“The first 300  I wanted to get on board with years ago,” recalls Patrick Tatopoulos who pursued the opportunity to do the production design for the stylish historical epic helmed by Zack Snyder about the Battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartan warriors fought the invading Persian army. “I remember that day very well. I did interviews for 300 and I Am Legend . I had my first sitting with Zack. I was really pumped. The Greek side of my family is from Sparta so when I heard that there was a movie being made I thought it was an incredible story. I was so passionate about it that I scared Zack at the time!” The success of the cinematic adaptation of the graphic novel by Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) led to another opportunity for Tatopoulos to revisit the subject matter with 300: Rise of an Empire (2014). “I got a phone call from the studio and they were interested in me production designing; they wanted to meet and the director needed to meet me as well who was Noam Murro [Smart People] at the time. I met him and 10 minutes later I had the job. Quickly after that I had a Skype interview with Zack and Deborah, his wife; she told me that Zack wanted to work with me and was excited that I was on board. It was a big deal for me. I’m a big fan of his work.” “Frank Miller was specifically working on his own project about it,” states Patrick Tatopoulos about the unpublished Xerxes which deals with the naval engagement between the Greeks and Persians called the Battle of Artemisium. “At the time we could get any of his material so it was clear that we were going to start the movie with a different situation than with the first 300 with Zack where he wanted to clearly match the look of the book. This movie didn’t have that. We had the story which is neither a prequel or sequel but an actual which is something that occurs at the same time the first movie is happening. There was an aesthetic out there developed by Zack Snyder and we couldn’t be too far out from that.” Snyder served as a producer and co-wrote the screenplay with Kurt Johnstad who also involved with the original movie. “When we started the movie Zack was busy on Man of Steel  so there was no way for him to get really involved. When I was based at Warner Bros. at the beginning I started with the ideas he wanted me to develop and began to design the movie. Zack dropped in a couple of times and looked at the concept art on the walls; he was clearly interested and pleased with it. Zack was very involved with the screenplay which was done by the time I got on board.” “As the movie went on and got cut Zack made sure it felt just like 300,” remarks Patrick Tatopoulos. “The first 300 was quite hyper kinetic and aesthetically strong. In the years following a bunch of projects came out using the same textures and style that Zack had created. The new 300 was faced with the situation of whether we use the same aesthetic which is not as original as it was in the beginning or do we try to approach it differently? There as a debate for awhile and the director Noam Murro said to me, ‘I want this movie to feel like an opera.’ 300 had a little bit of that style. The aesthetic and design was not completely realistic and graphically strong. The textures created by the deco felt like the first movie.” The shooting style served as the distinguishing element. “Noam started with a wide shot establishing the world and looking at it like you were watching an opera which I thought was interesting.” The Israeli filmmaker born in Jerusalem was not a stranger in having to deal with digital trickery. “Noam is a renowned commercial director and visual effects are in every commercial today; he clearly knew how to approach them.”
“Rhythm and Hues which was very involved with us got into trouble and we had to rethink everything in the end,” reveals Patrick Tatopoulos. “It was up to the other visual effects houses to handle the visual effects. With Zack the process is exactly the same [as with Len Wiseman on Total Recall]. You make sure in the early stages that you get in touch with the visual effects houses, talked to them through the process of filming, and in post you’re in contact with them so you become one of them in some ways.” Tatopoulos who started his career creating creature effects for movies like Stargate (1994) observes, “For the last few years we are starting to see a different breed of production designer where guys come from the visual rather than the technical and practical worlds. The reason is that there is so much that needs to be carried out by the construction of the set as to what the look of the movie is going to be. It is true that my past experience and the things I’ve done show that I have the tendency to translate and carry out the fabrication of the set and go on to post-production. You’re there as long as possible to drive the look of the movie. The design does not stop with the construction as sometimes it used to be with production design years ago where things were done in camera and there was not much in the way of visual effects except for a matte painting.”
“The studio and I agreed that I needed to come back for post,” states Patrick Tatopoulos. “When everybody has gone home and the visual effects are approaching every element there are things you realize that are not as they should be. There are a lot of unknowns and uncertainties. The director is busy with the editorial and music so at that point with you being a designer still on board is a big asset for any movie. I was there. You do have your film to a certain extent. They would send me images of the scenes they had shot. You could see the big green screen in the background. It was neat for me to go back to the original concept. I took the plate and created what the background should look like for that specific shot. That tool was given to the visual effects to model the background. To be there to do sometimes a better Photoshop rendering on the actual frame of the movie is a big asset for visual effects. They love that. For me it was making sure that the film maintained the visual integrity that we had talked about early on. I had worked with the visual effects people during production as well. We had become friendly and I had a great time working with them. It’s a fun process.” “You don’t decide because we’re doing 300 it’s all going to be green screen,” notes Patrick Tatopoulos. “We have an aesthetic tool that will develop beyond what we need to build and that’s pretty much on any movie. I need to create a portion of that world no matter what so when the director of photography comes on the set and shoots the movie it’s not just people in front of a green screen. Sometimes it is that way but often sets need to be built. The visual effects come on board to expand the sets to give them the scale that we could never conceive of building. In 300: Rise of an Empire those big battles you need to build three to four ships. The whole Greek ship was built and portions of the Persian ships were built because they were much bigger. We knew from the beginning that there was a clever way to build those sets where we could reuse and transform them drastically. Part of it was a steel design. 100 Persian ships had statues of two gods and other ones had a bird. Different elements were needed but at the same time there was a portion we could change from one ship to another, from a two to a four mast. Everything was planned out in the beginning. We had the tools to allow us to expand on building less. However you still need to build basic elements. Actors need to walk on something that is real. Sparta was built. Athens was built in portions. The Parthenon was built. 50 guys running down a hill; we built it.” The native of Paris, France remarks, “We used a large estate and created the ground realistically which was used for different situations. One time it was covered with mud and the other time it was dry and sandy with olive trees.” “Whenever we began to build the sets we would give the data to the previs team to start building the hill at Marathon,” states Patrick Tatopoulos. “During the sequence it was expanded but in previs the portion of set built was represented there. The best work in previs is not just creating what the director wants to do early on. That’s the first step. The director with storyboard artists will come up with scenes he wants to see. We see the previs and work with it in creating what is appropriate for what’s needed. Sometimes you create the previs after the conceptual design is finished. It allows us to build a 12 foot by 12 foot set. We can’t build it any bigger. The previs takes it into consideration so when the director walks onto the set he knows that he can get his shot.” Tatopoulos believes, “The most relatable element in the movie for the audience will be the characters. The way they act, think, and react to situations people will say, ‘I can feel what these guys feel.’ They quickly forget about the world.” The Persian world took on mythical proportions. “One of the most concepts for me was that we wanted to create a world for the Persians that was bigger than real. It was a huge and incredible empire. It was almost a Darth Vader version of the past. We wanted to take some creative freedom in the way the ships would look and what they were made of. To do this we made the Greek world real. The ships and armour are real. The movie is told through the eyes of the Greek warrior coming back home and telling the story to his family. It’s cool because you can really use that. The Greek world was realistic and relatable where nothing was beyond a normal or realistic scale but then the Persian world became incredibly surreal.”
“The thing that gave the film direction for me was there were sketches that I had done recently of what the front of the Persian ship could look like,” states Patrick Tatopoulos. “I looked at references and possibilities. The way it looks today and museums with incredible Persian statues. I knew we were going to go beyond the world of the Persians but wanted to have it grounded with some of the realistic architectural detail. There were a few sculptures from Persia that made an impression on me. There was a bull’s head incredibly beautiful with detail that became an iconic element that I used everywhere. The director said to me one day, ‘I want the Persians to feel Dolce & Gabbana.’ I understood what he meant after awhile. He wanted the look to be black, gold and silver. There are leather and fabric textures. It’s elegant. There are touches of gold and silver depending on the clothing. You focus on that which is more than a fashion design but a fashion house. You start creating something different from what you’ve seen before. Those hints were important to me in order to come up with something striking and not the expected Persian world that we’ve seen in museum photos.” “Everyone was paying attention to what the other was doing,” remarks Patrick Tatopoulos. “We started to build this world together. Simon [Duggan] and I have worked on multiple projects before. We did Underworld: Evolution  and I, Robot  together. Simon is a great cinematographer and friend. The connection between us was not hard to setup; we would simply sit down and talk about it. With the costume designer [Alexandra Bryne] I had a close relationship; she was fantastic. We worked closely on the material that was to be used. It started with a couple of sketches of key frames early on. We used gold as part as our research. The Persian world had to be created from scratch and we knew the material we would be using together. We constantly talked with each other. We were in one of the studios in Bulgaria and it didn’t feel like a large scale movie. We had the tools to do great stuff but it felt hands on. It was a bunch of people trying everyday to do the best job together. There was a mutual respect with everybody. It was a homegrown step-by-step process of finding a vision.”
“There were three days that the Greek navy was stopping the Persians from getting through to the land,” remarks Patrick Tatopoulos. “Those battles are well-defined historically. There are maps that show you the paths of the ships.” Theatrical elements needed to be added to visually distinguish the battles which had different outcomes from each other on the big screen. “The first one is the battle with giant rolling waves. I’m not talking surfing waves but giant jagged swirls that leap out of the water. Another was going to be the battle of the fog. The sea has calmed down and the weather is completely different. Then we have a battle of fire. We came up with an aesthetic and style for each battle. Greek Fire was something that the Greeks had invented and in this case we had the Persians use that tool on a bigger scale to destroy them.” The replication of an element of nature was a major task. “The challenge was the huge amount of visual references that was needed to make a movie like this. To have a movie from the beginning to the end there’s not one real sky it means that you have to create them all.” Tatopoulos explains, “You have the Greek base camp where the ships dock at the end of the day before the next battle. We needed to work with the DP [Director of Photography] and everybody to decide what look was needed for that. Is this a night with clouds or a night that feels golden? We started to dig up imagery that was pleasing. The DP knows that the scene will be at night so he starts lighting the way he needs to. Once the shot was done we would be tweaking the sky. ‘We would like to have a couple of clouds because it’s going to give us a great dynamic here.’”
“There’s one type of ship which is like a container ship with slaves,” recalls Patrick Tatopoulos. “It’s a bleak, strange and huge ship that is meant to do something very special. I started the discussion of that scene with the director about how to make the battle different this time. I said, ‘What if we did this?’ I did the sketches and in the end this moment in the movie becomes much bigger than what you talked about. It’s a dark shape with a bunch of slaves on top carrying these huge characters. It’s something you haven’t seen before which I thought was cool and came out looking amazing.” The original 300 was a source of inspiration. “I was constantly thinking that this was going to be as cool as the first one. Noam Murro did a great job. In the essence the first one was a cool story. This one was a great story as well. It was something that was simple and straightforward in a good way.” The work never stopped for the veteran production designer. “It’s an intense visual quest for a movie like this. Every frame was asking for the visuals to be created by us from photographical references.” Tatopoulos concludes, “This was my chance to do one of those great Spartan movies. I feel happy about this one. 300: Rise of an Empire is very different from anything I’ve done in the past. It will make my dad proud.”
Concept art © 2013 Warner Bros. All rights reserved. Courtesy of Warner Bros. and Cruel & Unusual Films.
Many thanks to Patrick Tatopoulos for taking the time for this interview.
To learn more make sure to visit the official website for 300: Rise of an Empire.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.