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‘Napoleon’: How Mechanical Horses Helped Ridley Scott’s VFX Team Pull Off That Gory Battle Scene

Ridley Scott has said he would never hurt an animal, and in his latest film, “Napoleon,” he made good on that promise. He pulled off those gory battle scenes with the help of horse wranglers and visual effects artists.

Over 100 real-life horses were used for the film’s epic combat sequences, but when it came to some of the most dangerous and bloody moments, VFX crews stepped in.

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For the Siege of Toulon scene, Napoleon (Joaquin Phoenix) guides his army to victory against the British forces when they storm the city. However, his beloved horse is struck by a cannonball and dies instantly. The graphic scene was pulled off using a combination of practical and computer-generated effects.

“We would have as many horses that we needed, with actors riding horses, but when there was something too dangerous, we used a mechanical horse rig or we stepped in and added extra horses using effects,” explains Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, VFX supervisor at MPC.

For that specific scene, there were 30 practical riders and 30 horses. But Napoleon’s horse was not real. “We had a mechanical rig, and a stunt double stood in for Joaquin,” Martin-Fenouillet clarifies.

Breaking down the precise detail, Martin-Fenouillet says, “We had a massive hydraulic system, and the entire head, neck and torso were made with a mechanical horse. It was lifelike so that it moved on impact and from the motion of the mechanical rig. Another rig with fake blood was added to the chest so it explodes with blood and guts when the rig pulls back.”

For the climactic Battle of Waterloo, the MPC team had a catalog of the individual horses that they were able to reproduce. In this case, they needed to reproduce 20,000 horses. “We settled on building 16 individual horses, and we added variations to the saddles, blankets and colors,” Martin-Fenouillet says. “That gave us what we needed visually.”

Once they had their visual guide, the team spent a week in performance capture, logging military drills and specific motions such as trotting, charging and cantering. Martin-Fenouillet says, “That created a library of moves, and when we multiplied it by thousands, it would feel like each horse had its own personality and was unique.”

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