300 was shot on 35mm film and takes a hybrid approach to storytelling, much like 2005’s Sin City, with live-action footage of actors, captured in front and blue- and greenscreens, being composited with CG backgrounds and environments.
SDM VFX supervisor/lead artist Jeremy Hunt, who’s collaborated with the film’s VFX supervisor Chris Watts numerous times over the past 10 years, says the directive was to keep in mind that 300 would be a very stylized movie with a very painterly feel. “Sixty percent would be photoreal,” says Hunt, “and 40 percent would be a watercolor, painterly look.”
The studio was faced with a number of challenges, including having to create matte paintings, skies, set extensions, smoke effects and photoreal objects. They received 2K film scans along with storyboards, plates and a single keyframe from the art director for every sequence they would be working on.
“We had a really good idea of color tone, brightness levels and where the horizon was, so there was no guesswork as far as what it needed to look like,” says Hunt. The first scene SDM worked on was the journey the lead character takes up a mountain to seek the wisdom of the oracle. The studio extended the rocky outcropping of the mountain and created matte paintings.
The second scene also features the oracle, who’s kept in a drug-induced trance through smoke and incense. “We were given art direction [stating that] the art must interact with her,” says Hunt. “The smoke had to have a wispy quality to it and envelop her, and almost dance with her in a way.”
He says the sequence was particularly challenging because the scene was shot “wet for dry” in a water tank with a bluescreen backdrop. This allowed for the required slow motion sequences as well as for complex speed ramps.
“We had to recreate the practical set and do skies and backgrounds and then add smoke,” he explains. “We went through a lot of different iterations to do smoke — we started with particle systems but it wasn’t interactive enough. Then we shot some film elements and got realistic smoke, but could not manipulate it.”
They ended up creating a smoke effect in 3D using NewTek LightWave and combined it with some of the live action smoke elements. Eyeon Fusion was used for compositing the many effects layers.
A third sequence included a handful of shots where gold coins rain down in super slow motion. “The shot starts with coins falling slowly by the camera and a speed ramp builds to show pile of coins,” describes Hunt. Practical coins were shot during production, but additional coins needed to be added for the camera fly-bys and to add to the growing pile. Hunt got his hands on one of the prop coins and modeled it in LightWave. Adobe Photoshop was used to create all of the multilayered matte paintings. Bluescreen footage was composited by Wayne Shepherd using Autodesk Inferno.
In total, Hunt says Screaming Death Monkey spent about a year creating the 10-plus minutes of effects shots for the film, working under relaxed deadlines.
“As a business owner, I thought that we might be spending too much time on this, but as an artist, it was such a cool project that we kept refining things.”