Oscar FX: Building a Better Rome

Rome wasn't built in a day, nor were the dazzling special effects in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, one of the films up for Academy Award honors for Best Visual Effects.

Scott recreated the drama and pageantry of ancient Rome and games at the Colosseum with computer generated imagery, or CGI, that was not available for the sword-and-sandal epics of the 1950s and '60s.

Gladiator's special effects artists worked hand in hand with the production designer and cinematographer to create epic visions of Roman architecture and German battlefields, and even populating them with thousands of digitally created or manipulated extras.

More than just eye candy, the seamless combination of CGI and a moving camera helps place the viewer right in the middle of the bloody action. "Where we pushed the limit [was by] applying modern camera work to an ancient event," said visual effects supervisor John Nelson. "Most FX people in the past would look at a 28-second Steadicam move around gladiators as a visual effect and say, 'What, are you crazy?'"

A stunning example of the marriage of principal photography and computer graphics is the entrance of gladiator Maximus Meridius into the Colosseum for the first time. "It was always our concept to treat the Colosseum like it was the Super Bowl," Nelson, said, "in that you're going out on the field with the players and you have 40,000 people screaming for your head — it must have been intimidating!

"Ridley is such a dynamic cinematic director [who believes] if a shot is more dynamic by making it move, then by all means it should be moving even if it's a visual effects shot," Nelson said. "For that shot, at first Ridley wanted to come out and look up into the valerium [the sun shades erected like a roof on the top of the arena]. And I posed the question to him: 'What would you do if we were really back in the arena and it wasn't just an effects shot that we had to make up?' And he said, 'Well, if that were the case then I would do a full Steadicam move all around the actors.' And I said, 'Why don't we do it?'"

The 28-second, 540-degree shot begins behind the actors running onto the arena floor, then circles around them as they gaze up at the stands, revealing seats, arches, and thousands of spectators. "I like the idea because its really puts the audience in it — plus as far as showing the Colosseum we will have laid it all out in the first shot. Sort of swinging for the fences."

The set of the Colosseum, built near the sea in Malta, only rose about one story, and didn't even make a complete oval. For shooting closeups of gladiatorial combat or of the crowd giving a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," that was sufficient. But for a wide-angle shot that would reveal the upper reaches of the Colosseum, a virtual set was required.

To build a 3-D Colosseum in the computer, Nelson and his crew used the blueprints of production designer Arthur Max, who constructed the partial life-size set. "We then photographed the textures and the actual patina and stucco used on the Colosseum itself. Basically we projected those textures onto our digital Colosseum — we glued them in place," Nelson said.

"Not only did we extend up the two floors that were missing [from the practical set], we built the back end of the Colosseum that didn't exist, we built the roof, we put people on the roof, and built the outside as well."

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