CGI arrows fly as '300' enters battle
EmptySnyder story: Shooting battles for epic movies used to require using multiple cameras and directors keeping their fingers crossed because they'd usually only have one shot at getting it on film.
Today thanks to CGI that's all changed. A case in point is "300," opening today from Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios, where director Zack Snyder was able to shoot Persians shooting arrows at Spartans without having to worry about where the arrows were falling. That's because there weren't any arrows until he added them later on.
Produced by Gianni Nunnari ("The Departed"), Mark Canton ("Land of the Dead," "Bernie Goldman ("Land of the Dead") and Jeffrey Silver ("Training Day," its screenplay is by Snyder & Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. Starring are Gerard Butler, Lena Headley, David Wenham and Dominic West. The R rated epic revolves around the ancient Battle of Thermopylae in which King Leonidas (Butler) and his 300 Spartan warriors who fought to the death against a massive Persian army commanded by the God-King Xerxes. The Spartans' sacrifice prompted Greece to unite against the Persians in support of democracy.
I was happy to be able to focus recently with Snyder on the making of his highly stylized film, which looked very commercial to me when I saw it a month ago and is tracking so strongly that it's expected to make a major impact on this weekend's boxoffice. "It's easy to take drawn images that have a particular style and say, 'Oh, we're going to make a movie out of this,'" he told me. "But the hard part is, of course, what that practically means to production and what it practically means to all the department heads and the designers and all the people you work with when you take this stand that you're going to make something that looks like a drawing and not compromising where normal people compromise.
"Normally, you say, 'I want to make this drawing into a movie' and everyone goes, 'Oh, okay.' But when you say that (people think) you mean we're still going to go outside, we're still going to have normal scale, it's just going to be composed in a similar way to this drawing and maybe the color palette will be similar. And I kept going, 'No, no. It's going to be like this drawing.' That part was the hard philosophical jump for everyone to just accept as, 'Okay, when he says that he means it.'"
Explaining what his decision to give the film its graphic novel look meant, Snyder said, "When you go outside to film a shot there are certain things that you get for free. You get lighting to some degree. You get atmosphere. If you're out in a field, you get trees and clouds. And these are all things you just take for granted. But I think in the case of '300' there was nothing. Every single element had to be created down to the dirt and dust. For instance, there's a character standing here. Behind him is a cliff. So you have to be able to say, 'How much haze is going to be in the air between my character and those cliffs?' So the amount of detail it takes is on a pretty intense level.
"The other thing is, we shot the movie completely on blue screen. That as a concept is not radical. Your weatherman (on TV news) basically has the same technology as we have when he stands in front of the forecast. But in a lot of ways it is what you do with it because you do have to take those tools and re-jig 'em and re-understand what they're capable of and what they're not capable of and how they've been used in the past. And (you say), 'Okay, in the case of our movie we want them to do maybe things they've never been used for.' And that is the notion -- taking something that's been used (before) and using it in a different way. I think that's the thing that makes it cool."
A graphic novel is, of course, similar in appearance to the storyboards that are routinely drawn for films to help directors plan their work on the set. "You know, it is," Snyder agreed, "but the one little thing that's different (in the case of '300') is that when Frank drew his panels he had no interest in reality. And I think when I draw a storyboard normally I'm really trying to say, 'What's the physical reality and how is that going to work with my actors and how is this informing performance and camera angles and lens sizes and production design -- you know, all those things.' Frank doesn't give a rat's ass about that stuff. Yes, they are like storyboards, but the thing that they don't do is they don't help you that much with practical filmmaking. They help you some with story and with drama, but with practical they throw a wrench in the monkey works in a lot of ways."
Snyder did, however, storyboard "300." "I can draw pretty good," he noted. "We did a making of book which basically shows a step by step (process). It takes my drawing on one side of the page and then on the other side of the page is the finished frame from the movie. Then the next two following pages sort of take you through the process of getting there. It's a really fun experience because you get to say, 'Okay, as a concept this seems sort of normal as far as making a linear idea out of what I would say is Frank's (having) drawn his graphic novel in not necessarily a non-linear way but he's unconcerned with the rigors of convention. And those are the things that as a filmmaker you rely on to create your reality. So it's interesting to sort of get a sense of how we actually went about the business of translating the book to practical physical reality."
Asked to walk us through an example of what he means, Snyder replied, "I think the example I like to use is the guys going over the cliff, which is a pretty signature shot from the film. You see my drawing. I took Frank's drawing and put it more in the format of the movie even though it's pretty close anyway. Then I sort of detailed the practical process of saying, 'Okay, I want guys to go over this cliff so that's going to be stuntmen. We're going to do one pass of stunt men and in that pass we'll do maybe one, two, three or four different versions so that I can stack the guys on top of each other because as the stuntmen fall off the cliff you can't have them all fall off like a hundred at a time because they land on each other on the pad. So you have to separate them. And also down to the rocks that are falling over the edge with the guys and the shields and spears that are falling with them, all of those were done separately.
"All of those elements were done to increase what I like to call the battle grit. The battle grit is just all the crap that (is involved in such a scene). If you're doing a war sequence and you have guys fighting even if you are just having them fight and putting them against blue screen there's going to be elements missing that create the texture of the fight. And that is, when the guys fight you would imagine that little bits of dirt fly up in the air, a little bit of haze or smoke is whisping around them. All those things are actually the things that create the atmosphere that makes the movie kind of haunting and interesting. But that's the stuff you don't get for free. That's the stuff you have to plan for and sort of imagine and be ready for."
It appears in the film that Snyder has thousands and thousands of extras working for him: "Pretty much, it was 25 on 25 (25 extras fighting 25 other extras) as far as the fighting went. Anyone who wasn't in the first wave of guys battling wasn't real. Or, we did it with a second pass. That is to say, we would actually take everyone and move them further back and film them again. In that way you could just basically recycle the same actors again. That's because they're distant and they're wearing uniforms. You can recycle the crowd that way."
I recalled doing an interview with Ridley Scott when "Gladiator" opened and hearing him explain how he'd only had one level of spectators in the coliseum he had built for the movie, but had then been able to use CGI to create the additional levels that were necessary. "We did a lot of work with adding guys," Snyder said about filming "300." "And the real trick with creating the CG guys and the CG environment for '300' was to train the visual effects houses not to make it look too real because our movie has a very particular sort of vibe to it and I didn't want them to try and make it look real.
"Normally when they make a movie, they have a really good idea about what is real. It's easy to render something that you know to be real because you're like, 'Okay, I know what a rock looks like because I can see it.' You can show it to anyone and say, 'Does this look like a rock?' And they'd say, 'Yeah.' But the problem with (the graphic novel) '300' is that the rocks didn't look like rocks and the dirt didn't look like dirt. So they really basically had to make it up. They had to go with our style, not their own. So in that way I don't want to say (it was) more difficult, but certainly it added to the detail part of the movie."
"300's" R rating was a factor in terms of how much money Snyder had to work with. "You know, when I agreed to make an R rated movie for the studio I was basically agreeing to less money," he said. "That's how that works. With an R rated movie they basically were saying, 'Look, we can't market the movie in the same way (that we can a PG-13 film). The audience is less than (it is for) a PG-13 movie. So you have to accept the limitations of the R rated movie from a marketing standpoint and, therefore, you have to accept that you're going to have less money to make your movie. So it really then became about, for me anyway, trying to work within the parameters of the (budget) because I wasn't going to compromise the rating to get more money. The movie is not about that. It's a very particular vision, I think."
Of course, a lot of other directors would have chosen instead to make the film a hard PG-13 so as to get more money to work with. "I just couldn't," Snyder said. "I couldn't do that. And so that's the movie I ended up with. And that's fine. I have no problem with that. But it's just that you really have to put your thinking cap on and you really have to be open to trying to figure things out when you accept that as your approach. Look, it's the challenges, but at the same time it's kind of what makes it fun."
"300's" battle scenes, particularly the ones with massive amounts of arrows flying through the air, looked like they posed huge challenges while shooting, but that wasn't actually the case. When I asked Snyder if he'd used many cameras rolling at the same time to try to get these shots in one take, he replied, "Well, there's no arrows in the movie. We didn't shoot any real arrows. So it allowed us actually to do those (battle scene) takes over and over because there was no actual blood on set. The costumes weren't getting bloody and all that. So it allowed us to care more about the choreography of the fighting.
"That is a thing you can do. In our day and age, you can do digital blood and you can do all that (battle) stuff digitally. The thing that I like about it and the thing that it does for me anyway is it gives random things like blood the option of becoming an element in the picture making that you have complete control over. That is to say, 'I want more red here,' almost like a paint stroke. So in that way you do have control. I really believe it is (the filmmaker almost as painter). People have asked me, 'Is this the future of cinema?' And I go, 'I don't know because our approach was so particular that I don't know that it is the way other movies should be made necessarily.'"
In shooting the film did he film anything specifically to use later on when it goes into DVD release? "You know, I didn't," Snyder told me, "but I will say that the one cool thing is that this cut of the movie is my cut of the movie. There's no director's cut, per se. There are a few deleted scenes, but not many. One of them is actually that we had these armless Persian giants that had these midget archers riding on their backs shooting arrows at the Spartans. And when I saw it I was like, 'You know what? That's even too much for me.' That's (probably going to be) on the DVD."
As for the greatest challenges he faced in shooting the movie, Snyder pointed out, "The whole thing was a giant challenge, but I think really the challenge (to speak of is that) we shot the movie in 60 days. I think for me the biggest challenge was that it was such a physical job. It was just a grueling shoot. It was something that I would absolutely do again and it was a labor of love and all that, but it was hard. We shot it in Montreal in an old abandoned depot where they built trains. So it wasn't like the lap of luxury in any way. It was a rough place to work."
Post-production was, needless to say, a key period in the film's production. "It's been a year of post for me," he said. "It is absolutely exhausting in a lot of ways. The one nice thing is that we actually got to work on the film and get it absolutely right."
Snyder didn't shoot an unusual amount of takes to be able to work with in editing: "I think (the amount) you would normally do for a movie. In some ways it was easier to do a lot of takes because the set-up time you do in blue screen (then means that) you're pretty much in it. So that way we moved really fast. But certainly because we had so much to do and so little time and I want everything to be perfect it was a bit of a catch 22 -- you want to do it quick, but you want it to be right. So like anything you find yourself (saying), 'If only I had more time.'"
Snyder tips his director's hat to his actors and the difficulties they faced working mostly on blue screen. "Honestly, they were so good," he said. "They used the other actor (working with them in a scene) to sort of create their reality in the sense that their performance came from the other actor giving them all the things they needed to go, 'Okay, this is what I need to make my performance work. Help me out.' And it was awesome that they actually did help each other that way. It was really kind of cool. You could see them going, 'Hey, give me a hand here 'cause I don't know where the hell I am.' I don't want to say that the physical part of it was easy, but (that) in some ways is easier for the actors because when you're trying not to get hit by a stick in the head that's just real in some ways. You basically keep ducking so you don't get hit. So the choreography part of it is easier to do.
"And thank God we shot the movie kind of in order so that they had all that fighting behind them by the time they got shot by arrows (that weren't really there). They were kind of used to it. I tried to shoot it in sequence because I felt there was no reason not to. The idea that we weren't shooting the movie in sequence seemed kind of ludicrous to me. The only thing we did out of sequence was the Queen's story (in which she tries to persuade the Spartan government to send additional troops to support her husband's tiny band of fighters) because the Queen only worked for part of the (film). So we got her in and out. But the rest of it we pretty much shot exactly as you would."
Looking back, Snyder added, "The thing that's cool, I think, about '300' is that my hope was to make a movie that was designed to be a good time at the movies. It's like an R rated good time. It's weird. That concept is a difficult thing in our day and age -- an adult movie that's rated R (but) that's not a goofy comedy or depressing as hell. It's just a thing that we don't do. I love movies and so the idea of making a movie for people that love movies is a thing that I like."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From March 16, 1989's column: "All film companies begin with a first movie. In the case of New Visions Pictures, the production company formed last year when New Visions Inc. and New Century Entertainment became New Visions Entertainment Corp., that first film is 'Rooftops.'
"'Rooftops,' an action romance opening Friday at 1,043 screens, takes place largely atop abandoned tenement buildings on New York's lower East Side. It was directed by Robert Wise...Wise, an Oscar winner for 'West Side Story' and 'The Sound of Music,' and New Visions' chairman and CEO Taylor Hackford, director of ('An Officer and a Gentleman'), were my guests recently on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series.
"Why did Wise, who could make films for the majors choose to work for a new company? 'I liked the script when they presented it to me and...I have such regard and respect for Taylor as a director, a filmmaker and a man who really knows the business that I thought I couldn't be in better hands.'
"What attracted New Visions to Wise? Hackford was delighted, he says, 'as a filmmaker to have an opportunity to work with Bob Wise. There are not many experiences that I would consider to be equal. I have great respect for his work. Certainly he knows more about directing than probably a number of my colleagues and myself included.
"'Beyond that, as a businessman, it's our first film out and we at New Visions Pictures are going to make pictures at a certain budget. What is to us a lot of money may not be to a major studio. It's a great responsibility and I wanted somebody who had a lot of experience and knew what he was doing...The film is a musical. It has dance. It's a tough urban drama. It has to have a lot of heart. And when you look around for directors who can cover that gamut, you're not going to find a very long list. Bob has done all those pictures and I thought it was a terrific combination of talent and material.'"
Update: "Rooftops" did not go through the boxoffice roof. It opened March 17, 1989 to $1.1 million at 1,044 theaters ($1,064 per theater) and went on to gross $2 million domestically.
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.