With his work on “Gladiator,” production designer Arthur Max proved that he, director Ridley Scott and the resources of DreamWorks could make a Roman epic on the scale of “The Robe” and “Spartacus.” And if the ancient forum of “Gladiator” conjures images of Hitler architect Albert Speer’s plans for Berlin as much as they do Rome of the first century, the similarity was not mere coincidence.
“We looked at Leni Reifenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’ and we copied the Nazis copying the Romans,” Max says.
But it was modern technology that allowed Max and company to create the grandeur and sprawl of the classic spectacle with only half the actual sprawl.
“We created a sense of sheer size by combining big, real sets, where we contained the live-action of the story, and topping off those sets with computer extensions,” Max says. “We drew and detailed them in the computer, and used a lot of pre-visualization. And we used the computer to add detail in post-production, too. We had that great advantage that the people who made the great epics before us didn’t have.
“The genre of the ancient epic died out because of the necessity of enormous sets and thousands of extras. I would like to think we revitalized it by meeting the challenge to achieve scale and opulence without building everything for real.”
The Roman Colosseum, where much of the film’s action takes place, was completely drawn, for instance, but never completely built. The filmmakers also had to infer the extent of Roman technology, crafting a canopy over the Colosseum — built in a parking lot on Malta — by figuring that the Romans had at least the know-how for sailing rigging.
Max and his team began with gigantic models built at Shepperton Studios in England, then re-created backdrops in the English countryside for the Germanic battlefields, Morocco for Carthage, Malta for Rome and Italy for the Maximus estates and travels in Tuscany.
“It was like making four separate films,” Max says. “There was no time to overlap crew, so we had separate crews and art departments in each country. Basic communications was an issue.”
To achieve Scott’s mandate for a fresh look at ancient Rome, the team keyed their vision to that of neoclassical French painter Jean-Leon Gerome’s 1872 painting “Pollice Verso,” which depicted a gladiator, foot on the throat of his victim, surveying the Colosseum throngs.
“I looked at Kurosawa films for the battle scenes,” says Max. “But the heart of the research was from the paintings, primarily pre-Raphaelite works. We looked at Napoleon, too, because he was the best source for campaign architecture. There was a collage of references that, in the end, we drew on to imagine the way it might have been.
“We incorporated all techniques, used scenic artists, painted backdrops, cut-outs in the arena, f/x models, storyboards by hand, CG renderings and all the state-of-the-art visualization methods.
“It was absolutely the most challenging thing that I’ve ever done in my entire career,” Max says.