From 300 to Spartacus: Ancient Battles Meet Graphic Novels

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If you’re a fan of 300, or other films that bring a graphic novel veneer to the blood and brawn of old-school warrior brawls, then you really owe it to yourself to check out the latest Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand. You can find the first two episodes (the latter of which airs tonight) in their entirety here – clearly the network believes so strongly in the show that it’s aiming to whet viewers’ appetites by any means necessary.

What’s immediately evident from the show’s disclaimer is that this is a depiction of Rome far more bloody, erotic and vulgar than we are used to from mainstream historical epics. And I have a feeling that was precisely the point: To make a mark by upping the ante. By pushing the envelope beyond the point of predictability.

Yet beyond all the hedonism on display, Spartacus is also the first series of its genre to bring the special effects wizardry of 300 to the small-screen. I was taking to TIME’s James Poniewozik about the show, when he first broached the subject: Do people watch these shows for the allure of the period drama? Or nowadays is it all about the new 300 look; the quickened pulse of comic-book-meets-ancient-rome? Where each sword fight becomes an elaborate, multi-speed, multi-angle bloodbath… (More at Techland: Hands On With the Applie iPad)

It’s an aesthetic that’s become a marketing hook all its own. And with every gladiator story now solidifying this slow-mo-grafity-defying-style as the hit hook of the moment, I wanted answers as to why and how. So I called New Zealand, to Charlie McClellan of The FX Project – the firm that’s refining the special effects for Spartacus.

Why do the fight scenes here look so much like 300 – what kind of look are you going for?

I don’t think it’s just the look, but the tone that you’re noticing. There was 300, and then even before that there was Sin City, where they did everything entirely with green-screen effects and doing that allows you to incorporate a style and a finish that can reshape the feel of the entire world. As someone who has worked with both styles, what I can say is that it simplifies things, to apply a graphical approach rather than having to go out and shoot on location and be at the mercy of the weather.

I think it was more obvious though in Sin City, that green-screen effects were distorting things. Sometimes in these ancient Roman fight sequences, though, there’s also a very realistic quality to them. In fact, it almost seems like there’s a disconnect between the hyperrealism of the battle and then sudden, surrealistic camera spins…

It’s a fine balance, to be sure. Take the arena sequences. We use the best resources we have to tell the fights the best we can. We want it to be as photo-real as possible, from the fight choreography to the crowds, but then there’s also this graphic quality to them. The texture and the lighting. If you really went in and filled the stadium with extras and filmed it all photo-really, you wouldn’t have that control of mood or look. So that’s part of it here, you have a believable fight that you can also keep stylized. That’s how you can have blood that looks believable, but it’s behaving in exaggerated ways. Or severed body parts that move in certain ways. You combine all these disparate green screen elements and do your best to bring them into a concert of meaningful balance.

So are you the one who decides how to toy with that issue of surrealism? Or how does that break down in the creation of an episode?

We take the lead from the editorial team, they decide how they want things to look – when they want a blood spray or they need the action altered in some way – and then our job is to make it look right. We’re careful about when we suggest certain elements and I would never throw blood on the lens without having been instructed to, because otherwise I’d do it a whole lot more since it often adds to the graphic side of the thing. If you’re telling a story in a graphic way, and you’re already started to develop with the audience that you’re not doing something that’s purporting to be totally real, then it’s all about pushing the envelope to try and present this all in a different context.

This show does a pretty good job of pushing that envelope – are there any sequences that you are most proud of, that tapped just the perfect feel and tone?

We’re still working on the series, finishing up the visual effects right now on episode 11. But I’d say that the arena sequences overall are really a feather in our cap. Just the depth of the scene, the behavior of the crowd is different each time, and the look and feel changes with every battle because each time it’s a different time of day. The content of these fights are quite integral to the direction the story goes, and so it’s not just another scene out in the pits with people hacking each other part. It’s quite gripping drama that comes up out of the sand and that’s the part of the show where I put most of my effort into.

The sound editing there, and the visual effects, it all goes in and I think once the audience settles into the rhythm of the show, they’re going to start seeing the arena and they’ll feel it in the pit of their stomach: Here we go again. What’s going to happen now? Who’s going to make it? The more you get into the series, the more I think you’ll appreciate the crescendo we’re going for, and how all these different arena sequences link together. They stand on their own, each different than the last, but then they all connect.

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