By Mark London WilliamsChris Watts has some history of his own to bring to 300. The springbox-office hit, directed by Zack Snyder, tells the story of 300Spartans who hold an invading army from Persia at bay just long enoughto eventually turn the tide of history.But as is famously known, this telling of the Mediterranean’s ownversion of The Alamo wasn’t done on any real locations at all—no formertrue stomping grounds of lithe Spartan queens or buff Greek warriorswere actually used in recreating Frank Miller’s graphic novel versionof the signal battle. Instead, it was all done in Canada, a landpossessing a climate not usually favorable to the leather thong attirefavored by the film’s characters.But it was the switch to northern climes that provided Watts with his”break” on the film—another VFX supe had been lined up for what hadbeen slated as an Australian shoot, when the producing powers that bedecided the “tax climate was better in Montreal.”Not that Watts needed a “break” per se—his resume already includedsupervising VFX on The Fog, consulting on The Corpse Bride andcompositing on a Harry Potter entry, among many others.But when he found himself in an abandoned Canadian locomotive repairfacility, setting up blue-screen stages (which composited better withSpartan red than green screens would), all of which would later becomesere, dusty—and blood-soaked—fields, he realized he’d already hadexperience putting real actors into digital worlds that didn’t reallyexist.That would be on Pleasantville, the 1998 film he VFX supervised, where”real” people find themselves in a B&W Leave It To Beaver world.”Pleasantville,” he notes, “was the first DI,” but besides cutting histeeth on the soon-to-be-standard digital intermediate, he also”developed a system for managing shots” in postproduction, whetherthere are “10 shots or a thousand—the overhead only has to be twopeople to manage that.”Of course, we note that’s the “managing,” and not the rendering oranything else, for indeed, the number of VFX shots in the film—which isreally one long VFX shot—totals 1,306, by Watts’ rather precisereckoning.The shots would start either with the original panels by Miller, orwith Snyder—Watts calls him a pro in this regard—knocking outstoryboard sequences.These were, in turn, finished by visual effects art director GrantFreckelton, so between the source material, the concept paintings, andongoing consultations with DP Larry Fong, the film’s “look was prettywell defined.”But while the look may have been defined, the shots still had to bebrought to life, and toward that end, Watts also oversaw the work of 10different effects vendors, working on three different continents.Software packages including Autodesk Maya and Inferno, Apple Shake,Lightwave, and others were used, with most of it wrangled togetherusing Apple’s OS X, though Watts’ own website acknowledges some use ofopen-source Linux, and the teeniest bit of Windows, as well.It was a veritable coalition of the digitally willing. And compatible.”We used everything we had to use,” he recounts, including time, as thefilm’s postproduction phase ran nearly a year.During that year, the various houses each took “different parts of themovie,” with very few multi-vendor shots. But given the story involvesa last-stand in a mountain pass, many of the locales recurred, evenamong scenes divvied up to different vendors.Thus, what Watts dubs the “Thermopylae” look kept changing in subtleways throughout the film. “Let’s let the scenes look a littledifferent,” he decided—after all, when a fourth skirmish is takingplace on the same piece of turf, there’s been more blood in the ground,more dust kicked up in the previous days. It wouldn’t look the same asthe first battle anyway.But not all was dust and ashes: the shoreline, and breaking water, playcrucial roles in the film, too, and Watts, who recounts it was always achallenge to “find enough facilities in the world” to do 300’s work “ontime, with quality,” wanted a house who had its aquatic rendering downpat.He found it in Germany’s Scanline. “There are a lot of companies thatcan do water,” he agreed, but “Scanline can do water, which turns intowaves, which turns into spray,” delivering a believability, even withthe film’s “over the top reality,” that came as from having “365million data points in each of their shots.”But not everything was a successfully crashing wave on a digital shore,en route to bringing severed and crushed bodies to the big screen;Watts talks about a “major vendor meltdown,” with an “intractable” posthouse that simply didn’t get its shots done.Watts notes there’s no particular visual VFX regulatory board you cango to to get your money back in those circumstances—you just “prettymuch have to deal with it.”But clearly he did, and dealt with it well, though Watts is quick topass along much of the credit to Snyder, who kept joking that thefilm—shot against its blue, to-be-added-later, backgrounds—was like a”student film on steroids.”Snyder, he thinks, could even be a VFX supervisor if he wanted, but”he’s (busy) doing other things,” like, well, directing, and so “he’sgonna hire someone like me to do the math.”There are good directors and there are great directors,” Wattsconcludes. The great ones know, of a film, “this is what I want.” Zack,he says, “understands what he wants.”Including a very bloody, very successful recreation of a Spartan battlethat will remain obscured by history no more.As for whether he’ll continue working with the director, well, Wattssays he has a new gig already, and notes that Snyder is busy prepping afilm version of Watchmen, also taken from graphic novel source material(though in this case, perhaps the greatest superhero graphic novel everwritten).He notes as well that Snyder hasn’t announced an VFX supervisor yet,but if the call comes, “I’d be thrilled to do it.”After all, if men are willing to follow clear-eyed leaders on the roadto battle, how much better to simply follow them on the road topostproduction.
Written by Mark London Williams