Thomas J. McLean asks several VFX insiders about the potential creative influence of 300.
Few films have caused as much furor as 300, director Zack Snyder's adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novel telling of the Battle of Thermopylae. Critics blasted the film's story as simplistic and compared its heavy use of stylized CG environments and effects as akin to a videogame.
So, of course, 300 was a massive success, grossing $208 million at home on its way to a worldwide total of nearly $440 million. All this from a film that had highly stylized visual effects in virtually every one of its more than 1,300 shots and was made for a bargain price.
"We didn't do a whole lot of super groundbreaking visual effects," admits Chris Watts, the visual effects supervisor on 300. "There was a lot of it, and it was done in a style that maybe no one's ever done before. The big achievement in this movie from a visual effects point of view was creative."
And its that creativity, as much as the prospect of being able to make effects-heavy films for less, that has most impressed others in the industry.
"More often than not, when people go to shoot a movie in this fashion, they are unsure of what their environments and compositions will be and become very cautious and conservative with the camera," says Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis (Poseidon). "The filmmakers in 300 threw out that convention and used every camera move they could think of to re-create a graphic novel in a faithful way, knowing that they could and would compose their shots later."
Enabling Personal Visions
Scott E. Anderson, who worked the virtual-set adventure film, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, agrees that 300 proves that visual effects can be done more creatively and more cheaply. "I love that films like 300 and Sky Captain before them all brought personal creative visions to the screen that weren't going to get made otherwise," he says.
Oscar-winning vfx supervisor Rob Legato (Titanic), currently spearheading the virtual cinematography system and pipeline on James Cameron's all-CG/3-D Avatar, says the film expands the palette of filmmaking. "It's not photoreal or cartoon or CG totally; it's sort of a hybrid in between so it become a stylization that might be appropriate for some subject matter," he suggests. "It won't replace anything: it'll just create yet another style to create a movie in."
But not every fantasy, comicbook or sci-fi film is suited to be made the same ways as 300, where the already stylized look of Miller's graphic novel made it easier in some ways (and more difficult in others) to get a big bang for their visual effects buck.
"I caution people to think they can march off to Montreal with $65 million and think they can make the next half-billion-dollar, 300-style hit," adds Watts. "The production design of the movie, the way the movie was put together, the story, the fact that it was based on a comicbook, the skill with which Zack directed it and the corners that we chose to cut or not to cut, I think came together in a special way that I think will be difficult for many other movies to duplicate."
Indeed, in a stylized CG world where everything is bluescreen, nothing happens by mistake and that can be taken way too far, according to Watts. He believes that a successful stylized movie has to have flaws and variations in style or it can get novel but boring. For instance, he purposely allowed each battle to have its own unique characteristics.
Realism Costs Money
Others agree that a film shot the same way but seeking a more realistic look will be more expensive.
"Most filmmakers that I know are looking for photorealism in their films," offers Shermis. "Attaining photorealism in filmmaking still requires more time and money and discipline in the original photography, as well as post-production, than a film like 300 spent."
Anderson says getting that final realistic sheen is the real tipping point: "The last 10% of work is very, very expensive, so if you're going to do an approach that can avoid some of those costly parts of the process, you can save money."
That's not to say that it's easy to be stylized. Watts says one of the big challenges was figuring out ways to make the film look like Miller's comicbook and satisfy everyone involved without being hokey. "If you're making a background that's trying to look real, you at least have the luxury of being able to say to your artists, `I want this to look real,' and everybody knows exactly what you mean," contends Watts. "But if you say, `Make it look like this comicbook,' there's a million interpretations of that concept open."
The stylized approach had its drawbacks. Shermis says that while the effects effectively visualized the story, a lot of visual effects fundamentals were ignored. "I have to say that lighting style, direction and exposures didn't appear to be given strong consideration in the overall look of the film," he suggests. "I also have to assume that blue/greenscreen exposures were not a high priority in the photography either, which is a big surprise when considering the fact that nearly the entire film was photographed against process screens."
Room to Experiment
The potential for films to follow in 300's footsteps remains an exciting prospect for its ability to allow for more experimentation and creativity in filmmaking and in the use of visual effects. "These visually unorthodox and experimental projects can be some of the most rewarding to be involved with," says The Orphanage's Ryan Tudhope, who worked as an associate vfx supervisor on another Miller adaptation, Sin City.
"As the saying goes, `A rising tide floats all boats,'" says Shermis. "I think this will usher in a new wave of visual effects films, and not just as `visual effects' movies, but otherwise plain, simple films that will employ the use of visual effects -- in a very big way -- in order to keep the shooting costs down."
"Yes, I think 300 set a new standard and we will probably see a number of pictures like this over the next few years," observes director Roland Emmerich, who just completed 10,000 B.C. "I use visual fx in a different way: more to tell the story rather than to make an artistic statement."
Legato agrees that the film's influence will be lasting. "Younger filmmakers are going to be given much more of an opportunity, because this proved that you can do that and have a fresh eye and obviously there's an audience for it," he says. "It's going to basically create more films like it, and probably more successful films like it."
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.