UK facility The Senate led by visual-effects supervisor James Madigan returned to the classical Roman world to reprise its award-winning visual effects on the second series of HBO/BBC’s historical drama Rome.

Having won an Emmy for his work on the first series of HBO’s historical drama Rome, James Madigan of UK post facility The Senate may soon have a matching pair, with season two nominated again this year, as previously, for Outstanding Special Visual Effects For A Series.

Yet Madigan’s return to the classical world offered more challenges than the original show. The second season was massively more difficult than the first, he admits.

“The top priority was always that the highest possible level of realism and quality were held to, but due to budget and time constraints, on the second season sometimes we’d have a matter of weeks to work on huge shots, with only a handful of people,” he explains.

A co-production between HBO and the BBC, Rome the first series enjoyed one of the biggest TV show productions to date.

Shot on location, in and around Rome, with a vast set built at Cinecitta studios, the scale of the production was amazing recalls Madigan. Three post facilities and 100 artists worked on the first series, with The Senate completing more than 320 shots.

Love and war

The story to two soldiers, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, whose lives become entwined with the fate of Julius Caesar continues in the second series with further stories of love, honour and betrayal set against the politics of ancient Rome that led to Octavian becoming the first Roman emperor.

Visual-effects work on the two series ranged from set extensions, matte painting and crowd replications to 3D simulations of limbs and head being chopped off in bloody gladiator fights and battles.

While the visual- effects shot count was much lower on the second series, the show’s producers and Madigan were keen to make each one epic in scale.

“Even though we had fewer shots than season one, we did want to make them count, so almost everyone is something pretty big,” says Madigan.

One of the biggest visual- effects sequences occurs in Episode 6 – a full-scale recreation of the battle of Philippi, the largest battle of antiquity involving 200,000 Roman soldiers.

Twickenham-based The Senate again led the visual-effects pipeline, contributing 85 per cent of the shots across ten episodes, despite a much smaller team than was used on the show’s debut season.

This time around, The Senate team consisted of just five compositors, four 3D artists, and one matte painter. “The dedication of the artists was incredible, and they pulled off some amazing things,” says Madigan.

The Moving Picture Company used its experience on film such as Troy and Kingdom of Heaven to create the massive armies and full 3D environment for the battle at Philippi, while Rainmaker UK recreated the ancient world of Cleopatra’s Egypt.

Before shooting began on the second series, Madigan and his team discussed the possibility of reusing elements and matte paintings from series one but instead decided to create everything from scratch.

“The main thing I see when I look back at the work on the first series is the things we didn’t get quite right,” he explains. “While on location in Rome, I really studied the light and the texture of the landscapes.

"There is a certain feel to the environment and the atmosphere in Italy that’s extremely beautiful, which I wanted to make sure we reflected in our work. I think this was a challenge we met better this year than on season one.”

Planning and previs proved challenging as often scripts weren’t available until just before shooting. “It really comes down to being flexible, and being able to roll with the ground shifting under you,” says Madigan.

Several shots were however planned from the outset and Madigan worked closely with the show’s production designer Tony Pratt, who created concept art that showed the Roman world beyond the sets.

“This was a huge help,” says Madigan. “Tony is incredibly talented and a real gentleman to work with. In these cases, we would start with Tony’s concepts and then block out something behind a frame of the actual shot that was a bit more photo real.

"Then once these were signed off by all the powers that be, we could start working on the shot with whatever time was left, which usually wasn’t much.”

To ensure the team kept the classical environments as realistic as possible, Madigan turned to the vast library of photographs he had taken during the many months spent living in Rome.

Photographic references

“With any shot there’s always a risk of losing sight of the artistic aspect of it,” he explains. “Because the technological difficulties are the problems you have to solve on a daily basis, it is easy to get lost in all that and not get the artistic side where you want it.

“I constantly referred back to the thousands of photographs I took while living in Italy during the shoot, to keep in mind the original purpose of each shot and how it serves the story as well as keep in mind the Mediterranean look-&-feel so that our work captured this."

The Senate team used an array of software on this project, including Shake and After Effects for 2D and Maya, Zbrush, Modo and RealFlow for the 3D elements.

Luxology Modo was one tool that the team hadn’t used on the previous series. “I’m not sure if it was even around then but it’s amazing for modelling and we were eventually able to have Modo and Maya talk to each other without fighting,” says Madigan.

Although footage was delivered to the client in HD resolution, everything was rendered at 2K. “It sounds a bit excessive but it meant that when reviewing the shots it was much easier to see the trouble areas,” explains Madigan. ”Working at 2K helped get better keys on bluescreens and less buzzing out of the 3D renders.”

Compositing challenges

The team lit everything in Maya using HDRI where possible. The number of passes used varied greatly, explains Madigan. For shots involving human skin, the team would need about five subsurface scattering passes and a few different passes for the blood.

Added to this were AO passes, normal passes and, on occasion, separate highlight and shadow passes.

“It could really pile up, so we had to get pretty clever about optimizing things or we would have never got things done on time.”

With major credits for his visual-effects work on feature films, including League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Helsing, The Brothers Grimm, and The Da Vinci Code, Madigan was keen that the quality of the VFX sequences for Rome matched those of a feature film, despite time and budget constraints.

“We did everything we could to make sure our work would be to the quality of a feature film,” he says. “The fact is that with shots like the battle or the Aventine on a feature film you would have six months or maybe a year to get them right, whereas we had a just few weeks.

“I suppose that’s the difference – it makes you very good at being the most efficient you can possibly be and to use every opportunity to get what you need.

“It also makes you more sympathetic when you see bad VFX in TV shows,” he adds.

The Aventine…

In Rome season two, a great deal of the action takes place in and around the Aventine, an area of Rome where boats coming up river from the sea would unload their cargo and trade with the Romans.

In the show, it is portrayed as a rough working-class area where the two lead characters, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, seek to maintain order over the various gangs competing there for power.

”The Aventine was something that was of great concern to the production, so we really put a lot of thought and research into it,” says Madigan.

“We started with a concept from Tony Pratt, the show’s production designer. From there I consulted with Jonathan Stamp our historical advisor – who was a massive help through both seasons of Rome – to get a good feel for exactly what this kind of place would have been like.

“Where I lived in Rome was very close to the real Aventine, and there are still numerous ancient temples and ruins from 2,000 years ago there.

"I took hundreds of high-res photos of the whole environment in every kind of light at all times of the day and these photos were used to build the 3D environments and matte paintings in these shots.

"When you see the wide shot of the Aventine that closes the first episode of season two, most of the things you see in this environment are actually from photographs I took of the real Aventine.

"The bend in the river around the Aventine fits exactly into the environment we were creating. Even the water in the river is footage of the Tiber I shot on a bridge at the Aventine. The mountain you see in the distance is an actual photograph of Frascati, which is the mountain you see looking in that direction on the Aventine.

“We researched quite a bit what the activity around this place would have been and I tried to keep all this in mind as I shot people on bluescreen to go in the background,” explains Madigan.

Madigan and his team shot dozens of extras on bluescreen, at the right angles with the right light, building ships, unloading boats, or just walking along the river.

They also built little blue set pieces so the bluescreened people could interact with CG elements such as steps, ropes or boats.

Once enough footage was captured, the team then mapped out the environment in 3D, even rebuilding some parts of the set in 3D including the roof tops. All the 3D boats were based on blueprints of boats that existed at the time.

“All this added up to a composite with hundreds of layers with the footage of the bluescreened people comped using 3D cameras in Shake,” says Madigan.

Blood and gore…

“Amputations are always fun but they are a lot of work,” says Madigan. “These shots are usually about 50 frames long so, blink and you miss it.

“I tried to shoot more elements of blood this year and sometimes we could get away with that, but more often than not we had to use RealFlow,” he says.

For any body part that required amputation, The Senate team would take detailed high-res 16-bit photographs and measurements, and during the shooting of the scene would attempt to get as many passes as possible.

The limb was then modelled using Zbrush or Modo and a subsurface scattering shader built out of the photos from the set. The animation was the trickiest part, says Madigan.

“All the joints still have to rotate and move around keeping in mind inertia, collisions, gravity – and quite often we would add little twitches like the arm or face was still getting signals from somewhere,” he explains.

“Once the animation was done, the blood had to connect up to all this so you would have the RealFlow side of things not able to even start until the animation was final. The blood would fly around and sometimes land back on the limb itself.

"Where this happened it would create a wet map and actually leave an imprint on the texture of the limb or head, so you would see the blood on the object.”

To achieve the shot of the two Roman armies meeting on the battlefield at Philippi, MPC simulated 55,000 soldiers, creating a sweeping shot/camera move of epic proportions.

Epic battle scenes

The Battle of Philippi in Macedonia was the decisive battle between the joint forces of Mark Antony and Octavian against those of Julius Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Involving more than 200,000 Roman soldiers, it was one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of antiquity. The Moving Picture Company created a full CG environment and used crowd simulations software to create hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

On the shoot in a quarry near Rome, MPC captured multiple passes of extras dressed as Roman soldiers marching in formation. These passes were combined with CG crowd elements, and a matte painting for the mountainous backdrop in the final composites.

Matte masters

Stunning matte paintings were created to serve as backdrops for Rome.


Project: Rome Season 2
Client: HBO/BBC
Studio: The Senate,
Software: Autodesk Maya, Zbrush, Modo, RealFlow, Mental Ray, Adobe After Effects, Apple Shake