Bringing Frank Miller's graphic novel 300 to life demanded epic visual effects – Screaming Death Monkey played a key role in building smoke and sky VFX.

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Based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, 300 is a staggering, vicious story based on the epic Battle of Thermopylae, which saw 300 Spartans hold off the might of the Persian army.

Miller’s work has previously hit the cinematic screen in the form of the equally stylized Sin City. Directed by Zack Snyder (whose credits include Dawn of the Dead), 300 delivers a unique style using bluescreen backdrops and over 1,200 effects shots.

The film deploys a style that has been dubbed ‘the crush’. The crush is based on Snyder’s tactic of adjusting the colour balance of the film – a recipe that saw the black content crushed and the colour saturation boosted to transform the contrast-ratio of the film.

Screaming Death Monkey, headed by Jeremy Hunt, created a core of 100 shots for the movie, forming the basis of three of the film’s key sequences.

The headline sequence – dubbed ‘Oracle girl’ saw Hunt and the team transform an underwater-shot actor into an otherworldly, smoke-wrapped oracle infused with magic and mystery.

“I was first brought onto the project by the visual-effects supervisor Chris Watts, who I have known for a long time having worked with him on a number of projects,” says Hunt.

“We were given pretty detailed storyboards for the scenes he wanted us to bid on. My initial thoughts on the mattes and compositing was that it was going to be a challenge – especially the Oracle stuff – but it was so unique and just plain beautiful I was excited more than anything else.”

Hunt has had previous brushes with fame. A few years back he co-directed the first Internet breakout viral short, 405 – which generated massive press coverage and industry plaudits (see Landing 405).

Hunt also has two Emmy nominations to his name for outstanding visual effects. Creating and compositing the Oracle girl sequence was easily the most challenging part of the project, reckons Hunt, both technically and creatively, and demanded a pipeline that took in 3D, Photoshop, and effects compositing.

Dynamic smoke

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“The smoke had to behave in very special ways and do very special things, but still look like smoke,” says Hunt.

“We went through a few R&D steps of particles, fluid dynamics and real filmed smoke before we decided on CG cloth simulations.

“My gut said that simple geometry with a few animation controls – such as morphing and bones – would give us the control we needed.

“I started playing with simple displacement and then handed it off to another artist who worked out the cloth dynamics. That ended up giving us both the control and the feel of smoke that we needed.

“From there it was some clever compositing and layers of re-timed filmed smoke, and we got the look that the client was after.”

For the Oracle girl scene, Hunt was given plates for her on blue, and one style frame that showed the look-&-feel of the lighting, sky, and smoke.

Most of the shots of the actor were shot wet for dry – filmed in a large water tank on bluescreen to achieve an ethereal look. The shots were filmed at high speed, so Snyder could apply special speed ramps that Hunt had to match.

“The next challenge was pulling her matte, and Wayne Shepherd composited all these shots and did a great job,” says Hunt.

“They were really tricky because the clothing she was wearing was very sheer and these shots had to match shots that were filmed on a dry set. Light behaves differently underwater, especially as it plays off the skin, so that was a bit tricky as he had to add specularity back to her skin.”

As the underwater shot wasn’t filmed on set, the next stage was to recreate the set in 3D and then light and position it to match the practical shots.

Once done, the matte paintings for the sky were added, with the last element – smoke – layered on. The smoke was to prove the most challenging part of the sequence.

“The smoke was created using cloth dynamics in LightWave,” says Hunt. “The strips of geometry were then morphed through a bone chain. The bone chain determined the location and animation of the smoke and the morph controlled how fast it was emitted from the lamps.”

Once the geometry was rendered, it was loaded into Eyeon Fusion for effects compositing, with a subtle animation added using Fusion’s Grid Warp tool to clean up and enhance the movement of the smoke.

Mattes were then created to place the smoke into the scene, layering it in front and behind the Oracle.

Glows and colour correction were then added to make it appear as if it was being emitted from the hot coals, and then real smoke was added to the scene to add more depth and realism. Finally, everything was grained.

Sky is no limit

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Hunt also generated fire effects for the scene, with all the fire elements based on real fire, with the 3D particle system in Fusion used to add sparks and embers.

With the smoke finally clearing, Hunt turned his attention to sky replacement – something that was needed in every shot in some form.

As everything in the movie was shot on bluescreen, Hunt had to track and add skies and environments, with the key creative challenge to achieve the look-&- feel of the skies.

“I believe that every single shot we did had skies that I created,” says Hunt. “Some were just skies and a few had other elements like ground and horizon type stuff.

“The first step was to put together a nice library of clouds. I was able to use a great set that a friend had taken while he was at sea on a worldwide cruise. From there it was a ton of Photoshop work.

“I would pull the clouds off the sky so I could animate them later. From there it was adding them back over gradients and other cloud elements using various blending modes. I also got out the water colour set and created a lot of textures that were scanned and brought in to add some graphical qualities.”

Photoshop to Fusion

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With the look settled on, Hunt then took the native Photoshop PSD files into Fusion for further work. “Fusion is great because it can import a PSD and retain the layers with the blending pretty much intact,” he says.

“This is essential, because most of the layers needed to be animated to create the depth and movement of the clouds. For the animation of the clouds, the Grid Warp tool in Fusion was invaluable.

“Once the animation was done I would figure out roughly how many frames we needed for that particular angle and then render out a huge DPX image sequence for the compositor to add to the shot. Some shots required special things that were also added.

“For instance, the big reveal shot of the Ephor’s temple had a giant full moon. I created that moon in 3D and then used that as an element in the matte painting,” he adds.

With the shots locked, Hunt turned to Wayne Shepherd, who owns At The Post, to handle all the bluescreen composites. “Compositing can make or break a shot,” says Hunt. “I’ve been friends and worked with Wayne for almost a decade now, so we have a very good working relationship and I can totally trust him to get composites that look great.

“He used Discreet Inferno to chew through the 100 or so shots we did. We used Fusion for the effects compositing because for my money it’s the best desktop system out there right now, especially for film work.”

With a generous timeframe, and a tight brief, Hunt says the project was great to work on – even though there was little leeway for creative interpretation. “Zack seemed to know exactly what he was after and through Chris Watts and Grant Frekleton (the effects art director) was able to convey the look-&-feel very well.

“As far as our input, I would say that we had about as much input as a VFX vendor usually gets. We are given the ideas and then we have to interpret that and get it to a point that the vision of the director and VFX supervisor are realized.”

Reaction has been universally good – with critics lauding the movie’s effects and style. “The feedback was great,” says Hunt.

“I’ve known Chris and have worked with him over the past ten years, so we have good communication. His eye is impeccable and he’s pretty specific on what he needs to happen to a shot to get it done. Couple that with the great art direction we were given, and what could have been a nightmare on a project like this was pretty straightforward.”

With the film out on general release worldwide, Hunt and Screaming Death Monkey have a full roster through summer – and not all of it is client work. “We’re doing a handful of shots for another film and working on a commercial at the moment,” he reveals.

“As for what I’m most looking forward to, I would have to say it is creating our own content. We’ve been in the pre-planning stages on a couple of shorts that we want to start this summer, so when we get these going we’ll let you know. They should be very cool.”

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This sequence, dubbed ‘Oracle girl’ used a series of cloth-based smoke visual effects and compositing in Fusion to achieve its mystical atmospherics.

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The original plate shows the Oracle girl actor filmed in a large water tank against bluescreen.

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Landing 405

Before forming Screaming Death Monkey, Jeremy Hunt shot to fame in what has been widely hailed as the first Internet movie to gain mainstream attention. Edited using off-the-shelf software, it shows a jumbo jet landing on an American highway, and was filmed in 2001 on location over two days.

The three-minute short featured 62 shots, two-thirds of which had digitally elements – and 19 shots were entirely digitally created. The visual effects took around three months to create, including the creation of the DC-10 plane using NewTek LightWave 3D, and two on-road cars in the film.

Other tools included Digital Fusion, Illusion, Adobe Premiere, and Photoshop. Premiere was used for the entire edit, while Photoshop was used to craft the maps for the 3D objects.

The hardware was run-of-the-mill: Pentium II and Pentium III workstations running Windows NT. View it at www.405themovie.com

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Prepare for glory

300 was released in the US on March 9, and is currently on general release in the UK. Trivia: footage from the film was shown at Comic-Con in July, 2006. Stunned by the clip, comic fans requested to view it three times.

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Once the CG smoke was created, it was subtly animated and adjusted using the Grid Warp tool in Eyeon Fusion. The top image shows it without smoke added.

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Smoke without ire

The smoke itself was created using NewTek LightWave 3D, and is based on a cloth simulation following extensive R&D, says Hunt. The skies are all matte painted and animated.

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The Ephor temple scene was entirely CG generated, with Screaming Death Monkey recreating the sky from scratch. This is the finished shot.

Moon on a stick

Jeremy Hunt of Screaming Death Monkey reckoned that every shot that the team built featured a digital matte sky created by him. In the sequence below, clouds were created, colour corrected and then animated.

Next, a CG moon was created in NewTek LightWave 3D, rendered as multiple passes and colour corrected. Foreground cloud elements were used to dirty up the moonscape.

The moon-heavy sky was then added to a 3D model of the temple (shown bottom), which included a CG mountain peak and foreground peaks, then combined and matted to simulate being lit by the moon. This was then output to create the final shot as seen on the left.

CREDITS

Project:300
Client: Warner Bros
Studio: Screaming Death Monkey, www.screamingdeathmonkey.com
Software: NewTek LightWave, Eyeon Fusion, Adobe Photoshop