Generating early buzz with trailers at Comic-Con and a screening at the Berlin Film Festival, 300 opened broadly on March 9, and has proven an early box office success. Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller (author of Sin City), 300 tells the story of King Leonidas of Sparta and his army of 300 elite warriors who defended the city against an overwhelming Persian army in 480 B.C. By itself, the Battle of Thermopylae - one of history's great last stands - is a compelling subject. When brought to the big screen with stunning visual effects and use of a dramatic color palette, the action and drama are amplified. Film editor William Hoy discusses the storytelling process behind the epic clashes, striking imagery, and digital blood.
Post: You've edited some very memorable and acclaimed films, such as Dances With Wolves, Se7en, and Passion of the Christ. How did you begin your career?
William Hoy: "My sister Maysie was an actress working in Robert Altman films. Bob liked to have his actors work in different roles when not in front of the camera. She was a sound assistant at that time. I would visit her as much as possible and soon got to know her sound supervisor Bill Sawyer. He knew of my interest and study in film, and when there was an opening for an apprentice, he asked if I wanted to work with them. 'Yes' - that was quite a moment."
Post: What was your favorite aspect of working on 300?
Hoy: I loved that there were moments in the film that were planned and then moments that allowed me to shape the scene through editing. Sometimes they happened side-by-side and that worked very nicely. For example, Battle 1 - when the Spartans and the Persians first clash - is made up of a series of smaller battles. The Persians charge the Spartan line and at the moment of engagement all hell breaks loose. In this scene, I had the freedom to form the confusion of battle. The cuts become shorter, the sound effects loudest, and the music reaches its peak, then the King breaks out of the safety of the phalanx in his frenzy and all the sound is reduced to single hits and whooshes. The music is stripped to a minimum, and for a minute and a half in a single shot, the action becomes balletic, in what we called the 'freelance' shot. It's a memorable moment in the film for me."
Post: You worked with director Zack Snyder on Dawn of the Dead previously. What was it like to collaborate with him on this piece compared to the first time?
Hoy: "Trust is what we developed on 300. When I came on Dawn of the Dead, I'm not sure what he made of me because the studio had asked me to come in and help with the picture. At the end of it, I think he felt I was working to make the best picture possible. On 300, it was like starting on a clean slate, and we were collaborators from the start."
Post: When you were preparing for this film, did you watch the 1962 film The 300 Spartans?
Hoy: "No. I didn't see it even while working on the film. I was just so excited to be on a film about the Battle of Thermopylae, a story that had inspired me since I was a kid."
Post: What was your editing set up in the cutting room?
Hoy: "We had five - and at one point six - Avid Film Composer systems (Version 11.2.5) on Unity. There was approximately one terabyte of storage. For my personal setup, I had an Apple Cinema Display as the source monitor and a NEC monitor on the record side, a 32-inch Sharp Aquos LCD as the viewing monitor and a wall mounted 50-inch Panasonic Plasma screen for screening purposes."
Post: Talk about the collaboration with the visual effects team?
Hoy: "Aside from the 'normal' discussions regarding timing of elements within a shot and the timing of the speed ramps, the idea of what is in a completely CG shot with no actors took on the greatest challenge. How to get a great shot and serve the story?"
Post: What was the most challenging part of editing 300?
Hoy: "Imagining how a scene would play out without all the elements present. This was especially true when it affected the length and number of shots budgeted for a scene."
Post: Was it different working with so much greenscreen? What is the challenge of creating a story flow with many of the visual elements missing?
Hoy: "Even though the actors' performances continue to drive most scenes, whatever was being added visually to a shot would sometimes determine its length or whether to play it at all. When King Leonidas leaves for battle and says his goodbyes to his queen and son in the wheat field, my instinct was to be in closer shots to see the emotion on the King's face as he approaches the queen. When I discovered that in the wide shot there would be 300 Spartans turning and heading toward a dark ominous sky with the king and his family in the foreground in a golden wheat field, the symbolism in this picture made the wide shot the obvious choice. I held and held this shot because it said so much."
Post: Because 300 is so visually striking, does that make it more challenging as an editor to focus on the storytelling? Does it ever take away from it?
Hoy: "It's important to keep the focus on the story. With all the eye-popping visuals in 300, you can fool yourself into thinking that was all that would be needed to keep the audience engaged, but I believe people want story and want to feel for the characters. Zack felt the same way. He would sacrifice a cool shot because it interfered with or did not serve the story.
"Some might say that the imagery doesn't look real but remember the lone survivor of the Battle of Thermopylae is the storyteller. He recalls the events - maybe with a little added spice - to stir Sparta to arms. With 300, the visuals unfold slowly, you begin to accept this world, and by Battle 3 when the rhino, sorcerers and executioner are thrown at you, you say, 'Yeah, bring it on!'"
Post: Were there any editing techniques that were particularly integral to this storytelling process?
Hoy: "I never really thought of speed ramp as an editing technique but that was before this picture. When I saw the dailies I was a little worried, so much of it was shot 150fps with the intention that it would be ramped. I knew that if I didn't see eye-to-eye with Zack regarding when and at what speed to ramp in and out of an action, it was going to be a bit of a nightmare. The choices again were limitless. You could ramp a shot as many ways as you could cut a scene, and there wasn't a dramatic guideline one could use as a basis. It was a great relief when I discovered we were in agreement most of the time."
Post: Is there a particular scene that sticks out for you?
Hoy: "There are a few, but I would say, Battle 1 in its entirety. Aside from the moment mentioned earlier [the initial clash], the rest of the battle rages on for a total of, I think, eight-and-a-half minutes. It's relentless, but each phase is different than the other. It was fun to play a section like a traditional fast cutting action scene, the next a speed ramped single shot, and another as an impressionistic montage."
Post: You did the industry's first DI on We Were Soldiers. Today DI is an integral part of the digital film process. How do you see technology continuing to evolve and what's your perspective on the role of technology in your work?
Hoy: "We've all heard by now, 'We can fix it in the DI.' While much of that may be true, it's always so much better to have had a plan while in production and to save the DI to finesse the look and feel of the picture. Technology may allow for what seems like unlimited possibilities, but the cost of additional time and money and value of the returns are not proportional. On the one hand, all the technology makes my job more pleasurable, I can achieve my ideas quickly - instant gratification if you will. On the other hand, there are now limitless choices, and if there is not a defined direction, a lot of time can be lost just playing with all the possibilities."
Post: With 300 completed and in the theaters, what are you working on now?
Hoy: "Fantastic 4 - The Rise of the Silver Surfer. This one is fun too. A lot of CG characters, the need again to imagine so many shots, which is related to your earlier question. As editors, we are now asked to use our imagination, not only to put the picture together but to also collaborate on the design of a shot itself to further the story. We know our characters well and add our knowledge to determine an action a character would do in a specific situation."