Scott Jenkins descends on the new vampire and werewolf flick, Underworld, to uncover how this horror/action film mixes the old with the new.
This is the summer of monster battles, with Freddy battling Jason and now vampires in a war with Lycans or werewolves. Its a tradition that stretches back as far as Universals Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and looks to continue in 2004 with Van Helsing and Alien Vs. Predator.
But how do you make it interesting? How does a film about such a clash capture the audiences curiosity and still deliver the goods, especially with a budget of only $23 million?
With budgets for blockbusters like the Matrix sequels and Lord of the Rings well north of $100 million, a film working with less than that has to be imaginative about putting things on the screen. This level of imagination began in a conversation about werewolf films between two fans of the genre, director Len Wiseman and his friend Kevin Grevioux, who is a co-writer and plays the role of Raze in the film. If its the new werewolf film of the millennium, I want to see something different, says Wiseman.
Grevioux, who has a background in genetic engineering, chose to use science rather than mysticism as a basis for the monsters existence: I created a virus, which was the reason that vampires and werewolves became what they had finally become. I think that if you take it down to a genetic state then you can really explain things. If its about a genetic anomaly that creates these species or youre just dealing with a blood type that through the years has somehow been able to develop these species, then you can find ways to kill it. You can explore why silver affects this type of blood. Our vampires and werewolves are a little more grounded.
The process of creating the picture was greatly facilitated by Wisemans knowledge of exactly what he wanted and his ability to communicate that vision. Producer Gary Lucchesi explains: Len is a very eloquent guy. He comes from the world of production design, which I found rather interesting. He had apprenticed with Roland Emmerich and had worked at ILM. He was very committed to the atmosphere of the movie and felt that in a movie like Underworld, atmosphere was going to be a top priority in achieving what he wanted on screen.
These drawings were what got the star Kate Beckinsale interested in the film. Kate didnt want to take a look at this script based simply on the fact that it was a werewolf movie and she told us she wasnt interested, Wiseman said. But her agent sent her the script anyway with all my drawings.
Len had done these really fantastic drawings of Selene (Beckinsales character in the movie) and the werewolves, Beckinsale remembers. They were so cool and interesting and not old-fashioned gothic. There were really fresh and I thought, Wow! Thats interesting, and I read the script. Its not like a comic book where she does somersaults and isnt a real character. Shes flesh and blood.
A Mixture of the Old and the New
One very effective way of bringing a vision such as this to the screen was to look back at the visual effects of the past and bring them up to date, and to stay in-camera as much as possible. They felt the need for something tangible, something you could reach out and touch. The filmmakers first visited Budapest to absorb the dark, brooding, gothic vibe. They also wanted to distinguish their vampires and werewolves from the current glut of CG creature features. Where digital imaging of furry creatures can be difficult and expensive, a lower cost and more reliable method was available: using actors in sophisticated animatronic suits. For that task, they chose Patrick Tatopoulos.
Best known for his creation of the animatronic Godzilla for the American version of the film a mechanical creature more than 30-feet tall, the largest mechanical creature ever built. Tatopolous and his design team had previously collaborated with Wiseman when the director worked in the art department of that film as well as Stargate and Independence Day.
Tatopoulos and his team created a large number of life-sized werewolf maquettes, complete with minute details such as pores and hair follicles. The prosthetic suits were then constructed utilizing special stilts created by prosthetic limb manufacturers. The werewolves were designed to have 25 axes of rotation to give them lifelike movement and the look of an entire new breed of werewolf scary, but cool and hip. Exactly what Wiseman wanted.
Prosthetic makeup was also part of the mix. Scott Speedman, who plays med student Michael Corvin, went through hours in the makeup chair. It took five hours to put it on and one night it took seven people an hour and a half to get it off. Although the makeup crew was prepared for him to be bored and antsy, he says, It was a really interesting process to sit there and watch them do this amazing work on your body.
Framestore CFC London handled more than 150 digital effects shots under the supervision of Rob Duncan. These included a lot of wire-removal and bluescreen work the invisible effects. There was also 3D work involved, such as the digital ninja stars that some of the characters used. Luma Pictures added additional animation under the supervision of Payam Shohadai.
However, Duncan stresses Framestore's own transformation work, including Corvin's hybrid monster: "We worked on top of a live-action plate of the character in their human form, developing them into their 'beast' form," Duncan explains. Rather than morphing from plate to plate, they started with a human plate and ended with a CG creature.
Overall, Underworld is a stunning achievement, showing that its not the budget of the film; its the imagination behind it.
Scott Jenkins has been creating art on the computer since 1987. He has an extensive professional writing career, freelancing articles for print and online magazines. Especially interested in pushing the art of computers, he continued his career teaching and lecturing at schools, conventions and companies, on animation and compositing. Some of his clients include DreamWorks, Sega, Film Roman and Centropolis Special Effects. He is currently writing (digital) Compositing for New Riders and articles for Animation World Magazine. He is also freelancing as a writer and digital content creator.