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Framestore’s Glen Pratt in London and JP Li in Montreal talk about buildingFramestor-dracula3
Transylvania, flying with bats and revealing the inner creature on
‘Dracula Untold’.


Framestore Finds the Creature within for ‘Dracula Untold’

Digital Media World had the chance to interview both the London team’s VFX supervisor Glen Pratt and JP Li, CG supervisor in Montreal, about their work on ‘Dracula Untold’. Between the two offices, Framestore completed over 700 shots for this ambitious project.

VFX supervisor Glen Pratttold us that an essential element of the film was the diversity and number of effects required, frequently juxtaposed on screen. “We were not dealing with one large creature, for example, but with many unique, smaller pieces of work,” he said. “It was a lot to keep track of and also meant, inevitably, that some concepts we worked on never made it into the film. But everything taken together helped us get extremely involved in making this movie.”

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Glen first met with Framestore to discuss working on ‘Dracula Untold’ in May 2013. He had originally worked with the company back in 2002 when he metChristian Manz, the film’s main VFX supervisor. Before pre-production, Christian asked him to join the production and supervise on set in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Christian joined Glen later, about half-way through filming, and they worked together through till the end of the shoot in August 2013.

The director Gary Shore’s vision focused on a visually realistic portrayal of the Dracula story in 15th century Transylvania. Therefore, visual development between Framestore’s Art Department and production designerFrancois Audouywas a key stage of the project, eventually affecting everything Framestore’s VFX departments in London and Montreal worked on. Another constant issue during production and post was the very short time frame of 34 weeks allotted to complete the film. As always, available time affected decisions on approaches, looks and which shots to tackle first.

Superheroic Dracula

The production decided early on that the concept of a heroic human being turning into a single bat wasn’t going to work for Gary Shore’s overall vision for the Dracula character. Effort went into establishing Dracula as a superhero figure, transforming him into a flock of bats that takes the form of a powerful hand. Framestore’s work on this signature ‘hand of bats’ began to take shape as part of a key battle sequence. The concept demanded a heroic environment and camera work to effectively reveal the transformation, the hand-like form of the swirling bats, and the advancing Turkish army led by Mehmed the Conqueror.

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Glen said, “Due to shooting restrictions, local weather and the production schedule, we couldn’t actually shoot the sequence, which was also critical for Universal Pictures, at any suitable location with the scope that matched what was in Gary’s mind’s eye. Visualising this whole world fell back to Framestore in post, involving a combination of geography based on stills from the Isle of Skye and others I captured at Edinburgh. We incorporated these Scottish landscapes into matte paintings made to resemble Transylvania as far as possible, and built up Gary’s grand visual scope.”

The camera moves became important to both define the environment and describe the bats’ motion. The hand of bats needed enough room to read on screen and intensify the threat of the army attacking Dracula’s land, a primary story point. “Getting that environment right was quite an achievement considering everything it has to contain, and took a lot of discussion with Gary and Christian,” said Glen. “It holds up well in spite of the minimal plate work - mainly consisting of blue screen - we had to base it upon.

“We first built a digital matte painting of the whole world in 3D in Maya, then went back to design the camera moves and the projections back onto geometry in Nuke. Essentially everything you see is matte paintings.”

Driving the Simulations

To coordinate the actor’s performance with what the flock of bats would be doing required a very precise body track of the actor, allowing them to gradually take over and replace his body with CG imagery. A cloth system was developed that allowed them to tear up the cloth into bat-like shapes, which they then used to create the hand of bats, also mixed with hand-animated hero bats. Depending on the camera, they would adjust the balance between the cloth system and the animated CG by alternately cranking the two types of effect up and down, to achieve the precise look needed for each shot.

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“The animation team would roughly block in large areas giving a loose indication of where bats would appear in a shot and how the flock itself would move, and then pass that, in real-world space, to the FX team, who used it to drive their simulations, created in Houdini to work with animation from Maya.. The animation guides helped in two ways. First, a random result from those simulations, employing hundreds of thousands of bats – over a million in some shots – would have meant too much work to tweak into shape. It also helped the FX team understand visually what Christian and I expected from them, and they could iterate from there,” Glen said.

“Doing the first pass in animation showed where they could break up certain areas. Once this was established, we assessed whether the simulation was behaving as we needed before adding our hero animated bats as a dressing. Then, the shots could be assessed for tweaking – whether it was the bats, the camera, or anything else. This process prevented leaving the FX team to run their simulations for days on end without really knowing how they were playing out. Those artists and the animation team really ran that part of the show.”

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Previs was massively useful on ‘Dracula Untold’ generally but particularly for this sequence, which was already heavily previs’d when Glen joined the pre-production. It helped the actor, too, to understand what was happening to his character. A lot changed in the actual production, but previs was a guide helping the crew and producers to move forward and overcome the ‘blanks’ that big, protracted visual effects sometimes create for filmmakers.

Under the Skin

The looks of Vlad’s vampire nature, within his human form, were tremendously important but had to be adjustable to follow the unfolding themes of the story. The team decided on a translucent look to the skin in order to reveal the inner creature by degrees when called on. In fact, the audience only fully sees that creature exposed at the end of the movie when Vlad sacrifices himself to ensure his son’s safety. To satisfy the studio, the team also needed to create a look that was alluring, not horrific, although it reflects classic vampire incarnations like Nosferatu.

Gary Shore was keen on using distinctive patterning in the earlier shots to hint at that inner creature, for example, when the vampire feeds, feels intense emotion, or when the Master Vampire licks the blood from his face with his monstrous tongue. The final shots, fully revealing the vampire within, were ones Glen especially liked working on, and involved lengthy collaboration with the Art Department. “In terms of design and development, these were some of the shots we started working on first. Our design processes that are seen earlier in the film are all manifest in this shot when the skin peels away to show that creature,” he said.

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“Also, during camera testing before the shoot, a slight problem came up with the actor, Luke Evans. He insisted on keeping his beard intact at that point, which led to incorporating a peach-fuzz groom over his face in all of these shots. It’s subtle but the level of detail we put into the images resulted in an otherworldly realism that works well in this context.”

Digital Make-up

The essential design of the look was locked of when the shoot started but it kept evolving shot by shot as they went into post, so the production decided that instead of putting effort into prosthetics, they would keep the flexibility of digital make-up. Shaders were employed for the look, manipulated through the Arnold renderer. Due to his translucent quality, they sought appropriate references – lychee fruits for example were useful as inspiration for this shader. Since they had to avoid a gory look for the client, they turned to something fresher and more human.

To find their way under that skin, they needed base imagery and data from the actor. At every opportunity, they took Lidar scans of him in his various costumes, especially to capture his detail for the bat takeovers. Using numerous tracking markers, Vlad’s face was recorded and taken into Maya to reduce him slightly - though not so much as to interfere with compositing – and do beauty work on the scan to create the actual vampire look. The white subsurface underneath his skin was designed to resemble a human skull, with fine channels for blood to flow from the teeth.

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In one of the final shots at the end when Vlad falls screaming to the ground, they needed to replace the entire plate, capturing his performance from the photography but otherwise re-constructing him with a more extreme reduction to emphasise these looks. Several vampires die in this sequence and their deaths needed further look development.

Vampire Breakdown

Deciding against flaming effects or ash, the team went for the look of dark primordial ooze as the basis of a new approach and worked out still another substance to reveal within vampires, not resembling flesh or blood, that turned away from the direction of the sun. The point at which their R&D became too visceral - too much like flesh and blood – was what prompted the black ooze concept, which also tied it to the visual language of bats, already a part of the story.

The death was revealed in stages to handle the complexity and detail. Precise body tracking was required to support cloth layers and a more liquid layer emitting from the cloth. Finally, when it still felt as if something were missing inside of that, to prevent an empty look to the shot they also developed an inner core and shrivelled remains from the vampire.

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Among the complex, singular effects Framestore created for the film, Gary wanted to be able to show, as kind of POV shot, the echolocation ability of a bat. During their R&D for the look, they tried capturing images with a multiple camera array. The information gathered from that shot allowed them to construct a 3D replica of the image, producing a very high resolution mesh, or point cloud. Gary was after a ‘sonar’ type of look referencing the ‘House of Cards’ music video by Radiohead, which appealed to him.

“This concept only emerged at the time of some re-shoots for the film were shot,” Glen explained. “But for us to encroach on the set space when the schedule was even tighter than during the main shoot was asking a lot from the crew. So Christian took advantage of the chance to simply re-shoot our footage, normally. Tracking these plates, we could still create our point cloud in Nuke – and from there, that point cloud was regenerated using a warp filtering effect to get the end result. Thus, our initial camera array approach wasn’t used but it helped arrive at the conclusion - that’s really the nature of R&D.”

Sword’s Eye View

For a shot depicting what a sword that Vlad flings at a soldier might reflect, Glen and Christian carried out several tests on set. First, they strapped a camera onto a stake, standing in as the sword, and acted out what Gary wanted to see with a member of the stunt team. They also had a camera strapped to the stuntman when the sword hit. This gave them an idea of what those views looked like - the horizon, the ground and so on – to create a digital double of the live action plate of the soldier as he is stabbed and falls to the ground, which they could then take over.

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They had the actor as a reference to match the double to, and used the lightweight, high-resolution RED Epic camera to give him the freedom to perform. The idea was to combine all of these plates, points of view, as well as a shot of the army charging towards Vlad, which they initially dressed into the plate to give them an idea of what work would still be needed in terms of digital doubles, due to the complex moves required. “It was quite an ambitious shot stylistically. But the stunt shot, which took up a whole day, was massively useful because such shots can’t be CG based. They have to be based in reality.”

Creating the shots of the Master Vampire’s tongue involved some alarming element shoots for the drool and saliva that the compositors tracked onto the CG tongue to give the sequence its unnerving realism. Glen said, “We had to first build the tongue and wholly recreate the lower half of the actor Charles Dance’s face – his jaw has to bend to allow the oversized tongue to emerge fully, and the whole shot needed FX work as well. It was a lot of work to compress into a short amount of time.”

Against the Odds

CG supervisorJP Liat Framestore in Montreal entered the project in November 2013, after the shoot and during a period of flux and decision-making between the Art Department and director. Various visions were in discussion, some of the concepts were changing, and the team had to be flexible and also suggest new ways to visualize some of the story ideas.

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One of their most ambitious sequences was of Dracula, with his new found vampire strength, taking on a thousand soldiers single-handedly. It had actually been shot in full daylight before a change in the edit moved it to a night sequence, also causing a change in their approach. While their work was always to focus on the environment – the castle, background, smoke effects - the task was to make it appear that Vlad was fighting off a thousand soldiers, incorporating the digital crowd created in London to augment the 20 extras on set.

“The plates contained only Vlad and the extras in full daylight surrounded by blue screen. Any CG assets produced later had to be lit to match the live action and then supplied in the composite to be given the day-for-night grade the entire sequence would receive, making the integration much more effective,” said JP Li. “Our team also created digital mass destruction spreading out around the soldiers, destroying the landscape and adding the cannonballs and burning elements.”

Crowd Development

For the crowd, CG supervisorBen Lambert’s team in London worked withGolaemcrowd simulation software for the first time – not just the application but the developers as well – alongside their in-house crowd softwarefMob. The CG team worked with R&D to modify fMob to handle the crowd data from Golaem, which integrates with Maya, where the agents were created.

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The change to a night time sequence actually helped the team by giving them a chance to introduce a few shortcuts, and it also improved the look of shots composed of live actors performing in the foreground with CG assets extending into the distance, incorporating small fires and smoke elements to help integrate the crowd. “The crowd team developed five types of soldiers, based on scans, created the models and captured motions of people carrying and swinging swords and flags, fighting and falling over,” JP said.

“Then in the composite, all sources of movement – from the simulation, the motion capture and keyframed hero models – were blended. In some interesting overhead crane shots, the Montreal team created moments when Vlad’s body transforms into the swirl of bats as he turns and spins to confront the on-coming soldiers. This involved some re-animation and re-timing of the live footage, accelerating and slowing it down as required while generating CG bats in time with his motion. Between the crowd integration, the environment, the castle and other effects, the sequence’s 33 shots contained a huge amount of variety.”

Castle Construction

For Dracula’s castle, the client had been researching references of medieval European castle structures and supplied Framestore with a rough design in SketchUp. From these low-resolution 3D models and some images indicating an approximate size and look as a start point, the team created all details including detailing the towers, the hall, gate and other key elements everyone expects in a castle, based on further thorough research. In some shots that needed matte paintings, they also contributed to the overall design as well.

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The shot following a canon ball aimed at the castle placed special emphasis on camera work, calling for flexibility in the build of the castle as it would be seen from an unexpected point of view. The concept grew, in fact, from the sequence’s final shot of Vlad in the castle, which meant that the team had to design the camera animation backwards to make sure their intermediate frames met up with the live action footage at the end of any of their iterations, in which they varied the camera moves, lighting and speed.

Getting the speed right required changing the timing of everything else, of course, so finalizing the complete shot was a balancing act of many factors. The audience wouldn’t actually know how fast the cannonball should be moving but would know what felt authentic. Viewers also have to be able to read the direction it comes from when it strikes, using visual cues such as smoke trails.

Demolition

“Fortunately, as soon as our team knew they had the battle sequence on their agenda, including the castle and surrounds, we decided, ‘There are 33 shots here in which we have Vlad fighting off a massive crowd, a castle and a destroyed battlefield. Let’s build out this environment to accommodate any POV the production might think of.’ We focused on a critical spot where the live actors and CG people were likely to be centred and then extended the scene out from there – the ground, matte paintings, the castle and its spikes – so by the time the cannonball shot came up, all the assets were ready for the camera animation. Nothing extra had to be built.”

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Destruction was handled by building different versions of parts af the castle. The full build was for shots without destruction, showing the castle looking complete and beautiful. Then they needed to work out which parts would take direct hits, which parts would only show external damage, and which parts would have to be totally re-built to support active destruction. From there, we divided the castle up into very specific areas. The modellers and FX team rebuilt some of the walls entirely, brick by brick, so that a collision would result in them realistically crumbling apart again into bricks and dust. In spite of the complexity of the finished looks, this planned approach saved us valuable time.”

Armour Transformation

The Montreal team had a chance to work on a different aspect of Vlad’s transformation into a flock of bats that also involved his armour, when an attempt is made to strike him through with a wooden stake. Christian wanted the approaching stake to affect the armour like a hot-air gun, blowing any objects away by exerting pressure. JP said, “We built the armour in CG to match the real armour, but in many, many small layers so that when we ‘blew’ the pressure from the on-coming stake into the armour, it would beak apart into a vortex.

“Then for the bat transformation, we separated the vortex area from the transforming area. To ensure they performed exactly as required, the bats were modelled and animated underneath the armour and, taking the armour from the plate, we worked out where to use the bat animation to drive and shape the formation of the armour into bat’s wings. Meanwhile the movement also worked with a tearing simulation similar to the London team’s approach, although in a more rigid way consistent with armour.

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So, while the bat animation drove the shape of the transformation, the actual tearing effects had to be a simulation because as the wings pull off, they pull the armour with it slightly, and through the sim we can dictate just how the tearing occurs. Also, the huge number of bats meant their wings intersected, causing some other problems. The bats were meant to appear as a matte of bats, as the artists needed a way to make the overall motion readable, and simultaneously let the wings tear without destroying the mesh.

“This was a pretty complex series of effects to verbalise and to visualise. We were fortunate in that we hit on an approach producing a result that really suited Gary, quite early on. It could have taken round after round of tests. The key was getting the animation to help drive the many layers of simulation,” said JP.

Mesmerised

Showing the effect that looking at silver has on the vampires’ vision began as POV footage for the vampires, which the team could treat with a discreet, contained, mainly 2D effect, which made it more flexible and creative than some of the heavy CG work. They first devised various ideas for its looks, combining warping, distortion, abrasion, re-timing and lots of roto mattes in 2D to generate the desired effect - which they called the ‘mesmeriser’.

“We could turn this effect up or down,” JP said. “We didn’t want it to hurt the viewers’ eyes to watch it, but still show that it affected vision in an unpleasant way. To make a distinction between silver and non-silver objects, we created masks and roto shapes in Houdini to isolate the areas and art-direct how this mesmeriser looked at any moment.”

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Though this kind of specialised supernatural effect was interesting to work on in terms of R&D and produced dramatic results, JP Li feels some of their best work was put into the environments and wide sweeping views they created for the battle and army sequences. “In a shot where the camera lifts up to reveal the entire Turkish army with their tents arrayed into the distance, you see a type of view that appears multiple times in the film,” he said. “But because the exact same configuration can’t be repeated, instead we built a library with still and moving tents, tents blowing in the wind, fallen over and so on. We repeated a similar exercise with the flags. In the end we could redesign, re-create and tweak those views for each sequence relatively easily.”

The Wider View

Though such scenes were partially shot out at locations in Northern Ireland as well as in their big warehouse studios, they needed substantial extension and building up of the flat countryside into the sweeping Transylvanian terrain and passes. After the battle sequence in which Vlad slaughters the thousand soldiers, he stops and turns to look back up towards the castle and surveys what he has done. “These were our shots of mass destruction with virtually no action, nearly motionless flags and small burning fires,” said JP. “Shots like this allow the viewer to reflect on the extreme sequence they have just experienced and imagine what Vlad is thinking.

“One of the big crowd shots shows Mehmed on horseback addressing the Turkish army, comprising some 10,000 soldiers. It had been shot in peaceful countryside with a little over 100 people surrounding him. We replicated the soldiers to fill the environment, along with their swords and weapons, flags and banners, by rotoscoping and compositing the elements into the distance. However, this scene had to hold up looking lively and natural through the entire shot of over 4,500 frames, representing a huge 2D team effort, and when it came to adding the CG crowd, we could composite it in perfectly.”www.framestore.com

Words: Adriene Hurst
Images: Courtesy of Universal Pictures