Tara DiLullo Bennett goes behind the scenes of the CG-intensive 300 with director Zack Snyder, vfx supervisor Chris Watts and others to find out how they pulled off the painterly Frank Miller look. Includes QuickTime clip!
If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view a trailer from 300 by simply clicking the image.
When director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) decided to adapt Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 for the big screen, opening March 9 from Warner Bros. and playing on select IMAX screens, he was adamant about not taking the typical sword-and-sandal path. A huge fan of Miller and Lynn Varley's original book, Snyder wanted to literally take their vision from the page and create it on film. Under Snyder's specific direction and focused vision, the graphic tale of the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is brought to life as a living canvas, with the color palette, images and artistic tone of the book lovingly recreated for a whole new medium. "With 300, what I asked of the vendors and of the artists that worked on the film was to give me a painting," Snyder suggests and that's exactly what he got. Like its predecessor in technique, Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, 300 experiments with what the digital backlot can create in terms of virtual environments for film, while also representing a giant leap forward in using the technology to push artistic boundaries.
As is fitting in producing an epic, Snyder employed a battalion of artists, compositors, visual effects technicians and consultants around the world to bring 300 to life frame-by-frame. Shot in Montreal for 60 days in the summer of 2005, since then Snyder and his visual effects supervisor Chris Watts worked with 10 vfx companies around the world to create the movie's 1,300 visual effects shots, which were then amazingly edited together into one cohesive film. VFXWorld talked to Snyder, Watts and two of the vfx houses -- Animal Logic and Screaming Death Monkey -- to get the story on how 300 came together...
Exhausted from the sheer marathon of getting 300 completed by its release date, it's surprising to find that Snyder is still able to retain his ever-positive and enthusiastic demeanor this late in the production game. Tired but not beaten, Snyder is able to dig into the secrets of how he brought it all together -- the foremost being pre-prep and surrounding himself with people that "got" his vision. "For me, the thing that I had going for me was that the artists that worked on this movie, a lot of them are fans of the graphic novel anyway," the director explains. "I think they felt as much responsibility to make it good as I did and that goes a long way. And I really feel like the most important thing was that when we got on the set that we had done so much work beforehand. We had done a bunch of visual work but it was more theoretical. I knew something would work in theory, like if I put snow in the background, and from there, atmosphere and sky beyond that, so that when I comp it together it would work. That is the stuff you have to be confident about and once you [have achieved] that, then the rest of it is downhill. I've got to say that I was also so confident in Chris and (visual effects art director) Grant [Freckelton] to get what I wanted that I didn't have [any] fear. I did early on," he chuckles, "but when I started to see the shots come in, they were in the wheelhouse of my expectations. It surprised me but also made me happy."
Snyder admits that seeing the iconic shot of a young future King Leonidas face a menacing wolf in a finished sequence gave him a huge confidence boost. "It was that beautiful Frank frame with the boy and the wolf. They are facing off with the wolf to the left and the boy to the right -- it's a classic shot from the book. When I saw it early on, I said, 'This is gonna be cool. This is gonna be OK,' even when it was still rough animation."
Asked to single out the most difficult shot to create, Snyder offers, "The one shot that was hard to do was the Stelios/Astinos fight sequence, which was right at the end of battle three. Right before Astinos gets his head chopped off, there's a long 360? Steadicam shot that goes around them as they fight. It's pretty gory and it's crazy and just a difficult thing to do choreography and film-wise. They had to knit the actual stage to the background. It was just a hard job and right up until the very end I was like, 'Come on guys! It's a little hairy here!' But they pulled it together and it's great."
Watts Tames the VFX Beast
The man charged with taming the visual effects beast known as post-production for 300 was Watts. "I've worked for Warner Bros. on a few movies (The Fog) and I was originally approached on this by Chris deFaria, who is head of visual effects and animation for Warner Bros," Watts explains. "We go way back and he told me about the movie a couple years ago when it was still in development. It was supposed to be shot completely in Australia so I was sad about that but got over it," he jokes. "But in the summer of 2005, Chris called up and said, 'Hey, 300 is going to shoot in Montreal. Do you want to do it?" At the time I was working on another film but I wasn't under contract. So I met Zack and looked at the book and looked at the script and I knew I had to do it. Zack's vision for the book was awesome and I could just see what we needed to do. I work great with Zack and we totally clicked. From that point on it was me and Zack, Jim Bissell (the production designer) and [visual effects art director] Grant Freckelton, who was one of the original concept artists. [Grant] was a huge factor in the look of the movie -- his concept art was one of the things that really sold me."
In trying to translate a book to film this literally, there's the problem of crafting the right level of reality for something that in origin was never intended to live outside the page. Watts says it was a huge issue because that meant he and his team had to be incredibly specific about their needs from the vfx houses. "If you are making a movie that's based in reality and I want an image of a plane crashing on a runway, everyone knows what that's supposed to look like. Even if I don't provide every detail of what it looks like, a lot of that can be inferred by the artists. With a movie like this, even if you show people the comic book, and Grant and I published a huge amount of style guides for his movie, by the time you filter down to the guy that's doing the compositing in whatever facility in whatever country, that reality is that what he can usually use as guidance doesn't exist in his arena. The challenge is to make these 1,300 vfx shots all fit together. They were created by 10 facilties, across three continents, in four countries. Making all of that belong in the visual universe of Frank's book was a big challenge. It's one of the reasons it took so long to finish this movie because we needed to get it right. All eyes are on the look of this movie, based on Frank's book, and based on what people have heard and what people are talking about."
The sheer volume of shots needed meant that Watts had to parcel out the work to 10 vendors, a theoretical train wreck in the making, but a necessary move in order to be productive. "I would have loved to give it all to one facility," Watts adds. "It would have made my life super easy, but unfortunately the schedule of the movie didn't permit one facility working linearly through the entire film. There was a while when we wanted to give the whole thing to a company in Australia and there was another time we wanted to give it all to a company in Montreal, but there wasn't time for one company to do all that work and have it be good. I think there is a practical limit of how many a shots a company can do and have it be good. I think you get a slightly better result, albeit with more management responsibility, if you have people working on different fronts to make it better." In the end, Montreal-based Hybride did the bulk of the work with Australia-based Animal Logic, Hydraulx, Meteor Studios, German-based Scanline VFX, Buzz Images, WB Internal, Pixel Magic, Screaming Death Monkey and Lola Visual Effects splitting the rest of the shots.
Watts says he was able to assign which vendor got what sequences based on expertise, but timing was a big consideration too. "The art and science of farming out vfx work to companies, I could go on at length about it. You do your best to consider the strengths and weaknesses of the various companies you consider to do the work. On every movie, you make your decisions and the next time you might not make the same decisions knowing what you know. It's true on any movie and it's true on 300. Some of it is defined by schedule and some is defined by a good bid or we got a really good vibe after discussing a scene. Sometimes if you like the lead supervisor at a facility, that will turn into work. Hybride ended up doing more shots than any other facility and part of that was that it was shot in Quebec and there were some tax incentives to do work there. We can get more effects work for our money if we do it in Quebec. But I'm not in it for the money and the real reason we sent so much work to Hybride was because their team was incredible. They got the movie. They did a huge amount of work on Sin City so they already understood 50% of what we were going for. They are in this little town an hour north of Montreal and you wouldn't expect these guys would end up doing most of the work on a big Hollywood movie about ancient Greece. Their style of working and the skill and knowledge and creativity of their supervisors made them a spectacular match for this movie. I can't say enough about their work."
With a staff of 95 artists, Hybride produced 540 vfx shots totaling 45 minutes, utilizing SOFTIMAGE| XSI for 3D animation, NewTek's LightWave 3D for particle effects and 3D graphics, 3D Equalizer and 2d3's boujou for tracking and stabilization. Autodesk's Infernal, Flame and Smoke were used for compositing and editing and Lustre was used for color grading of specific scenes. The work included the CG wolf that young Leonidas encounters at the beginning of the film, the gushing blood throughout the battles suggesting a spattered-ink effect, armies of 100,000 created by 30 stand-ins and different organic effects such as snow, rain and mud.
Detailing the visual standards and post pipeline they developed to help facilitate all of the various vendors, Watts explains, "We also went to some pretty big lengths to establish what we wanted this movie to look like visually. Grant would do these concept paintings before we shot anything at all. Grant, Zack, Jim, [dp] Larry Fong and I would talk about it and go and shoot that part of the movie. Once it was shot, we immediately provided Grant with high-res stills from the material. For every major camera angle we included in the film, Grant would do fairly rough concept paintings from those. They had nice looking backgrounds in terms of color palette and background fidelity. There was a one-day turnaround for them. We would then bring them to the set to show the crew and then send them to the facilities as part of the bid. Editorial would have them to understand the tone of what was intended for the scene and when the scenes were farmed to the vendors they had all the concept paintings for the whole movie on a website that we created especially for that purpose. It was called Leo, and that was a resource for all our vendors and they were able to consult that at anytime.
"When they sent us back QTs, they were loaded into our asset manager, which is built on a program called Panorama by a company called Previa. It's all drag and drop and it all gets ingested and into the pipeline. It keeps track of if I looked at it and whether Zack looked at it and whether it's going to get cut into the movie or cut into a sub clip on editorial. There are all these decision trees that happen in the asset manager and then it goes and talks to Base Camp, which is essentially a publishing system for all our vendors. If I look at a shot, I can tag it as being temp or final, along with comments in Panorama. I press a button and it gets uploaded to Base Camp and then the facilities can see the history of all the shots and all the shots in the sequence and they can use that as the basis for the next version. Hybride also has a piece of software called Hysync. They usually only use it for their own clients but they were considerate enough to allow us to license Hysync to use with all our vendors and that allowed us to let the vendor and the client have identical sets of QTs all over the world. Hysync was a huge tool, so the combination of being super organized with a good asset management system and a good way to convey information to the vendors through Leo and Base Camp and the all important personal aspect of talking to the supervisors by looking at the images through Hysync, we kept it together pretty well."
Yet, with 10 different houses with hundreds of different artists creating a surreal world with no concrete reality on which to base their images means a lot of different looks were going to filter back to Watts and Snyder. Watts says that absolutely became an issue. "We had every facility develop the look on their own. We then mushed them all together to make it look like one look. It might not be the way I would do it next time, but it worked pretty well. We got a Hot Gates, which was pretty consistent. But the more difficult aspect of maintaining consistency across different vendors was [subtler]. It was lighting and atmosphere, which made it clear to us that it would not be that easy. Zack and I looked at the work we were getting from various vendors and said, 'We can do one of two things: We can force the stuff to look the same or we can embrace the differences and use them to tell a more interesting story." And that's what we ended up doing. There were four battles in the movie and each was done by a different vendor. Animal Logic did Battle One. Hybride did Battle Two. Hydraulx did Battle Three and Pixel Magic did Battle Four. Three of them happen during the day and one happens at night, and they all have completely different looks to them. It's not what I would have thought I wanted, but it evolved as we were starting to do the work...They look different in Frank's book and you don't want to show people four of the same thing. It was the strategy there and I think it worked well. It was hard and the latitude to allow them to be different from one another was not that wide. It still had to look like Frank's book, but it really paid off for the audience. They are expecting the same thing and instead see something completely different. I've seen it with a couple preview audiences and during the battle scenes they are freaking out!"
Reflecting on his favorite sequences, Watts says, "I think what we call the 'Crazy Horse' shot in Battle One, which is the long side angle shot of Gerard Butler [as King Leonidas] in his battle montage was an amazing achievement. It was really hard to photograph and put together. It's a gigantic shot. It's made of six different concurrent photographic elements, shot at high speed. It's got all digital backgrounds, spears and blood -- that was a huge achievement. Also, a couple shots that Scanline did of some Persian ships crashing against the rocks, I was really happy with that because it was a scene that everybody knew would be really expensive. Nobody was quite sure how to shoot it, so there was some pressure to cut it out of the movie. People were saying it's too expensive, but Zack and I both said, 'You can't do a reverse to nothing. You have to have the boats. We can't cut it out.' All eyes were on us as we tried to figure it out. We decided to go all CG because there was no tank facility to shoot it and there was no budget to build a giant boat model. No one believed it could be done, but we teamed up with Scanline of Germany, which did some water work on Poseidon. They got it. We showed them the frame from the book and if you compare the frame from the book to the frame from the movie, it's just amazing how they did it. Not only did they make completely convincing water and ships, but they also went through the trouble to make all this secondary animation of Persians falling off masts and smashing on rocks. When people start watching this on DVD, I think they will really appreciate the amount of effort that went into those shots because there is so much action happening. It's a 115 frame shot so people won't see it in the movie, but on DVD people will be stunned when they see it."
Animal Logic -- The 300 Style and Battle One
Freckelton became a key component in translating Miller's style to the screen. He came on early in the testing phase explaining, "I had previously art directed a 90-second 300 test produced by Animal Logic in early '05, back before the film was greenlit. It was a success in terms of proving that 300 was going to be a highly stylized, bombastic action film, but it was also hastily produced and there wasn't much time for stylistic experimentation.
"In the last weeks of pre-production, I was given an open slate by Zack to pitch ideas anything that I thought might be cool for the film. Up until then, I had been doing a lot of Photoshop illustrations for 300's art department, but I hadn't been given much free reign to 'go crazy' (as Zack would say) with the vfx side of things. At the same time, every department was doing technical tests downstairs, so there were reams of footage of actors in proper costumes and makeup standing in front of bluescreens. So I started painting up backdrops in Photoshop, then using After Effects, I'd comp the test footage, and apply 'crush' color treatment. Naturally some of these tests turned out to be duds, but some became our first real insight into what the final product was going to look like. These test comps were valuable not only from a visual effects perspective, but they also displayed the culmination of every department's efforts in creating 300's unique style.
"There was one occasion where I was designing the mountains that surrounded Sparta," Freckelton continues. "I had found some reference images of the Taygetos Mountains that surround Sparta. I painted a keyframe based on these real mountains and presented it to Zack. He responded in his usual joking manner, 'Are you crazy? These mountains look like a real place. I mean: this image looks like something you'd see in a real movie.' I was amused at his response, but also a little bit confused. I replied, 'Well... I based them on real photos of Sparta.' He just shook his head and said, 'Well that was your first mistake right there.' That pretty much summed up Zack's visual aesthetic on the film: If it looked like it could be a real place, rendered in a realistic way, then chances were it didn't belong in 300. He also made it clear that he wanted it to feel like Frank and Lynne's art brought to life, particularly in terms of palette and texture."
Freckelton continued developing the look for the duration of the film and even co-created the style guides used by all the vendors on the film. "The process of taking these ideas and disseminating them amongst dozens of vfx artists became the real challenge on the film. When it became obvious that some of the stranger aesthetic choices we were making needed more in-depth explanations, we started creating style guides. There were several style guides covering topics such as landscape, skies and blood. They were basically PDF files that were full of images and text explaining our aesthetic and technical approach to various vfx elements in the film, so that an artist who knew nothing about 300 could read them and get their head into the style of movie. Take the digital blood for example. In pre-production, I had pitched the idea of what we called '2D' blood to Zack. It was inspired by an awesome little animation produced by a design company called Lobo. They animated a bloody axe murder in a graphic, illustrative way by adding parallax to comic frames. The actual murder was nothing but splatters of ink, animated in z space much like the splatters that Miller and Varley use in 300. The result was violent and bloody, but it looked like a comic brought to life, which is exactly what we were trying to do in 300. Zack was excited by this idea, but obviously there's a difference between a graphic illustrative animation and a film shot with real people. A few hours later he dropped some footage at my desk, because he had raced downstairs and filmed himself being slashed by one of the Spartans and wanted to see how this 2D effect might work on a live-action plate. With no ink handy, I went into the kitchen and splattered some balsamic vinegar on printer paper, then scanned it in, and proceeded to animate these ink splats in After Effects, over the footage of Zack. The result was pretty cool, it was clearly a violent image, but it wasn't brutal, or realistic and it also showed how we could adapt some of the aesthetics of the Miller/Varley illustration style into the actual film.
"Come post-production, we had to try and explain this concept to all the vendors. A lot of visual effects artists are trained to strive for reality, so if you say to them, 'We need to add in digital blood into this scene,' then they start thinking in terms of squib footage, or fluid simulations or other traditional blood techniques. If you say 'We want to make the blood look like 2D blood, OK, not so much 2D blood as 3D blood that looks like 2D paint splatters... but it is shaded and needs to be integrated into the scene,' quite rightfully a lot of artists end up wondering what on earth you're talking about. We found it was a lot easier to explain the idea of the blood in a style guide, where I could point to images from the comic and point to tests we had produced, and talk about possible ways of executing the effect. It was a more efficient method of communication."
On the composting side at Animal Logic, vfx supervisor Kirsty Millar worked with the artists to bring their sequences alive. "We worked on the whole of Battle One, which is the first time the Spartans clash with the Persians. This sequence is comprised of 176 vfx shots and runs to around eight minutes," she details.
Providing scene context, Miller explains, "The Spartans train all of their lives for combat and strategically use the landscape as part of their fighting tactics. In Battle One, they first arrange themselves inside a narrow canyon known as the 'hotgates,' so, although the Spartans are vastly outnumbered, the first wave of Persian infantry effectively has only one row of around nine Persians fighting one row of nine Spartans. This is the part of the sequence we called the 'hack n' slash' -- lots of fast cuts of hand-to-hand combat. The Spartans start to gain the upper hand and push the remaining Persian infantry over the cliffs of Thermopylae and into the ocean below. The Persian archers then launch a volley of millions of arrows that 'blot out the sun,' so the Spartans have to 'fight in the shade.' The Spartans 'tuck-tail,' crouching beneath their shields as the arrows bounce harmlessly around them. The Persians then send in the Cavalry, which the Spartans meet by forming a pointed phalanx in a narrow road bordered by steep cliffs, falling down to the ocean on one side. This again effectively reduces the huge Persian army to one-on-one combat, as only around four horses can fit on this narrow road. Needless to say, the Spartans defeat the last wave and live to fight another day.
"The most complex shot for us was hg036_081, also known as the 'Crazy Horse' shot," she continues. "We called it this because Zack had the idea to use the same sort of camera rig that was used in the film 'Crazy Horse', which used a beam splitter to provide a synchronous pos and matte. Zack wanted to take it a step further and simultaneously record three angles, a wide, mid and close, through the same viewfinder. The three angles could then be 'nested' to make digital zooms. The action was recorded at high-speed, with lots of motion- interpolated speed ramping in post to highlight the action. There were technical issues with the camera rig on the day so a fairly low-tech compromise was arrived at. They simply bolted three cameras together on a dolly. The resulting slight offset of the angles meant we had to morph between each in order to re-align the framing. We tracked the wide angle and worked out the camera offsets of the mid and close, then rendered the 3D environment with the angle changes incorporated. We added Leo's CG spear and CG sword extension, lots of CG spear tips and ends, digital doubles in the background, CG debris, blood, a CG leg being hacked off, light rays, dust and atmos. The final shot was about 1,700 frames long.
"The sheer volume of footage for this shot, plus the number of CG elements to go into it, with the additional complication of multiple speed ramps throughout, meant this was the shot we felt was the most likely to use a huge amount of resources and generally go awry. We also wanted to keep the edit flexible, so that Zack could change the timings if he wanted this helped to guide our approach. Senior compositor Tony Cole oversaw the shot with 3D lead Andrew Jackson and 3D td Clinton Downs working out a very efficient and flexible pipeline. In the end, it ran incredibly smoothly and turned out to be a stunning moment on screen."
Screaming Death Monkey -- The Oracle
One of the creepiest sequences of the film involves King Leonidas seeking out the diaphanous Oracle and her grizzled keepers high atop a mountain. Screaming Death Monkey (SDM) of Venice, California, created the Oracle work. Jeremy Hunt, visual effects supervisor for SDM, explains that he had worked with Watts on previous projects, "so I think he was confident that we could produce a high level of work without constant supervision. He's familiar with my skills as an artist and supervisor as well as an owner and that, as well as our past relationship, created a level of trust. He also knows that we would be able to come in with a competitive bid, which is always is a big part of the vfx supervisor's concern."
Detailing their sections of the film, Hunts says, "All three sequences revolve around the Oracle that King Leonidas has to present his battle plan to. The first part is his journey to her temple up a steep rock formation. The challenge here was the big reveal shot at the end, which was an 827-frame shot with very extensive set extensions and CG environments. It was a great shot to work on because it had a little bit of everything in it: matte paintings, set extensions, compositing effects and it's straight out of the comic book so it was cool to see it come to life.
"The second sequence is highlighted by the Oracle herself. This was a huge challenge on a few levels. A lot of her shots were shot 'wet for dry.' The actress was submerged in a water tank and shot against bluescreen in extremely slow motion. First, we had to recreate the practical set in 3D as well as the sky and other environment elements. The comp was difficult because underwater light behaves a bit differently as it plays off the skin, so to get her to match from the wet to the dry shots was tricky. Couple all of that with the semi-transparent clothing she was wearing and you have a tough key to pull. Wayne Shepherd, the lead compositor, did a fantastic job. Finally, the sequence called for her to interact with the smoke she uses to go into her trance. The smoke had to look real but move and envelope her in specific ways. We started the R&D with particle effects but couldn't get the wispy smoke that was needed and didn't have the control necessary. From there we shot a bunch of practical smoke elements and they looked great but again, didn't have the control we needed. We finally settled on 3D geometry with a cloth simulation morphed through a bone chain. This gave us the movement of smoke and the ability to animate it so that it could interact with the Oracle. We topped it all off with practical smoke elements that we shot to fill it all out and add a bit more realism.
"The third sequence is pretty brief but reveals a major plot point. Other than sky and environments comps (which nearly all of the shots required), the unique part of this scene was a shot of extremely slow motion coins raining down in front of camera. Because the coins needed to hit an exact mark to reveal the face of the coin and then speed ramp up into real speed as the camera tilts down, it was decided that CG would be the best way to achieve this very specific choreography. Modeling an ancient looking gold piece that had to match practical props was fun. And it was slightly different than other work we did on this project because it was the only thing we did that I would classify as totally photoreal. All the skies and environments that we did for the other shots had a painterly style added to them."
The Battle Won
With 300 already receiving advance praise for its unique vision and incredible visuals, Snyder and Watts are grateful for the lessons the production added to their filmmaking arsenal. "I'm a lot more fearless now than I used to be," Watts says of his 300 experience. "And I've learned if you photograph a bunch of people standing on a slope, you can make them look like they are standing on flat ground by simply moving the horizon," he cracks. "We shot this movie in 60 days, so we were a little more daring in terms of stuff that we were going to find. We only shot one motion control shot. If this was a bigger budget movie, I might have done some things with more of 100% of a chance of success the first time out. But because we had to shoot it fast and it's the kind of movie that lends itself to a little roughness, we got to try things we normally wouldn't try. I learned a lot more because of that, of what works and what doesn't. I'll take those tricks with me to the next movie and hopefully they will allow me to be even cleverer."
For Snyder, the lessons were more philosophical. "I learned that you can't get out of the way, necessarily, of a thing you love. I love Frank's work and my job as a director is to expose the audience to [it] -- to his vision. You are a filter and shots go through you and they come out the other side... different, but hopefully they aren't worse. I learned that I can still look at the Frank frame and enjoy it and look at the frame that I put in the movie and enjoy [that too]. In some ways, they are the same, but they are different. 300 meets my expectations, but the truth is -- you are never done. Are there things I would change? A couple, absolutely, but I won't say what," he smiles. "There are things that just need to be tweaked a little bit, but overall I'm very happy with the way the movie turned out."
Tara DiLullo Bennett is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1 & 2.