“Dracula Untold” – VFX Q&A

by Graham Edwards

Dracula Untold - Cinefex VFX Q&A

How do you put a new spin on the vampire myth? Surely the whole business of bats and bloodsucking has been done to death … or is that undeath? Who would dare to take on such a chilling challenge?

Enter Irish-born commercials director Gary Shore, who’s just pumped fresh blood into the genre with Dracula Untold, his feature film debut for Universal Pictures. The fantasy adventure – starring Luke Evans stars as thirteenth century Romanian prince, Vlad III – reimagines the origin of the character immortalised by Bram Stoker in his classic horror novel, Dracula.

Framestore took on the lion’s share of the film’s visual effects, with support from Milk VFX, Windmill Lane VFX, Level 256 VFX, Method Studios, Peanut FX and Clear Angle Studios, and previs by The Third Floor. Prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier supplied practical vampire effects, Uli Nefzer was special effects supervisor, and Weta Workshop supplied ornate armour and weaponry.

In this special Q&A session, Cinefex spoke to Framestore’s Christian Manz, who was Universal’s visual effects supervisor on Dracula Untold, about what it takes to make a vampire spread his leathery wings and take flight.

Dracula Untold - digital terrain

Framestore delivered around 700 shots for “Dracula Untold”, including a number that featured extensive digital terrain.

Christian, how did you first get involved with Dracula Untold?

I was approached by Universal because of my work on 47 Ronin, and because they thought I’d be able to interpret the visual effects film world for a newcomer. When you have a director like Gary Shore, who’s come from doing visual effects in commercials, they can find it’s a whole different world in features.

When did you first meet Gary Shore?

Around January 2013. He came to Framestore when we were pitching to do the movie. Having read the script, we’d done a “look book” of images that we thought related to the look of the movie. Gary had already decided it wasn’t going to be a gothic film – he wanted a completely new take on Dracula – and he was blown away by what we’d done.

How did you begin the pre-production process?

Early on, the Framestore art department showed Gary the design work for World War Z, 47 Ronin and some other movies. He was very keen for us to do such artwork for Dracula Untold. We started very early doing lots of trips to the production offices in the centre of Belfast. Gary trained as an illustrator, and had a definite vision of what he wanted. But he’d never made a movie, so it was all about how that vision was going to get up on screen. That’s what I was there to interpret.

"Dracula Untold" - transformation concept art

Framestore used concept art to explore the vampire transformation scenes.

Was it a challenge to come up with a new design for such an iconic character?

It was no mean feat! Our first step was to cover the art department walls with print-outs of every vampire and Dracula that had been done – from Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, to Leslie Nielsen and Twilight … everything! We came up with designs, and Gary would grab the stuff he liked from them, and then we’d go away and put together the next version. It was pretty exciting.

There are two vampire characters: Dracula, played by Luke Evans, and the Master Vampire, played by Charles Dance. Luke came to Framestore, where we took tons of snaps so we could make a model of him to start the concept work from. He was great. He said, “If you need anything else, I only live up the road, so let me know.” Two days later, we did! That was nice of him, because he was about to go off on reshoots for The Hobbit.

At that stage, we didn’t know whether Dracula was going to be CG, or prosthetics, or a marriage of both. I always felt it would be a mixture, because prosthetics makeup designer Mark Coulier does such wonderful work.

What inspired the vampire design?

We wanted to do something we hadn’t seen before, so we took the idea that vampires don’t like sunlight and made them translucent. When the vampires “vamp out”, you can see the teeth and feeding mechanism underneath the skin. They’re like cave-dwelling creatures, or deep-sea creatures: very pale. Then, when the vampires are exposed to sunlight and the skin peels off, it goes white instead of burning black. It was very anti what you might expect.

Once the studio and the filmmakers had approved the design of what we called “Vlad Stage 10” – the finished Dracula – we went into detailed design. We created a rule book of what a vampire does, although you only get glimpses of it in the film. We looked at fractals to create patterns in the teeth. There’s another pattern that moves up the face underneath the skin when they’re feeding.

How did you realise the vampire designs?

For the Vampire Master, Charles Dance wore prosthetics, and we augmented on top. We designed what he would look like, and worked with Mark Coulier. Mark did a fantastic job, incredibly quickly. It was the only prosthetic I’ve ever worked with on a movie where we didn’t have to do one touch-up, and you see it really close up. It was a beautiful piece of work.

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Did you use the same approach for Dracula himself?

For Dracula, Luke just wore tracking markers. We weren’t sure whether they’d stick with what we’d agreed in preproduction, so we wanted the maximum ability to alter any shot. He wore the markers whenever we knew he was going to vamp out.

Still, there were lots of shots where we hadn’t put markers on him, so we used witness cameras on everything – Canon 5Ds, shooting 1920×1080 QuickTimes. We had one 5D near the film camera, and one offset. We also tended to have a GoPro off somewhere and took plenty of reference photos. I like to be as invisible to the process as possible, especially on a movie that isn’t so VFX-driven. We had to move very quickly, just slamming in a camera and taking a video using the slate from the film camera. That was good enough to give us what we needed to track in later on.

Framestore’s visual effects supervisor in London, Glen Pratt, was with me every single day I was on set. And Framestore London’s CG supervisor, Ben Lambert, came out for a few days when we were in Belfast. Plowman Craven came out to do cyberscanning and Lidar. Luke had multiple wardrobe changes, so god knows how many times we had to scan him! And we did various Facial Action Coding System poses, which gave us a high-res Vlad head that became the basis of the vampire.

How closely did Framestore work with The Third Floor on previs?

The Third Floor London is linked to Framestore – in our offices, basically – and I’d used them a lot on 47 Ronin. There were two or three key sequences which they prevised thoroughly, the main one being the “Hand of Bats” sequence, which you can see in the trailer. They were with us right the way through, nearly to the shoot. Gary sat with the previs supervisors, Vincent Aupetit and Faraz Hameed, and walked through the shots. Obviously, when you move on to post, and you have 300 artists who are 6,000 miles away, that becomes harder to do.

Framestore concept art for the "Hand of Bats" sequence

Framestore concept art for the “Hand of Bats” sequence.

Can you describe the “Hand of Bats” sequence?

It happens in the Borgo Pass – a real pass in Romania, which was once Transylvania. Vlad has built a monastery at the head of this pass, and Memet II (Dominic Cooper) sends a 10,000-strong army down to sack the monastery. Vlad’s up in the tower, and realises he can control the bats fluttering around in the belfry. Streams and streams of bats start arriving – about three million of them – in this massive “batnado”, as we called it.

How did you shoot the sequence?

The whole sequence was heavily prevised, for two reasons. First, to help us know what we had to shoot. But also, the previs was used to help sell Gary’s vision to the studio. That’s a really important part of previs, I think – it’s a way for the director to get their vision across.

The monastery exterior was a partial set, built in a former Mackies factory in Belfast. The tower interior was a bluescreen set. We extended both sets and married them together. We shot a lot of material of Luke moving like a conductor, controlling the bat flock.

We originally planned to shoot more of the Borgo Pass in a quarry. But we had really thick fog for a solid week and a half at the location, and then it turned sunny all the time. That meant we couldn’t use it for everything, so this environment was created digitally.

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Can you tell us more about the environments? How did you go about creating the castle?

We used a lot of reference photographs from the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and spent two days photographing Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, and locations in Ireland and Wales. They became the basis for a lot of the matte painting work.

The production designer, François Audouy, designed the castle, and we had extensive Google SketchUp models of it from the production department. We took their concept artwork into post – we did the same with the monastery – and that became the basis of the structure. We had tons of textures from various castles all over the UK and Europe, and decided that we wanted to make it a fairly new castle, but one that had been constructed over a period of time.

Dracula's castle was realised as a full-CG model.

The castle was realised as a full-CG model.

The castle itself was a full CG textured asset that you could fly around in high resolution. For the surrounding landscape, we started with a low-res model to get the topography right, and then projected it and did matte paintings per shot to fix it up. The Montreal team worked on the castle and the night sequences whilst London tackled the Borgo Pass and monastery. Framestore’s visual effects supervisor in Montreal was Ivan Moran, and the CG supervisor there was J.P. Li.

The model was textured using photographic reference from castles across the UK and Europe.

The model was textured using photographic reference from castles across the UK and Europe.

There’s a spectacular shot where a cannon ball flies towards the castle, smashes in and reveals Vlad inside. Can you break the shot down?

That was one of those re-shoot moments where you say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?” The shot comes during a battle that was originally in the third act, but was moved to the second act. The Turks are pummelling Vlad’s castle with these massive cannons – they were built physically by the art department and special effects supervisor Uli Nefzer.

The first step was previs. Then François built a partial set of the castle on stage, although by then we had already started developing all of the rigid body destruction work in Montreal. The re-shoots were in June and our deadline was August, so it was very tight.

We put the camera on a Technocrane, pumped smoke in front of it and pushed through to reveal Luke walking through and under a gate set piece. We took that shot and match-moved it, adding our CG camera on to the beginning. We ended up with a digital move across a battlefield full of wooden spikes for impaling horses, Braveheart-style. As the cannon ball smashes through the castle walls, we transitioned through a lot of CG debris to reveal the plate we’d originally shot.

Final composite of the castle under attack.

Final composite showing the castle under attack.

How did you design the shot where the camera follows a sword into its victim’s stomach, then focuses on the reflection in the sword to show the surrounding battle?

We called that sequence “Vlad vs 1,000.” It’s separated into seven sections, ending with the sword shot, based on a shot which had been part the pitch reel that got Gary the movie. Everyone was very keen to keep this shot plugged into the end of the fight.

In the pitch version of the shot, you saw the sword go into somebody, and then the camera orbited the sword. The sword itself was rotating as the victim fell to the ground, reflecting Vlad killing everyone in the background. It seemed strange to me for the camera to be moving around the sword – there was no sense of geography, and it was impossible to physically photograph, making it look CG from the outset. So we shot a very low-fi test on an iPhone using a wooden sword. Gary said, “Yeah, that’s great,” and so that became the basis of the shot.

The fight was choreographed by Buster Reeves, our stunt coordinator. We shot the whole thing in front of a bluescreen with a stunt double, then Luke did the fight again so we had coverage. He was fantastic. The final sequence shot took about a week to shoot – the final shot took about half a day which was nothing compared to time it took in post to complete the full 800 frames.

If Vlad is a vampire, how come his reflection is in the sword?

Oh, don’t ask!

What camera did you use?

The movie was shot on film, but we used a Red Epic for the sword shot because it’s small and light. We had a stunt performer with the camera on a chest mount. He was on a wire, and when he fell back, we ran the camera. We shot with the camera pointing both downwards and up at his face, to give us his reflection.

Then I had 150 background people run towards us at 150fps, multiple times. We shot Luke separately for each of his kills. That was a bit of a mind bender for us, because we had to get Luke to kill everybody, but without anybody there! The key thing was they wanted him to move in real-time, and for everyone else to be in slow motion, to make him seem super-humanly fast.

It sounds like a big compositing challenge.

As the shot moved into post, it became the shot that we knew we wouldn’t deliver until the end. The beginning was constructed using a bluescreen element of Luke with his sword, with all the people behind him. For the transition to the reflection, we used a CG digi-double. Then we locked the camera on to the CG sword. The rest was a mixture of shots of extras, and lots and lots of digital Lukes hitting digital stunt doubles.

Essentially, it was all built in Nuke. We went into Maya to render the sword element, then we transitioned to the Red Epic footage at the end – when the Turkish soldier hit the dusty ground it was fantastic. After that, Luke pulls the sword out of the body and then walks away to fight all the people running towards him.

For that, we used some digital doubles, added the fire in the background, and put a moon in as Vlad tilted his head back. I joked about having E.T. going past the moon, Gary said, “What would be really cool is if Vlad was throwing the Turks up into the air, and you saw one of them fly across the moon.” This was about three weeks before the end, so I said, “Yeah that would be amazing for the sequel.” But they wanted it, so we did it. It was quite a challenge to get the dynamics not looking silly. But it’s kind of a cool shot.

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Wasn’t there a dragon in the film at one point?

Vlad was going to conjure a dragon to scare some Turks. That scene was cut, so we repurposed it to appear just briefly, when you see him in his Vlad the Impaler armour at the end. There’s tons of lightning going off as this storm approaches the Turk camp, and we thought it would be cool if you saw the shape of the dragon in the clouds. I was very keen that it wasn’t literally a moving cloud dragon, because that could look silly. I wanted the lightning to biometrically light it up – every time it flashes, you see it’s changed shape slightly.

Can you tell us about the vampire sonar vision?

That came in during the re-shoots. We wanted to give Vlad super powers, one of which would be sonar vision. Gary wanted it to be like a moving Lidar, and sent me a YouTube link to a pop promo for House of Cards by Radiohead as a reference for the look. We thought we’d try a photogrammetry technique, so we did a bit of a science experiment in our motion capture area using 5B cameras, which gave us some really dirty data. But really interesting data, because it gave us topology that was different every frame.

We converted the data into a point cloud, then warped it in Nuke. We only had a week before the shoot, so Ben Lambert came up with the look very quickly. But time was getting very tight, so we did another test with a shot of Luke that we’d already fully body-tracked. We exported that and managed to come up with something that looked the same.

Framestore created CG bats in their millions for "Dracula Untold"

Framestore created CG bats in their millions for “Dracula Untold”.

At the end of the film, Vlad unleashes sunlight on himself and his vampire brood. How did you create that effect?

Vampire deaths again have been done a lot. Blade was probably the last film where they were done in a cool way, with the vampire turning into ash. Working with the art department, we came up with the idea that they turned to gloop and tar instead.

We shot Luke and five key extras flailing around in front of a bluescreen set. We put tracking markers on them, but mainly used lots of witness cameras. In post, we did hyper-real digital doubles of them all. Using a combination of creature effects simulation and effects work, we had two different layers of skin peeling off, which then turn black. Originally they were going to disappear into nothing, but Gary wanted to keep what we called the “vampire mummy”, so we modelled a dried-up husk that would be left behind.

As Vlad collapses to the ground, his arm cracks and releases steam, as if he’s burning up inside. We modelled Luke’s armour in high-resolution for that. The important thing for me was that we really retained Luke’s performance, because it’s actually a quite subtle moment – the moment where his son sees the monster that he has become.

In the last three shots, Luke is translucent and fully-CG, except for his eyes. For the final shot we went fully CG. It’s one of those shots where you tell everyone that it’s CG and they say, “Really?”

How many visual effects shots did you deliver?

We originally planned about 500 shots, but in the end we had about 740. Roughly 700 of those were done by Framestore. The key thing about the movie was that we had lots of effects where we were doing this really difficult thing for just five shots. That made it a challenge, but also exciting for the artists.

"Dracula Untold" posterChristian Manz, thank you for your time!

Special thanks to Joe Fordham, Stephanie Bruning and Rob Goodway. Images courtesy of Universal Pictures and Framestore.