Framestore delivers more than 700 VFX shots for Universal’s ‘Dracula Untold,’ including CG environments, CG battle scenes and millions of CG bats, as well as look development and character animation for the film’s central character, Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler.
Framestore’s Christian Manz was the overall VFX Supervisor for Universal’s Dracula Untold, overseeing a total of 740 visual effects shots for the film.
Working under Glen Pratt in the London studio and Ivan Moran in Montreal, Framestore artists created more than 700 effects for the film, including CG environments, CG battle scenes and millions of CG bats, as well as look development and character animation for the film’s central character, Vlad Tepes, also known as Vlad the Impaler.
Director Gary Shore was keen to avoid the well-trodden gothic vampire story and instead ground the film in the history of the man Bram Stoker took as inspiration for Dracula. That historical backdrop required the use of fully CG shots, with Framestore creating the environment and the action staged within it.
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 armor was recreated in CG too to allow the effects of sunlight to take its toll across his whole body.
Dracula Untold also gave Framestore a chance to work on battle sequences. “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,” Lambert says. “It was fun to be able to evaluate different crowd software and start staging shots.”
Having worked with it already on commercials, the Framestore team elected 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,” Lambert says. “Many of the features we’re now seeing in the latest version have come as a result of our crowd team requesting them.”
One big battle takes place on the doorstep 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 audiences first see the castle in some all-CG establishing shots, the lovingly constructed asset is in ruins. Framestore’s FX team did much of the destruction, fitting bricks to the shape of the castle and turning them into a rigid body dynamics simulation, and then launching 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.
A distinctive, rapid camera move takes the audience through the external destruction and into the castle, where a newly powerful Vlad waits. The sequence is fully CG up until the plate of Vlad, which had to be carefully integrated into the CG environment. The castle exterior and interior were custom made 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.
The huge battle Vlad walks into next was one of Framestore’s 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,” says Moran. “The mid-ground, the background and even the floor are CG.”
The blue-screen footage was graded to match night time shots so it would integrate into the dark sequence Framestore was 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.
“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 Manz. “Instead we went with the idea that he could turn into a number of bats that would move like a comet.”
A rig was body-tracked onto a person’s armor 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 clothes 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, viewers are left with just the FX and animation bats.
At one point the bats are assembled into a huge swirling cloud that twists tornado-like above the CG monastery as the Turkish army approaches. Conducted by Vlad like an orchestra, the bats form a gigantic hand that plunges into the CG valley environment to plow through the soldiers.
“We shot four cranes at the corners of the quarry and a Spyder cam that could zip across and follow the army,” Manz explains, “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 percent of it was replaced with CG.”
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.
Framestore’s 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.
“Gary Shore wanted the armor to react as the stake got closer and initially we weren’t quite sure whether that should be cloth, fluid or rigid,” Li says. “It needed to be destructive, so you could see the layers underneath the armor, and our FX artists came up with a leafy, radial vortex, like hot air blasting off paint.”
Working with armor assets created in London, the Montreal team modelled and tracked the armor before passing it to FX to run the simulation for the destruction across the different layers. The team then had to combine that with destruction with close-up bat transformation, blending the bats in with the scales of the armor to create a seamless transition.
Sunlight -- a vampire’s foil -- helped to produce some of the 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 Manz.
Three levels were used to create the liquid explosions. 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.
“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,” Manz concludes. “We’ve really extended our toolset.”