Adapting 300: Mise en scène & Visual Effects

10 min read

Logline

In 480 BC, King Leonidas along with 300 Spartans marched to Thermopylae to prevent the Persian empire—the greatest empire the world had ever seen—from conquering the rest of Greece.

Introduction

We live in an era where cinema of attractions thrives, where adaptations of graphic novels with superheroes and supervillains have taken over the box offices, and studios rely heavily on them to grow bigger, where new marketing techniques are implemented to get the audiences invested in every film of every franchise, making it impossible to miss any. Not long before this era started spiralling out of control, there was a graphic novel adaptation whose sole purpose was to stay true to its original source.

Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) could be criticised in a number of ways, its historical accuracy being the most obvious one. But one needs to keep in mind that the film was not adapted from Herodotus’ texts. Its adaptation comes from Frank Miller’s and Lynn Varley’s homonymous graphic novel (1998). I would like to focus on a type of filmmaking where the mise-en-scène is adapted accurately from a graphic novel through the extensive use of CGI[1]. My intention in this article is to talk about this adaptation: how faithful it is and why certain creative choices might have been made. Enjoy!

Mise-en-scène: The French phrase mise-en-scène (pronounced meez-ahn-sen) means “putting into the scene” … Film scholars, extending the term to film direction, use the term to signify the director’s control over what appears within the film frame: setting, lighting, costume and makeup, and staging and performance.

(Bordwell, Thompson, 13)

The Aim

Zack Snyder‘s aim was not to make a Hollywood blockbuster, but an incarnation of the novel. He wanted the viewers to “live” this experience as if they are reading it; “a world of imagination” where everything is made. (Snyder: 300) Frank Miller had the same vision—hence the collaboration. Snyder wanted to duplicate the look of the novel “as close to a frame-by-frame, panel-by-panel visual recreation of the comics as you could imagine” and, in doing so, “the composition of the frames is the same; the camera angles are the same; and every line of dialogue, to the word, comes from the comics.” (Leith, 2005)

Larry Fong, 300‘s director of photography, claimed that “Frank’s book was the blueprint for the look of our film. We were not just making a film using his characters and story, we were specifically making a film out of his book, so its style and compositions were integral to everything we were doing”. Miller has said, “Movies are an extension that adds the dimension of time, space and movement to colour and composition.” (Williams 2007: A) 

The Elements

The Wolf

A young Leonidas, on a cold, snowy night, is about to confront the wolf… 

For him to do so, Snyder, the production designer, and the visual effects supervisor, dissected every storyboard and its corresponding location. They used “a mixture of state of-the-art animatronics along with a 3D computer-generated character” and either practical props or virtual elements or a combination of the two to make every frame real. (DiLlulo 2007) 

Determining lighting and composition were the first steps to create the landscape and the weather conditions from scratch.

Greenscreen vs Bluescreen

Fong mentions that during pre-production shooting tests, they tried everything on the greenscreen, but the results were not what they expected. They noticed some “weird colour fringing” which could not be explained. Later on, they realized that it was related to the contrast created by the red Spartan capes. Ultimately, the ratio between bluescreen and greenscreen was 90% and 10% of the scenes respectively. (Williams 2007: A) 

Greenscreen was extensively used in the depiction of Sparta. Sparta was built both physically and with the help of CG, as it was impossible to build it from scratch, and equally impossible to create it purely virtually.  (Snyder 2007: A)

A simple offering of earth and water is what we ask for… 

From the moment the three hundred Spartans and Leonidas leave Sparta, the real work began for Larry Fong and the Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Watts. Every shot’s mise-en-scène had to match their one and only source: the graphic novel. And realism was never the intention… “Our skies are created using a blend of watercolour elements, giving the backgrounds a uniquely textured feel without being entirely painted,” said Fong. Each sequence had to be treated differently. (DiLlulo 2007)

Spartans and Thespians meet before they walk side by side to meet death… 

Frank Frazetta, responsible for the oil paintings that formed the landscapes, emphasised on this ultimate goal: “…to give the film a close interpretation, especially in spirit.” Hence, no natural light or outdoor shootings. Fong adds that even if they had all the money in the world, they could not have accomplished Miller’s atmosphere in the real world. Skies, for example, are depicted in a surrealistic way in the novel, and this cannot be found otherwise. Therefore, everything was kept to CG, in order to have absolute control over the imagery, without trying to trick the audience about what is real and what is not. (Williams 2007: B)

All of them lay eyes on the Persian fleet for the first time… With one ship hitting the other, and all of them hitting the rocks… Eventually swallowed by the dark waters… 

Comparing the narratives in film and graphic novel, we can see that there are tremendous differences not only in chronological order, but also in the emphasis on details. The extensive fleet decimation CG sequence occupied only two pages in Miller’s novel. Snyder prolonged the agony and dramatised it to the extreme. This is not your average visual effects sequence. This is Snyder’s vision, complete with CGI boats that are “pounded by realistic look-alike rendered waves”. (DiLlulo 2007)

Blood

The first day of battle begins… Endless killing and remorseless bloodbath… 

Both in the film and the graphic novel, blood is integral to the graphic deaths. 2D illustrative blood along with real make-up effects and “fake slabs of flesh” were the key ingredients to the exit wounds. “Our blood is allowed to defy the laws of physics,” Snyder said, justifying the spears thrusting through the Persians, making blood explode from the exit wound rather than the entry point. Other than the two gallons of fake blood used, the rest was all added in post-production. (DiLlulo 2007)

Watts kept the artistic impact intact: “When he [Miller] keeps their representation quite graphic, using broad areas of light and shadow to define shapes with little focus on the intricate detail, our approach to the backgrounds, whether CG or built, has been to mimic the graphic style.” (DiLlulo 2007)

The Elephants

And the elephants were unleashed and armoured, and carried the Persians into the battle…  

Even though they were pre-visualised entirely in 3D, that path did not yield the desired outcome. The first attempts were no match for Varley’s drawings. So, the method used for the wolf was applied. 

While constructing the mise-en-scène though, difficulties came up: when they had to switch from day to night and vice versa for almost every set. The lack of budget made Fong improvise: “The solution was to put up huge ½ CTB Silk[2] so everything was slightly blue from the beginning, putting us right in the middle of the colour-temperature zone. For a daytime look, we’d just go warmer in the timing and for night we’d go cooler.” Backlight in relation to the overall illumination was another factor that differentiated the daytime look from night-time. With constant backlight adaptations, they managed to adjust the dusk, the skies, and the sun. (Williams 2007: A)

Production designer Jim Bissell stated that “It was a matter of taking the most iconographic frames from Frank’s book and build some kind of geography around them, because I don’t think he ever used wide establishing shots in the book.” First thing Bissell did was to create a 3D layout study for Thermopylae (the battleground), as pre-visualization. Therefore, whenever Snyder wanted to go through the battles, they had a concrete model to work on. On adding Photoshop paintings the model became a solid foundation to experiment with. During pre-visualization, it was decided that in order to shoot both day and night in one studio, especially the surrealistic, picturesque landscapes, they would have to shoot in IMAX[3]. (Williams 2007: B)

As Xerxes stands atop, his fearless Immortals strike…  

And Leonidas gives one last order… 

Before glorious death welcomes them to dine with Hades… 

And the heroic, selfless act spread throughout Sparta and unoccupied Greece…  Resulting with the Persian blood soaking the Greek soil for the last time… 

Conclusion

Fans and critics were divided. “Action and nothing more,” “C.G.I. is not a goal but a tool,” and “American psychological warfare against Iran,” (Anil Usumezbas: 2008) said some reviews.  Todd McCarthy compared 300 to Sin City by saying that the former did not really have much to offer, except more colour, blood, and muscles. He added that cretinous giants, charging rhinos and giant elephants were “too little effect.” (McCarthy, 2007)

There will always be criticism from people who prefer the first version of the story they encounter, or even the original medium. Pascal Lefevre is adamant that films like 300 shouldn’t be judged as successful or unsuccessful adaptations, but as films. (Lefevre, 2007) Old Boy, for example, was a disturbing, yet successful film and almost none of the Western spectators who watched it had read (or were even aware of) the original manga

The social media nowadays overhypes commercial films (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) or condemns them before they are even released (X-Men: Dark Phoenix2019). What is going to happen? How is it going to happen? Who is going to make it and who isn’t? This agonising anticipation drives people to the cinema. Whether they are satisfied or not is another story.  In 300, the audience knew what would happen, how it would happen, who would make it and who wouldn’t. They knew it all, except that the magic of Greece’s mediterranean ecosystem was in fact created in a single studio. The surrealistic visual illustrations fusing history with fantasy made fans of the action genre happy as well. 

Yes, the significance of the beard and the use of shield have been mitigated (every Spartan sported a beard and the shield would leave a Spartan’s hand over their dead body) and the historical inaccuracies are beyond counting. But then, none of the actors are of Greek (or Persian) descent, no one speaks ancient Greek, half of the cast had their chests shaved and were on steroids. The film’s genre is Action/Fantasy/War, derived straight from the graphic novel, and it does not try to fool anyone. It consists of 1523 cuts, of which 1300 contain 8631 visual effect elements. It knows exactly where it stands. Critics are missing out on the creative efforts of thousands of people and focusing on its misinterpretation, which to me, sounds like a (non)professional attempt to make their name stand out and for all the wrong reasons.

References

[1] Computer Generated Imagery: Any image that has been created entirely on the computer. (Goulekas 2001 71) 

[2] A colour gel or colour filter, also known as lighting gel or simply gel. It is a transparent coloured material that is used in theatre, event production, photography, videography and cinematography to colour light and for colour correction. (Goulekas 2001, 112)

[3] IMAX: A widescreen system that uses 65 mm film running horizontally through the camera to capture an area spanning across 15 perforations. The image area captured is more than ten times greater than a standard 35 mm frame and three times larger than a 65 mm frame. IMAX is projected onto a large, curved screen on 70 mm film. (Goulekas 2001, 246)

Bibliography

  • 300, 2007: A. Directed by Zack Snyder. [DVD: 1], USA” Warner Brothers
  • 300, 2007: B. Directed by Zack Snyder. [DVD: 2], USA” Warner Brothers
  • 300 – The official site. (2007) <http://www.300ondvd.com/300.htm > [Accessed 15 April 2010]
  • Bordwell, D., Thompson, K. (2003). Film Art: An Introduction, 7th ed. New York: McGraw–Hill.
  • DiLullo T. (2007) 300: The Art of the Film, Dark Horse Comics
  • Gordon, I.  Jancovich, M. McAllister P. (2007) Film and Comic Books, University Press Of Mississippi / Jackson
  • Goulekas E. K. (2001) Visual Effects in A Digital World: A Comprehensive Glossary of over 7000 Visual Effects Terms, Morgan Kaufmann
  • Leith, S, (2005) Black and White and Noir All Over. Daily Telegraph, p.12
  • McCarthy, T. (2007) Battle of the Bulges. Variety, p. 41
  • Williams, D. E (2007: A) Few Against Many. The American Cinematographer, p.52
  • Williams, D. E (2007: B) The Future Is Now. The American Cinematographer, p.14
  • Usumezbas, A. (2008) The Long Take, Top 10 Comic Book / Graphic Novel Adaptations – On Superheroes And More. Available at <http://www.long-take.com/2008/08/top-10-comic-bookgraphic-novel.html> [Accessed April 14, 2010]

Images: Reproduction


About the author

Konstantinos got into TV and Film production immediately after school. He has been studying and working in this field ever since. In 2011, he won the Nostimon Imar Award (Best Greek Director Abroad) for his short film Ithacathat he wrote, edited and directed. The following year, he donated his documentary Asperger Syndrome: Myths & Reality to the National Autistic Society in the U.K. Konstantinos lives and works in the U.K. as a freelance Video Editor and Camera Operator for corporate videos, fashion shows, and documentaries. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Film at the University of Nottingham and reviewing films on his own blog.

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