Dracula Untold isn’t your typical vampire story. Director Gary 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 – Vlad the Impaler.
Framestore’s Christian Manz was the overall VFX Supervisor on the show, with Glen Pratt in the London studio and Ivan Moran in Montreal supervising 710 of its 740 total shots. The historical backdrop meant a new challenge for Framestore, creating huge battles as well as beautiful scenery and towering castles for them to be staged
Grounded in history it might be, but the film still soars into supernatural territory, with visual effects including 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.
Christian was involved from early on, while still working on another Universal project, 47 Ronin. After getting the call from the studio he started preparing a package of mood-boards based on the script with Framestore’s Art Department before meeting Gary Shore in Belfast, where pre-production and the shoot were based.
The determination to do something different with the legend began in a pre-production office coated in a what-not-to-do wallpaper of every vampire from every movie ever. The Art Department helped determine the look for much of the film, including Vlad in his vampire form.
No practical make-up was used for the transformation, with all stages of his ‘vamping out’ done with visual effects. An opaque white subsurface underneath his skin was designed to resemble an advanced human skull, 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 Luke Evans. At his most vampiric, with his human-self stripped away by sunlight, Vlad is completely computer generated, with Evans’ performance body tracked meticulously and used to inspire the animation.
Bats and battles
The movie gave Framestore a chance to get its hands on some types of work it hadn’t done before – particularly battles. One of them, dubbed ‘Vlad vs a thousand’, takes place on the door-step of Castle Dracula, which was an entirely digital construction.
The battle itself was one of our biggest undertakings, with plate footage blended in with a CG environment and thousand-strong CG army. “To go from an actor and some extras running around against a blue-screen in the day to the final night-time shot with the army streaming into Vlad, the spikes, fire and smoke was quite impressive. The mid-ground, the background and even the floor are CG” says Montreal VFX Supervisor Ivan Moran.
Key to Vlad’s vampire powers is the classic ability to turn into a bat. “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.”
The bat work didn’t stop at there. At one point they are assembled into a huge swirling cloud that twists and flocks, tornado like, above the CG monastery as the Turkish army approaches. Conducted by Vlad like an orchestra, they form a gigantic hand that plunges into the valley environment to plough through the soldiers.
There are over a million bats in the cloud, which 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.
Bats and battles were just the beginning of Framestore's work – they also created a flood of visually unique effects, often for only a handful of shots each, including echolocation, a cannonball POV, action reflected in swords and vampire reactions to sunlight, stakes and silver. Distinct shots like these were often created by London and placed directly within a sequence created in Montreal, and vice versa, meaning efficient multi-site work was more important than ever.
“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,” says Ivan.
“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.