VFX Art Director Grant Freckelton on Creating the Look

For visual effects design heavyweight Grant Freckelton, who served as visual effects designer on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and as visual effects art director on The Matrix Reloaded, the chance to work on a test shoot led to his dream job as the VFX art director on 300, based on the Frank Miller graphic novel and directed by Zack Snyder. For starters, he is huge fan of Miller’s work. More importantly, however, the job gave him the opportunity to flex his creative muscles and help create a truly unique look for this feature film.

In addition, Click here to read how Screaming Death Monkey handled the VFX in the wet-for-dry shoot of the oracle, sky replacements and created personified smoke in 300.

Studio Daily: How did you get involved in 300?
Over 2 years ago Animal Logic was working on Happy Feet and Warner Bros. was in town talking about another project they were trying to get off the ground, 300, which, at that stage, they were looking to shoot in Sydney. They needed an effects company to break down the film and do the effects work for a test. Zack got them to give him a little bit of money to go out and shoot a 90-second action sequence as a proof of concept and technique, and also to show that the film he wanted to make wasn’t Troy or Alexander. It’s like those movies but on crack.

I was sitting at my desk – I’m a little bit of a geek, I had a Rusty the Boy Robot toy on my computer monitor, another Frank Miller property – and 300 came along for me to look at. I was very excited to work on a Frank Miller graphic novel and as soon as I saw it I knew that it was going to be stylized, partly because a few days earlier I had seen some footage from Sin City. Also, I was a fan Zack Snyder’s film film Dawn of the Dead. So I was attached initially as someone to come up with some interesting design work for the test.

What was involved in the test shoot?

The first thing I did was to convince Chris Godfrey, who supervised the 90-second test but not the film, that this wasn’t Troy or Gladiator, it’s going to have to be heavily stylized. I raced out to a costume shop and bought a dodgy Roman outfit and got a volunteer from out video ops department to dress up in this Spartan outfit and we went down to the beach and photographed him from a 100 different angles. Using that we built up these illustrations that showed how we would do the color treatment and potentially how this film could be shot. Early on we were thinking we would be doing location work. We were looking at shooting in a quarry but Zack was adamant that he wanted to shoot it as a greenscreen film so he would have maximum control over the art direction and the look of the film.

He ended up shooting this test around Christmas 2004 in a shed in Burbank. There was a little dirt and rocks on the ground but otherwise it was all greenscreen. It was this beautifully choreographed fight sequence, similar to what you see in the final film albeit with a lot less people. We took the footage and tracked in a background, added in all of this post production gore. So in the end we ended up with this sort of crude looking but cool fight sequence.

After that I went back to Sydney and heard nothing about the project for a while and I thought I wasn’t going to work on it anymore but then, apparently on the insistence of [VFX Supervisor] Chris Watts, Zack Snyder and [production designer] Jim Bissell, they flew me back to Montreal and locked me into production to art direct the visual effects on the film.

And the film was all shot on greenscreen on a stage?
Yes. The whole thing was shot in three locations. The bulk was shot in a railway shed in Montreal. It’s a film about Greece on a hot summer’s day and we shot it in a shed in Montreal in the dead of winter. There was a tiny bit of location work when we went to a racecourse to shoot some horses on longer runs but all the backgrounds were stripped out and replaced. Then another couple days in a larger studio. But it was all greenscreen with minimal sets.

What was your role of the VFX art director, compared to say the VFX Supervisor, Art Director or Production Designer?

My role, as Zack described it, was to come up with cool ideas that made the film unique. I was there as a counterpoint to anyone who was trying to push the film into a more realistic, historically-accurate look. I was there to say, “Screw history, let’s make it look cool.”

I can lay claim to a fair amount of what the film looks like in terms of color treatment and the fact that it is highly stylized. I worked as a go-between between Jim [Bissell] and Chris Watts. Jim was responsible for a fair amount of pre-production, what the set would look like, what the locations would look like in terms of geometry and make sure a lot of the textural quality of the surfaces on set would reflect the crushed look we ended up applying in post. Anytime we had a set he’d paint in dark shadows and some minimal textures because once we applied the crush or the contrast all that texture needed to be low-contrast to start with so it looks normal in the final result.

There was a lot of stuff I needed to do in pre-production like coming up with interesting techniques like what the blood would look like because the blood needed to be stylized. A production designer might look at things in terms of set but I looked at things like the blood and thought about what the skies would look like and the digital backgrounds.

During the shoot what were you doing?

We had the rushes telecined as HD QuickTimes. I would take those QuickTimes as soon as they came in and grab key shots and sequences. The next day or two I spent painting up backgrounds and color treatments for each, so as the film was being shot I was developing keyframes, which helped determine what the film would look like. Those keyframes would go to Jim and Chris and even downstairs on set so the crew and the actors, who were stuck inside a railway shed in the middle of winter surrounded by greenscreen, could see what the film would actually look like. By the time post production came around two thirds of the film was already visualized in terms of what the backgrounds were supposed to look like.

In post how did you ensure that the look you were after was achieved?

There were five different vendors working on this one particular location and each vendor has their own technique for producing what the backgrounds look like and we had to ensure the background looks the same. So I ended up writing three style guides explaining how things were supposed to look: one for landscape so that different vendors came up with consistent geography of the city, another for the look of the blood and the other for the sky.

What was the style guide for the blood?
Zack was adamant that he didn’t want the blood to look like real blood in this film. He didn’t want it to be too gory, too visceral and off-putting, but rather beautiful, celebrating the brutality of war. In that respect it wasn’t the traditional makeup and gore effects so we came up with other ways of treating the blood.

One of the ideas was scanning in splats of ink. If you look at the graphic novel and the way Frank Miller treats blood he’ll often just grab a glob of paint on a paintbrush and just splat it on the page. You get these impressionistic blobs that are clearly paint on paper but you know that within the language of graphic storytelling that it actually represents blood. I showed Zach some interesting broadcast design pieces. One of them by a company called Lobo in Brazil that did an awesome animated comic book. In it there is a clip where they took the scanned blood splats and animated them in 3D. I thought we could adapt something similar.

We shot a test where we got one of the stunt guys and pretended to slash his throat. I ended up scanning a whole bunch of ink splats from balsamic vinegar on paper and also scanned some splats from the actual graphic novel and animating those in a 3D space tp create this crazy looking blood that looks like painting rather than being realistic.

So this technique was related in the style guides given to the VFX vendors?
Trying to explain this to them verbally that the blood is not meant to look real, it’s got to be 2D blood. They look at you confused and they wonder how to do it. So I ended up creating a 10-page document explaining how to treat gore in the film: these are the sorts of kills we have, these are the situations where we want to see a lot of blood, these times we don’t want to see any at all. What ended up happening is each vendor went away. Some of them adapted our 2D blood technique, some of them went with 3D particle system and others ended up shooting blood and then treating it in 2D, but the result is that none of the blood in the film looks like real blood but it looks kind of cool and stylized.

How did you treat the look of the skies?
One of the things I pitched very early was rather than trying to be photographic in the backgrounds, we should try to capture the textural quality of the graphic novel. If you look at something like Sin City you often end up getting a digital feel in the background and you can tell that it has been built in 3D. That’s almost the antithesis of the way the graphic novel has been illustrated. Frank is pretty loose with his ink work and Lynn Varley who does the coloring adds these beautiful watercolor washes to everything and the result is this gritty and natural look. So I proposed that rather than using photographic skies in the background we should mix in painterly elements into the sky.

I took a bunch of coffee-stained textures that we’d had in our reference library here at Animal Logic and animated those coffee stains in 3D space and After Effects and came up with this multi-plane look. It wasn’t meant to be totally painted but it was this strange hybrid of photographic effects and painterly effects.

But again you run into the problem where you try to explain that to a vendor and say “we want the backgrounds to be photographic but painterly” and they look at you as if to say “what the #!@ are you talking about?” So I ended up writing a style guide for the skies that explained the thought process behind the look of the sky and why we were doing it this way and ways it could be achieved simplistically.

For the blood and the skies did you lay out specific instructions about how to create the effects?
In the blood and the clouds I gave them ways they could achieve the look but I also said that it was up to the vendors to come up with the technique that is more appropriate because they may achieve something that does the same effect much more efficiently. In most cases they improved on the ideas and examples and that’s why you have a whole bunch of talented people working on a film from the director on down to the vendors.

In addition to the outside vendors there was an internal VFX team, including you, working on the film?

Zack wanted some temp comp and Chris ended up setting up this internal department to make sure there was some sort of background in there for the directors cut. It wasn’t about making it look pretty it was just making sure that when you watched it you weren’t bumped out of the film because suddenly you realize you are on a stage of greenscreen. For a 1,500 shot film that’s a pretty big undertaking.

It was a time consuming process to put all these temp comps in but the advantage is that if you can show a more polished film to the studio than a series of greenscreen shots. Plus, you set the look of the film early on.

And within this internal comp group you did some vfx shots that appear in the final film?

There was one particular sequence in the beginning of the film where young Leonidas (played by Zack Snyder’s son) ends up beating up another young Spartan and there is this cool blood effect and that was one of the scenes I worked on heavily. My specific tools are Photoshop and After Effects but some of those shots ended u p being comped in Shake. I use a little bit of Painter as well.

Did setting the look early on with your illustrations and the internal composting work help the color correction process?
What ended up happening was the final color grade ended up being more about tweaking than giving it an overall look because a lot of the color decisions had been made throughout the post production process rather than getting flat scans at the DI phase and then giving them a look. Most of the effects shots were given with two-thirds of the color and two-thirds of the crush or contrast applied it went to the colorist [Stefan Sonnenfeld]. Zack and Stefan have a great working relationship so once it got to that stage I let them do their thing. As Zack says, ‘it was time to put the screws on it.’

Click here to read how Screaming Death Monkey handled the VFX in the wet-for-dry shoot of the oracle, sky replacements and created personified smoke in 300.