How ‘Two Popes’ Production Team Re-Created the Sistine Chapel, Frescoes and All

When Mark Tildesley read Anthony McCarten’s script for “The Two Popes,” he saw how integral the Sistine Chapel was to the narrative. As the film’s production designer, he knew he couldn’t film inside the Vatican, which meant he’d have to reproduce the location. “We did visit it with a leading expert — [producer] Enzo Sisti. His father was a sacristan there who had dressed two of the popes. He took us on a tour and explained the place to us. It was the first time I’d ever been in the chapel. It was a daunting task to imagine that we were going to reproduce this.”

Through discussions with the film’s director, Fernando Meirelles, and cinematographer, César Charlone, Tildesley knew Michelangelo’s iconic frescoes would be featured prominently. “We were going to do these close-ups,” he says. “We went to Cinecittà Studios, and it’s big enough to take the footprint but not quite tall enough to make the whole thing.”

Once they had the space, Tildesley studied ways of re-creating the frescoes. “We looked at painting it in the traditional ceiling manner, but we realized that would take 14 to 17 weeks, and we didn’t have that time.” The team also considered printing the frescoes like wallpaper, but that wouldn’t have had the texture or luster of the chapel. “The chapel has been refurbished and cleaned,” he explains. “It’s now super bright and vibrant. I think you’ll see in the film that’s what we wanted to portray — this modern image of that. We didn’t want to see this crusty old cathedral church that had been stained by candles. We wanted to show it like in the early days of the church, when it was this masterpiece. We tried it, and we couldn’t get the color right.”

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That’s when art director Stefano Maria Ortolani mentioned a new technique, Tattoo Wall. “They print onto film,” Tildesley explains, “and they put the film onto a wall, and they use a substance that sucks the image onto the wall. We tested that out a few times, and it worked out really well.”

Ortolani says that the technique’s key attribute is that the glue applied to the plaster won’t dry until the membrane of the tattoo is applied. “It’s sort of like wallpaper, and this glue absorbs the pigment. So when you take the membrane away, it’s totally transparent because the entirety of the pigment — the photographic reproduction — is absorbed by this glue.” The effect, Ortolani says, makes the frescoes appear to be painted by hand.

“The other trick that’s crucial to the process is the treatment of the underlying plaster,” says the art director. “I had it all laid down by hand with minimal use of palettes, so that you get that wavy effect that makes it more like a real fresco.”

Tildesley is particularly proud of the time-saving process. “We built the Sistine Chapel,” he says, “and it took them four weeks to paper the tattoos onto the wall.” 

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