Director Gary Shore’s Dracula Untold is set to be the first in Universal Pictures’ reboot of its famous monster franchises. In the film, Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) looks to save his family and his Transylvanian subjects from the threat of the Turkish Empire by seeking the power of a vampire. Once he wields such power, Vlad becomes almost unstoppable. Framestore, under the overall visual effects supervision of Christian Manz, was responsible for hundreds of shots in the film depicting Vlad in bat form battling the Turks, as well as several other vampire-y effects. We sat down in London with Framestore CG supervisor Ben Lambert to discuss the studio’s work.

Bat transformations

After seeking the help of Caligula (Charles Dance) - the master vampire - Vlad drinks some of that vampire’s blood. Afterwards, Vlad is able to transmutate into hordes of bats. Framestore produced concept art for both sides of the transformations, and then lookdev’d CG bats, bat sims, cloth and skin work and other effects. The desired ‘liquid look’ was something Framestore dialed in to the concepts and final shots.

“We worked with our art department to imagine Vlad turning into bats and also the other way around,” says Lambert who worked with Framestore vfx supes Glen Pratt (London) and Ivan Moran (Montreal) on the show. “The approach was that Vlad could turn into bats but he would have to do that in an appropriate volume or in a physical fashion in the way he clothes or skin would tear.”

Framestore art department concept art.
Framestore art department concept art.

The effect began with a body track of Luke Evans’ performance. “We’d build a tracking model that would match him on the plate,” explains Lambert, “and then have a rig set up which would effectively paste all these bat rigs underneath that tracking rig.”

The bats themselves - designed as variations on black vampire bats - were produced in several resolutions for close and wide shots. “There’s several shots where there are hundreds of bats close-up on a ceiling,” says Lambert, “and one with a shallow depth of field staring at us full-screen. They were first groomed and lookdev’d and then we also created lower res variants which were used in the giant flocking shots during the battles.”

A close-up view of Framestore's digital bats.
A close-up view of Framestore's digital bats.

Hero bats featured grooms that helped sell light wrap and fall-off. “With so many bats in some shots, though,” says Lambert, “we had to be mindful of the specular map and emulating a groom with a bump. We also really brought out the bone structure where the skin’s very taught, so even if you were only getting a quick flurry, you’d at least see contrast differences from where their fingers were and the key bat shape. Comp’ers also had access to a matte to dial up a sub-surface look.”

From the tracking rig, animators could launch the bats off at certain intervals as the transformation occurs. “We’d be able to interpolate all those and put in however many bats we wanted,” describes Lambert. “It was very animation driven. But this was also combined with cloth sims. So whenever you see Vlad tearing or shredding bats, it’s a combination of a very precise tracking model, some renderable cloth from the cloth team that could be pulled and turned into bat like shapes and they would be under the hood piggybacking under animated bats. This meant we could block the animation of bats taking off from him from the tracking model or actually be quite precise about the models.”

Tower launch shot - original plate.
Tower launch shot - original plate.

One particular shot features Vlad launching himself off the top of a tower, transforming into bats and diving down into the valley below. “The top of the tower was constructed and fully painted with a bluescreen backing,” says Lambert. “Luke was in his standard picture clothes - the costume - it was then typically shot at 96 fps or higher. There were no tracking markers on his face or clothing. He’d do the run up and leap off onto a crash mat below. We’d then make sure our tracking model and cloth model were very precise. At a certain point there’s a take-over to a digital jacket which is tearing and shredding, and that would serve as the wipe gag in the plate.”

The cloth sims made use of earlier cloth research Framestore had done for Gravity and 47 Ronin. “Our cloth tools center around nCloth,” notes Lambert, “but we have proprietary tools that make wrapping on objects and indirect driving of objects by others very fast. We can drive one object based off UVs. We also have our own in-house bake format, which is very stable and very fast. It lets us take models between applications very quickly.”

Vlad transmutates into hordes of bats.
Vlad transmutates into hordes of bats.

The bats and other cloth, skin and smoke simulations and effects were then combined to provide layers of volume and depth as the transformation occurs. “We could put in the tearing cloth sim and the bats themselves, and fluids and smoke could be triggered from that,” adds Lambert.

Bat attacks

Vlad is also able to summon hundreds of thousands of bats to help fight the Turkish army. The shots depict him orchestrating the massive bat movements with his hands. Framestore utilized animation and particle instancing for these epic bat flocking scenes. “Most of the flocking shots were mixtures of having tens, or hundreds or tens of thousands of bats instanced into the frames,” says Lambert. “All these flocking shots were directable and based on blocking with a larger scale hand model. But we’d also put hero bats fluttering past camera as well.”

Concept art of the bat attack 'hand'.
Concept art of the bat attack 'hand'.

In one shot, around 250,000 bats circle a tower like a large tornado. Vlad then raises his raises his hand up, and the bats fly up and down to the valley in the crude shape of a hand, raking through the Turk soldiers. “On a rig we had 20 to 30 animatable tendrils with noise controls,” explains Lambert. “So this rig could be animated in a block fashion as a simple tornado, but then each of the tendrils in it could have life and have a rate and a spin and scale to them. We’d have that hero rig with complimenting tendrils behind it which gave us the overall volume and mass, and we’d block our whole sequence with that.”

The tendrils of bats lift and form into a vortex above the valley before crashing down in a punishing shockwave. “The mass tendril was animation driven,” says Lambert. “We had a rig of a giant hand but we found that was a bit too simplistic. We didn’t want a hand shape necessarily - we wanted to imply it.”

Further concept art for the wave of bats forming a shockwave
Further concept art for the wave of bats forming a shockwave

For each wave of bats, Framestore’s effects team would carry out particle instancing on top of the gross animation. “They would be looking at the tendrils as a general guide but spawning particles on it,” notes Lambert. “But it was very much a particle simulation after that point. We had to be careful we weren’t just putting our bats onto the exactly the original tendrils, otherwise they’d end up looking like dense ribbons. So there was a balancing act with the size and speed of them.”

Vlad uses the bats directly in battle, too. In some scenes he launches into ground level fighting - jumping between human and bat form. For these shots Framestore used the transmutation techniques discussed above, but also had to contend with bluescreen fighting plates, environment extensions and a digital army. “For these ground level bat attacks,” outlines Lambert, “the effects team implemented a system where we could put in rough tracking models and have a bat attack cycle. We could have full control of how far away the bats were from a soldier, whether they were diving, their speed. We could present lots of wedges with bats with and without smoke layers and just hone in on the right size and pace. Meanwhile, in the foreground we also had lots of plate soldiers attacking as if there were being covered and attacked and bats which required tight body tracks.”

Building battles

Shots of the Turkish forces Vlad battles were realized with a combination of practical plate photography shot in Northern Ireland, bluescreen stage shoots and Framestore environments and crowd effects. “This show was an opportunity to build on our crowds system,” says Lambert. “We’ve got a tool which is a bridge between crowd software and Arnold called fMob. It allows us to do rendertime binding and deformation. This suits crowd systems really well since they can generally export out a skeleton, a binding file and an action file of the shot - fMob binds that together at render time and allows lighting TDs the flexibility to change parameters.”

Ground pass for the Turk army.
Ground pass for the Turk army.
Final shot.
Final shot.

On Dracula, Framestore utilized Golaem Crowd for the first time. “All the crowd shots were done with a team of five artists,” says Lambert. “We found Golaem very easy to learn and get up to speed quickly on. It also allowed us to use Bullet physics in there. There’s two shots where the bats come in and collide and sweep through and take out all the soldiers which was fully digital.”

Digital Golaem characters began as scans of wardrobed soldiers captured on set, with Framestore building five different types of soldier and various crowd and weapon counterparts. Motion capture data of soldiers marching, fighting and re-treating was also inputted into Golaem.

The valley and areas in which the battles take place made extensive use of Framestore’s DMP and environments teams. “The environment team would establish the size of the pass, and then we’d have cycs and vistas that the DMP team would use,” says Lambert. Pretty much a lot of what you’re seeing is full matte painting.”

Environment, DMP and crowd work was featured in a one-off POV shot of cannonball launched by the Turks crashing through Dracula Castle. “That’s a huge fully digital shot skipping over the fields, through crowds, lots of atmospherics, and then crashing through the doors of a CG castle which we blew up with RBD software and ending up with a plate of Luke standing there.”


CG castle model.
CG castle model.
Textures and environment added.
Textures and environment added.
Final shot.
Final shot.

On the ground, digital crowds and environment extensions made up backgrounds for the battles. In one signature shot - running 600 frames long - Vlad throws a sword, hits a soldier (who is fully CG), with the camera then becoming the POV of the soldier as he falls and action reflected in the sword itself.

“What we’re looking at in that shot is two renders,” outlines Lambert. “One is the background action which is the soldier tumbling and turning. But also we’re seeing the reflection of what’s happening this way. We used Golaem to make the crowd characters run towards us slowly, and we also did a reflection pass of them running through the reflection camera. We had a fully CG sword with reflection passes we could mix in. And also within the reflection we are seeing Vlad taking out soldiers which are filmed plate elements. As the sword would pass over Vlad and circle him, as soon it left frame, we’d want him turning into bats off screen. So there were also beats of bats coming in. As the sword falls we’re still in this POV, Vlad walks forward, picks up the sword and goes on to attack the remaining soldiers. It was all blocked in Maya at first by the comp artists and then we broke it down into what parts of the crowd shots we could use or what had to be digital.”

Echolocation effects

To demonstrate some of the vampire powers in the film, director Gary Shore suggested a POV-effect that would showcase enhanced vision, for example when Vlad is searching amongst the battlefield for the Turkish commander Mehmed. Brought to life by Framestore as an echolation-type ability, the effect went through a number of look development approaches and research before a final solution was found.

Watch this scene of Vlad attacking the Turks for a glimpse of the echolocation shots.

“The director wanted us to develop a look that was a bit like the Radiohead 'House of Cards' music video, which is almost like animated LIDAR data, effectively a moving point cloud,” says Lambert. “Andy Walker, who was the CG supervisor on these shots, did some really interesting tests using live photocapture, which we fed into Photoscan, and we would get back per-frame animation.”

“We usually use Photoscan as part of stills capture to yield 3D models and color,” adds Lambert. “But it also lets you film with those cameras, sync them up and it has a notion of frames in there now. So let’s say you capture a 400 frame sequence, it can generate an actual animated sequence with shifting topology. We didn’t care about that, we wanted a slightly messy almost primitive look to it to match the organic nature of echo location.”

The Photoscan tests involved filming one of Framestore’s lookdev artists dressed in full soldier garb while he walked in the shot and then cowered away as if something was threatening him. “It worked really well,” says Lambert. “We had 3D color data we could feed into NUKE and that would then go into a point cloud field.

Director Gary Shore and Luke Evans on the set of Dracula Untold.
Director Gary Shore and Luke Evans on the set of Dracula Untold.

Despite the successful results, it was determined that the approach could not yet be fully implemented on a working film set. “So in the end we went for more of a straightforward 3D scene,” says Lambert, “with a body tracked model, a color photo scan of the environment around it and then we’d give that to a comp artist to work with NUKE’s point cloud tools, which meant we didn’t have long simulation times.”

The effect was used in the cave Vlad visits, when he first discovers his powers in the forest, and also in the battle scenes. Here on the battlefield, in particular, Framestore was able to draw on its CG crowd work for the echolocation section. “Because it was all render-based rather than sim-based,” relates Lambert, “we could just render out our crowds rushing towards us - all 10,000 of them - with utilities for comp to use and they were able to convert that into the point cloud and animate that. So we could take any 3D data and block our scenes as normal and the comp artists had an amazing set-up where they had layers of shifting point cloud data with the pulses.”

The actual effect started with a render of a fully CG scene. “Most importantly,” says Lambert, “we put a normals and position pass in that allowed for the point cloud. It’s all a 3D reconstruction of any scene you like. The concept was to get the echo location have a sonar like behavior which was a noisy distorted view of the scene that was lit by a sonar pulse emitted from the camera, fading again into distorted darkness as the pulse passes. We start with a 2D sound wave image, that was later turned into a procedural tool - this would texture everything with a Ptex tool. That’s mixed with world point passes, object point passes and IDs to assign different textures to different objects. So, trees and humans and creatures would be highlighted in different colors.”

“A lot of it was based on distance of the points to camera in a color look-up curve, which was shaped as a heartbeat graph as it pulses,” adds Lambert. “There were also several layers of RGB fractal noises that were applied to the texture - the noise layers were added to the position pass matted by pulse waves. And finally we added lens distortion and color grading for the final shot.”

Vamp’ing

Vlad’s metamorphosis into a vampire is depicted not only with bats but also changes to his skin and eyes, more pronounced veins and the presence of jagged teeth during key moments, such as when a bite is about to occur or just has. For shots of these ‘vamp’ reveals, Framestore enhanced plates with exaggerated vampire features, and later would produce shots of the effects of sunlight on Vlad and his vampire brood.

See some of the vamp'ing effects in this featurette.

“For the full vamp’ing shots,” says Lambert, “we invested in the full anatomical study of the skull under the skin. It’s a skull with beautiful engravings on the side of the head, a few layers of muscles and the fangs and the teeth positioned in the skull. We’d see a hint of this at times, showing off a white translucent revealing skull underneath. We have the skin a slightly wrinkled look - not age wrinkles but a slightly monstrous look - to suggest a creature under the skin.”

The work involved a CG re-creation of Evans (and other vampires) built in Maya based on scans and photo textures, then rendered in Arnold, that could be blended with the actual plate photography. One vamp moment takes place when Caligula confronts Vlad in his cave. Here he cuts Vlad’s neck with a nail and licks off the resulting blood with a now elongated tongue extending from a dropped-down jaw.

“The actor was shot in full prosthetic make-up with a shawl over him,” says Lambert. “The brief was to have something a bit abnormal happen to him, with the jaw dropping more open than it would normally, and then quite a grotesque tongue coming out and searching for the neck. For that, we built an accurate body track model and a renderable CG head so we could replace portions of the face as needed. We also rigged up a jaw that could drop unnaturally, with teeth and a controllable tongue. We looked at bat tongues early on, which are quite barbed and also served as inspiration for dripping saliva and goop. Then we added in quivering flesh simulation.

Framestore's other effects on the film included extensive environment work, including this shot of Vlad returning to the master vampire's cave. This image is the original bluescreen plate.
Framestore's other effects on the film included extensive environment work, including this shot of Vlad returning to the master vampire's cave. This image is the original bluescreen plate.
Photographic plate reference.
Photographic plate reference.
Final shot with added digital environment and matte painting.
Final shot with added digital environment and matte painting.

The film has several scenes in which Vlad is confronted by sunlight - a killer for vampires. Vlad has also created his own army of vampires to help defeat the Turkish army, but he soon realizes his mistake and orchestrates their death, and his own seeming demise, by controlling the cloud cover to reveal the sun. Full body shots of the disintegrating brood of vampires also resulted in a core ‘mummy’ skeleton being left behind.

In order to show the effects of the sunlight on vampire skin, especially on Vlad, Framestore would rely on its CG Evans head and produce both an under-skin volume and a cloth ripping sim - often played out in slow motion. “We would first create an accurate face track,” says Lambert. “Then the cloth team would pre-rip the face in certain areas and have the cloth dropping like delicate patches and that would get fed through to masks for lighting and holdouts. A cloth sim then goes into effects that triggers fluid simulations from the cloth itself,” explains Lambert. “The fluid was tuned to look like a clothy, gluey surface and the cloth was tuned to look a little bit like fluid. They really complemented each other.”

For the hero shots of Vlad being hit by the sun, in particular, the action begins with his hair being burnt off. “We had a full CG groom of the hair that would shrink up with smoke coming off it,” describes Lambert. “At the same time his real skin is being peeled off revealing a fully CG bald Luke in his full vamp state. That cut into two very close-up shots. The look we were going for was actually like a lychee. It was almost sweaty, but in an appealing way - like the delicate gray translucent skin of a lychee where you can see the dark core underneath. So we used that as a thickness reference when we were doing the initial dev. There was also a vein pattern above and below Luke’s eyes. He would be turning in the sun with the last remnants of the skin peeling off.”

Production had shot Evans dressed in his full ‘red dragon’ armor and he screams at the effects of the sunlight. “We ended up replacing the whole shot in CG,” says Lambert, “really because he’s already in his full vamp state and we knew we needed to dissolve that more and disintegrate the skin more. Also the armor was requested to crack and peel and have smoke emitting from it. For that we photoscanned the armor and projected all those textures back onto a hi-res CG model, and developed a way to crack and emit smoke and paint from it. The armor was then animated with a bit more of a shake to it. We’d take the head developed from the vamp’ing shots and then expose raw damaged skin on it with animated mattes underneath. We had a layered shader that would reveal raw areas of flesh and eat into the skin a bit, so you would realize then he was about to die.”

For Framestore, the final shot count on Dracula Untold ran into about 700 shots. A peak crew of 300 worked on the film between London and Montreal. “I think we were really able to follow our main mandate," says Lambert, "even though it’s a film about Dracula, it’s really what was matching to the live photography they did in Northern Ireland. We wanted it to be quite believable and not too monstrous in terms of what he could do, say, as vampire. It had to be rooted in reality.”

All images and clips copyright © 2014 Universal Pictures.


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