Here is a little Photoshop guide to mimic the 300 style. The effects could also be applied to video in After Effects with a similar setup. The aim here is to build the basic photoshop action with minimal tweaking. I’ve used basic shots but with good imagery you can achieve great results.
The 300 artists aimed to achieve a painterly watercolour effect in combination with photographic elements. They then applied a heavy sepia tone and the ‘crush’ – clipping the levels to pump up the contrast. Nearly all of the shots are heavily sepia. Post production took a year, so obviously there was a lot of work on each scene. No to mention the full CG environments.
In 300 there were a huge amount of ‘sky’ shots. Almost every scene was set against a dramatic sunset with glare. Snyder preferred a polarized look to the backgrounds – contrast at the top, soft and light at the skyline. The photographic cloud shots were mixed with painterly effects – such as coffee stains… really. So to begin: One cumulus cloudscape. One scan of coffee spillage. The cloud backdrop does come down to composition (tweaking).
Base level – Take a shot of cumulus clouds and apply ‘dust and scratches’ to heavily blur the detail to give it an arty feel. Then use color adjustments to give it a strong sepia tone with heavy saturation, then dodge and burn to achieve the polarized look – dark at the top, light at the bottom. The background plates of 300 were very grainy, so a dash of the film grain filter here as well.
Layer 2 – Coffee stains: To add to the overall painterly style, use ‘overlay’ on a scan of coffee stains. Yes you could use ink, but coffee is easy to come by and has that nice sepia tone. Droplets on a sheet of damp watercolour paper for a nice spread. Obviously you’re after a cloudy feel so this is a terrible example – but it’s test stuff.
Layer 3 – Cumulus clouds: A finishing layer of desaturated cumulus clouds with transparency, strong whites are a bonus. As the cloud in 300 was generally soft, this gets a low dose of dust and scratches also to lower the detail. This layer could be set to normal or screen on preference.
Layer 4 – And lastly, a silhouetted black landscape for depth set to multiply. These layers could easily be animated in After Effects.
Now to tweak the action plate. One suitable image… with transparency / blue screen. I used extract on this shot, useful tool. As said, the colours in 300 were mainly desaturated and heavily sepia, apart from deliberate highlights, with the levels tweaked to create high contrast.
1) Starting with levels we’ll mimic the ‘crush’. Pull down the light end to boost up the highlights, then push up the midtones to boost contrast. Then in the black channel only, bring up the low end to punch up the darks.
2) In hue/saturation, pull back the saturation. In 300, red was often left alone or even saturated for impact.
3) Now we duplicate the layer, set to colourise in hue/saturation and adjust it to sepia. We’ll set this to multiply. This gives the image an inky feel with sepia overtones. Adjust the opacity for strength. To this we’ll also add a fine film grain.
4) Now the finishing touches – peesa cake.
Obviously there was a lot more in the compositing of each scene in 300, but I think this presents the basic elements. You can see the layering in an actual 300 shot on this page of the VFX article here.