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THE OSCARS

(Digital) Empire-Building

To reinvent the Roman saga, Ridley Scott and his 'Gladiator' team turned to computers for visual effects . . . and much more.

March 25, 2001|GREGG KILDAY | Gregg Kilday is an occasional contributor to Calendar

"My God, it's an opera," Steven Spielberg said after he saw Ridley Scott's "Gladiator."

DreamWorks, Spielberg's company, had nurtured the neo-sword-and-sandals epic from the start: Writer David Franzoni first mentioned his fascination with the mad Roman emperor Commodus to Spielberg back when they were collaborating on "Amistad" in the mid-'90s. But, apparently not even Spielberg was quite prepared for the primal drama, backed with lavish, computer-augmented vistas of imperial glory that Scott delivered.

With Russell Crowe as Maximus, a courageous general reduced to a slave, Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, the emperor who faces off with him in gladiatorial combat, and Connie Nielsen as the royal Lucilla, the woman caught between the two men, the film reaches for a stylized high drama that could easily have degenerated into high camp.

"In this instance, there was no rule book," says Scott. "It's easy to look back and say most of these types of movies were not done well. We ought to be a bloody sight more sophisticated than we were 35, 40 years ago. But we still make bad movies. It all boils down to story, story, story. I just thought we had a good, inspirational story." He said he thought, "If I could bring the vision up to speed to serve the story, then chances are, we'd have a good movie."

Hollywood--which could reward "Gladiator" with its ultimate thumbs-up as the year's best movie at tonight's 73rd annual Academy Awards--seems to have been just as surprised as Spielberg by "Gladiator's" triumphant processional. Originally, the very idea of resurrecting the long-discredited genre was greeted with skepticism. Sony Pictures, where Franzoni and producer Douglas Wick first pitched the idea, quickly declined, wanting no part of a toga party. Even when the movie collected $35 million over its opening weekend last May, it was still dismissed in some quarters as nothing but a flashy popcorn pic--a World Wrestling Federation Smackdown in Roman drag. But the movie has outlasted its naysayers, earning $187 million domestically, picking up laurels from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, and the Producers Guild of America. With its 12 nominations, "Gladiator" has to be considered the favorite for Oscar gold.

Its ultimate victory is hardly a foregone conclusion in a tightly contested race. If voters are looking to honor an epic, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" offers equally exotic spectacle, while members who prefer a winner with socially redeeming credentials can pick between the Steven Soderbergh double bill of "Traffic" and "Erin Brockovich." But "Gladiator," by virtue of the honors it has already amassed, has earned its reputation as a state-of-the-art movie. And a closer look at its making reveals where the state of that art currently resides.

"For me, it was never about redoing a genre," says Wick. "When David first showed me all the research he'd done about the Roman arena, I saw that it could serve as a peephole into a whole world--its politics, its military, its values. And because I was aware of the whole new frontier of digital effects"--Wick was in the midst of producing the fantasy film "Stuart Little" and preparing the horror thriller "Hollow Man"--"I knew we could do it in a way that had never been done before."

"Gladiator's" digitally created visual effects--which conjure an ancient world out of bits of computer code--inevitably got the lion's share of attention when the movie debuted. Though the film's 90 effects shots--including two bravura moments, a 540-degree Steadicam shot of the gladiators' first entry into the Colosseum and an overhead "blimp's-eye" view--constitute just nine minutes of film time, they permeate the movie.

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Computers insinuated themselves throughout the production process: After first constructing a huge, tabletop model of his Roman sets, production designer Arthur Max scanned his building designs into a computer, allowing the filmmakers to experiment with sources of light and shadow, to take a virtual walk through their reconstructed town, even before it was built on top of an abandoned English army barracks in Malta. On the actual set, the digital backgrounds could be combined with filmed footage in a nearly instantaneous video playback, so that cinematographer John Mathieson could keep track of how the two matched up.

Working with an Avid computer editing machine, film editor Pietro Scalia was free to experiment and reshuffle sequences: The movie's opening shot--Maximus' hand running through the wheat of his Spanish farm--was actually filmed for the concluding afterlife sequence, but, on a hunch, Scalia placed it at the beginning of the film, where, as a piece of moody foreshadowing, it stuck.

And composer Hans Zimmer, instead of relying on a piano to audition his melodies for Scott, composed on a sort of computer music processor. The music files were then fed into the Avid so that Scalia could edit to the developing score.

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