Bats and Battles of Dracula Untold

Dracula Untold (which looks best in IMAX) tells the origin story of Vlad the Impaler. Framestore (under the VFX supervision of Christian Manz) created 710 shots with huge battles and swarms of bats.

Many of the challenges required fully CG shots, with Framestore creating the environment and the action staged within it. “There isn’t a live action bat in the movie, and some of the locations and battles weren’t shot either. We were shooting in a set of warehouses in Belfast, so when you see this expansive army in the final images you kind of forget,” says Manz.

Manz was involved from early on, while still working on another Universal project, 47 Ronin. After getting the call from the studio he started preparing a package of mood-boards based on the script with Framestore’s art department before meeting director Gary Shore in Belfast, where pre-production and the shoot were based.

No practical make-up was used for the transformation, with all stages of his “vamping out” done with VFX. An opaque white subsurface underneath his skin was designed to resemble an advanced human skull, 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 Luke Evans. At his most vampiric, with his human-self stripped away by sunlight, Vlad is completely computer- generated, with Evans’ performance body tracked meticulously and used to inspire the animation.

The movie gave Framestore a chance to get its hands on some types of work it hadn’t done before – particularly battles. One of them, dubbed “Vlad vs a thousand,” takes place on the door-step of Castle Dracula, which was an entirely digital construction.

The battle itself was one of our biggest undertakings, with plate footage blended in with a CG environment and thousand-strong CG army. “To go from an actor and some extras running around against a blue-screen in the day to the final night-time shot with the army streaming into Vlad, the spikes, fire and smoke was quite impressive. The mid-ground, the background and even the floor are CG,” says Montreal-based VFX supervisor Ivan Moran.

Key to Vlad’s vampire powers is the classic ability to turn into a bat. “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,” adds Manz. “Instead we went with the idea that he could turn into a number of bats that would move like a comet.”

The bat work didn’t stop at there. At one point they are assembled into a huge swirling cloud that twists and flocks, tornado like, above the CG monastery as the Turkish army approaches. Conducted by Vlad like an orchestra, they form a gigantic hand that plunges into our valley environment to plough through the soldiers.

There are more than a million bats in the cloud, which was created using a blend of FX and hero-animated bats. In the wider shots the balance is skewed toward FX bats that could be directed by simple blocking animation shapes, whereas in the close-ups the bias is more toward animation in the foreground, with the FX bats filling the background.

Bats and battles were just the beginning, Framestore also created a flood of visually unique effects, often for only a handful of shots each, including echolocation, a cannonball POV, action reflected in swords and vampire reactions to sunlight, stakes and silver. Distinct shots like these were often created by London and placed directly within a sequence created in Montreal, and vice versa, meaning efficient multi-site work was more important than ever.

“It’s always tricky to cut between facilities from shot to shot, but we always made sure we could make assets rendered in Montreal look exactly the same as if they were rendered in London from very early on. It was great to achieve consistency across the Atlantic,” adds Moran.

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Movies, previs, Production Design, Tech, Trailers, VFX, Virtual Production

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