When Zack Snyder’s 300 was released in 2007 it brought with it the director’s trademark aesthetic feel – stylized battles, speed-ramps and high action were key elements. Synder returned as a producer for the follow-up directed by Noam Murro: 300: Rise of an Empire, where once again principal photography was captured mostly on greenscreen sound stages with significant visual effects artistry behind the film’s final look.
In this article, fxguide picks just some of Rise of an Empire’s big moments to explore in detail. Several members of the visual effects, previs and stereo conversion teams including visual effects supervisors Richard Hollander and John ‘DJ’ Desjardin, plus Scanline, MPC, Cinesite, The Third Floor, Halon and Gener8, discuss how these key shots were made possible.
Sea battles: each one unique
Much of Rise of an Empire takes place either on board Greek or Persian ships, and often when the vessels are crashing into each other. Scanline, with its rich history of water simulation technology in Flowline, handled these battles. To make them possible, the studio undertook a unique collaboration with The Third Floor for previs of the battles, and then embarked on creating different looks for each.
Previs: “Teaming up with Scanline, we were able to integrate their advanced ocean simulations in our previs,” says The Third Floor’s previsualization supervisor Patrick Smith. “This allowed us to give the director a very realistic idea of what the finished product would be. We also implemented Scanline’s pipeline into our own so we could seamlessly hand off our previs scene files to them to use for final visual effects.”
“One of the typical things you find with previs is that things will typically go the wrong speed,” adds Scanline visual effects supervisor Danielle Plantec (who shared duties with Bryan Hirota), “so when you get into the effects simulations that can be hard to maintain. So we put together a little speed counter so they never went beyond what they were supposed to be going, so the simulations were still viable.”
Shooting: On set at the Nu Boyana Film Studios in Sofia, Bulgaria, live action for the the sea-battles could be filmed only on partial ship sets. “The Greek ships could be put on stage in a shooting environment,” says Richard Hollander, “but for the Persian ships, which were huge, only about a third could fit. We had the front and back third and would swap them out and cheat the mid-ship with set extensions.”
“The actors were on platforms,” adds Hollander, “and we were even writing on the greenscreen ‘Greeks here’ and at the end we said where the Persian or Spartan fleet was coming from and where everyone was. We had to write it on the screens just so people know. But then previs was also a perfect way to design the shots and shoot them.”
The ship sets were rigged to gimbals that could rock and roll. “Knowing the kinds of oceans that we thought we were going to have,” says Hirota, “we worked with the special effects guys and gave them some simulations on a boat on that kind of ocean size, so that they could run their gimbals to get the physical sets moving in a roughly similar fashion. We also built a couple of other greenscreen platforms that were much smaller than the boat ones, that we could push or pull with forklifts and we used those where we wanted to stage action that actually had Greeks or Persians approaching each other.”
Circle Battle: “The first battle – or Circle Battle – was stormy and featured a cliff-like standing ocean wave from which the Persian ships could look over the Greek ships waiting down below,” explains John ‘DJ’ Desjardin. Bryan Hirota and I did work together to fine tune that sequence, designing more ship ramming other ship shots to tell the story of how Themistocles exploited the otherwise-superior Persian ships’ weakness (in the middle of their hulls). The water direction here was to get a very stormy sea look, lots of high water on the ships.
Fog Battle: “The Fog Battle took place on completely calm water, a mirror finish to the sea,” says Desjardin. “That look was already established when I came on to the show. What Bryan added since then was a nice atmospheric fog/haze to all the shots complete with god rays in the live-action shots which I think really added to the stillness and shrouded mystery of the environment.”
The Third Floor constructed previs for the Fog Battle, taking note of the choreography the audience would need to understand. Says Smith: “We approached this by first laying out a master scene file that covered the entire action in the most simple and clear way possible without any fog. Once the director and everyone signed off on the action and geography, we then layered in fog and used this file as our jumping off point. The main challenge was attempting to ground the action in an environment where you cannot see into the distance.”
The Persian boats are drawn into a rocky outcrop in the Fog Battle and so end up crashing and splintering. Scanline had to simulate that action for this and other battles. “We used Thinking Particles for our RBD destruction,” says Plantec, “which is heavily integrated with Flowline. Each of those ships is built like a normal ship would be, so it has a skeleton structure. Every plank is built out, so that when we crash them it is designed as a full system. As you take any ship and crash them through, you take the animation and it’s run through the RBD sim. There’s a joint system in there so things break based on what’s crashing with it. After that’s done we run it through Flowline and the fluid sim so you get all the interactivity of the water – the compact water, white water spray, fog and mist in the air.”
A significant part of the Fog and ultimately each battle, aside from ocean sims and ship destruction, became digital doubles. “The stunt team had some very particular fighting that they wanted to achieve and they didn’t feel like they could do it necessarily in the costumes they had designed,” says Hirota. “So they would fight in performance capture suits and we were able to compose a lot of the fights with digital fighters. We scanned all of the main characters. Anyone who talks – you scan them! And we shot polarized and unpolarized turntable textures of them too to start the modeling process.”
Fire battle: The Fire Battle involved both water and fire sims and takes place at night. The sims proved extra-complicated for Scanline since they also involved oil. “We had fluid shooting out of the oil tanker and then it gets set alight by the guy who is shot by a fire arrow,” describes Plantec. “So we had multi-layer fluid sims – the base ocean, fluid interaction with boats, spray, oil floating around and fire sims – which was also a fluid sim.”
At the end of the Fire Battle, Themistocles is thrown into the water by the explosion. Underwater greenscreen photography took place at Leavesden Studios, with Scanline layering in live-action soldiers along with CG digi-doubles and debris. A late addition was a Themistocles dream sequence involving mystical sea creatures. “We got this concept art and said, ‘We’ve gotta have this shot!’, recalls Plantec. “We didn’t have much time – maybe six weeks. It’s a crazy shot, a whole lot of sea creatures that are fighting over the dead Greeks. There’s a bunch of dead characters and debris floating in the water, and blood simulation – it was tricky but a lot of fun for us.”
Final Battle: This battles includes Themistocles’ horse run to Artemisia’s ship (see more on the horse jump, below).
Going for a ride
A signature shot in the final battle sees Themistocles ride a horse from ship to ship, battling Persians until he reaches Artemisia. The shot involved significant planning, with previs from Halon, techvis and motion control work from The VFXco and final effects by Scanline to pull off the 4,000 frame effort.
Previs: “With Themistocles jumping from boat to boat we quickly realized that it was easy to disorient the audience,” says Halon previs supervisor Ryan McCoy. “The movement of the camera had to be toned down, following a simplified fluid path. It would only make quick crescent orbits at deliberate moments to display the action from more exciting angles.”
Halon adapted its previs based on decisions as to how much the shot could be photographed ‘for real’. “The stunt department also chimed in once we roughed out the blocking, helping us define which actions and choreography we could utilize between the Persians and Themistocles,” adds McCoy. “I tried to add a sense of struggle within the shot; times when it seems like he might not make it. We gave production an additional top down view where the camera was constrained directly to Themistocles with the environment moving around him. This gave them an idea of how the camera might have to move around him on a green screen.”
As the shot evolved, Scanline also contributed previs for the horse jump, using actual horse motion capture with strides, gallops and leaps. This new previs was then provided to The Visual Effects Company (The VFXco) in London who would supply a Milo motion control rig and riding buck motion base on set. VFXco also carried out a techvis of the scene so that photographic elements could be filmed.
Shooting: “On set,” explains Hollander, “what we had was a six cylinder ride platform. The special effects guys added a stage on that motion platform which added a higher frequency component of up and down effectively. We put our stunt double on this and VFXco mathematically modeled all of the mechanics. Then what you do is a solve which is what Scanline had animated.”
VFX: Scanline stitched various passes of Themistocles riding the buck, and also fighting Persians, together, along with separate moco passes of Artemisia cutting down the horse and readying for battle. “So much of that sequence became CG,” describes Plantec. “Themistocles’ torso might be real, but his cape would be CG, none of the horse was real, none of the environments. There were also fully digital proto-samurai with cloth and hair sims which were based on the stunt team fighting in their gray suits. And then all the blood simulation and water sims.”
The film begins with a flashback to the Battle of Marathon, where General Themistocles of Athens kills King Darius I of Persia. The battle features large scale fights between Greeks and Persians, and views from nearby Persian boats. The sequence relied on extensive previs, skilled stunt choreography and then subsequent heavy crowd, environmental and atmospheric visual effects which required a close attention to re-times.
Previs: Halon tackled the previs for Marathon, working carefully to illustrate the vast numbers of Greek soldiers who would be charging down the beach. “We tried to really show the difference in numbers between the hordes of greeks spilling down the slope and the unsuspecting Persians away from their boats,” says Halon’s Ryan McCoy. “It was about contrast and building energy.”
“Most of the actual battling was achieved with mocap’d fight animations that we were able to render onto cards and propagate around the beach,” continues McCoy. “The foreground fighting was choreographed by the stunt team, who provided their own stuntvis for editorial. It was a bit tricky getting Themistocles and Darius to seem like they were aware of each other in the same scene, considering they were over a football field apart. Shooting the arrow fire from a wide shot would have looked preposterous. The accuracy and distance was ridiculous, but when shot down the line of action with a few cuts, it seemed reasonable enough.”
Shooting: At the Bulgarian studios, various types of terrain were re-used and re-dressed on greenscreen sets to facilitate different angles of the scene.
“The Marathon set was just constantly re-used for all sorts of things,” recalls Hollander. “We all wished everything was bigger and there was more space between the set and the greenscreen but it all worked out. DOP Simon Duggan did a great job too of lighting and illuminating our sets at the flick of a switch. Simon set up these area lights where he could get it to be a little more source-y, and he could computer dial-in which direction the sun was coming from, and that allowed us to maintain as best as we could a directionality to it.”
VFX: MPC, under visual effects supervisor Charley Henley, crafted the visual effects for Marathon. Wide shots made use of the studio’s proprietary ALICE crowd generation tool, and even close-ups of combat action used background crowds. Ocean scenes relied on Flowline for water sims with extra foam caps and particles for boat interaction. MPC also heavily stylized the environments and atmosphere for each shot, making use of Flowline simulations for artistic viscous-like blood splatter.
Slo-mo and speed-ramps: Among the challenges of the Marathon sequence – and many others in the film – were re-times at crucial moments, most notably when characters are cut down by a sword or shield. Simon Duggan captured action on the RED EPIC and Phantom cameras at between 120 and 300 fps – the intention was always to use the hi-speed photography to create specific shots down the pipe. “Slo-mo and speed ramps are pretty standard on most Zack Snyder productions,” says Desjardin, “so implementing them was pretty standard operating procedure by now. “Editor David Brenner timed out the speed ramp in the Avid and handed us the count sheet reflecting the effect. The first stage of the comp was to duplicate that ramp and then add the rest of the elements to the re-speeded plate.”
“Some of the fun, tangential FX that got added to this process were rain, lightning and blood,” notes Desjardin. “The rain was cool because we liked seeing the long streaks turn to refractive droplets. Zack also wanted us to showcase that slo-mo traced lightning effect you see in very high speed photography of lightning storms. Charley Henley and MPC really went all-out to exploit these directives, giving us slo-mo lightning, rain and geysers of CG blood that would speed ramp up and down and all over the place to great effect.”
MPC had established a specific pipeline for re-times during production on another Zack Synder film, Sucker Punch, by making a re-time curve simply another ‘asset’ that is managed during VFX production. “We basically try to simplify the process for the artist,” says MPC CG supervisor Stopsack. “It is almost something that seamlessly works and artists don’t necessarily have to care about it too much.”
The re-time curve is provided by the comp team when shots are ingested, then distributed to all departments and TDs and piped into MPC’s various pieces of software including Maya, NUKE, Katana and its proprietary tools like Kali and ALICE. “The advantage of that is that we can keep these re-times alive,” notes Stopsack. “At any point in time if the re-time has to change or for creative decisions, that re-time information is just like any other asset and we can update it and version-control it and change the re-time. They could use the original time of the plate that it was shot in, or switch and say I now want to see the out-time of the plate – and we apply the re-time curve. So it really is just an on/off button effectively.”
Stopsack explains for each shot that required a re-time, MPC had three timelines they worked to:
1. An in time that was provided by the plate
2. An out time that supplied the actual re-time that needed to be applied to the shot
3. An additional timeline called ‘working time’.
“The working time,” says Stopsack, “was something that allowed us to optimize or fast-track the work for shots that were filmed at super-high frame rates – like 1000 or 1200 fps. So this is where we said roto-animation doesn’t need to do the roto on 15,000 frames, we had an in-between ‘work’ time that allowed them to do in-between keyframing and interpolation between those. Otherwise it would have been a massive overhead in time and data to work on every single frame.”
“It sounds simple if you say you provide a re-time curve that goes into any of your applications,” adds Stopsack, “but at the same time it’s affecting all the tools and solvers like our proprietary tools like Kali and even Flowline. All of these had to be compatible and be worked up and improved to be compatible.”
Blood as art
Like the first film, Rise of an Empire features glorious blood hits often in slow-mo and high detail. “My understanding of the first 300 was that some percentage of the stylized blood was 2D in nature,” says Desjardin. “We went full 3D CG this time around which gave us a lot of freedom as to placement and choreography of this iconic effect. Most of the blood hits were left to Charley (MPC), Richard (Cinesite) and Bryan (Scanline) to improvise. But there were a fair bit that went through specific directorial notes. Off the top of my head, the long speed-ramp shot of Themistocles charging towards the horse in the Marathon Battle; several meaty punches during the Spartan training fight; and the shape and texture of the fatal sword thrusts that wound Artemisia.”
Artists at Scanline, in particular, relished the opportunity to realize these artistic blood effects. “We actually had an entire team devoted to blood,” says Plantec. “But early on there was a point where they didn’t want blood in the film – they wanted to do something different from before. So we were experimenting with other things from chunks of body to crystals to dust to it being black blood.”
“We ended up with a 17 minute reel riffing on different ideas,” adds Hirota. “But some time after that I went to a meeting with Warner Bros and they decided to go down the blood route. Zack did have one request; one thing on the first film that happened was that blood could not actually hit anything – basically for financial reasons. He suggested to Noam and ourselves that one way we could differentiate the movie this time was let’s have blood hit something!”
Of course, this meant that Scanline (and the other vendors) had to track bodies and objects in 3D space with extra precision and negotiate the inevitable re-times. “But,” says Plantec, “I found myself having a lot of fun with the blood. One of my favorite shots in the movie where there’s a sword through the head and it makes a mohawk of blood. It’s so pretty with the light streaming through the mohawk that it doesn’t seem too gory – it’s more like art.”
Xerxes revealed as the ‘God-King’
During the Battle of Marathon, Xerxes witnesses the death of his father Darius. He is then spurred on by Artemisia to become a God. Xerses journey into a cave and then emergence as the ‘God-King’ after bathing in gold liquid was realized in shots created by MPC.
“The reveal is basically two plate elements,” says MPC’s Sheldon Stopsack. “We have Xerxes as he’s entering the lake in the cave where he’s diving in. We had to extend the cave in the background. And then as he emerges it’s a different greenscreen plate that we got with the pool surrounding and Xerxes steps out.”
“None of the golden liquid was in there,” adds Stopsack. “So that was our addition. The biggest challenge was to merge these two plates and get a seamless transition. Mainly what proved to be difficult or challenging was that the angle was slightly different, so having a seamless transition between the two was challenging and took some time to work up and figure out.”
For the golden liquid, MPC used Flowline to work up the golden ‘flowy’ surface and the drips. “They were a combination of a Tesendorf displacement and more of a 2D rippling. Then we had to go in there and do the interactive stuff where the ripples interact with the edge of the pool and with Xerxes. For me, it proved harder than I thought it would be because you assume the liquid is relatively calm and it should be quite easy to do from an effects point of view, but it’s very subtle – it has to be right and believable. It’s a slightly different dynamic when it’s calm. We simulated a whole bunch of secondary caches and particle caches alongside it – in particular there were a lot of submerged particles underneath the surface that we generated from Flowline. We explored it, even to the point where he almost looked like he was in an Alka Seltzer – it was very bubbly!”
Xerxes makes his way out to a roaring crowd of Persians, standing atop a platform. For this shot, MPC again employed in particular its ALICE crowd system.
Return to Sparta
Themistocles looks to Sparta for support against the Persians. The environments for that location were handled by Cinesite, which developed them as a fully 3D creation.
This included a CG wheat field crafted with the help of Peregrine Labs’ Yeti tool. “They helped us evolve their plugin so we could do fur with it,” says Cinesite visual effects supervisor Richard Clarke. “I wanted to use a fur system so we could groom it, add wind, add effects. We also needed to instance geometry, but also create the ear and the corn husk. We were able to create thousands of husks of corn wafting as the field and we could get quite close to the wheat and adds life to those environments.”
The building (and burning) of Athens
Establishing shots of Athens were crafted by Cinesite, while MPC laid waste to the city when Xerxes’ army arrives.
For city-building, Cinesite looked to maps of ancient Greece and replicated the layout of the streets as much as possible. “They wanted all the key features of Athens in that one shot,” says Cinesite’s Richard Clarke, “so we cheated the main temples and everything you need in there. It’s a very creative shot showing you it’s Athens. We went to the London museum quite a few times to see all the antiquities, as well as the plaster room at the Victorian and Albert museum. We modeled and styled ancient style dwellings, then places of worship, a piazza et cetera.”
“We would start with basic geometry,” adds Clarke, “then would do rudimentary modeling and texturing pass. We give that to the DMP team who would use Photoshop to paint in detail, and we’d project that in NUKE and render in layers, then give it to compers to comp. The piazza and temples – those are modeled to a very high level of detail which lets us be more flexible with lighting and then they are rendererd raytraced, then further back is two and a half D, then further back is old fashioned 2D.”
For shots of Athens burning, MPC also worked on an extensive environment build, as well incorporating CG elements such as a giant statute that is toppled (which was subsequently destroyed using Kali).
“We also had to create a unique atmosphere,” says MPC’s Sheldon Stopsack, “from really close foreground stuff that was flying past camera and then populate the whole volume and density. For a lot of the close embers we ended up using library elements, and for atmospherics effects that filled the background up they were more effects-driven.”
The Greek soldiers rest at encampments on the shore. Cinesite worked with plate photography shot in Bulgaria and also delivered fully CG environments for these sequences.
“There was a very minimal set build that they then used from different angles to re-dress and re-dress the set,” explains Cinesite’s Richard Clarke. “They created on the set a huge set of undulating rocks where you could pitch a tent and so on. They would film it from different angles re-dress it. We had one giant LIDAR scan to help line up our cameras and then we would build out from that to create our rocky environment extensions.”
Cinesite had to craft day and night shots for the encampment areas – which meant both including the sun and the moon depending on the shot. “For the sun it was classic Zack Snyder,” recalls Clarke. “He would say we need the sun in every shot. So sometimes you could have up to five or six suns – that’s his look. He wants big sexy glows and wanted all the dust and embers, every shot had some sort of particulate.”
“And then we also had to put in a moon for some shots,” says Clarke, “and we should have remembered the rule from DJ, whatever you think is right, double it. We put in what we thought was a large moon and Zack said even bigger. We would match sketches that Zack would send us. “There’s a rule of thumb that we learnt from DJ – if Zack draws something on a sketch – if you just literally copy it he will buy off on it. What he draws is what he wants. They were amazing sketches, too.”
Stereo converting Rise of an Empire
Already a ‘visually arresting’ film, Rise of an Empire was converted for stereoscopic viewing by Gener8. The studio looked for specific ways to allow stereo to immerse the audience even further into the action.
“Depth-wise we broke a lot of rules and placed lens schmutz far negative as though it landed on your glasses forcing you to look past it,” says Gener8 executive producer Paul Becker. “The idea is simple: when you are at the ocean and spray gets on your sunglasses you don’t try to focus on it – you look past it. So it was with blood, spray and light in 300. We also introduced things like 3D light wrap on edges and pushed the volumetric light effects. Finally, we made sure that all the particles had their own specific depth.”
Gener8’s tools for the task were Maya, Silouette and NUKE, plus their proprietary StereoComposer program. “It’s an in-house tool that allows our stenographers to basically ‘photograph’ a fully reconstructed 3D scene,” explains Becker. “So we are basically recreating the whole 2D scene in 3D and then ‘shooting’ it with two cameras—very similar to native stereo. We have the advantage, however, of being able to add multiple cameras (multi-rigging) to enhance roundness and volume of specific objects.”
StereoComposer proved crucial for the complex Marathon flashback that presented particulate changes in depth of field, bokeh and semi-transparency challenges. Similarly, Themistocles’ horse gallop was both a lengthy shot and one involving many particles and atmospheric debris. To specifically deal with this issue Gener8 used the flat 2D passes within the comp to “create a particle disparity tool,” says Becker, “allowing for every little object to exist in its own z position. We also experimented with an induced retinal disparity on light blooms and wraps to simulate native photography.”
Crafting the final ‘300’ look
Certainly, the visual effects teams did a mammoth job in taking mostly greenscreen and on-set photography and producing stunning stylized imagery. But this of course was pushed further in the DI. “Most shows I work on with Zack, I deliver final images in neutral space,” says Desjardin. “This allows Zack and Stefen Sonnenfeld (head of Company 3) to push shots around with a lot of latitude. We generally tried to do the same on 300: Rise of an Empire, but because of the extreme nature of the look, we baked some of the color, not too much of the contrast, into the comps.”
“My main concern,” adds Desjardin, “was to keep as much of the detail in the highs and lows to give Zack and Stefan the detail to keep or crush as they saw fit, not for us to leave them with little or nothing to work with. The final look was always decided in the DI, with just a slight nudge in a color-contrast direction from VFX.”
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