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Graphic leaps

Director Zack Snyder mixes tricks to create a comic-book grandeur for `300' on the screen.

March 04, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree | Special to The Times

IT may be easiest to talk about Snyder's visuals in "300" in broad strokes, said Larry Fong, the director's classmate at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and his longtime cinematographer. For those involved in the production, especially Snyder, the three most common adjectives used to describe "300" are "cool," "awesome" and "amazing" -- which don't go a long way in conveying specifics.

In that regard, Fong said he had yet to read a description that conveyed his sense of the look and tone of the movie. "The other day someone on the Internet said it looks 'antique.' That's pretty good. Actually, we were going for something so unique and original and amazing that nobody has invented words for it," he joked. "I'm sure when Leonardo was laying around on his back working on the Sistine Chapel his patrons weren't like, 'We're paying you a lot of money here, pal. What do you mean 'heavenly and angelic'?"

Truth be told, Fong explained, everyone from studio heads to production assistants was slightly boggled by Snyder's vision. "It's not that we didn't have faith, it's just sort of alchemical what he pulled off. I don't think any one person knew, but each person had a piece of the puzzle. It's Zack who saw the puzzle the whole time from a distance."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Sistine Chapel: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about the movie "300" quoted cinematographer Larry Fong as saying, "I'm sure when Leonardo was laying around on his back working on the Sistine Chapel his patrons weren't like, 'We're paying you a lot of money here, pal. What do you mean 'heavenly and angelic'?" The Sistine Chapel's artist was Michelangelo.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 11, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Sistine Chapel: An article last Sunday about the movie "300" quoted cinematographer Larry Fong as saying, "I'm sure when Leonardo was laying around on his back working on the Sistine Chapel.... " The artist was Michelangelo.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 11, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Sistine Chapel: An article in the March 4 Calendar section about the movie "300" quoted cinematographer Larry Fong as saying, "I'm sure when Leonardo was laying around on his back working on the Sistine Chapel his patrons weren't like, 'We're paying you a lot of money here, pal. What do you mean 'heavenly and angelic'?" The Sistine Chapel's artist was Michelangelo.

A few of the key ingredients in Snyder's secret cinematic sauce: thousands of hours of visual tests, shooting on film and shooting everything lighted as if it were golden hour, overcast or under shimmery moonlight.

Although high-definition video has become a de rigueur medium for bluescreen shoots -- for one thing, film has to laboriously be scanned into the digital realm -- Fong shot film because Snyder relies heavily on variable speed lensing, which new digital cinematography cameras aren't so great at yet.

"I'm glad we didn't shoot in HD," Fong said. "When you think period, you think film, which is funny because in ancient Greece there was no film. But for us, the cinematic experience was informed by film artifacts. We wanted the film grain to show."

Snyder at play

IN a dazzling battle sequence, heavily influenced by Snyder and Fong's work in commercials, the two used a camera technique known as a "lens morph" or a "nested zoom." Basically, three Arriflex cameras were mounted with a wide, a medium and a macro lens that ran at 150 frames per second. When cut together, the action shot moves blazingly fast, in an extreme change of perspective that isn't created purely by either cutting or zooming. "Using two techniques at once is all part of the weirdness," Fong said.

High adrenaline visuals were then underscored by a bold soundtrack.

"When you watch this movie, it should be loud. It should hurt your ears," Snyder said.

He moved into a casual air guitar pose. "There's some chaanannt chanannt -- you know, some hard guitary bits." Then he craned his head back into half-yodel, half-ululation pose. "There's also yunhyunhyunh, like sing-y kind of stuff." Suddenly self-conscious, he said, "That's me describing it to [composer] Tyler Bates. Not pretty at all."

The movie's sonic moments envelop the picture in atmospherics that don't come with a closed bluescreen stage. Those postproduction sounds were drummed up by supervising sound editor Scott Hecker. "We developed the atmosphere as we got into the soundtrack," Hecker said. "We incorporated more ocean winds and tonal material that helps bring locations to life. With production recordings from bluescreen shoots, you can hear the size of the room. We had to bring in a vast canyon feel to broaden the scope of the sound."

The frosting on "300's" cake was a "super-contrasty, silvery bleach bypass" digital intermediate master -- basically a Photoshop-like adjustment of color and contrast. That process was overseen by Company 3's Stefan Sonnenfeld, who, like Fong, said he was already getting calls from producers asking him to replicate the film's look.

"This is Zack's style," Sonnenfeld said, who has worked with Snyder on commercials since 1992. "It's the fight choreography, the actors' performances, Larry's lighting, the emotional interactions, the silhouetted compositions.... This is what Zack was destined to do. We're all like, 'Wow, Zack. You have finally found the playground to fulfill your dreams.' "

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