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Chris Watts-VFX Evolution


By Mark London Williams
One of the pleasures of award season in Hollywood–that is, in the years when there are awards, and not strikes–is that, beyond the glitz and the reflexive, second-nature self-congratulations of it all, affords a chance, here at BTL to reconnect with people who’ve done good and sometimes innovative work in the previous year.
Chris Watts falls in to the latter category for his work on the groundbreaking 300, which proved that there are good artistic/visual reasons for doing a film in an entirely green (and blue) screen fashion, creating a world that wouldn’t be possible on sets and locales, and a palette—in this case evoking the original color panels from Frank Miller’s graphic novel–that was both necessary to the world of film, yet bore scant visual relationship to the real world around us.
Currently nominated for a VES Award for Best Single Visual Effect of the year (for the film’s “Crazy Horse” sequence), while puzzlingly left out of Oscar contention, Watts was recovering from a Sundance-induced cold when BTL caught up with him to discuss whether his work on 300, widely regarded as groundbreaking, changed the way he approached everything that followed in his wake. Surprisingly, that wasn’t necessarily the case. While acknowledging that his work on 300 does help to get “people [to] give me the time of day,” his subsequent two projects were reality based–the soon-to-be-released Renee Zellweger drama, Case 39, and the James Ellroy-penned cop drama The Night Watchman, where his task is a more familiar one: simply “make it look real.”
“It’s hard for people to understand what you can and cannot do with FX,” he said, “though mostly effects people get it.” Though not necessarily the producers who were ringing him up, post-Spartan, who would “ask for stuff that’s impossible – bigger, better, faster, stronger than 300. I graciously say ‘no.’”
Partly, this is because they’d all want that look with a budget that was “the same–or less” than what he had to work with on 300. He says it would take 150 percent of that budget to replicate that work today.
But more than that, his work on the six-pack-and-swords epic wasn’t a business model that can even be emulated. It was the result of “serious collaboration between writer, director, and studio that made it possible.”
And while he acknowledges that it’s hard to make a totally photorealistic CG landscape—”the last 20 percent of realism” is particularly hard, he notes—it’s also hard to make an internally consistent fabricated world.
“That’s where 300 succeeded,” he said, and it had, he adds, a “great art director [Nicholas Lepage, with Isabelle Guay and Jean-Pierre Paquet] and a great pipeline.” They used FX shops like Animal Logic, Hydraulx, Pixel Magic, and several others. Additionally, he says, while the shooting took 60 days, the posting took two years.
By contrast, Watts has worked on multiple films–both big and small–in the one year since 300 came out.
So does he view 300 as a singular, perhaps anomalous experience, rather than a trend? “I’m detecting a huge change,” he says, in the way visual effects are received by viewers. “You don’t need to be completely photoreal, and people will buy it.”
In other words, it’s not all either/or anymore. There seems to be an increasing acceptance of the fantastic–even if it isn’t “real”–at the visual level. Perhaps it’s something that will grow–given what is expected of our films nowadays–into a demand.
If so, Watts is ready. “I can do a lot with a little,” he said. Much like that original, doughty band of Spartans themselves.

Written by Mark London Williams

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