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Welcome to Framed, a column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time.
Zack Snyder's 300 is a divisive film -- a title loved by fanboys and action junkies who hail it as one of the best movies of the past decade, yet looked down upon by other cinephiles who find all the growling dialogue and super slow motion hard to take seriously. One thing nearly everyone can agree upon is that it's a film with a very unique visual look.
Filled with hyper-stylized colors and computer-generated imagery, 300 is literally a comic book brought to life. Frank Miller's graphic novel is recreated with exacting detail in some sequences, which is at least part of why the comic crowd loves the film as much as they do.
Unlike most installments of Framed, this one isn't so much about how the director and cinematographer worked together to get a great shot. 300 is indicative of a newer kind of filmmaking -- one where visual effects supervisors and CGI artists are nearly as important as the cinematographer himself. Regardless of whether or not you think 300 is good, it's hard to argue against it being visually stunning. Even someone who's not a fan of CGI -- like myself -- finds some of the images in Snyder's film absolutely breathtaking. Is it an exercise in style over substance? Definitely -- but that style is still impressive.
The film is a fictionalized retelling of the Battle of Thermopylae, wherein 300 Spartan warriors led by King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) take on a much larger Persian force led by Xerxes. It's all about over-the-top action and chiseled abs -- at the expense of characterization, as many of its critics like to point out. However, since Framed is about a still image and not the overall quality of a film, those arguments don't really have a place here.
Snyder made 300 by primarily utilizing super-imposition and chroma key techniques. In less technical terms, that means he superimposed characters over elaborately drawn backgrounds that were added during the post production process. Most of the filming of 300 required the actors to perform in front of blue screens and respond and react to things that weren't actually there. By utilizing this technique, Snyder is able to replicate the fantastical images of Miller's graphic novel, giving his film an ethereal and larger than life feel.
300 is filled with some really captivating images (and lots of sepia tones), but I've selected a different type of image for today's column.
The image I've selected is of the Oracle. Leonidas consults with the Ephors -- the leper priests -- to gain their blessing so he can wage war against Xerxes. They take him to the Oracle and one of the film's most beautiful scenes follows.
The young female who serves as the Oracle is kept in a constantly drugged state from the narcotic smoke that swirls around her. Director Zack Snyder had a very distinct goal for the scene -- he wanted the actress to move in a way that seemed beautiful yet unnatural (highlighting her supernatural nature), and he wanted the smoke around her to be something of a character in its own right. This turned out to be slightly more challenging than anyone anticipated, but I think the end result proves the effort was well worth it.
Visual Effects company Screaming Death Monkey landed the job and set about making it happen. To achieve the Oracle's unnatural movement was fairly simple -- in theory. Actress Kelly Craig was filmed dancing underwater. The company was given a bluescreen plate shot underwater and then had to match their work to that particular image. This meant building a 3D recreation so the skies and everything else that had already been established in earlier sequences would match. The hardest part turned out to be making sure Craig's skin tone was consistent since she'd been shot in different locations and under different lighting. Switching from wet underwater shots of the actress to dry ones required a great deal of effort to make sure the skin tones were consistent. The other problem was contending with air bubbles, which would occasionally emerge from the actress' nose, get caught in her hair, and so on.
With those problems solved, SDM could then focus on the sky and the smoke. For the sky, which is featured prominently throughout the film, the company started with a photographic image and then worked toward the director's mandate that it be realistic yet still painterly. Utilizing Photoshop and Eyeon Digital Fusion, SDM took that photographic image of the sky and then layered in watercolor paintings and animated the cloud movement. The end result is a modern day matte painting -- but instead of it being a still, there's genuine movement that gives it an added effect.
Creating the smoke required that the company employ a lot of cloth simulations to capture the billowing effect and make it seem more "alive." Yet again, the company used a lot of computer programs to create the foundation, but still superimposed real smoke to create the final effect. The image shows this billowing cloth effect quite nicely -- particularly where the cloth of the Oracle's robe and the smoke overlap.
The result of Screaming Death Monkey's labors is one of 300's most gorgeous images. Kelly Craig's pose in the still highlights that while she appears human, she's not exactly like you and I. The moody color of the sky and the mountains in the backdrop give the image an otherworldly feeling, one that's compounded by the smoke the swirls around her, almost caressing her.
The image works in the context of Snyder's film because everything about 300 is meant to be stylized to the point of artifice. The approach would be less effective in a film set during more modern times or one outside of the comic book universe -- but much like Sin City (another visually intriguing film based on a Miller comic), 300 benefits greatly from these design choices. In a tale about a larger than life event and characters, it's only fitting that Snyder give the backgrounds the same kind of lush appearance.
If the Oracle image proves anything, it's that there is room for computer-generated imagery in films. When used properly and with some kind of guiding overall vision, CGI can enhance a scene in ways that more traditional means can't. I love matte paintings -- but a simple matte painting backdrop would never have the same effect as what Snyder and his team created in this image. This isn't to say that CGI gets a free pass -- but merely that we should continue to evaluate its usage on a case by case basis and refrain from making blanket statements about its quality.
And with that in mind, I'd also hope we could remember and appreciate the fact that a great frame isn't always the result of just a director and cinematographer coming together. As this image proves, there's often much more to it than that -- and that many talented people contribute to creating the magnificent pictures we see in our favorite films.