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THIS IS SPARTA: ROLLING CAMERAS AND TELECINES
Article Date: February 8, 2007 | Publication: Warner Bros. | Author: Production Notes - Part 4
To help realize his epic action drama on the screen, Zack Snyder assembled a diverse team of collaborators, including cinematographer Larry Fong, Oscar-nominated production designer James Bissell (“Good Night, and Good Luck”), editor William Hoy, costume designer Michael Wilkinson, visual effects supervisor Chris Watts, and make-up and creature effects supervisors Shaun Smith and Mark Rappaport. For Bissell, “300” required a bold new approach to the design of the production because of the virtual nature of the sets and his faithful adherence to the visual style established by Miller’s graphic novel. “It was more operatic than realistic,” he acknowledges.
Using Zack Snyder’s thumbnail storyboards as a departure point, Bissell and his team created 3-D environments and concept illustrations of Sparta, the Greek terrain and Thermopylae, site of the epic battle. Snyder, Bissell and Watts then reviewed the illustrations Bissell recalls: “We asked: ‘Are the actors walking uphill? Downhill? Where do they cast shadows? How little of this do we have to build?’”
Terrain sets were abstracted so that they could be used for different scenes by changing camera angles or adding elements. In this way, Leonidas and his army of 300 marched across Greece using only three constructed sets. Sets for Sparta, the Hot Gates, and Xerxes’s tent were also built on stage. “The Persian messengers galloping toward camera is the only scene that we shot outdoors,” says Bissell.
“The awesome thing about Jim is that he was never daunted by any of it,” marvels Snyder. “In a lot of ways I think he was excited by the prospect of not being limited to what you could build, but just what you could imagine.”
Each scene was conceived with a fully designed 3D environment, then rendered in color with key frame illustrations. When that was complete, Bissell was able to better assess what he had to build and adjust accordingly.
Chris Watts worked closely with Bissell and Snyder to ensure that the creative and technical details were supportive of the overall vision. “With 1300 visual effects shots, there is no shortage of technical issues,” Watts explains. “But the primary challenge of ‘300’ was creative: All of those visual effects shots need to be constructed to reflect the style and aesthetic of the graphic novel, while accommodating Zack's vision for the parts of the film that don't appear in the book.”
Because nearly every set and location was enhanced with visual effects, the art and visual effects departments also had to ensure that the design and technical elements worked well together. Watts gives a simplified description of the process: “Jim designed all the sets with the visual effects in mind. All through prep, VFX artists would digitally augment Jim’s set designs to give Zack an accurate picture of what he could expect as a final result. If there was a problem that we couldn’t solve with the existing sets, then they designed or tweaked something else to make it work.”
As part of the visual development of the film, Watts and his team tested virtually everything that would be seen in the film: the look of fire, the Spartan capes, wounds, weapons, CG blood versus real blood. “Just about everything, even details that one might take for granted, were painstakingly developed over the course of many months,” Watts continues.
“When we agreed on a something that worked, the details would be published in a ‘style guide’ that was distributed to the film's vendors. We had ten visual effects vendors on four countries, so continuity of style was always an issue”
The visual effects department also collaborated with cinematographer Larry Fong. “The graphic novel definitely influenced our look but that was only one of my challenges,” he says. “My goal was to maximize mood and drama but I still needed to keep the VFX department happy with clean mattes and good exposure detail to allow 'the crush' later on down the line.”
In photographing the film, Fong had to decide how to interpret Frank Miller’s book in three dimensions. “Translating that through lighting and composition was sometimes tricky but great fun,” he describes. “There were times when we went for a very close match to specific frames in the book, which Zack called 'Frank frames'. But obviously not every shot in the film matches a drawing, so we did have room to experiment and develop a visual style of our own. Very often I'd say it was a visceral thing more than a technical exercise.”
Costume designer Michael Wilkinson also wanted to remain true to the graphic nature of Miller’s drawings. In creating the costumes for the film, he maintained “the strength of line,
bold silhouettes and strong drapery of the graphic novel, and used fabrics that had great texture, that the camera would love, and had a sense of life to them,” Wilkinson expounds.
Wilkinson and his team scoured the world to find inspiration and the fabric to bring the designs to life. The linen for the Spartan capes they found in Russia, chosen for its beautiful texture and the dynamic way that it flowed in the action sequences. The fabric then underwent extensive testing with various dyes until the exact Spartan red was achieved. The team then put the capes through a process of “distressing” to convey the wear and tear as the soldiers go through the battles. “We looked at the book and discovered that towards the end of the novel, Frank had drawn the capes bleached and shredded,” he recalls. “So, we distressed our capes by creeping bleach, dye and paint onto them to make them look like they had gone through heavy warfare.”
His choice also helped illustrate the psychological toll that the battles had taken on the Spartans. “Their spirits are broken and worn down by the pummeling they get in each different battle,” he offers. “So, the worn look of the costumes is also a metaphor for the life starting to bleed out of the characters.”
To differentiate between the Spartan and Persian armies, the Spartan army was dressed in rich, warm earth tones, while the Persian army flashes peacock colors, exotic greens, blues and purples with gold. Wilkinson explains, “The costumes of the Greek warriors accentuate their highly refined physiques – as though their bodies are their armor – while, contrary to that, the Persian army is covered in exotic cloths, and the silhouettes are exaggerated to give the impression, to Greek eyes, of a mysterious, unknown monster approaching.”
The costumes for the Persian army drew inspiration from a variety of sources. “We figured that by the time Xerxes marched from his home to Greece, he would have come in contact with lots of different races,” says Wilkinson. “So, for each of the different Persian tribes, we had different influences, ranging from Africa to Egypt to Russia to Armenia to Japan to China, and everything in between.”
Xerxes’s elaborate costume—made almost entirely of metal rather than cloth—is based on Miller’s frame from the book. “Frank’s drawing of Xerxes is one of my favorite images from the graphic novel,” the costume designer says. “I loved its audacity, and was inspired by Frank’s preference for visual impact over historical authenticity.”
Wilkinson’s design for Xerxes is definitely the most complex costume in the film. “The costume consists of 18 different jewelry pieces, each using dozens of African and Middle-Eastern beads and jewelry motifs, plus 12 piercings that we created especially for the character.”
Utilizing heavy leathers, bronze materials, feathers, horsehair, fiberglass and plastic resins, Wilkinson and his team of 60 costumers created all of the armor, jewelry and helmets to outfit the Spartans and the Persians. Many of the costume pieces also had to be done in multiples. For example, there were five Spartan capes for each of the main actors and 17 duplicates of the distinctive plumed helmets worn by King Leonidas.
The appearance of the characters—human and otherwise—also involved the make-up effects team, headed by Shaun Smith and Mark Rappaport. They were responsible for creating the look for Ephialtes, the Immortals, the Executioner and varied characters in Xerxes’s tent, as well as the wolf young Leonidas faces and even some horses. They were also charged with creating the dramatic “Wall of the Dead,” which the Spartans build using the bodies of vanquished Persians as mortar. The make-up and effects teams utilized a rig with hydraulics to allow the Spartans to turn the wall into an effective weapon. The make-up team also had the responsibility of creating characters that do not appear in Miller’s work.
Nevertheless, Snyder, the producers and everyone involved in the production were passionate about staying true to the vision expressed in Miller’s work. Nunnari states, “Working together, everyone became part of this fantastic team and we all enjoyed the process of making this movie on every level.”
Canton agrees. “From the inception of the storyboards from Frank’s book to the shooting of the film and post-production, ‘300’ has been a tremendously exciting journey for all of us.”
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