neck out to say this is the best way to do it, but it all made sense to everybody.”
The way he would do it, first, was to create the snowy, icy lake itself. “Typical Ridley – this is the biggest snow effect I’ve ever done. Acres and acres,” he says. “When we first saw the location, it was just a big field — 200 or 300 acres. The only way we could make it an ice lake and fall into it was to dig holes, grade it, and compact it, which the greens team – led by Roger Holden – did a fantastic job in doing, recreating the surface for an ice lake, and my snow and ice team iced it up.”
Horsemaster Daniel Naprous – Scott’s go-to horsemaster, having collaborated with the director on four previous films – says that the key is figuring out what a real horse is capable of doing, and where the team would need to employ the mechanical horse. “We try and do as much as we can with the live horses within our safe zone,” he says. Under the layer of Corbould’s snow, the filmmakers placed a rubber mat – similar to the matting under children’s playgrounds – for the horses to run on, and according to Naprous, the real horses could begin to enter the water by going down a ramp; they could be trained to swim; and they could exit the water up a ramp.
But there are many things that cannot be enacted by live horses and required another solution. To show the horses falling through the ice, Naprous passed the baton back to Corbould, who used mechanical horses and built a tank for the stunt. “We dug a 30 meter-by-40 meter tank into the ground, and used that as our FX area for people falling through ice,” Corbould relates. Building something of a trapdoor contraption did the trick. “And then, with Ridley’s eight cameras, we got it all in one or two takes, which we could reproduce,” he says. “It took a while to set up to only shoot a few times, but it got us 50 or 60 shots. It’s an incredible, efficient way of working.” With Scott running so many cameras, members of Corbould’s team would inevitably have to be in the shot, costumed as soldiers.
Another challenge was to present the episode in which Napoleon’s horse is shot by a cannonball during a battle. There would have to be a special rig; the mechanical horse would have to be flipped realistically; it would have to spray blood. “That was quite complicated, because it required a lot of disciplines: special effects, prosthetics, visual effects, a puppeteer operating the rig. It’s all those disciplines all working in conjunction with one another and making a perfect scene in the movie,” says Corbould. “It’s the iconic look of Napoleon, in the heart of the battle, covered in blood.”
Another elegant solution for the Napoleon battle scenes was to use movie magic whenever possible. For the attack on the port of Toulon, the scene required teams to run with tall ladders they could climb for their assault. If that’s the way it went down in real life, those ladders were almost certainly made of wood, so Corbould’s team initially built one ladder out of oak. “Six guys couldn’t pick it up, it was so heavy,” he says. Corbould’s solution was to make 30 lightweight metal ladders, which teams of four could carry easily.
Also adding drama to the scene, Corbould’s team created chunks of set to explode, and rigged those explosions. Under Corbould’s leadership, these explosions would mimic a real-life cannonball’s flaming shrapnel bang, but replace it with safer air hits, which allowed the stunt performers to be closer to the explosion
……And that’s how Ridley Scott shot those Napoleon battle scenes !
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