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Montreal proves a worthy opponent

Category: 300 News
Article Date: March 4, 2007 | Publication: The Toronto Star | Author: Melora Koepke

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While T.O.'s film industry ails, Quebec's advantages have a special effect.

Montreal The flash and steel of refurbished industrial buildings in Montreal's multimedia district don't much resemble the craggy rock cliffs of Sparta, but for people controlling purse strings at Warner Bros., this was an ideal place to shoot a full-on war set in Ancient Greece.

Hitting theatres on Friday, 300 is an eye-popping adaptation of comic-book master Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which tells the tale of the fabled battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartan warriors stood up against the Persian emperor Xerxes' million-strong army.

Montreal, it turns out, takes after the underdog Spartan army in skills and determination. Quebec's combination of unmatched visual-effects expertise and an aggressive tax credit through the Quebec government make it a worthy competitor against giant forces of unlimited size and resources - namely, big Hollywood CGI studios.

Director Zack Snyder shot the epic completely on green screen, in a disused locomotive refurbishment lot in Montreal, using lesser-known actors - Scottish actor Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie, Phantom of the Opera) plays King Leonidas, and Brazilian soap-opera star and recent Lost cast addition Rodrigo Santoro is Persian emperor Xerxes.

Snyder, in an interview in Los Angeles last week, emphasized that his intention with 300 was to create a hyper-real world out of Miller's drawings that are more of an imaginary riff on history rather than a precise retelling.

In order to do that, Snyder shot his actors on rudimentary sets, over 60 days on green screen, and then worked on the "look" of his footage in post-production, where he also added CGI landscapes, weather and other elements.

"I didn't want the movie to look like it was just spit out of a computer," said Snyder. "I wanted it to look organic - (Miller's work) feels dirty ... it's gritty, has a dark quality to it. Though I shot the movie on film, we actually added grain to the (footage), because I didn't want it to be so CGI," Snyder said.

Snyder and his producers decided to do all this complex post-production work at Hybride, a 95-person boutique operation in a refurbished mansion in the Laurentian village of St-Sauveur, 45 minutes north of Montreal. The locally owned company is known for its work on another Miller adaptation, Robert Rodriguez's Sin City (2005), though Rodriguez shot that film in his own facility in Texas before it came to Canada for post-production.

Hybride, despite its modest dimensions, is one of the premier effects houses for Hollywood productions, sometimes competing directly with George Lucas' behemoth Industrial Light and Magic - without an office or a sales rep on the West Coast. Pierre Raymond, Hybride's president, is proud of the differences between his business model and that of the big American visual effects houses.

"In order to be competitive with the Americans, we had to develop new techniques and processes for doing the work, so that our production values are comparable to the American houses, and our price/quality ratio is vastly superior. What we've also learned is how to deal differently with the client, we listen better, we're not pretentious."

It's not only the special effects expertise that draws production crews. The tax credit incentive is slightly higher in Quebec than in Ontario and British Columbia, which may be why films such as Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic, starring Cate Blanchett, and Blades of Glory with Will Ferrell and Jon Heder, chose to film in Montreal. Whiteout, a big-budget thriller starring Kate Beckinsale, will start shooting next month.

"We went to Montreal especially for the fantastic tax incentive that is offered by Quebec to filmmakers - that's not only a production incentive, it's also a visual effects incentive," said 300 producer Jeffrey Silver. Quebec offers an extra 20 per cent labour-based visual effects tax credit for foreign producers.

That was why 300 did its production as well as its post-production work in La Belle Province, Silver said, calling Montreal "the ideal place in the world to do this."

For those used to working in sunny Hollywood, it made for some surreal experiences, he added.

"On the last day of shooting, we just finished our last shot of a bunch of dead Spartans lying there, and then okay, that's it, it's 6 a.m. in the morning, and we all walked outside, everyone's sweating in their loincloth ... into this big blizzard and had a snowball fight. It was pretty awesome."


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