It's been over a year since ComingSoon.net/Superhero Hype! visited the Montreal set of director Zack Snyder's 300, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. In that time, Snyder has kept busy doing all of the editing and computer processes used to recreate the distinctive look and feel of Miller's original work. For those who hadn't been following Miller's career at the time, he created "300" during a break from his "Sin City" mini-series, basing the tale on the story of the 300 Spartans who held off an army of thousands of Persians at the Hot Gates at Thermopylae.
Back in December '05, we weren't really sure what to expect. It would be months before we'd see any of the trailers or footage pop up at San Diego Comic Con and on the 'net. At that time, Zack Snyder was primarily known for his remake of Dawn of the Dead, a fun little gorefest, but it seemed very ambitious to try to bring Frank Miller's 300 to the screen, especially so soon after the success of Miller's own Sin City earlier that year.
Using that film as a blueprint, Snyder decided that the best and cheapest way to capture the look of Frank Miller's work was to have all the actors shoot their scenes in front of a green screen and then add the backgrounds later using computers. He hired actor Gerard Butler to play Spartan King Leonidas, who leads his men into a seemingly impossible battle, and Lena Headey as his wife Queen Gorgo.
Over the course of our day on set--day 41 of a presumably grueling 60-day shoot--we were escorted around the huge complex, being allowed into every corner and facet of the production process, as well as seeing one of the film's fantastic battle sequences being shot right in front of our eyes. The attention and respect the entire production was paying to Miller's work was evident by the numerous copies of the graphic novel that we would see in every department we visited.
Before our tour began, we were shown a few examples of how the film would be produced. Two panels from Miller's graphic novel were on the wall next to their respective storyboards, a picture taken of the scene on the green screen set, and then a final scene after the computerized visual treatment.
The Weapon Room
The first stop on our journey into the world of Miller's Spartan epic was the props room, which may as well have been called "the weapon room" since it was mostly filled with the swords, shields, and spears that would be used to recreate the battle scenes from the graphic novel. Our host for this section of the tour was propsmaster Annie Carpentier, who told us that not all of the weapons and shields we saw would be used for actual battle. Much of them were decorative, being lighter than normal shields to be carried by the actors during the non-fighting scenes, and of course, a lot of the flying arrows and spears would be created later using CG animation. Still, they spent two months in preproduction constructing over 125 shields, 250 spears and 75 swords for the different battles, although Annie admitted that they recycled some of the weapons used in Troy and Alexander, two other historic war epics from Warner Bros., in order to save some time and money. All of the shields and weapons would be made to look more worn as the film progressed to show the damage from swords and arrows. As Zack would tell us later, everything had to be painted differently than how they would appear on screen due to the special color treatment the entire film would be put through in order to make it look more like a Frank Miller comic. (More on that later.)
The Fine Line Between Training and Torture
Something that's not often covered in set visits is the training regiment of the actors and stuntmen and for 300, it had to be pretty intense because everyone involved in the battles had to be in the type of shape and fitness expected of a Spartan warrior. Because the Spartans wore very little clothing (calm down, ladies!) there's no way to really hide their physique, so with that in mind Zach hired Mark Dwight, a former mountain climber, with his mission to forge his actors, stuntmen and even some of the crew into a cohesive, physically-fit group.
Mark Dwight is a muscular fast-talking guy with a personality more like Henry Rollins than Jack LaLanne, who was obviously very passionate about his unique fitness regimen. He told us that 300 was his first Hollywood film, since he usually trains martial artists and cage fighters with a program that has his victims… er… clients lifting and dragging heavy objects, climbing, jumping and pushing themselves to their limit. The rigorous program involves a lot of teamwork, a bit of competition and more than a bit of "suffering and vomiting." That being said, Mark's #1 rule was that nobody gets hurt and that egos be left at the door, which was the case as the film's star, Gerard Butler, would often be training along with the stuntmen.
Not one to slack off while cast and crew suffered for his art, Zack Snyder joined his men in the training regimen himself. As we'd see later, it probably came in handy while filming, because Snyder likes to do a lot of his own camerawork. You can see some of the crazy tests the men were put through in the videos on the website for Dwight's company Gym Jones. You might even spot Zack in some of those videos, believe it or not.
Horses, Wolves, Immortals and Unfortunate Scouts
The next stop on our journey through Snyder's ambitious production was a visit to the Creature FX department, where we were handed over to Mark Rappaport, the creature FX supervisor who had also worked on "The Chronicles of Narnia," and Chris Bridges, one of his team. Although a lot of the film's visuals would be created using computers, the department had to create a lot of realistic creatures to interact with the actors in front of the green screen.
Usually, their workshop would be busy with the 130 people working on Mark's team, but it was pretty quiet that day, filled only with all of the cool creations one might expect in a movie based on a Frank Miller comic. What jumped out immediately were the lifelike bodies lanced and mounted on spears, the points protruding from their mouths, which prominently adorned the top of the large, storage shelves. These were the Persian scouts that Leonidas used as an example for the impending Persian army. Mark told us they used likenesses of guys in the shops for the sculptures.
Even more impressive than the mounted scouts was the enormous animatronic wolf with fiery red glowing eyes that Leonidas would face as a youth. Requiring five people to operate it, the wolf was capable of twenty different facial features and sported "the most articulated tongue we've ever made," Rapaport declared with glee. They also had constructed a number of Persian Immortals, the beastly super-soldiers who would take on Leonidas and his men, to allow us to see what lay behind their eerie gold masks, something which isn't even shown in Miller's graphic novel. The crew had also built 13 mechanical horses that could be killed and flipped using spears, rather than worrying about injuring the real horses, but Mark said that a few of them were damaged while filming their scenes.
Part of the department's duties included the prosthetic and special make-up effects for characters like the sad hunchback Ephialtes and a satyr (half-man, half goat) that would take part in an orgy scene inside Xerxes' tent. For things like that, Mark's team worked alongside the film's regular make-up division, which is whom we were introduced to next.
We spent a bit of time lingering in the make-up department, where we could see many of the character designs and sketches used as reference for the special make-up. Most of them were done by costume designer Michael Wilkinson, though our tour was given by make-up supervisor Shaun Smith and make-up department head Scott Wheeler, whose team consists of 20 make-up artists.
The sketches included our first look at the hunchback Ephialtes, an amazing make-up job which takes over five hours to transform British actor Andrew Tiernan into the pathetic creature. We were shown a few photos of the process as it took place, and we gazed admiringly at sketches of the Persian executioner who has giant tusks for arms and designs for the gold-chained outfit worn by Persian king Xerxes, to be played by Brazil's Rodrigo Santoro, who recently joined the cast of "Lost." At the time, Santoro hadn't shown up to shoot his scenes, but his outfit would require full body make-up to recreate the distinctive way that Xerzes' skin gleaned to make him look more godlike. We also got to see the sketches for a giant "Über-Immortal" which wasn't in Miller's graphic novel, but was designed by Zack with (of all people) his tattoo artist, specifically for the movie. The giant would be played by a 7' 2" professional wrestler who looked a bit like Nathan Jones, the giant soldier that Brad Pitt kills at the beginning of Troy.
This was all very cool, but the most fascinating thing to see was the make-up department's special "scar room" where literally hundreds of different types of scars, made out of molded glue, were hanging on the wall, each one given a specific number so they could be applied to each of the actors using a specialized "scar by numbers" system to maintain continuity from one day to the next. We were told that the stuntmen, many of whom worked on "Pirates of the Carribean" and "The Matrix" films, could spend anywhere from 2 to 3 hours a day having scars and make-up applied to turn them into the various Spartan and Persian warriors.
Project Runway: Spartan Edition
Fortunately, there were one or two women along for the set visit, because they probably were more interested in the fashion segment of our tour, hosted by costume designer Michael Wilkinson, who showed us books full of images that inspired the costumes for Queen Gorgo, the Oracle and other characters, including pictures of sculptures, museum displays and some taken from art books. Wilkinson's team would wind up making 600 to 700 costumes for the production, with Xerxes' gold-chain outfit being the most complicated, involving 33 fake body piercings. Michael told us that he was looking forward to seeing how the dance of the Oracle turned out, because they were going to shoot it in a special water tank to recreate her graceful movements; he designed for her an outfit made from a special polyester that would flow in the water as if it were silk.
Designing the World
The film's production designer Jim Bissell, the man behind the look of the cult classic The Rocketeer, gave us a comprehensive tour of his offices, which were filled with models and blueprints of the sets. We were told that many of them were based on sketches drawn by Zack himself, which were then realized inside the computer as 3D models.
Although the majority of the movie's backgrounds would be created in the computers, they still needed to build rough approximations of the landscape for the actors to walk across, building a number of reusable rock sculptures that could be modified and reused as needed. The largest actual set that was built for the production were the actual Hot Gates, which wouldn't even fit inside the studio's largest soundstage, so it was built outside. Otherwise, everything was done on the soundstage with fans used to create the outdoor feel. Jim's team even created a type of rubber dirt that would look real under the battling soldiers' feet but wouldn't hurt anyone when it started to fly. When we visited one of the green screen sets later, we'd see how that dirt and fake rocks were incorporated into the otherwise sterile setting. A lot of thought went into how to incorporate those sets into the computer process, though Jim restated that the plan was to try to make the movie look more like Frank Miler's stylish artwork than going for the realism that most other historic epics try to achieve.
Jim and Visual FX supervisor Chris Watts gave us a first-hand example of something called "The Crush," a color filtration process used on the entire film to give it the look of Lynn Varley's distinctive coloring from the graphic novel. It literally crushes certain colors out of the palette, leaving only the colors seen in the graphic novel.
Before getting back to work, Bissell brought us onto one of the soundstages where Xerxes' tent was being constructed. Following the Persian king's normal wont for extravagance, the enormous interior of the tent would be held up by pillars made out of gold with a solid gold staircase at the back of the tent, which Xerxes could walk down for full dramatic effect. Nearby, we could see the pieces of Xerxes' amazing golden throne that would bring Xerxes to his first meeting with King Leonidas before the start of their battle. We'd see this finished scene in a special presentation of footage from the film, which showed Xerxes' grand entrance on the throne, being carried by slaves whose backs were used by Xerxes as steps to dismount.
War is Hell
The day we visited the set, Zack was shooting an all-out battle scene with Butler and nearly 50 stunt men battling away, half as Spartans and the other as Immortals. Right there in the thick of it was Zack himself, carrying a heavy camera on his shoulder, getting up-close to a soldier being thrown into the air by another. We were told that there'd be a lot more warriors fighting once they're replicated using computers, since it would be cheaper than having hundreds of soldiers spending time in make-up and wardrobe.
Either way, it was a nice change of pace from the usual dialogue scenes we tend to watch being filmed, though it was hard to imagine what it might look like in the end, since it was all taking place in front of a green screen. Although the set was very green, there were a lot of seemingly real rocks everywhere and in the background, one could see an enormous stack of bodies, and the coolest thing of our visit, a giant wall built from large stones and Persian corpses, which looked just like the scene from Miller's graphic novel.
Zack probably had a good idea how the battles would turn out, because even before the film was greenlit, he assembled a group of stuntmen to shoot a 2-minute battle teaser to give Warner Bros. and the financiers some idea how the movie would look. We were shown the quickly-produced teaser, which hopefully will be included on the 300 DVD, if only for the cool way the WB logo turns into a soldier's shield. Were also shown a few finished scenes that would later be used for the various trailers. (The best scene is still the one that shows the Spartans pushing the Persian soldiers off the edge of a cliff.)
Over the course of the day, we had a chance to talk with Snyder, the film's producers including Zack's wife Debbie, actor Gerard Butler and "300" creator Frank Miller, who was visiting the set for the first time himself the day we were there. Hopefully, in the next two months leading up to the release of 300 on March 9, we'll try to post the best parts of these interviews.