Dracula Untold

September 2014

"I loved working with the team at Framestore. They delivered consistently with every creative challenge. From concept to the final shots, they were exceptional." Dracula Untold director Gary Shore

Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold isn’t your typical vampire story. There was a determination to do something different right from the start – beginning in a pre-production office coated in a what-not-to-do wallpaper of every vampire from every movie ever. The film is the story of Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler, or Dracula. The untold story how a man with a famous name prevented another, Mehmed the Conqueror, from living up to his own.

Framestore’s Christian Manz was the overall VFX Supervisor on the show, with Glen Pratt in our London studio and Ivan Moran in Montreal supervising 710 of its 740 total shots. Christian got involved early on, while working on another Universal project. “I got a phone call from the studio while I was in the final few months of 47 Ronin,” he explains, “so with Framestore’s art department I started preparing a package of mood-boards based on the script before we met Gary Shore when he came to visit us in our London office with the film’s producers”

Shore was keen to avoid the well-trodden gothic vampire story and instead ground it in the history of the man Bram Stoker took as inspiration for Dracula. That historical backdrop meant a new challenge for Framestore – armies fighting huge battles – and some beautiful scenery and towering castles for them to be staged in. Grounded in history it might be, but the film still soars into supernatural territory – giant hand-like swarms of bats that can sweep soldiers aside, human-to-bat transmutations, echolocation vision and some truly gruesome deaths in a litany of highly varied challenges.

Many of those challenges required fully CG shots, with Framestore creating the environment and the action staged within it. “There isn’t a live action bat in the movie, and some of the locations and battles weren’t shot either. We were shooting in a set of warehouses in Belfast, so when you see this expansive army in the final images you kind of forget," says Christian. “One of the biggest challenges of the show was that there’s hardly anything that’s the same throughout and so we needed to take a lot of different effects to an extremely high level for only a handful of shots each. That huge variety meant there was a lot of design involved.”

Spoiler alert: This is an in-depth VFX breakdown so please don't read on if you haven't seen Dracula Untold yet. 

The construction of an environment - from bluescreen and photographic plates to the final shot

Designing a vampire

That design work included developing a unique vampire. The process began at the visual development stage during which Framestore's Art Department worked for months to come up with an original design for Vlad. Myriad designs were considered before finally landing on the transparent flesh that ended up in the film.

“We didn’t want Luke to sit there with just pointy teeth and pale skin. The idea was that there’s an inner creature under his skin,” says CG Supervisor Ben Lambert. "Whenever he is feeding or angry, or when he’s being hit by sun, the human pigment disappears and it’s revealed, whether through anger or contact with sunlight."

No practical make-up was used for Vlad’s transformation, with all stages of his ‘vamping out’ done with visual effects. The opaque white subsurface underneath his skin was designed to resemble an advanced human skull rather than something too monstrous, with intricate channels for blood to flow from the teeth. The final look was conveyed through shaders and look dev on top of the plate photography of Vlad. At his most vampiric, with his human-self stripped away by sunlight, Vlad is completely computer generated, with Luke Evans’ performance body tracked meticulously and used to inspire the animation. His armour was recreated in CG too to allow the effects of sunlight to take its toll across his whole body.

Going to war

The movie gave Framestore a chance to get its hands on some types of work it’s film team aren’t known for, particularly battles. “We hadn’t done crowds for a while, so there was a nice blank canvas element to it,” says Ben. “We knew the final output would have to feed into fMob, our proprietary crowd tool, and be rendered in Arnold, but the front end of actually making the crowds was open. It was fun to be able to evaluate different crowd software and start staging shots.”

Having worked with it already on commercials we decided to use Golaem. “In terms of film use it’s in its infancy but what’s great about it is they were really open to suggestions and we had a really close relationship with them throughout the show. Many of the features we’re now seeing in the latest version have come as a result of our crowd team requesting them.”

With that software support and the ease of use that comes from the software being embedded inside Maya, artists could be trained up very quickly. Our R&D team integrated it into the interface of fMob and artists from different disciplines such as layouts, environments and animation could learn it and be running shots within a week or two.

“The larger scale shots with crowd behaviour changes that Montreal did really pushed Golaem’s functionality at the time, so it’s great to have helped improve it and it’s a good base for us to build upon in the future. It was a fun process and once we saw the first crowd renders of them all marching, with the flags and their armour glistening in the sun, it was really encouraging to see the route we took worked,” says Ben.

Castle Dracula

One of those big battles takes place on the door-step of Castle Dracula, which was an entirely digital construction. “Universal gave us rough concept model that we used as a starting point to work up into the different elements we needed,” explains Montreal CG Supervisor JP Li. “This included adding detail for the Great Hall, building the portcullis and corridor, adding the flying buttresses and battlements. These were all built in sections, which allowed us to up-res areas as needed. For reference we looked at castles from across Europe, which helped us get the age and detail right.”

Not long after we first see the castle in some all-CG establisher shots our lovingly constructed asset is in ruins. Our FX team did much of the destruction, fitting bricks to the shape of the castle and turning them into a rigid body dynamics simulation. We could then simply launch cannon balls at the castle to see which produced the best damage. Multiple layers of dust and debris were added, while the Modelling team took areas of the castle that weren’t being destroyed on screen and roughed it up with craters and broken battlements.

The Castle Dracula model with added destruction (top) and in the final shot (bottom)

A distinctive, rapid camera move takes the audience through all the external destruction and into the castle, almost following a canon-ball on its way into the crumbling building. Waiting for it is a newly powerful Vlad, ready to take on the Turks in a sequence dubbed ‘Vlad vs a thousand.’

It’s fully CG up until the plate of Vlad, which had to be carefully integrated into the CG environment. The castle exterior and interior were bespoke for the shot and composited from 35 separate rendered passes that included FX smoke, fog and debris. Elements such as rocks and grass were made with a high level of detail so they would register as the camera travels past at high speed.

Vlad vs a thousand

The huge battle Vlad walks into next was one of our biggest undertakings, with plate footage blended in with a CG environment and army. “To go from an actor and some extras running around against a blue-screen in the day time to the final night-time shot with the army streaming into Vlad, the spikes, fire and smoke is quite impressive. The mid-ground, the background and even the floor are CG” says Montreal VFX Supervisor Ivan Moran.

The blue-screen footage was graded to match night time shots so it would integrate into the dark sequence we were creating. Live action soldiers were used in the foreground, but the majority of the thousand, and all of them in the wide shots, were simulated by the team in London and composited in Montreal.

The action switches to a unique perspective for one of the film’s many distinctive visual moments. As Vlad throws a sword into a soldier’s chest we see the action reflected in the blade. “The starting point for this was one of the shots Gary Shore used to pitch the movie,” says Christian. “I needed to work with the stunt co-ordinator to work out how we were going to shoot something for it, starting off on an iPhone with a wooden sword and a fight choreographed in the background. We strapped a Red Epic camera to a stuntman and got him to spin around and fall over several times. Then we got the shot of Luke Evans the sword and the elements of him reflected in it. Apart from that, everything in the sword and the blade itself is CG – the guy hit by the sword and all the people in the background were all replaced.” 

The hand of bats

Being heavily outnumbered is less of a problem with vampire powers and we put a new spin on the classic ability to turn into a bat here. “We were very keen early on to lose the idea that a man could turn into a single small bat seen in other films, because the stages between just don’t work,” says Christian. “Instead we went with the idea that he could turn into a number of bats that would move like a comet.”

Above: a concept for the bat transmutations. Below: the bluescreen plate and final shot.

A rig was body-tracked onto a person’s armour or clothing and static bats were then mapped onto it, essentially creating a bat suit. Animators could then decide when a certain bat would unfold from the rig, so that the bats would be released at different times as Vlad ran. The FX team would then use the trail to interpolate the bulk of the bats, increasing them to a greater number than could be practically handled by animation.

The next stage was to add a tearing aspect to the transmutation, as if the cloths are shredding into bat shapes. This was done in two ways, by adding a filler cloth simulation to complement the bats and add a bit of density, and by turning the bodytrack itself into a creature effect (CFX) object that would rip apart as the bats unfolded. Gradually, with the person painted out of the shot, you’re left with just the FX and animation bats.

Our bat work didn’t stop at transmutations. At one point they are assembled into a huge swirling cloud that twists and flocks, tornado like, above our CG monastery as the Turkish army approaches. Conducted by Vlad like an orchestra, they form a gigantic hand that plunges into our valley environment to plough through the soldiers.

A handful of the millions of CG bats you'll see in Dracula Untold

As you might expect, it was a complicated sequence – 10,000 soldiers being attacked by a cloud of bats in a completely CG environment, viewed from some looping, diving camera perspectives. But like Vlad vs a Thousand, it started off on set with just 120 men in armour.

“We shot four cranes at the corners of the quarry and a Spyder cam that could zip across and follow the army,” explains Christian, “but later, as we became more confident in our CG soldiers and the shots became more complicated we replaced more and more, to the point where 90% of it was replaced with CG.” The live-action soldiers generally fill the foreground in close-up shots, while our CG crowds fill out the rest of the Turkish horde.

“Hand of Bats had some of our crazier camera moves,” says Ben, “there were some plate elements shot, but certainly nothing like the corkscrew motion we wanted, so we knew it had to be an almost fully CG shot.”

There are over a million bats in the cloud, which like the transmutations was created using a blend of FX and hero-animated bats. In the wider shots the balance is skewed towards FX bats that could be directed by simple blocking animation shapes, whereas in the close-ups the bias is more towards animation in the foreground, with the FX bats filling the background. FX provided a smoke layer that sat within the swarm and built up as the shot went on and more debris was picked up.

“The animators really brought the foreground to life,” says Ben. “They typically placed and animated 10-20, but sometimes up to a hundred, bats over the live action soldiers, who had to be body-tracked precisely. When balancing the two processes we had to make sure they had the right density but were recognisable as bats without looking like noise. Once we started adding more FX bats to the background we needed to make sure the hero work in the foreground complemented that.”

Concept art for the hand

With a clear vision of the hand forming and pushing through the army from concepts and the pre-vis, we knew we needed to art direct rather than simulate the sequence. Wire stunts gave the team an idea of how far in the air a soldier could be flipped up, while the behaviour of the soldiers acting being attacked gave a good indication of what the bats would do. With there already being a highly fantastical element to the cloud of bats, we didn’t want to push the action to an unbelievable level.

“Layering up all those levels of bats and compositing them was an amazing feat. There’s a lot of rotoscoping and integration needed. While the army being smashed needed the simulation of the soldiers, their weapons, all the FX on their cloth. It was a big task as well as the generated environment and definitely one of the biggest technical undertakings on the show,” says Christian.

As well as those big VFX sequences, there were more small but unique sequences like the cannon ball POV and sword reflection. The handful of echolocation shots, effectively a POV view for the vampires based on how a bat senses its environment, called for another bespoke look. We tried a novel approach at first, synching up multiple cameras in our Capture Lab and filming someone before running the data through Photo Scan, which is normally used for static prop capture, to create a model for every frame. It produced the kind of scan that wouldn’t normally be much use, but after some warping around it was exactly what we wanted.

The impracticality of replicating that on set meant we went down a different route, but it was a successful experiment, because the look (imagine a more organic version of Radiohead’s House of Cards video) remained. It was recreated by shooting normally then feeding a body-track into Nuke with a point cloud controlled by lots of noise fields and maps. Many of the shots in these sequences are full CG, so we applied the look to animated elements such as foxes, deer and people, as well as simulated crowds and an entire forest environment. 

Killing the batman

Our Montreal team had its own distinct vampire POV look to create – the dizzying, warped way Vlad experiences his surroundings as he’s exposed to a cascade of silver coins, many of which are CG themselves. We also see the reaction to another classic killer – the wooden stake – in a macro close-up. “Gary Shore wanted the armour to react as the stake got closer and initially we weren’t quite sure whether that should be cloth, fluid or rigid,” says JP LI. “It needed to be destructive, so you could see the layers underneath the armour, and our FX artists came up with a leafy, radial vortex, like hot air blasting off paint.”

Concept: The wrong end of a stake

“We got the asset for the armour from London, modelled and tracked it before passing it to FX to run the simulation for the destruction across the different layers,” continues JP. The team then had to combine that with destruction with close-up bat transformation, blending the bats in with the scales of the armour to create a seamless transition.

“It’s a perfect example of where Montreal did two shots of very bespoke work that fitted perfectly into a sequence that was otherwise done by London – just like London did with the sword shot during Vlad vs aThousand. It’s always tricky to cut between facilities from shot to shot, but we always made sure we could make assets rendered in Montreal look exactly the same as if they were rendered in London from very early on. It was great to achieve consistency across the Atlantic.”

The final vampire foil is sunlight, which produced some of our more gruesome shots. “We came up with the idea that the effect would be liquid based, a tar-like substance vampires turn into when hit by sunlight that always travels away from the sun. Other films had done the charring thing and there was a creative drive to do something different,” says Christian.

Under the hood those liquid explosions were done with three levels. At the top a clothing layer was pre-shattered, with a map painted for where it would burst, before being exploded with nCloth by the CFX department. Complementing that at the very lowest level is a mummy, effectively the husk of a vampire that gets left behind. Linking those two layers is an FX layer of gloop and fluid. The FX team would take the clothing, the mummy tracks and a baked skeleton model and knit the cloth and the mummy together with the liquid, which was made in our propriety fluid system fLush.

“It was nice to have the CFX and the FX teams working so tightly together and complementing each other’s work. It had to be carefully staged, particularly in one shot when there are four deaths on screen at once, so we had to art direct the CFX and FX in stages to make sure our effects didn’t get in the way of the performance.”

Dracula Untold posed Framestore with a huge variety of new challenges, even more than we can describe here, but it was great to show we can take on unfamiliar types of work and flourish. “Having Gravity already in the back catalogue we’ll come out of 2014 having done a lot things Framestore isn’t normally known for – armies, battles and big environments for Dracula, great character work and more environments for Guardians of the Galaxy, plus Paddington and then Jupiter Ascending to come. We’ve really extended our toolset,” says Christian. 

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