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'Dark Shadows' Gets Burtonvision

Go behind the scenes of Tim Burton's latest kitschy reinvention with Method and The Senate.

Check out a compilation of 6 clip sets, which expand on some of the images included in the article, pairing live action plates with finished shots showcasing some of Method Studios stellar vfx work on Dark Shadows. Only on AWNtv!

You just knew that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp would get a hold of Dark Shadows some day. The cultish vampire soap was tailor made for their kitschy, retro fun. And Method and The Senate were primary contributors in fulfilling Burton's distinctive vampire reinvention. In the past, filmmakers have referred to it as Burtonvision.

Vancouver-based Method (under the VFX supervision of Angus Bickerton ) delivered the ethereal Collinsport (circa 1750 and 1970) along with a CG train and a funky hall of mirrors inside Collinwood Manor. The London-based Senate, meanwhile, extended the interior of Collinwood Manor, along with creating full CG environments (including a harbor), ghost VFX and creature animation.

All images © 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures. Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Collinsport, which is supposed to be an East Coast fishing port, was built around the water tank at Pinewood in London. Angel Bay Cannery, owned by the evil Angelique (Eva Green), is on one side of the cove. And on the other side is the Collins Cannery, which is derelict. The crew built a basic set but it had to be nearly 20 feet off the ground because of the water tank.

"For us, the challenge was taking the design and the art department look and extending that into a bigger town," explains Method's VFX supervisor Mark Breakspear. "We created streets going off streets and buildings and made it look far more built up. And it wasn't a case of just doing matte paintings because you're moving in the camera and it's all 3D and you have to put it all together. We knew that we'd have to lidar the existing set so 4DMax helped us with that and we were able to build and manipulate our city from there. But because Barnabas Collins [Johnny Depp] exists in two time periods, you have to understand that it's the same town, yet laid out in the same configuration, and featuring different buildings. It worked remarkably well even though the buildings and landmarks have changed and developed over time. Living in British Columbia, you don't have to go far for texture reference heaven.”

"From Tim's point of view, you watch this movie and don't think that we filmed at Pinewood or on a set. He wanted you to think that we took over some seaside town and changed the name. We replaced all of the water in the tank with CG water and CG boats; we added seagulls everywhere; we had digital doubles off in the distance and CG cars to populate the streets so it has life."

Method also made a CG train (the '70s era silver Downeaster). They extended the platform in both directions, used lidar again and built the whole thing raw and full frame. "When you have a big CG build like that, unless it's a robot, everyone questions its authenticity," Breakspear continues. "It's got to feel completely real and fit in with a CG platform and digi-doubles. Method used Maya, Nuke and boujou throughout its work.

However, the hall of mirrors was tricky fun. In a scene in which Barnabas leads Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) through a secret passageway on the way to a hidden fortune of gold and silver, we notice that the vampire's reflection is missing in a twisting corridor full of mirrors. With her POV, she looks over at him and realizes that it's just a lamp hovering in the air as he's walking along. "It's funny but if you weren't looking for it, you wouldn't realize that he doesn't reflect because there's some weird quality about the shot," Breakspear suggests. "There were some big challenges because in some shots his reflection was obscuring her reflection and so we had to rebuild her reflection. But the methodology we chose was to build the entire corridor again in CG and re-project the right reflections where we wanted them and get rid of them where we didn't because we had control of the CG environment."

The Senate (under the VFX supervision of Anton Yri) remained onset during the shoot at Borehamwood and Pinewood (where Collinwood Manor sets were built) and documented with meticulous stills photography any textures, props or scenery that could prove useful later in post-production. "Our attendance at the shoot of the 1/3 scale Collinwood Manor, which was itself almost the size of a small house, was also crucial to ensure that camera moves and views would line up with the life size elements of the manor, which were shot several weeks previously," explains Yri.

Arguably The Senate's most complex shot was a sweeping camera move over an under-construction Collinwood Manor. Due to the camera move and required state of the manor, this shot had to be built completely from scratch. Starting with a basic art department model of the Manor, the 3D team had to start deconstructing it, removing roofs and walls and replacing them with wooden beams and the interior structure of the house. CG period scaffolding was then added to the exterior. An animating CG crane was also added to the foreground to add more dynamism to the shot. The Manor surrounds were created using a mixture of sea plates, matte paintings and model element shoots. "To add life to the scene, 18th century construction worker elements were then dotted around the various walkways," Yri adds. Similar techniques were also used for the following shot, as we slowly zoom back from the Manor, taking the viewpoint of the Collins family, situated on the ground gazing up at their new home.

The exterior of Collinwood Manor required considerable augmenting in a large number of shots. Top ups to the house, and extensions of the surrounding area were required for many different angles, at different times of day, in different states of disrepair and in one sequence, fully ablaze. Depending on the requirements of the shot, the missing parts of the Manor were created using either model elements -- sometimes projected onto basic geometry to cheat the angle --matte painted patches, again, projected onto geometry or high-res stills and sometimes a combination of all three.

The Senate was also required to develop a watery ghost effect for the specter of Josette (Bella Heathcote), Barnabas' lover from his previous life. Since Burton didn't want anything magical or ethereal, the Senate applied layers of simple 2D distortions, glows and subtle transparencies onto green screen elements of Josette, to create a more old-fashioned yet pretty ghostly effect. These ghostly elements were then placed on animating cards in 3D space, and comp'd into the various corridors of Collinwood Manor. Shots were enhanced by blending in various lighting passes, adding flickers to chandeliers and glows to walls, also projected onto cards in 3D space.

To make the ghost seem even creepier, the Senate created CG crabs that would crawl over her body when she's initially revealed; and even out of her mouth as she first speaks. Based on real crabs, once modeled, rigged and textured, the creatures were then intricately animated over the body of Josette, which had been tracked and mapped in 3D. Subtle interactions and shadows on her skin and clothing also helped to cement them in place

It's all part of Burtonvision.


Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (, a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (, which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 and features interviews with all six actors.

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Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.