300: Rise of Empire–Designing War

Although the primary battlefront had moved from Thermopylae to the Aegean Sea, director Murro filmmakers still wanted this film to relate back to the visual style established in “300.”

Murro and his cinematographer, Simon Duggan, used the template of the earlier movie as a reference for framing the shots in a way that also reflected the graphic novel source material.

They were also able to plan out the scenes using pre-vis, or previsualization, in which entire sequences were orchestrated in a basic animatic format.  Given the effects-heavy nature of the production, the pre-vis stage was crucial to all departments.  Visual effects supervisor Richard Hollander says, “We were creating an entire world.  The pre-vis allowed us to determine the various angles of how we were going to shoot the action, review it and, if necessary, change it, going back and around as many times as needed.”

Murro notes, “We designed it in such a way that each battle is different, but all tying back to the idea that it’s the Greeks who know the lay of the land…or, in this case, water.  That’s part of what makes Themistokles such a great strategist—he knows if they’re only talking numbers they’re toast, so he has to bring something else to the table.  Each encounter was conceived to give you another aspect of how he employs tactics and wisdom against overwhelming forces.”

Hollander worked closely with the VFX team at Scanline, the company responsible for rendering the water, which was constantly in motion—whether rippling gently, churning under the oars of the boats, or crashing against the hulls and the rocks.  Bryan Hirota, the visual effects supervisor at Scanline, reveals that the aim was to make the water look believable but not exactly natural.  “Our goal was to come up with something that lent itself to the film’s hyper-stylized world, so we didn’t want the water to be too realistic.  We wanted to make sure that these environments behaved in a fantastical way, and once we established the look there was a lot of very advanced simulation work and computations to implement it.  It was a huge technical challenge.”

While Scanline did create all the main bodies of water, some scenes in which actors had to go into the water were accomplished in tanks in London at Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden.

Another vital fluid that was specially stylized for the film was the copious amount of blood yielded in battle.  Hollander says, “Similar to the first film, we wanted it to be extreme, so we added almost all the blood during post-production.  We had to match it to each blow, cut and slash in the midst of all the mayhem so adding the blood spray was more meticulous than you might think.”

On a broader scale, visual effects had a hand in every shot in the film, as most of the sets and all of the backgrounds were digitally created or expanded.  The VFX team also controlled the weather, generating the atmospheric effects that helped set the tone for each scene.

The physical sets—including segments of the wooden triremes of the Greeks and the black-clad warships of the Persians—were constructed on soundstages at Nu Boyana Studio, just outside of Sofia, Bulgaria.  However, it took computer-generated imagery to complete the construction of the warring fleets and make the vessels “seaworthy” in a digital sense.

Every set, whether interior or exterior, was surrounded by blue or green screens, which would later become the vistas of ancient Greece and Persia—from Athens to Sparta, and from the Aegean Sea to the palace of the God-King Xerxes.

Designs of War

It was important to the filmmakers that the opposing worlds of the Greeks and Persians be delineated through both production and costume design.  Murro affirms, “There was a deliberate difference in our approach to the Persians versus the Greeks.  The Persians have a much more dramatic aesthetic as opposed to the lean, simple surroundings of the Greeks.”

Production designer Patrick Tatopoulos states, “One of the first directives Noam gave me was that he wanted the Persians to feel like a dark force.  So for Persia, the predominant color is black—the palace is all black marble with undertones of green and decorative accents of gold.  Nothing is overly ornate; it has clean lines and smooth surfaces and is very monolithic.”

In stark contrast, the home of Themistokles is humble and rough-hewn, with natural elements of stone and wood in a palette of muted earth tones.

The design of the rival ships echoes this dichotomy.  After researching the era, Tatopoulos modeled the Greek triremes to be as historically accurate as possible.  “I wasn’t trying to reinvent them or do anything too fancy,” he says, “because across from them are the Persian ships, where we could have fun and go completely overboard.  The idea was to see them through the eyes of the Greeks as they approach, so we wanted the Persian barges to be huge and very ominous looking.  Their main structure is wood, but the hull has a black metal façade, which makes them seem more invincible.”

Handheld Arsenals

The handheld arsenals of the enemy soldiers were also fabricated to show stylistic differences.  The Persians’ swords and shields are decoratively engraved and are in black and silver, whereas the Greeks’ weapons are plainer and lean more towards shades of brass and copper.  Interestingly, members of the stunt team were involved in the manufacturing of the weapons, testing the weight and balance of the models before they went into production as a matter of both safety and efficiency.  In the interests of safety, during some fight sequences half-swords were wielded and later painstakingly extended with digital effects.

Costume Design

Costume designer Alexandra Byrne categorizes the wardrobe of the film as “ancient modernism—juxtaposing two separate worlds through materials, fashions and fabrication techniques that contradict the period.  I loved working on this film because it gave me the opportunity to go outside the box.”

Byrne’s imaginative designs for Artemisia’s costumes, with their striking blend of fabric, leather and metal, represent equally the dual facets of the character.  “We dressed her as a warrior and as a woman,” Byrne notes.  “Noam wanted her costumes to make a strong statement, so the lines are severe but distinctly feminine and the predominant color is black with touches of gold.”

The two sides of Artemisia are best captured in the garments she wears in her face-to-face encounters with Themistokles.  The first time they meet, when she summons him to her ship, she is alluring in a flowing metallic dress, woven in gold and purple and accessorized with golden chain mail.  When they meet again, she is all warrior—brandishing two swords and with armored spikes running down her back for good measure.

Byrne took a more minimalist approach to Themistokles.  “He’s a seasoned soldier.  He doesn’t want the trappings of office and power, so he’s no fuss,” she says.

Surprisingly, Byrne says that the small amount of clothing worn by the soldiers presented bigger challenges to her team.  “The less somebody wears, the more critical the fit and the line,” she explains.  “When an actor is wearing a full costume you can better control their shape.  The less costume they wear, the more difficult it is because it’s crucial to within a quarter of an inch where a piece of costume cuts and hits on the body.”

For the returning characters, Byrne remarks, “The costumes were defined by ‘300,’ so we had a firm foothold that was understood.  But we were also given the freedom to take it further.”

Xerxes had been royally bedecked in “300,” as befitting a God-King.  Nevertheless, Rodrigo Santoro and filmmakers agreed that they wanted to step it up without compromising the image established in the first film.  Justin Raleigh, the special make-up effects department head, offers, “Rodrigo came in with some ideas for his character, and Noam, Zack and others offered their input as well.  I think we came up with some things for the character that give him just as strong an impact as in the original.”

Raleigh’s team did extensive testing with body make-up to give Xerxes a glistening skin tone that was consistent and remained flawless throughout filming.  He was then adorned from head to toe with chains and piercings inspired by the images in Frank Miller’s original graphic novel.  Completing Xerxes’ turn from mortal to god, Santoro wore special contact lenses that change his soft, brown eyes to eyes that blazed but were soulless.  “They were a major contribution to the maniacal look of his character,” says Raleigh.

Raleigh’s department also redesigned the suit worn by Andrew Tiernan as Ephialtes.  He details, “The overall silhouette of the character is the same, but we dialed back some of the bulkiness so he had greater freedom of movement, and we added an actor-driven mechanical hand.  We also made the suit so he could get in and out of it easily and wasn’t confined inside it all day.  Still, it required many hours in the chair and was not the most comfortable thing for Andrew to wear, but it was fascinating to watch him look in the mirror and just pull himself into character.”

The final element setting the tone for “300: Rise of an Empire” is the music, written by the artist known as Junkie XL.  Murro recalls, “I started listening to different composers who were recommended to me to score the film, and I put in this CD and his music just touched me.  When we talked on the phone and via Skype, I knew he was the one I wanted to collaborate with.  I think that there is an interesting mixture in his music.  There is modernity and there is action and there is compassion and there is drama.  I think it embodies the language of this film, which looks back and also looks forward.”

The director adds, “I remember before I had heard anything about ‘300,’ I was sitting in the theater and suddenly this trailer came up.  I had never seen anything like it.  And then I looked around and other people were having the same reaction.  Now, hopefully, we can create some of that sense again.”

Zack Snyder reflects, “I hope audiences enjoy this new adventure but also come away with even more insight into the original story.  It helps you understand the Spartans when you see them in contrast with the free Greeks.  So you have these two companion movies that inform each other and fit together.  That makes this experience even richer and I think more fun, too.”