Rolling Cameras And Telecines
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
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