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Ben Hur Rides Again with Oblique FX

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Joseph Morgan stars as Judah Ben-Hur.
Joseph Morgan stars as Judah Ben-Hur.

Montreal-based Oblique FX recently completed all of the visual effects for Ben Hur – a new two-part miniseries that revisits the Charlton Heston classic tale of a man betrayed and sold into slavery by his friend. The series, an international co-production of Montreal’s Muse Entertainment, Spain’s  Drimtim Entertainment in association with Zak Productions of Morocco, Akkord Film of Germany and FishCorb Films of Spain airs on ABC Television in the U.S., CBC in Canada, Antenna 3 in Spain and ProSieben in Germany.

In total, the Montreal-based facility delivered over 140 visual effects shots, including matte paintings, set extensions, and CG character animation, along with CG fire, smoke and water.

“I couldn’t have been more pleased with the work that Oblique did on this project,” said Director Steve Shill, who previously helmed HBO’s award-winning Rome, as well as Deadwood and Showtime’s The Tudors. “I wanted to put the money on the screen where the audience could see it.” Along with period costumes and historical settings, Ben Hur features a great deal of spectacle, including a sea battle, gladiator fights, and the famous chariot race.

“Oblique helped brilliantly raise this film into an epic,” said Shill. “Our $20-million TV miniseries looks like a $100-million studio movie. Everything was photo-real and beautiful. I particularly loved the gorgeous matte paintings of Jerusalem and the authentic look of the ship scenes with their ravishing sky-scapes and flared-out sunlight. So much of this work is about the exercise of good taste and Oblique has that in spades.”

The racetrack in Ben Hur.
Rethinking the racetrack in Ben Hur.

Oblique, formerly the film division of Buzz Image Group, handled all of the shots in house. The facility did not attempt to replicate the look of the earlier film. The environment and the script were designed more to reflect life as it was in ancient times, rather than imitating the look of the 1959 Hollywood blockbuster.

Ben Hur was a really ambitious project completed under very challenging circumstances,” explained Shill. “We shot two 90-minute action movies in 44 days. Visual Effects Supervisor Mario Rachiele worked closely with our DP, Ousama Rawi. I was really impressed with how professionally they managed the whole pipeline from start to finish. I can’t wait to do it again.”

Rachiele has worked with the team at Oblique on a number of projects in the past. One of the reasons he chose the facility for Ben Hur was their expertise in water simulation. This was especially important for the pivotal naval battle scene. “We designed CG pirate ships, CG Roman ships, along with CG Romans and pirates to put on the ships,” said Rachiele, “but the real challenge was the sea, the sky, the fire and the smoke.”

Planning these scenes was an interesting exercise for the team at Oblique. “We had an historian with us who suggested a few moves,” sad Rachiele. “I remember sitting on the floor with Steve Shill with little paper boats trying to design the whole sequence. What did pirate ships look like in those days? What did Roman ships look like? How did they attack? We had a lot of fun working it all out.”

CG work was done largely in Softimage XSI. For particle effects, such as fire, smoke and water some real elements were added to final composites, which were completed in Nuke.

“We’re particularly proud of our work on the naval battle,” explained Pierre-Simon Lebrun-Chaput, CG supervisor at Oblique. “Most VFX shots have just one or two elements, but in this case we had to do everything: water simulation, model the ships, animate the interaction between the ships and the water, create CG sky, fire, smoke, and the characters on the ships. It took many steps to put all those pieces together. This was a real example of teamwork with artist teams handing off parts of the job to the next team.”

“They’re very streamlined visual effects house. They have a lot of experience,” agreed Rachiele, “I have worked with Benoît Brière, president of Oblique, for more than 10 years now, so we know each other very well. For me, working with Benoit is like playing a game of hockey. I can pass the puck without looking, because I know Benoît will be at the right place on the ice to finish the play.”

“We have a relatively small team at Oblique,” Lebrun-Chaput added. “Our focus is to push the artistic side. We try to please the director and the editor first and foremost. We do this by coming up with many different concepts as early as possible.  We create animatics and pass them on to the editor, so it’s like having a selection of shots to choose from. We want to give as much freedom as possible to the editor and the director. This way we can make the key decision very early on. It means much less back-and-forth later on and makes the whole process much smoother for everyone.”

“We’ve worked with the team at Oblique for over 10 years and they consistently deliver fantastic work,” said Evan Tussman, Co-Producer at Muse Entertainment, a production company with a wealth of experience in international co-productions. “They have helped make Ben Hur the success that it is”

Ben Hur stars Joseph Morgan, who plays Judah Ben-Hur, and Stephen Campbell Moore as the life-long friend who betrays him – Octavius Messala. The cast also includes Emily VanCamp as Esther, and Hugh Bonneville as Pontius Pilate.

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