Christian Manz had explained to us in detail the work of Framestore on 47 RONIN last year. Now he talks about his work on DRACULA UNTOLD.

How did you got involved on this show?
Director Gary Shore and the studio visited Framestore whilst I was in the last few months of post on 47 RONIN. They very much liked our pitch for the film’s VFX and engaged us pretty soon after.

Can you tell us more about your collaboration with director Gary Shore?
Gary’s work as a Commercials Director meant he had worked with VFX before but not on the scale needed to bring the script to life. Gary was very open to ideas and how to approach the work whilst having a clear vision of what he wanted to see. We started our work by designing the key VFX components if the film with the Art Department at Framestore, including the look of Dracula himself. This was a very collaborative and successful process which led to images that endured through the finished shots.

What was his approach about the visual effects?
Gary had some great visual ideas and sent me photographic and video references for the various effects. He definitely wanted to avoid a gothic look with the film and was very collaborative in solving the creative problems we encountered. He was also great at letting me and the team come up with the technical solutions – we did an awful lot more with CG than I think he had be used to on previous projects, but quickly saw the freedom it gave us when it came to creating the shots.

What was you role on this show?
I was the Overall Visual Effects Supervisor – working alongside my producer Fiona Campbell Westgate at Universal. Framestore completed most of the work on the movie with other facilities – Level256, Milk VFX, Windmill Lane VFX and Method LA – contributing the rest of the shots.

How did you split the work between Framestore London and Montreal?
We spilt the work by environment and sequence.
The London team built the Borgo Pass and Cozia Monastery including the simulation and look dev work for the bat flocks and Turkish army. Alongside this they developed the vampire deaths as well as the look of Dracula himself.

Montreal built Castle Dracula and its environment, which included a lot of destruction and a night time battle sequence plus the Turkish camp featured early in the movie. There were some cross overs within sequences – for example the London team simulated all of the army but Montreal lit, rendered and composited them for their shots. The pipeline allowed an easy share of assets and references – there was also a lot of communication between the Supervision and Production teams across sites.

Can you tell us more about your collaboration with the VFX Supervisors at both places?
Glen Pratt – the VFX Supervisor for the London team – attended the entire shoot as well as a lot of the pre-production meetings. His presence was invaluable to me and gave him a strong insight into the challenges we faced as we moved into post. I was based a lot of the time in London so saw Glen in person on a daily basis.

Ivan Moran in Montreal started the show after the shoot but I’ve known him for a long time which made communication very easy. The internal review system at Framestore makes inter-site reviews very easy so it was quick to get notes back to the relevant teams. It was great to bounce ideas off each other in how to approach the varied and often complex effects work we had on our slate.

Can you describe one of your day on-set and then during the post?
During the shoot I tended to be where ever the most demanding VFX were being filmed – be it main or second unit. The more intense days came toward the end of the schedule where we pretty much spent the whole time in a blue room. As well as making sure everything is shot as technically as well as possible I was also there to visualise the end result for the film makers. We didn’t shoot a lot of nights (which is unusual for a vampire movie!) but did spend a lot of time on location too.

We had a lot of data to collect alongside the usual Cyber and Lidar scanning. I worked with a fantastic bunch of people who worked hard to achieve a huge amount in the restricted time we had.

In post I split my time between Framestore in London and the cutting rooms at Universal in Los Angeles. The first weeks were spent breaking down and briefing the VFX for sequences as they came out of the edit and making sure we were clear on what Gary wanted. As the schedule progressed my days became more filled with reviews at both Framestore sites as well as the small amount of shots we had elsewhere. During this time I spent more and more time in London reviewing work with Gary remotely. We had additional photography mixed in there two which meant a few weeks of juggling everything at once.

Vlad and The Master Vampire have a specific vision. How did you find this design?
During the edit the idea of the Vampires having an echo location style POV came up – the elements for which were to be shot during additional photography. We had little more than a week or two both solve the creative problem of what it should look like and how we would technically realise it. Gary sent me a pop promo for Radiohead’s ‘House of Cards’ as reference as he liked the idea of an animated cyber scan. We had the additional note though that it had to look organic and not produced by a computer.

Can you explain in details about its creation?
We started by shooting a test in Framestore’s Capture Lab with synced Canon 5D cameras. We processed the resultant images through Photoscan which gave us back an animated model sequence. Though the geometry had different topology every frame and the resolution wasn’t great it got us close, pretty quickly to Gary’s initial brief. We then manipulated the data as a point cloud in Nuke – I was keen for us to introduce physical lens artefacts such as depth of field to get the required organic feel.

The test was very well received by everyone but I quickly determined that the capture side of it wasn’t ready for a fast moving film set. We came up with a different methodology – using body tracked geo of the actors and a Photoscan of the set as point clouds in Nuke. For some of the shots we also built a forest environment populated with key frame animated animals or motion captured Transylvanians and Turks. When combined with the sound design I think we produced quite a unique effect.

The movie features impressive landscapes. Can you tell us more about it?
The film was shot in Northern Ireland so the locations we filmed in were rather impressive in their own right. However, the script demanded some landscape and structures that it was hard to find within an hour of Belfast. In pre-production we worked closely with the Production Designer, Francois Audouy, to work out what would be either a physical set piece or a location and where VFX would take over.

Castle Dracula is a key location in the first act. Whilst the interior was a beautiful large scale set which required some extension, the exterior was a digital build based upon production Art Department SketchUp models and concepts. We used reference of many castles of the period from around Europe for the architecture details and textures as well.

The surrounding landscape and set dressing was based upon photos and survey data from the Castle location and similar reference from The Isle of Skye. We ended up doing some fairly complicated shots in this environment – Rigid Body Dynamic destruction of the castle, CG FX pyro and smoke as well as an enraged army of 1000 Turks being decimated by Vlad.

Can you explain in details about the Monastery location and its huge environment?
The Borgo Pass – the setting for most of the third act of the movie – was an almost entirely digital creation. Cozia Monastery was a digital extension of two set pieces – the grounds were a partial build on an industrial estate in Belfast and the tower top was shot on a blue screen stage. Again we had a SketchUp model from the Production Art Department and concept paintings as a starting point for the digital set and landscape which we combined with our own research and gathering of pictorial reference. We ended up doing a lot more full CG shots of the monastery than planned as the edit drove the need to establish the geography of the Transylvanians journey as well as establish the time of day etc. This meant we had to execute a high resolution build of the entire monastery and its sub-buildings – once rendered some detailing was added in DMP which was then reprojected in Nuke.

Whilst the Borgo Pass exists as a location in Romania, our version had to both serve the narrative of the film as well as blend in with the rest of the Northern Irish locations. We also didn’t want it to feel too fantastical. The Isle of Skye and Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh were used as the basis for the landscape because of their similar geology to our shoot locations. Using Photoscan we were able to generate geometry which was then further sculpted to create the walls of the pass into which we dressed the monastery. Once the layout was approved, the procedurally textured geometry was rendered, worked up in DMP and projected back in Nuke. Two cycloramas were created – one view from the top of the monastery tower and the second from the floor of the pass itself. These were used for a lot of the shots but the large scale full CG camera moves required bespoke rendering and DMP. Our shot count here escalated as the quarry location used on the main shoot was fog bound for a lot of the time or indeed too sunny for the overcast look required meaning more days spent on the blue screen stage instead.

Vlad can transforms in the cloud of bats. How did you create this transmutation?
The script and early storyboards had Vlad transforming into a single bat. I felt that this would look a bit daft so we came up with the idea that he would transmutate into a flock of bats that more equated to his volume. We also wanted to get some energy into the transformations. We produced concept artwork that showed Vlad hitting the ground like a meteorite that everybody loved – in fact this became the basis of some of the poster artwork for the film’s release. There was also a liquid-like aspect of the concept artwork that became a key part of the vampire based FX work. Our CG Supervisor in London, Ben Lambert, started developing the methodology for these shots whilst we were filming. Again we ended up doing many more transmutations than originally planned because the film makers loved the effect.

Shots of Vlad were body tracked for the duration of the transformation. Underneath this we attached a rig which pasted bats all over him – something we came to call the Bat Suit. Animators could then have the bats take off at the desired pace and direction for the transition – these were then interpolated to create the volume of bats we needed. As an additional layer we had the character rip into bats shaped cloth shreds which acted as a blend between the live action character and the bat flock. The whole process was very animation driven which was important for director notes to be addressed easily. There was of course a lot of compositing work required to blend the layers seamlessly with the live action and some tricky paint out of the actor where needed.

Can you explain in details about the bats creation?
The bats were based on vampire bats so there was no design process as such – although we did have an albino variant which we used in our transmutation shots for a characters’ skin transforming. They were modelled and look dev’d to full screen level of detail which included a full groom. We then created the lower resolution variants to use in different types of shots. Our animators studied slow motion footage of bats in flight to create a believable flight cycle but also looked at how they crawl across the floor which we used in several shots because it looked both cool and creepy.

How did you manage their animation during the final battle against the Turkish army?
The bats flocks were a marriage of animation and FX work. I was keen that the flocks be animation driven rather than simulation as they needed to be art directed. The flock’s attack on the army was based on the poses Vlad is making with his hands – like a conductor – and we needed the bats to perform as such. We started blocking with some simple had geometry but found it too simplistic so instead developed a rig that contained 20 to 30 tendrils with noise controls. This meant that the animators could block out the overall movement of the flock as a tornado – which was soon called a ‘batnado’ – or a hand and then animate the tendrils with in it to create more interesting shapes that implied a solid form but was less literally a hand of bats. The FX team then used this to drive a particle system instancing thousands of bats – the batnado and hand contained about 250,000 of them. The animation was used as a guide for the particle simulation – it was a balancing act working out the speed and size of them per shot. It was easy for it to look like a swarm of bees, so we tended to cheat their scale. We also dressed in a lot of hero animated bats to lead the audience’s eye into the action and further enforce the idea of what they were looking at – the sound design helped a lot too of course.

Once at ground level with the army, Gary was keen that the army should be smothered with bats – you couldn’t have too many. This had its challenges – not least in how work with such large animation scenes! The answer was to break the bats into three layers – the swarm, attack bats and hero-animated bats. The swarm was a more generic layer of particle instanced bats that played in the background, mainly with our digital army. For the mid-ground our FX team came up with a system where we did rough body tracks of the in-plate extras and then dressed-in a bat attack cycle – we could control the speed of the bats and how far they were away from the soldiers. Finally for foreground crowd we did more detailed body tracks and hero animated bats flying, crawling or simply stuck to them sucking their blood. FX dust was also rendered to add to the chaos. This was all handed to the comp department, led by Kate Windibank, who then had to work out how to integrate all of these layers with the in-plate crowd – there was a lot of careful roto needed and painting out of rogue bats. The finished shots look great and certainly have the swarm of piranhas feel that Gary was after.

How did you created the huge Turkish army?
The film had a few scenes which required crowd that far outweighed the number of costumed extras we had on set – 120 people had to become as many as 10,000. During the production we Cyber scanned and texture photographed five of each rank of Turk soldier, from infantry to generals. From this data we built digi-doubles with enough resolution to stand up to full screen scrutiny.

Once we had an assembly edit we did a motion capture shoot at Framestore’s capture lab – we captured everything from marching and fighting to bat swiping and dying. These cycles were then input into Golaem which we used to layout and simulate the army – Framestore had used Golaem in its advertising division but this was its first tour of duty in film. Our team found it very intuitive to learn and put into action on the shots. The Golaem data was then passed through our proprietary crowd software fMob before being rendered in Arnold. Due to the limitations placed on us during the shoot – the number of stunt performers and extras varied from day to day – we ended up with digital soldiers much closer to camera than planned. This required some hero animation and simulation for cloth and chain mail. On top of this we had lots of props too – swords, spears, shields and flags. In a couple of shots the bat flock rides through the entire army tossing soldiers and props into the air. Though we filmed blue screen elements for these, the shots ended up entirely digital which speaks volumes of amazing team we had!

The sun causes major injuries to Vlad. How did you design and created this effect?
In pre-production I worked with the Framestore Art Department to conceive how our vampires would react to sunlight. We wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before as well as adhering to the PG13 rating. Instead of literal burning and charring we worked toward the idea the sunlight would reveal the pale creature underneath the human veneer rather than any blackening. In a similar fashion to the transmutation we also wanted the effect to have a more fluid quality rather than dry and flaky – as the skin peeled it would move away from the sun, as if blown by a solar wind.

We approached the effect in two ways. For the close up shots of Vlad’s face being ‘burnt’ a tight face track was required using a high res model of Luke Evans’ head. Our cloth team created ripped geometry – where and when the patches peeled off being controlled by animated texture maps. The cloth sim then drove a fluid simulation. The fluid was made to look very viscous and the cloth made to look more fluid. There was a lot of detail which was also often played out in slow motion. The peeling surface revealed a pale rendered skin underneath which we detailed with sub surface veining.

In wider shots the burnt areas were animated texture maps with Nuke particles being used to create the fine stream of skin flying off the surface. In both cases we careful applied varying forces to keep the skin peel flying away from the source light.

Can you explain more about this effects that we see more at the end of the movie?
At the climax of the movie Vlad exposes himself and his brood of vampires to sunlight. This entailed a more progressed version of the sunlight burn effect – disintegrating the vampires almost completely. The sun also reveals the full Dracula ‘Ekimmu’ that Vlad had become.

Both effects were again conceived in the Framestore Art Department. The look of the final vampire was one of the most challenging as it is something that has been seen in many films over the years. We started by collating images of every vampire that had gone before from Max Schreck and Bela Lugosi to BLADE and TWILIGHT, so we knew what not to do. We settled on a bald, translucent visage with the vampiric feeding system visible underneath the skin – the logic being that as they can’t be exposed to sunlight the skin would be anaemic and almost see through. Gary wanted there to be a lot of design and detail in the vein patterns that would appear during feeding as well as engravings in the teeth and skull – we referenced fractals, as these are shapes that appear in nature, to arrive at the finished look.

To complete the final shots we created a high resolution skull covered in detailed engravings. Combined with layers of muscle and the teeth this would be seen as subsurface detail through the surface of the skin. Our look dev artists used Lychees as a reference for this translucency – how much you can see their dark core through the flesh was similar to the thickness we were looking for in the vampire skin. We sculpted Vlad’s face to be gaunter in these shots so that it really felt that a surface layer had been peeled away. Our comp artists combined these renders with the simulated face peel, rendered armour and CG environment to create three beautiful looking shots – for the first two we integrated Luke’s real eyes to make sure we kept the subtlety of his performance but the third was full CG.

For the vampire deaths we had to tread the line between what looked cool and what was acceptable for the film’s rating. As an extension of the sunlight burn effects we wanted the creatures to disintegrate in a liquid, tar-like fashion. All of the key vampires in the shots were Cyber scanned and texture photographed during the shoot. We built their digital versions to the level of detail required in these single shots – some full screen and the others lower resolution background. Gary also wanted a mummy-like husk left behind – this was modelled based upon various online references and was the same for each vampire. Tight body tracks were again required for each character. Clothing was pre-shattered before being exploded with nCloth – an animated map controlling where it burst. FX artists bound this cloth to the mummy husk and a baked skeleton model with layers of liquid simulated in our fLush fluid system. The pipeline was designed to be easily art directed which can often be difficult with simulation. All of these layers, plus some FX smoke and CG environment, were composited together in Nuke – there was a lot of careful grading needed to make sure we weren’t too gory and there were some fiddly transitions from the in-plate characters to their digital counterparts.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
At the end of a battle scene we called Vlad Vs a Thousand we see Vlad throw a sword which embeds itself in a Turkish soldier. The camera then locks on to the sword and we travel in slow motion with it as the victim falls to the ground. In the sword’s reflection and in the background we see Vlad continuing to run through Turks whilst also turning into bats. A version of this shot was in Gary’s pitch reel for the movie and everybody was very keen to have a version of it in the movie.

From the shoot-planning stage through to the final shot execution I would say it was the most conceptually complex thing we did on the show and certainly caused a few sleepless nights. I was keen to try and make it look like something that could be physically shot rather than an impossible CG move. To this end we shot a very low-fi test on an iPhone with the Stunt Co-ordinator, Buster Reeves, to get everyone’s sign off on what we were going to film.

With the Second Unit we shot multiple plates of our 120 Turk army extras charging towards the camera to serve as the background. We then shot Luke Evans as Vlad slaying his victims, plus the stunt performers acting out their deaths without him as we had the added complication seeing Vlad in real-time whilst everybody else is in slow motion. For the final shoot component we rigged a Red Epic camera to the chest of one of the stunt performers as he fell to the ground with camera looking at his face and then his feet – this gave us the POV and reflection of our hero Turk into whom the sword is stuck.

In post we first blocked out the shot in Nuke – stitching together all of the live action plates and working out a camera move. This scene was then passed back to CG where we blocked in the bat flocks and sword. In parallel our digital army assets were being built and as we became more confident that they held up to close scrutiny, more and more of the plate elements got replaced with digital ones. This gave us more flexibility to choreograph the background action and the ability to create a smooth transition as we follow the flying sword into the Turk soldier and lock onto its movement.

We started on this shot very early in the post schedule and it was one of the last to finish.

What do you keep from this experience?
It was great to be part of the team bringing the film to life from early pre-production through to the delivery of the final shots. I really enjoy collaborating with so many artists and of course the film makers, studio and director and see our early concepts and ideas come to life in the finished movie.

How long have you worked on this show?
I worked on the show for nearly 18 months from early pre-production through to final VFX delivery.

How many shots have you done?
Framestore delivered nearly 700 shots for the finished movie.

What was the size of your team?
We had a team of about 250 people working across both sites at Framestore.

What is your next project?
I am reading a few scripts but nothing confirmed as of yet. As Creative Director for Framestore’s Film division I’m enjoying working with our Supervision team and artists planning the road ahead – it’s going to be an exciting year!

A big thanks for your time.


Framestore: Dedicated page about DRACULA UNTOLD on Framestore website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2014


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