300 is the latest Frank Miller graphical novel to be translated to the screen. In this fxpodcast we talk to Jeremy Hunt who first came to fame with the web’s first breakthrough viral short, 405. He is the founder of Screaming Death Monkey, one of the effects houses who helped those actors recreate the story of the 300 Spartans.
Part One : Screaming Death Monkey
300 is a dazzling adaptation of Frank Millerâ€™s graphic novel and features the work of Screaming Death Monkey amongst the work of several effects houses (see appendix below for listing). SDM was overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Watts ( Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Day After Tomorrow, Gattaca) to execute three key sequences in the film, all central to the dramatic narrative and visual grandeur of the production as a whole.
Screaming Death Monkey worked hand-in-hand with both Watts and Visual Effects Art Director Grant Freckelton to create the painterly sequences. Because of the unusually generous timeline, the company was afforded the opportunity to refine and hone each shot to achieve the level appropriate for the majesty of film. SDM used Lightwave 3D, Inferno and Eyeonâ€™s Digital Fusion in its production.
Founded in 2004 by Director Jeremy Hunt, Screaming Death Monkey (SDM) specializes in leading edge computer effects for film, television, commercials and music videos. Drawing on Huntâ€™s extensive experience, including two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Visual Effects, SDM offers a range of services including 3d Animation, effects and compositing.
Hunt became famous a few years ago when he co-directed and produced 405 – perhaps the first break out viral short film. 405 garnered massive attention by the general public, industry and critics, including a nod from Roger Ebert. SDMâ€™s philosophy mirrors the ideology behind 405 â€“ to produce cool work in a boutique environment that utilizes feature level visual effects to drive story. (See appendix below for more on 405.)
As you can hear in this week’s podcast, the Oracle girl, one of the sequences given to SDM. Most of the visual effects of the film were shot against blue screen rather than the now more common green screen,- since much of the story took place outside. Interestingly the Red capes of the Spartans also interacted poorly with the green screen. To get the amazing look of the Orcale girl, the actress Kelly Craig was filmed under water.
The Background of 300
Based on the epic graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is a ferocious retelling of the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) and 300 Spartans fought to the death against Xerxes and his massive Persian army. Facing insurmountable odds, their valor and sacrifice inspire all of Greece to unite against their Persian enemy, drawing a line in the sand for democracy.
The film brings Millerâ€™s acclaimed graphic novel to life by combining live action with virtual backgrounds that capture his distinct vision of this ancient historic tale. This was last done in Sin City which Miller co-directed. This time the 300 is being directed by Zack Snyder (â€œDawn of the Deadâ€) who also co-wrote the screenplay.
According Wikipedia, the fierce resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable time to prepare for a naval battle that would come to determine the outcome of the war. The subsequent Greek victory in the Battle of Salamis left much of the Persian navy destroyed. Xerxes was forced to flee to Asia and left his army in Greece under Mardonius, who was to meet the Greeks in battle for one last time. The Spartans and other Greek allies assembled at full strength and decisively defeated the Persians in the Battle of Plataea, putting an end to the Greco-Persian War and with that, Persian expansion into Europe.
The Graphic Novel
Frank Miller first encountered the Spartans when he saw the film â€œThe 300 Spartansâ€ as a kid. In fact before the 300 was greenlit there were two other Spartan films in ‘pre-pre-production” including one with George Clonney.
Miller is already very well known for his legendary graphic works such as Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns. The exact facts are not fully known, for example the actual estimates of the size of the Persian army vary between 120,000 to 2 million, but the story is well documented. Miller pared down the Spartansâ€™ uniform (from what is thought to be roughly half a Spartan’s body weight in uniform and weapons) down to its most essential and symbolic features most notable the now famous Spartan red capes. He also peppered the story of the historic 480 B.C. battle of Thermopylae with elements of prior and subsequent clashes between Xerxes and the Greeks.
Miller produced the original 300 graphic novel some time ago but before he started he undertook substantial researchâ€”which took him to the cliffs of Thermopylae itself. Walking through the underbrush Thermopylae had a profound effect on Miller. â€œItâ€™s a place where great and glorious things happened,â€ he describes. â€œWe are talking about the crucible, the epicenter of the battle for everything that we have, for everything that is Western civilization. Thereâ€™s a reason why we are as free as we are, and a lot of it begins with the story of 300 young men holding a very narrow pass long enough to inspire the rest of Greece.â€ He comments. â€œI just did my best to do justice to a great moment in history. It was very important to streamline the appearance of characters to make them more dynamic and to lose the sense of this being an old story. Itâ€™s not an old story; itâ€™s an eternal story.â€
The film is directed by Zack Snyder, of Dawn of the Dead . Snyder found his process in conceiving the feature film similar to what Miller had experienced. He wanted to eschew the precepts of realistic filmmaking and instead find a way to â€œmake it live on screen,â€ he explains. â€œI didnâ€™t want to make a film that looks like a photograph but, rather, to put you inside the world Frank created in the graphic novel. This is not an historical drama. Itâ€™s not a linear story. Nor is it meant to be entirely historically accurate. Our goal was to create a true experience unlike anything youâ€™ve ever seen before.â€
A core team of filmmakers coalesced around 300 from the moment it crystallized. Producers Canton, Nunnari and Bernie Goldmann were all captivated by the story. â€œZack was so specific about how he wanted this film to look and feel,â€ comments Goldmann, â€œand as the project began to take shape, there was great satisfaction in knowing that Zack would be bringing this story to life in a way that audiences have never seen before.â€
Snyder, in the interim, made his directorial debut with â€œDawn of the Deadâ€ and then immediately returned to the project, working on the adaptation with his writing partner Kurt Johnstad, infusing the story with additions that sprang naturally from the clarity of Millerâ€™s original vision (Michael B. Gordon had written a previous draft of the screenplay).
Snyderâ€™s decision to make the graphic novel had groundbreaking implications for the filmâ€™s look. â€œThe look development was a big part of the process,â€ Snyder continues. â€œYou go to the movies because you want an experience thatâ€™s different. Thatâ€™s what we tried to do with â€˜300.â€™ Whether it was landscapes or battles or action or architecture, every frame in the movie is like a visual effect.â€ In fact during filming the effects shot count climbed to over 1200 shots.
Snyder initially storyboarded the film himself, and ultimately, he and his producing partner and wife, executive producer Deborah Snyder, and associate producer Wesley Coller put together a development package to express the directorâ€™s vision for the film.
The presence of Frank Miller, who also served as an executive producer on the movie, might have proved intimidating to the director, but Goldmann counters, â€œFrank was so nice and so helpful. Whenever Zack sought his input or approval, he would say, â€˜Keep going, itâ€™s great. I love what youâ€™re doing.â€™ He embraced the movie and all the people involved in making it.â€
As soon as the horizon darkens with the awesome sight of Xerxesâ€™s forces, the battle is on. â€œThe story of the 300 Spartans is about more than just a battle,â€ says Miller. â€œLeonidas knows these 300 men canâ€™t defeat the Persian army. â€˜300â€™ is about fighting, knowing you canâ€™t win. The act itself holds more power than the sum of the 300 warriorsâ€™ spears. These people, these men at the Hot Gates, are ready to die. In fact, Leonidas intends for them to die. He knows thereâ€™s no chance of survival. He clearly doesnâ€™t care, because he knows something will be achieved. I regard the Spartans as the victors of Hot Gates. You can win by losing.â€
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: â€œJim designed all the sets with the visual effects in mind. All through prep, VFX artists would digitally augment Jimâ€™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 couldnâ€™t solve with the existing sets, then they designed or tweaked something else to make it work.â€
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. â€œJust about everything, even details that one might take for granted, were painstakingly developed over the course of many months,â€ Watts says. â€œWhen we agreed on a something that worked, the details would be published in a â€˜style guideâ€™ that was distributed to the film’s vendors. We had ten visual effects vendors on four countries, so continuity of style was always an issueâ€
A series of tests was conducted on every aspect of the film, from lighting and costumes to the texture of the sets. One of the elements that the filmmakers wanted to explore was the photographic look of the film.
Snyder had the idea of manipulating the color balance to create a process that was ultimately nicknamed â€œthe crush.â€ â€œZack developed a recipe where youâ€™d crush the black content of the image and enhance the color saturation to change the contrast ratio of the film,â€ Jeffrey Silver explains. â€œEvery image in this film went through a post-image processing. The crush is what gives this film its distinct look and feel.â€ â€œI donâ€™t want anyone to say, â€˜Oh, that looks like Greece or that looks like Canada,â€™â€ explains Snyder.
Chris Watts, the Visual Effects Supervisor has worked in visual effects since the early 1990s. On Gary Rossâ€™ â€œPleasantville,â€ Watts pioneered the process now know as Digital Intermediate. Actually while everyone refers to 300 as a Frank Miller project, the original graphic novel was coloured by Lynn Varley. And it was Varley’s muted colour palette that Watts and the rest of the team so faithfully and distinctively reproduced.
The visual effects department collaborated with cinematographer Larry Fong. â€œThe graphic novel definitely influenced our look but that was only one of my challenges,â€ Fong says. â€œMy 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.â€
In photographing the film, Fong had to decide how to interpret Frank Millerâ€™s book in three dimensions. â€œTranslating that through lighting and composition was sometimes tricky but great fun,â€ he describes. â€œThere 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.â€
All photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Visual effects were provided by:
Screaming Death Monkey
A film by Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt (2001)
405 was created by Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt using only consumer level computers, off-the-shelf software in 2001. The short film was shot in two days on location on the busy I-405 freeway in Los Angeles and Orange County. But it really came to be only after three more months of hard work using computer graphics.
Much of the movie, featuring a DC-10 and a Jeep Grand Cherokee, was created entirely inside these computers. There are 62 shots in this 3 minute film and 42 of those shots are enhanced with digital visual effects. Nineteen shots are entirely digital creations, using no live action footage whatsoever. There is no real airplane in this film. The DC-10 was created digitally in a 3D environment. Both cars in this film are also created digitally using Lightwave 3D.
Dual Celeron 300 mhz dual processors (overclocked to 450 mhz), 384 MB ram, 24 gig storage, DPS Perception
Pentium II 450 mhz processor, 512 MB of ram, 4 gig storage
Pentium III 500 mhz processor, 256 MB of ram, 24 gig storage, DPS Perception
Canon Optura. A single CCD Digital Video camera