I feel like I’ve been transported back hundreds of years to medieval Japan. In front of me are over a hundred samurai warriors with each group in its own color (red, gold and purple) and we’re standing inside an ancient warlord’s castle. As I stand near a cherry blossom tree, I watch as the visiting Shogun Warrior dressed in Gold, with his own group of golden Samurai, inform the kneeling Samurai of Ako Castle they are now all Ronin. As he says this, I look at the 3D cameras and the large crew standing nearby, and can’t believe everything is make believe.
Let me back up a second.
It’s June 8, 2011 and I’m flying back to Los Angeles from London. Yesterday I spend most of the day on director Carl Rinsch’s first feature, 47 Ronin, with a few other online reporters. While I knew going in the movie would be based on the very famous Japanese story of the 47 Ronin, I wasn’t sure how much would be fact, and how much Hollywood fiction they would mix in. However, what I saw on set tells me that the filmmaking team might have figured out a great way to tell this well-known story. Hit the jump for so much more.
As most of you know, when I’m on a set visit with Peter from /film, we always record a video blog after we get back from set. Yesterday was no different. So if you’d like to hear us talk about what we saw and did on set, watch the video below. Otherwise, further down is my written report.
and here’s the latest trailer:
When you visit a movie set, you never know how the day will go. Often you’ll sit down and start to interview the star, while other times you might watch filming, or visit a production office. For 47 Ronin, when we got to Shepperton Studios an hour outside London, we ventured to the second floor of a nondescript office building and were led into a room filled with concept art for the entire movie. After walking around and checking out the art and storyboards, it was immediately clear Universal’s 47 Ronin was going to take the famous story and add in a fantasy element like Zack Snyder‘s 300. However, while Snyder made 300 on the soundstages of Montreal with a lot of green screen, Rinsch’s 47 Ronin was building massive sets on a level I couldn’t believe.
One of the first things we learned was that the production started filming in Budapest, as that was the place with the biggest indoor soundstage. Unlike some films that might build a small part of a location and add in the rest using CGI, 47 Ronin built a huge portion of a Dutch outpost (including a battle arena and also ships with a raised walkway). Based on the photos and getting to see a lot of footage from the movie (more on that later), 47 Ronin is going to mix together amazing practical sets with CG. It should be very cool.
Before going any further, I should mention a little bit about director Carl Rinsch. If you’re not aware, Rinsch has spent the beginning of his career directing commercials, and over the years he’s been at the forefront of using CGI to amplify his storytelling. With his feature directorial debut 47 Ronin, he brings plenty of knowledge on how to mix CG and practical work seamlessly.
For those unfamiliar, the tale of the 47 Ronin is very famous in Japan and it’s also a national holiday. If you grow up there, it’s a yearly tradition. Not only is December 14 a national holiday, but every year they release new versions of the story on TV and in the movies.
However, while Japan has taken some license with the story, Hollywood has never tried to tell the tale, and no one has ever tried to mix in a fantasy element. After talking with the cast yesterday, they all seemed to think it was an interesting way to tell the story and the Japanese actors were happy that the rest of the world would soon learn about the 47 Ronin.
As we finished our tour, someone told us that they’re taking the story of the 47 Ronin and they’re adding Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. I thought more of 300. Whatever movie you want to say is being added in, the most important thing to know is that it looks cool.
47 Ronin in Japanese and English
Another thing we learned that I thought was great is unlike some Hollywood movies that use white actors in place of a different ethnicity, for 47 Ronin the entire cast (except Reeves) is Japanese. Even the day players. The movie takes place in Japan, and they’re not trying to mix in outside elements. And before you start saying anything about Reeves and how he doesn’t fit in, almost as soon as he’s introduced he’s called “half breed”, which becomes his nickname for most of the movie.
The fact is, you can’t make a movie for western audiences using an all Japanese cast. While I might see that movie, you’re got to have a movie star.
But while 47 Ronin will be released in America in English, we learned that on every take, the first time they do it everyone speaks Japanese–including Reeves! He decided to learn the language and while he might only be able to say the words in the script (and maybe a few more), the fact is, there is always a chance they could release 47 Ronin in all Japanese with English subtitles. Personally, that’s the way I’d like to see it the first time. However, who knows if Universal will release a Japanese version as it’s over a year from release and things change. But I thought it was a very cool they were doing this.
A Sizzle Reel and Some Facts
Soon after leaving the art room, we went to a nearby theater and got to see a sizzle reel from the first five weeks of filming. While we didn’t get to see any full scenes, we did get to see the massive sets and incredible costumes by Penny Rose, and we also got to see a bit of the action. Even though it’s impossible to know what the finished film is going to be, I could see the building blocks of what could be a cool film.
As we left the theater to walk to the life-size fortress from the end of the movie, we learned:
- the production was shooting in 3D
- they were converging on set
- the movie will be PG-13
- it was day 56 and they were still shooting for two more months
The Incredible Sets
In the past six years I’ve been able to visit a number of movie sets. I’ve seen a small room transformed into a massive location through the use of CG and movie magic. However, I’ve never felt like I’ve been transported to another time and place while on set.
What you need to know is, on 47 Ronin, the production actually built huge portions of a massive fortress and a castle. The fortress that they built was so big it took us a few minutes to walk from the base up the spiraling stairway and into the main section. It was incredible and I’ve never seen anything like it. The level of detail was insane. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to fully convey what it was like to walk up the black rocks into the fortress and look around where all you see is the inside of a fortress.
The main reason they had to build this set is that a big portion of the ending of the movie takes place here and they’re in the middle of shooting 2nd unit at night. While they could have used a soundstage and then added in lots of CGI, by actually having this massive set, they’re going to be able to shoot wide shots with hundreds of Samurai and ronin fighting and it’s going to look absolutely incredible in 3D.
After getting a tour of the set, we walked for a few minutes further into the forest and came upon another incredible practical set. It was here where the crew and actors were filming a scene.
As we walked through the gate, we were again transported to another time and place. But while the fortress we had just left was dark and dreary, the castle was alive and bright, with the Samurai dressed in red and the cherry blossoms in full bloom. Also, the castle was painted with bright colors and there were Japanese signs. Everything looked alive, and not a man made structure.
When we first arrived, we immediately got to see Rinsch directing a massive group of actors and extras. He was being very specific with the way he wanted the red samurai to kneel down to the visiting Shogun Warrior. He even went up to a few of the extras and positioned them exactly how he wanted them to be.
The scene was first being shot with two cameras and one was a very wide shot that could see the entire castle grounds and show the audience everyone there. Imagine hundreds of actors all dressed in samurai outfits including horses with armor, and they even had dogs with armor. In addition, you had the princess and her handmaidens. For a moment I imagined that I was in an Akira Kurosawa movie and started thinking about what it must have been like to be on one of his sets.
As we stood off to the side, we watched the scene get filmed a few times. It was at this moment I realized 47 Ronin is going to have a very strong color motif as each group of samurai had different colors. What’s good about this is that you’ll be able to easily follow each group on the movie screen, and with so many colors, the footage seemed alive in 3D.
After watching filming for an hour or so, we eventually left the location for a small press tent nearby. And even though it’s sometimes tough to talk with a director as they are very busy making key decisions all day, Rinsch was actually our first interview and was really open and honest about the production. One of the great quotes was when he told us 47 Ronin was like “ Kurosawa on meth.” He also told us it’s a story of honor and revenge. Further down the page are links to the full on set interviews.
After finishing the interviews, we were back in the castle and watching the production film the close-ups. If you’re not aware, a movie doesn’t film every angle at the same time, as they usually start with the widest shot and slowly get closer to make sure every person speaking in the scene has “coverage.” It’s from all this footage that the editor works to craft the scene that will be in the finished film.
Anyway, since they were shooting close-ups, we were able to stand right by a cherry blossom tree that was very close to the camera. The set was filled with very small rocks that made a crunching sound as you moved around on them, so anytime they were shooting, you had to be extremely careful not to move around or you’d make a lot of noise.
Another random thing I noticed were the samurai that were off screen feeding their horses while sitting on the steps leading up to a temple. What you need to know is they were in their full armor and the horses also had their armor on. It made me think that hundreds of years ago, the exact same scene must have happened in real life. Was a very cool sight.
Nine Minutes of Footage
A short time later, we were asked if we’d like to see about nine minutes of 3D footage. Of course we all said yes, and we walked over to a tent and put on our 3D glasses.
Unlike the sizzle reel which had a number of edits, the footage was like watching dailies as some of the takes went on for a very long time and had no edits. However, you could tell immediately that the 3D was very well done, and since they built practical sets, you could see deeper into the scene. Also, a few of the shots were awesome, and they looked like they came from a graphic novel. Instead of a normal shot, a few used incredible angles to show what was happening. And again, these were just dailies. I was very impressed.
While I have no way of knowing how the finished film is going to turn out, what I saw on set was very cool and so much bigger than I expected. The massive practical sets were truly amazing and made me feel like I was walking around a real place. It should incredible on movie screens in 3D.
Here’s more from my 47 Ronin set visit:
- Keanu Reeves Talks the Film’s Action Sequences and Effects, Working in 3D, and More on the Set of 47 RONIN
- Director Carl Rinsch Talks His Approach to 3D, Making His Directorial Debut on a Big Tentpole, Not Changing the Original Ending, and More on the Set of 47 RONIN
- Hiroyuki Sanada Talks Telling a Classic Japanese Samurai Story, Working with Keanu Reeves, the Fantasy Element, and More on the Set of 47 RONIN
- Costume Designer Penny Rose Talks Designing Samurai, Working with CGI Characters, and More on the Set of 47 RONIN