Immortals : The Set Visit

“Dawn of War”? “War of Gods”? “Immortals”?

Regardless of what Tarsem Singh’s massive 3D spectacle is called, it’s still a film involving Greek mythology and therefore, one that’s constantly compared to 2010′s Clash of the Titans. In spite of my personal disappointment in “Clash,” Immortals was my very first set visit, so the moment I committed to visiting the Montreal set, any and all Greek god-related skepticism was behind me; I was thrilled to be getting a first-hand look at the world of Immortals.

In June 2010, journalists from all over the world convened at La Cité du Cinéma, a massive film production facility responsible for films including Death Race, The Aviator, The Day After Tomorrow, Secret Window and now Immortals. After a few minutes in the facility’s trophy room – the lobby decorated with posters of past productions – we made our way to the first stop on our tour, the production office.

The room was packed with tables, all littered with schedules, sketches and assorted notes except for an area cleared out to make room for a giant conference table for the visiting journalists. The Immortals staff wasted no time and had us sit down for the first of many presentations.

Art Department

Production designer Tom Foden was the first to take the floor, introducing us to the Immortals set and to his staff, which consisted of individuals from over 15 to 20 countries including Greece, Japan, China and Iran. “It’s that collective team and that input and that knowledge and the life experience that brings a certain specialness to a film like this,” Foden explained.

From there, Foden jumped into the plot of the film: “This is a story about a man who seeks revenge, having seen his mother slain as a boy. It is through the course of that that we see all the travails that happen to our hero Theseus.” The sets were presented in model form called “white models,” which are used as study models so the cast and crew can understand what each scene entails before hitting the actual set. To further help visualize what a particular moment will look like, each white model is accompanied by illustrations, something Foden considered quite necessary considering Singh is a particularly visual director.

As this is a production that needs a significant amount of CGI effects, Foden revealed that the divide between computer-generated material and practical effects was an issue that was discussed thoroughly. “Films today are able to get away with a very minimal amount of not only real estate environment upon which the actors stand, but also even some of the props.” Foden continued, “As we started to go through the development process, we realized that was taking away from not only the emotional availability that the actors often complain about when they’re stuck in a green screen environment, but it also was a little secret wish of ours to actually make it a little bit bigger.” He went on, “Audiences are sophisticated enough nowadays to know that something five feet away is CGI.” He added, “The CGI availability nowadays is fantastic, it’s really good, but I think you still know the difference.” Foden summed up the topic by explaining, “We’re probably building at least 25 to 30% as a real environment.

With such a significant amount of practical effects, it’s necessary for the post-production to begin during pre-production rather than after, while Foden and his team were first designing their sets. “We needed to know as much from [the visual effects team] as they needed to know from us,” Foden explained. “We’d often draw up the models either as 2D, standard drafting with pencil and paper or do the white model which would then get expanded and expounded upon into a simple block structure 3D model on the computer, which was then handed over to visual effects who then took that into a much bigger environment.” The Immortals crew used a system called “The Moses,” which involved taking the models Foden’s team built, putting them into what the visual effects team created and then putting the result onto a screen to see the actor perform in that environment and work on it from there.

Next to speak was Simone Leclerc, the props master who had a big batch of fun toys to play with from the Icarus bow to Athena’s sickles. In total, the department designed 900 weapons, the good guys brandishing silver pieces and the bad guys wielding gold ones. As much fun as it sounds to handle Poseidon’s trident, there’s one drawback; that thing is pretty damn heavy. Lucky for the stars, in addition to all of the pieces designed to feel real and dazzle, duplicates were made that were, well, fake. During the heavy action scenes, actors handled the lighter counterparts to ensure the cast, crew and set’s safety.

Wardrobe

The second stop on our tour was Eiko Ishioka’s wardrobe department, easily one of the most fascinating parts of the day. Odds are, you’ve seen Ishioka’s work before. She’s an Academy Award-winning costume designer, was nominated for a Tony for her work on the Broadway play “M. Butterfly” and, most recently, dressed the cast of the Broadway monstrosity “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” Forget the fact that we were sitting in a room surrounded by some of the most beautifully-detailed costumes and sketches; simply being in Ishioka’s presence was quite exciting and sure enough, she didn’t disappoint.

Immortals is Ishioka’s third film with Singh having worked on both The Cell and The Fall. This time around it was a far more intimate collaboration and that was a major asset in deciding how to approach the costume design for the film. While Immortals has its roots in Greek mythology, Singh and Ishioka agreed to consider the ancient culture, but to approach the costumes in a more unique way rather than strictly historical.

From there, they followed a particular routine. As Ishioka described, Tarsem’s “English is like a machine gun,” so she required some help from associate producer Nico Soultanakis who was able to break down Singh’s thoughts. “Tarsem gave me guidance, Nico explained it better, I build the idea.” With a laugh she explained, “The final solution is very unique and outrageous.”

That unique and outrageous result consists of a massive amount of designs from simple clothes to elaborately designed armor. Like with the weaponry, the color of the helmets designates the factions; the Olympian gods are topped with gold helmets while the Titans wear red and black ones. The helmets for the gods are adorned with an ancient Greek symbol, an eye believed to reject evil.

As for the full-body designs, Ishioka was very aware of the power of the six-pack, specifically Stephen Dorff’s chiseled physique, which went hand-in-hand with his rather tiny costume. During his interview, Dorff joked, “I’ve gotten into shape for movies before so there’s muscle memory, but in this movie we went a little more intense because Eiko’s costume consisted of a piece of leather… so I thought I should look pretty good since I don’t have a costume.”

On the other hand, the actors playing the Olympian gods all wear capes inspired by the geometric designs frequently found in ancient Greek culture. Ishioka pointed out that Zeus’ cape is exceptionally beautiful being the sole handmade design. The downside? Ishioka said, “Luke Evans had to bear the weight of a particularly heavy costume; the other god’s capes were made of just a piece of silk fabric due to budgeting concerns.” However, she did assure us that the designs still look fantastic on camera.

One of the most intricate costumes in the wardrobe was for Mickey Rourke’s character, the evil Hyperion. Hyperion’s trademark is his helmet, a rather creepy horseshoe crab-inspired design in connection with Hyperion’s fisherman roots. While the headpiece is quite complex, Ishioka strove to keep the body elements of the costume entirely comfortable as Rourke’s outfit consists of some leather and a belt.

Film Stills

Next up was our chat with producers Mark Canton and Gianni Nunnari, who showed us some stills from the film. Canton did warn that the images “are not color corrected” and “aren’t a reflection of the look of the movie,” but the disclaimer wasn’t even necessary because should these be the final stills, very few would question their quality. Regardless of the lack of color correction, the images were absolutely pristine as was the general look of the photos. Ishioka’s costumes pop incredibly well as do the actors themselves, even the ones like Dorff with less extravagant garb.

At the conclusion of the slideshow, the Q&A began and, sure enough, one of the very first questions the producers had to tackle was one comparing Immortals to Clash of the Titans. Taking into account the latter’s monetary success, Nunnari explained, “it can only affect us very well.” He also joked, “If that movie did so well, then we, here, the real ‘Clash of the Titans,’ the audience is going to really want to go see what real fighters and real titans are about.” Canton chimed in to note how Tarsem alone would bring Immortals onto an entirely different tier. “He is truly an imagineer,” said Canton. “He’s someone that breaks all the barriers.”

Regardless of their confidence, the Clash of the Titans clash remained the topic of conversation, but now focused solely on the use of 3D technology. Line producer Jeff Waxman said, “We’re learning from their mistakes.” While a portion of Immortals will be shot in 3D, some parts will need to be post-converted, unlike Clash of the Titans, which was all post-conversion. Waxman explained, “You can’t shoot everything in 3D, but the things we’re going to conform, we have more time to do it. When Clash of the Titans came out they were rushing.” On top of the monumental amount of extra planning time, Waxman also pointed out that the technology has improved dramatically since “Clash’s” conversion.

As this team of producers is always looking ahead, it came as no surprise that they’d already considered subsequent films, albeit not particularly seriously. “For Mark, everything is a franchise,” joked Nunnari. “It doesn’t matter if everybody died; he always says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” On a more serious note, Nunnari mentioned, “In this one I can say, from now, that we do have even a better sequel than the movie, which is a great movie that we just did, but the sequel is just better.” Canton added, “If we’re fortunate enough to have a sequel, it may not be a franchise, but assuming it is, Tarsem will be with us.”

From there we backtracked and re-focused on the movie at hand, specifically, the film’s budget. Nunnari called it “a mega-budget.” He added, “Relativity just wrote and collaborated with us and supported us to build this movie,” which Nunnari said is a $75 million production.

Freida Pinto and Stephen Dorff Interviews

Following our chat with the producers, we sat down with two of the film’s stars, Freida Pinto and Stephen Dorff. You can find excerpts from their interviews here.

On Set

As a first-time set visitor, this was certainly the portion of tour I was most looking forward to. We were escorted in groups of five to a gigantic sound stage that, on first glance, housed some sort of massive black box. The deeper we got, the more materials there were from production gear to swords and even a loose fake limb. Finally we reached the entrance of this black structure and got a taste of the moment was all about.

This scene from the end of the film involves all the Olympian gods including Zeus, Poseidon and Athena (Luke Evans, Kellan Lutz and Isabel Lucas). In between takes, the trio took breathers outside of the structure, in their designated chairs which still happened to be labeled “Dawn of War.” While the chair dressing may no longer be appropriate, their costumes were another story. Ishioka’s sketches on paper are quite impressive, but seeing the costumes on the actors is a whole different experience. The way the armor accents their figures and how the cape falls around them is absolutely majestic.

However, these close-up glimpses of the actors in fighting form were sparse because Singh maintained a fairly quick pace, moving from one take to the next within minutes, if not seconds. The gods stand in formation with Evans as Zeus at the head, Evans throws an invisible object to be added in post, delivers his line – “Leave here. This is no longer your fight.” – then the gods swoop into action, chasing after their enemies, men covered in grey body paint, donning the signature evil red helmets.

Rather than witness some grand battle packed with action, we got a reality check and experienced what it’s really like shooting a film. The cast and crew works on the smallest portion of the production for an incredibly long amount of time, constantly calling “action” and “cut,” while making minor adjustments from the inflection of voices to stopping extraneous background noises. It’s a time-consuming, tedious, but very necessary process.

Luke Evans Interview

Shortly after our time on set was up, so was Evans’. We all convened in a trailer just outside the soundstage and spoke with Evans about playing the king of the gods, getting in shape for the role, comparing his experience on this set to Clash of the Titans and more. Click here to read the interview.

Special Effects

When Evans had to get back to work, we were introduced to the duo behind all of the special effects work, visual effects supervisor Raymond Gieringer and visual effects producer Jack Geist. As a very visual production heavily reliant on this department, Gieringer and Geist had an intense workload to manage, but Singh’s very specific vision for the style of the film helped streamline their efforts right from the start. Gieringer, who’d worked with Singh on The Cell, explained, “The aesthetic for the show is based on a Caravaggio look, so there’s a lot of high contrast.” In total, about ten different vendors will have had a hand in helping achieve this look, so one of the biggest challenges Gieringer anticipated is ensuring that consistency is maintained.

However, even with all this post-production work, there’s no denying the fact that one of the goals of this production is to make a more grounded film and not use CGI as a crutch. During a pre-production meeting with Singh, Gieringer found out, “He didn’t want this to be another genre film that you’ve seen before. We are staying away from any CG creatures.” The few CG animals you might see in Immortals are all actual animals, like foxes and birds. According to Gieringer, by keeping the focus on “the environments and then some of the battles that happen and [enhancing] them versus just trying to make them up from scratch,” that lends itself to Singh’s Caravaggio-like visual tactic.

Lucky for Gieringer and Geist, Immortals had a DI suite up and running since the very beginning of filming unlike other CGI-heavy productions which normally bring their colorist and other digital effects team members in when the cameras stop rolling. As Gieringer explained, this allows them to “develop a pipeline that is robust and can change over the course of the shoot.”

Another FX perk Singh, Gieringer and Geist took advantage of was the ability to create visuals sets. Gieringer explained, “We were basically walking the virtual sets.” Even before they were actually built Singh had “a real virtual look at what’s coming up and he can make changes on the fly.” Gieringer called the technology “a step above [the] traditional storyboard” as it allowed Singh to block shots and look for angles long before ever stepping foot on the actual set.

Of course, there was no way Gieringer and Geist were making their way out of that trailer without fielding some 3D-related questions, particularly in terms of what was shot in the third dimension and what will be converted. Geist kicked things off by saying, “When we budget the show, we’re trying to maximize what Tarsem wants.” He continued, “We have a sequence in the show where heads blow up and how we do that least expensive is you shoot the hammer swinging and then, on another day, you shoot a watermelon blowing up.” Then, the conversion comes in: “When they do the 2D to 3D conversion process, they’re going to have to [give] all of those pieces an assigned depth.” Clearly, blowing up a watermelon would leave them with a heck of a lot of pieces to account for, so that effect winds up being more conducive to 2D. Even if the footage were converted, Geist said your eye would still likely catch that the material isn’t really 3D. How are they getting around these types of issues? “We’re spending more money to make the head explosions all CG so that way, when the heads explode, they come a little bit into theater space and it’s a better 3D.”

Similarly, during a scene in which Poseidon dives into the water, Geist explained, “Because of the depth-of-field on the camera, you can’t keep the space and the trident and everything in focus.” The solution? “They lost the trident while they shot and then we’ll bring it in in post in 3D and because we’re doing it CG, we can take it off screen more.” Anything shot traditionally lacks the power to have that “in-your-face” effect. However, “By adding certain CG elements in the proper places, we can bring stuff off farther and make it a better stereoscopic experience.”

Stunts

Next up was the guy responsible for making the action as convincing as the visual effects, stunt coordinator Artie Malesci. Being a piece packed with action sequences brimming with epic battles and explosions, Malesci had his work cut out for him. A key to getting the job done and getting it done right was requiring the actors to head to set early for training, some of whom surprised Malesci with the ability they brought right from the start. “Henry is phenomenal,” Malesic explained. “When he came here, he was ready and he’s picked up all the choreography really well.”

As for that choreography, it was a conscious decision on Malesci’s part not to base it on a specific style of fighting. “A little bit of everything. Try to make it real.” On the other hand, there is a slight difference in terms of how a god fights as compared to a mortal, but that comes in in post. “Visual effects-wise, a god fights kind of in super speed.” He continued, “Hyper speed is really shot at like 500 frames a second, so it’s really slow.” Of course, this type of shooting style calls for significantly different preparation, “When our guys are choreographing and rehearsing, everybody’s moving at a really slow time to get all the effects to happen.”

In general, Malesci finds that the increased amount of visual effects, in some ways, “helps us quite a bit.” He joked, referring to the fight the team was shooting at the time, “When you see stuff happening with these Titans, they’re being broken in half, and legs and heads pulled off and things like that. Well, you know, it’s pretty hard to do that without their help.” He added, “In reality, half of these guys will become CG people.”

In terms of the amount of action in Immortals vs. drama, Malesci noted, “This show’s pretty action-packed.” However, that doesn’t mean the film is lacking in the drama department as “the drama is in the action.” He further assured us, “This movie’s going to surprise a lot of people… people are going to think they’ve seen this kind of movie before, but when they see it they’re going to go, ‘This is totally different.’”

Henry Cavill and Tarsem Singh Interviews

Speaking of stunts, next up was the main man himself, Henry Cavill. Of course now Cavill is all the rage as he’s our next Superman, but Immortals was his very first experience playing the leading man in a mega-budget Hollywood production and, at the time, the new Superman was still churning in the rumor mill.

Immediately following was our sit-down with director Tarsem Singh. If you’ve seen The Cell and The Fall, it should come as no surprise that this guy is absolutely brimming with ideas, all of which he’s very eager to share – at a mile a minute pace nonetheless. Lucky for you, we’ve got it all right here in simple black and white. Click here to read excerpts from those interviews.

Makeup

Makeup designer Nikoletta Skarlatos said it herself, Immortals is “extremely makeup intensive. Every character in this movie has a lot of makeup on.” Sure she was referring to the bold designs we’ll see on screen, but before getting to the good stuff, Skarlatos and her team had to do a bit of cleaning, per se. “There’s definitely a process that we go through covering all the tattoos.” Skarlatos explained, “Often times we had to even their skin tone [before] applying the period character makeup.”

But, of course, there was a lot more to the makeup design of this film and Skarlatos was lucky enough to have a head start thanks to the film’s highly collaborative and technically advance nature. “Tom Foden, prior to my coming here, sent me a visual tour of the sets they had designed and we discussed the saturation of the film and the color.” Ishioka’s costumes also heavily influenced Skarlatos’ work, “I saw the costumes and I had sort of designed things in my head, which were not necessarily what Eiko wanted, but we found that all of us were coming together on the same page.”

For example, one of those collaborative efforts involved the Titans and, as Skarlatos described, “The notion was that the Titans are in this cell for 20,000 years and it’s sort of these grotesque characters.” After testing out a few designs, they decided on a “crusty sort of look,” which sprung from Singh seeing a distressed helmet Ishioka created. As for the gods, after presenting a few variations to Singh, they decided, “Rather than the gods having some weird glow, we did an undertone that gives them a kind of radiance that is rather understated, but yet you can see it.”

More specifically, “[Tarsem] wanted this oil look… when Poseidon comes and hits everyone with this huge wave… so I had to come up with a consistency of a product that would immediately wash off.” And this wasn’t just some product that Skarlatos could order; she had to create the proper concoction herself using, “corn starch, a little bit of food coloring and glycerin.” It’s opportunities like these that made working on Immortals such a unique experience for Skarlatos as she, “was able to present things I’ve never presented or done before.”

Kellan Lutz and Isabel Lucas Interview

Shortly after Skarlatos wrapped up her interview, an especially bubbly and excited Kellan Lutz graced us with his presence – in full Poseidon attire. If only this were a video interview.

Last up was Immortals‘ Athena, Isabel Lucas. While her costume was incredibly restricting and clearly quite uncomfortable, Lucas toughed it out to dish on her character as well as the necessary choreography for the role. Click here to read some of what they had to say.

Overall

Like I said, this was my very first set visit, so of course, I was thrilled with the experience, but in all honesty, the importance placed on the visuals of this film is extremely impressive. The material we saw from the production design and costume departments were especially unique as were the presentations on makeup and stunt work. Similarly, everyone we spoke with seemed particularly passionate about Immortals. Of course, who would be a downer in front of visiting press even if they weren’t thrilled with what they were working on, but something about the enthusiastic vibe on set felt authentic and was even a bit infectious. The dedication was there, I’d like to bet the visuals will be above and beyond; now let’s just hope the script sets the bar high, too.

Immortals opens everywhere on November 11.

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