300 Part Two: Flamin’ Animals

In the 2nd part of our series on 300 we speak to Hydraulx co-founder Greg Strause about their amazing 3D work on 300. In the podcast we also get his first impressions of Alien vs Predator 2, having just come off set from co-directing the film. Our online article also features Grant Freckelton, Visual Effects Art Director.


Hydraulx has just completed work on Zack Snyder’s film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300. In order to achieve the film’s hyper realistic style, 300 was filmed entirely on sound stages against blue screens. Hydraulx utilized a vast array of digital matte paintings and CGI to create the film’s epic 3D virtual environments and virtual characters. In this the second part of our stories on the film 300 we shift our attention to Hydraulx and talk to the insanely talented co-founder of Hydraulx, Greg Strause.

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Brothers Greg and Colin Strause (known as Brothers Strause) are a directing duo and special effects artists who grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. According to Wikipedia, they began experimenting with visual effects in their early teens.

In 1995, they moved to Los Angeles and started working on the special effects for The X-Files. From there they moved on to big-budget hits such as The Nutty Professor (1996 film), Volcano, and the iceberg sequence of the Academy Award-winning Titanic.

They then broke into the music video and commercial arena, handling the special effects for artists such as U2, Britney Spears, Tool, and Aerosmith as well as spots for Nike, Jeep, and Pepsi. The Brothers Strause story is another case of two guys who just had a passion and desire to do visual effects from an early age – and without any major event – other than exceptional hard work and a ever increasing impressive body of work, have build a global powerhouse effects studios literally after starting in their parent’s garage.

A final shot from Hydraulax

Greg and Colin’s two visual effects companies are Hydraulx and Lola. Lola became famous for their stunning ‘anti-aging work in the third Xmen film, X-Men: The Last Stand The Brothers Strause have just returned from directing Alien vs. Predator 2, (for more listen to the podcast).

Meanwhile Hydraulx has been hard at work on 300. Lola, and to a certain extent Hydraulx, have been best known for their compositing work. Hydraulx has perhaps the largest flame/inferno Burn render farm in the world, with over 17 flame and inferno suites powering through large shot counts on tentpole studio pictures at award winning quality. The new custom designed offices of both Hydraulx and Lola are constantly busy with major feature film effects work, but in the case of 300 it is their 3D work that is perhaps the most impressive.

In 300 the team was called upon to not only do complex blue screen compositing but detailed and complex animal character animation and rendering. Hydraulx primarily used Maya on both the Rhino and Elephant sequences to produce photorealistic creatures in the highly stylised environment.

Hydraulx used primarily Maya for all the character Animations

During pre-production there was a strong feeling that on set that there should be some prop rhino during the sequence even if it was going to be replaced later with a digital animal. Meinert Hansen designed the Rhino (Silent Hill, Stranger than F )The design was then taken to Hydraulx which then added its own elements and flourishes, as it build and animated the Rhino in Maya.

The animals were built up from detailed Photoshop style guides that Hydraulx was given by the production. These large and very detailed pdf style manuals set out the look and feel that the director and art department were aiming for and were invaluable in quickly narrowing down the right mix of realism and graphic novel drama.

Frank Miller takes a break on the Set of 300

A separate large 3D render farm provided the grunt work. As you can hear in the podcast, Hydraulx spent a lot of R&D building a lighting fast pipeline that not only renders sequences and control project workflow, but preloads and precomps the complex cgi into the companies impressive array of Autodesk flames and infernos. In fact, only Autodesk boxes were used to work through the hundreds of shots completed by Hydraulx.

The animators also became involved in producing large scale matte paintings, or digital environments. As the whole film was shot on a sound stage, all the environments were digital and Hydraulx’s strong mix of both 3D and 2D, along with a great array of digital environment artists allowed Hydraulx to produce a vast array of period sets and environments.

Grant Freckelton 300 Visual Effects Art Director

Grant Freckelton

300 has a strong visual look, and that look was not just a product of the art department and production designer – as it normally would be. Much of the film was styled in post production and as the art department does not continue on into post production, it was left to the brilliant and enthusiastic Grant Freckelton as visual effects art director to mold the look of the film. So much of the visual effects styling is a product of Freckelton work and the team he worked with.

Grant Freckelton has been working in the field of Visual Effects for eight years. He joined Animal Logic as a concept designer in 1998 and since then has contributed to numerous commercials and feature films as an Illustrator, Matte Painter and Art Director. His credits include Moulin Rouge!, Garage Days, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Quiet American.

Freckelton also served as a Visual Effects Art Director for the Wachowski Bros feature Matrix: Reloaded and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Initially brought on to oversee the design of an early VFX test produced at Animal Logic, Snyder was so impressed with Grant’s design sensibilities that he was brought on board to art direct the visual effects for the entire film. At this stage it was expected that 300 would film in Sydney.

Freckelton flew to the USA and started pre-production in LA, but ended up becoming attached to the film and following it to Canada and principle photography. It is to Animal Logic’s credit that they encouraged Freckelton to move into this broader role, while maintaining his place inside Animal for when he returned.

His role on set sat between art department and visual effects. For example he helped produce the Style Guide (see above) and he personally developed many of the visual looks of the film, such as the graphic blood and the actual look of the “Crush”

Freckelton designed the Wolf sequence

The Blood was inspired directly by the graphic novel. In fact, when Freckelton got the call about the film, he had a Miller statue/toy sitting in front of him on his workstation. The blood in the novel was created by ink splats and as he knew Snyder wanted to make a stylised film, Freckelton set to work on blood test. By making the blood graphic, the film both paid homage to the novel and avoided US film censor issues, but how to make the effect work ? In the end Freckelton shot elements of balsamic vinegar when he discovered he had no ink in the house. He then scanned them and animated them in 2.5D using After Effects. This is fairly much how the effect would then be documented for the various supplier post houses and produced.

Final shot

The graphic novel and the colouring by Lynn Varley inspired Freckelton to crush the blacks while maintaining the reds and destaurating the images. Sin City had not been released at the point Freckelton was first involved with the 300 . When it was released, the production discussed just how graphic to make 300 in the grade. Freckelton explained to fxguide that in Sin City the images were often crushed to black sihouettes and extremely stylised and it was decided that a slightly more real look would work better for 300. So rather than just black outlines, Freckelton worked hard to develop a look that maintained some details in the blacks and more definition to the actors. The production loved his work so much that he ended up fully attached to the film and not just Animal Logic.

The role of full time visual effects Art Director is not as common as that of VFX supervisor, but Freckelton had performed a similar role on the Matrix sequels. Although Freckelton found the two films very different to work on, in part as his role on the Matrix films was still from within Animal Logic, where on 300 he was supervising shots across the whole film, that may or may not have been handled by Animal Logic.

Initially he was to work along side Jim Bissell (Good night,and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind ), the production designer, but this role transitioned to working closely alongside VFX supervisor Chris Watts as the film moved from production to post-production. Watts supervised over 1200 shots from a range of VFX companies, including Animal Logic.

Captain Leonidas and Stelios take their places at the front of the deadly Spartan phalanx

Animal Logic contributed enormously to the film in addition to allowing Freckelton to join the production. While perhaps not doing as many shots as Hybrid (the local Canadian visual effects house who had the majority of effects on the film), Animal’s mark is certainly on the film.

After repelling the initial Persian attack the Spartans face thousands of Persian arrows racing through the sky thanks to the artists at Animal Logic

Animal Logic ended up doing the battle sequence number 1, the crazy horse sequence, which encompassed a huge amount of work in a large variety of techniques. This included fake arrows, “limbs being hacked off”, blood, crowds, compositing, 3D sets and massive matte paintings. Animal Logic has a very powerful 3D department as seen by its recent Oscar winning film Happy Feet although the nature of the graphic violence would end up being very different from the Arctic beauty of that film. Animal Logic is now one of a very few major effects houses able to deal with multiple large scale pictures simultaneously.

The film already a creative success with critics, at the time of going to press, 300 is estimated to be breaking over $70 million in its opening weekend box office.

Mike Seymour has longer interview with Grant Freckelton that can be read in the next issue of DMW magazine.
Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios’ feature “300,” distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures.
Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.