Spartacus – War of the Damned


Spartacus VFX art director Peter Baustaedter and matte painter Jean-Baptiste Verdier reveal how Vue software was an essential tool in the production of this awesome TV series

Spartacus: War of the Damned

The third season of Spartacus – War of the Damned – will see the dramatic end to the Starz show. Filmed entirely on sound stages in Auckland, New Zealand, Spartacus takes full advantage of greenscreen shooting sets, virtual environments and a concentrated look-dev effort to help bring the Thracian gladiator story to life – a typical show of 52 minutes is shot in only 12 days and this newest ten episode series has 4,400 effects shots.

Filming takes place at re-purposed warehouses and commercial buildings in southern Auckland where production has three 360 degree greenscreen environments and two others which are partial greenscreen sets. The show is filmed on the Panavision Genesis camera, with Vision Research’s Phantom HD cameras relied on for slow-mo shots. Some stylistic shots, especially for fight scenes, have been achieved with camera arrays and a slider rig known as ‘Boris’ that blasts the camera from one end of a six meter rail to the other in one second. The Phantom is also used for shooting practical blood and other effects elements. “We hit these with a lot of specular light because specular highlights help make it look like it’s in the scene,” says the show’s visual effects supervisor Charlie McClellan.


Greenscreen plate.


Combined plates.


Final shot.

During a shoot, concept work from the art department and proxy 3D environments are sometimes added into the video split to help actors and the filmmakers with eyelines. However, an on-set previs or on-set comp’ing system is not something the team has elected to employ. “We’ve tried some of these,” notes McClellan, “and I am a big advocate, but in a fast TV environment it’s almost impossible to do it properly.”

Instead, the Spartacus visual effects department leans heavily on rapid look-dev from a team of matte painters and 2D and 3D artists. “As we shoot, we take the art department’s concepts and designs, take the footage that’s already been filmed and we’re quickly trying to make sense of the world in a way that we can pass that back to the editorial team,” explains McClellan. “As the production’s being shot, the editor’s pretty much a day behind the shoot – so the assembly’s being done immediately. This means we have to have an incredibly fast turnaround.”

A crucial person behind some of that look-dev work is visual effects art director Peter Baustaedter. “He goes out into the New Zealand environment and takes a lot of the photographs we use as our matte painting elements,” says McClellan. “He goes with one of the best helicopter pilots Tony Monk on the South Island for photographic textures. For example, last season the rebels were camping out on the top of Mount Vesuvius so Peter flew with Tony to White Island and textured the entire cone of the volcano and we used that exclusively for the re-building of the top of the mountain.”

The look-dev begins with taking still frames of all the hero angles for a particular scene and creating still frame key concepts for director, DOP and art director sign-off. “We will then go and build a sequence out of each scene,” explains McClellan. “Usually it’s based on the same still images – but now we’re going for a sequence in each scene so we can show it with all the bells and whistles in place. You get a little clip reel – almost a ‘This week on Spartacus’ – and you see how the episode’s going to be made even before we’ve done it! It’s all about prototyping. It’s the only way to get through 4,400 effects shots in ten episodes.”

Then, McClellan will go through the locked cut and assess the greenscreen photography to see where in the CG environment the camera is actually looking. “We’ll meticulously do layouts for every setup, not every shot but every camera setup in the entire episode – we’ll give a layout frame,” he says. “So when we hand over this material to the vendors they get finished matte paintings, Nuke script environments reference color-graded frames with and without LUTs applied.”


Rider element added.


Final shot.

The main visual effects studios responsible for the work in War of the Damned are 3DCGI, Phi FX, Digipost, Cause+FX, ImagesPost, Effects Lab and Toybox. McClellan’s preference is to shoot vignettes of action and comp these in, although CG crowds do feature. “At a certain distance from camera we transfer to Massive, which John Sheils’ 3DCGI is responsible for. Massive’s motion capture tree matches well with what you get when you fill a greenscreen stage with stunties and give them shields and tell them to start hacking away at each other – the overall nature of the motion is coincidentally similar.”

For McClellan, the ability to deliver more than 4,000 shots over ten episodes has been, in his words, “a mind-boggling feat,” just simply to keep track of the data and creative requirements. But, he says, he has enjoyed working on a show, albeit with some odd conversations. “Sometimes we have to talk about whether the eyeballs will fly past camera, or, will the brains slide out? The violence is very visceral. I’m looking for a Teletubbies show next…”

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