Ellen Wolff reveals how ILM was pushed to the digital limit in reimagining the Universal monsters for Van Helsing.
If ever there was a creature feature, Universal Pictures Van Helsing is it. Universals monster hall of fame is on full display in this phantasmagorical adventure Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Dracula and his flying vampire brides and Dr. Jekylls evil alter ego, Mr. Hyde. Writer-director Stephen Sommers, who scored big for Universal with The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, took full advantage of the franchise characters in the studios vaults to fashion his take on the legendary monster-hunter Van Helsing. To bring those creatures to life, he also tapped some of the best in the businesses of makeup design, stunt work and visual effects, including the talents at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
ILM animation supervisor Daniel Jeannette was a key collaborator on this film, having previously worked with Summers on both Mummy movies. Stephen always wants to push the limits of what can be done, practically as well as digitally, says Jeannette. Thats always been the case, and it was even more so on this project.
While the story of Van Helsing had been tackled previously by others, Sommers steered clear of those influences. At the inception, recalls Jeannette, Stephen asked us to help him visualize the way the characters would look. He challenged us to come up with something different, rather than echoing what had been done before. ILMs art department came up with tons of concepts until Stephen recognized what he wanted.
Real vs. Virtual
The films monster menagerie fell largely into ILMs domain, except for Frankenstein, which was designed by creature concept artist Patrick Tatopolous and makeup designer Greg Cannom and performed by actor Shuler Hensley. Of course, there had to be a point where Frankensteins skull popped open to reveal the inner workings of his brain, and ILMs animators were happy to oblige. But Jeannette says, Most the work we did on Frankenstein was digital stunts things that wouldnt be viable for anybody in a suit to do.
Not surprisingly, there was extensive use of digital doubles in Van Helsing, especially for the title character played by Hugh Jackman. In fact all the actors were cyberscanned and photographed extensively for texture references. One example of how this was used, says Jeannette, is a shot that starts with Van Helsing on top of a six-team horse-drawn coach thats running towards a canyon. A vampire bride flies in and picks him off and he does a 360º flip and falls in between the horses. This starts as a digital double, transitions to live action in the same shot and winds up being close up on his face. We had to recreate every little article of clothing that Hugh was wearing so there was a lot of cloth simulation. The coach then arrives at a broken bridge over the canyon and the six horses jump over the break the whole thing is keyframe animation.
With sequences like that, extensive previsualization was required, notes Jeannette. Previs was done for all the sequences that Stephen knew would require a significant amount of visual effects work. The initial previsualizations, executed in Maya, were done by freelancers working in Sommers production office. Jeannette notes, These animatics were all rendered to capture the essence of what the scenes would be. It was great. We literally stuck to a lot of that when we shot the plates.
Sommers, however, is famous for making scenes more complex during production. So while the animatics guided much of the orchestration of the live-action filming, Jeannette observes, Animatics are just stepping-stones Stephen always adds more while hes shooting elements.
Just as the previs helped the live-action crew during plate photography, ILMs preliminary animation also helped the actors see how their performances would need to dovetail with their digital doubles. Having preliminary animation blocked out was especially crucial for the sequence in which Draculas brides swoop down to attack the inhabitants of a village.
Life Imitates Art
The brides, with sleeves that transform into manta-ray wings, were done as CG characters in long shots. For closer shots, actresses were filmed on wires against bluescreen. Jeannette explains, Scott Squires was the effects supervisor in charge of these particular characters and I recommended strongly that we not do fully-CG brides except when they were flying far from camera. But theres a significant amount of shots where they come in close and deliver lines. So we decided to combine CG bodies and live-action heads. This wasnt the first time thats been done, but the process by which we did it was different.
For starters, the plate shots of the village attack were notably complex. Cinematographer Allen Daviau had used a remotely-operated camera on a Cablecam rig high above the ground to get very dynamic shots from the flying brides POVs. Once Sommers rough-cut of the plate photography was scanned into ILMs computers, the camera movements were recreated and the entire sequence was blocked out in animation. So when Squires team arrived at the bluescreen stage to film the brides facial performances, the animation showed the actresses what they needed to do.
We shot 50 hero shots of the actresses against bluescreen, recalls Jeannette. They were suspended several feet above the floor, being helped by stunt people as they pretended to fly. They based their performance on the animation that wed created.
What made this bluescreen shoot unusual was that in addition to capturing the actresses facial performances, ILM motion-captured their body movements at the same time. Our motion capture department devised a suit with markers that emit infra-red light, which the motion picture camera didnt see, explains Jeannette. That gave us the live performances of the actresses, and also the data to animate their CG bodies. It was perfect, because everything was captured at the same time.
The realism of the shoot was enhanced with wind machines. Weve got shots with the brides flying at camera and the wind pushing their hair and wrapping around their arms and heads. The interaction of the CG bodies and this live-action hair added to the realism.
Keeping it Lively
While Van Helsing is full of impossibilities, ILM encouraged Sommers to get as much reality in camera as possible. For example, notes Jeannette, When Van Helsing was lifted by a bride above the village, he was physically lifted on wires. We had to correlate the keyframe animation of the brides exactly to the physics of actual motion, so it looks more real. It was good for us to know how to tie in the style of our keyframe animation to what the actors physically could or could not do.
Being faithful to live moments also guided ILMs approach to the transformation scenes, such as The Wolf Man turning into beast right before camera. Jeannette says, Stephen challenged us to come up with a new way of seeing a human transform into a werewolf. Stephen wanted this transformation to be a single shot he didnt want to cut away, he didnt want to cheat. He wanted to blow the audiences minds by having something different.
Rather than have wolf hair grow out through the skin, ILMs approach was to have the werewolf hair split the skin and force itself out as if the monster was bursting out from within the man. Jeannette encouraged Sommers to keep filming the actor throughout the entire transformation sequence so that ILMs animators could use his physical performance as reference. We wanted to keep components of the actor as long as possible while transforming his body with CG. We used that to inform our keyframe animation of the werewolf. It was just a matter of sculpting the muscles changing over the live action and blending the two together. We have several of these hybrid shots.
To facilitate this process, ILM rolled video witness cameras whenever the motion of an actor was key to getting an effect. In addition to the live-action camera, those witness cameras would inform, from other angles, what the actors body was doing, explains Jeannette. Most of the time when you track a performers motion from one camera point of view its hard to know how far away from camera certain limbs are, and how close to camera they come. Its always an approximation, and that can lead to inaccuracies. Also, if the camera is framed really tight on the face and then pulls away, you dont know whats happening to the rest of the body before its revealed. So those witness cameras informed us about the physics of an actors performance and we could accurately recreate it. Preserving the realism of an actors performance and enhancing it with CG technology makes him look like he is really going through those contortions.
This approach was applied during live-action filming, not against blue-screen. Jeannette asserts This allowed us to get to a very realistic representation of an actors performance without motion capturing it. We also got all the interactive lighting from the set. We did that every time we had a major interaction between a computer graphic character and a live action actor.
Draculas transformation was based on the same principle, according to Jeannette. Witness cameras helped us understand physically what the actor was doing, and then we took over with keyframe animation. Draculas outfit transforms into his wings. He wears a long jacket that peels away and becomes a 24-foot wingspan. Hes a gigantic creature. We went for bat-looking wings, because the way he had to move was really different from the way the brides moved. They were powerful but elegant, while Dracula was more about brute force.
The Dracula character, based on the nature of what he had to do, had to be keyframe-animated. That was very hard for us on the animation level, because it needed to stay within the realistic style of motion in the rest of the picture. So we used a lot of references. For a big hand-to-hand fight that Dracula has we shot a lot of reference footage of myself fighting with people on the crew! We used those references to create the fight choreography.
Confronting Mr. Hyde
The nine-foot-tall Mr. Hyde was, believes Jeannette, probably one of the most complex CG human characters that ILM has done. He has hair and a beard that we had to simulate. He smokes a cigar and has an obscene way of spitting. Stephen decided that Hyde wouldnt be a monster but more like a giant man, which made everything more complex for us. Because of the nature of what happens with skin, we realized quickly that we had to resort to doing a full CG-animated character as opposed to trying to do a combination of live-action prosthetics. Hyde has fat on his belly that jiggles like everyones problem in life!
Mr. Hyde may have been all-CG, but ILM videotaped actor, Robbie Coltrane (the giant Hagrid from the Harry Potter films), reading his lines. Jeannette says, We had to deal with Hydes facial animation, so when we recorded Robbie Coltrane we shot three different angles of his face. His videotaped performance was the foundation for our keyframe animation. Theres a confrontation where Hyde mocks Van Helsing, and we needed to preserve the realism of his action so he didnt look like a cartoon.
Van Helsing will be recognized for its monster character animation, but underlying so much of this work was the clever application of simulation software. Its evident in the extensive virtual costume simulation, but it also figured heavily in monster transformations like The Wolf Man. Jeannette explains, We used our cloth software to simulate skin ripping instead of skin simulation software. That gave us more control as to where we wanted the tears on the skin to happen. Typically, youd have to pre-score skin before you did anything to a shot. We wanted the flexibility to change that on the fly. So basically we re-wrote our cloth engine to be able to support that.
ILM used, as Jeannette succinctly puts it, Every trick in the book. The studio employed a variety of environmental simulations to add atmosphere to virtual environments and to cover the hand-offs between practical and digital effects. Set extensions, miniatures, photogrammetry this show contained a little bit of everything.
A Final Favorite
ILMs team members undoubtedly have several favorite shots in Van Helsing, but for Jeannette, one in particular sums up the challenges of this show. Its a scene where Van Helsing is snatched off the horse-drawn coach by one of the brides. She carries him 30 feet into the air. Were flying with them until he manages to grab one of her wings and pull her down. Shes losing altitude, and in order to avoid crashing, she drops him and he falls back onto the lead horse of the coach. That shot epitomizes what we have done. We photographed the plate in the forest outside Prague. Then back at ILM we scanned, match moved and animated what Van Helsing and the bride would do. From that animation we went back to the stage and asked Hugh Jackman, hanging on a wire against bluescreen, to basically act out the animation. Then we took that bluescreen element back into the computer. We re-animated the bride to match Hughs action so we could go back to the stage and shoot the bluescreen/motion capture element of the bride. Then we brought that back into the computer and tied everything together. So weve got a bluescreen element of Van Helsing thats being manipulated by a CG body that was itself a bluescreen motion capture animation. Weve done that multiple times in this movie. I think Van Helsing was one of the most complicated shows to go through ILM in a long, long time.
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the Web site CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.