Set Visit: Van Helsing at ILM
If you think Dr. Frankenstein had his hands full creating his famous monster, you should see what director Stephen Sommers had to go through to create his film VAN HELSING; a monster in its own right. The film, rumored to have cost north of $170 million, used the latest and greatest in special effects technology to bring classic monsters Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man to life. Sommers, the man behind THE MUMMY films, is no stranger to CGI-technology but he achieved new heights with his latest film, taking traditional CGI effects and amping it up, merging these classic creatures to with modern sensibilities. Luckily Sommers had the unbridled assistance of the team at George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic to help bring his vision to the screen.Nestled quietly along an rural expanse of highway in San Rafael lies the headquarters of Kerner Optical Research Labs. The address matches the one I have written down, but I’m not entirely sure this is the right place. A rep from the office building comes out and explains, “I’m not sure they’re ready for you yet.” That’s OK, I’m not sure I’m even in the right place. I don’t have any eye problems and I certainly don’t have the need for any optical work. I’m trying to find the headquarters of ILM.
As it turns out, ILM is in fact a building you would drive past every day on your commute to work and not think twice about. Never knowing that behind the drab beige walls that surround the exterior are hiding scores of technical and artistic geniuses putting the finishing touches on the final installment in the STAR WARS film series. The faux exterior – complete with Kerner Optical signs, logos and information – keeps most of the kooks, nuts and onlookers away , but a few guys, like the one who recently showed up dressed as a Storm Trooper, still pop over uninvited. “I’m sorry sir,” the receptionist will say politely. “I think you have the wrong building. This is an optical research lab.”If you’re granted access past the main building, however, you’ll see a backlot that looks slightly more like what you’d expect from a state-of-the-art effects facility. Numerous soundstages and shops line the expansive area hidden from view. Some open doors reveal glimpses of what might be going on inside – a replica clock tower for instance. Generally though, most doors are kept shut and security is at a premium. After a brief security check (i.e., rubber gloves and Vaseline) and a confidentiality agreement (signed in blood) we’re ushered into the backlot buildings where few outsiders ever lay eyes. Like a miniature museum, the halls are decorated with numerous exhibits of ILM’s signature work including matte paintings, sculptures, original art, statues, props, etc. There’s no time to stop and admire the scenery though. We walk at a brisk pace, presumably to keep eyes from wandering to far.
While waiting, a gentle reminder is issued: don’t even think about asking anything about STAR WARS. First of all, we’re here to pick the brains of the effects team behind VAN HELSING. Secondly, they’re programmed not to talk anyway. The walls are even decorated with WWII-era propaganda posters designed to tighten security and prevent leaks. One has a photo of Palpatine with the caption “SHHH! The Empire is Watching. If the Secret Plans Get Into the Wrong Hands, We’re Doomed!”Luckily on this day, select ILM workers were encouraged to be more than forthcoming about their work on VAN HELSING. Christian Alzmann, Visual Effects Art Designer on VAN HELSING sat at a table with a heap of sketches laid out in front of him, pinned on the walls behind him and displayed on boards around him. Flipping through the sketches that created many of the characters in the film he starts to explain his work. “Our job in the art department was to design…nine of those monsters in the film. So we started just drawing away,” Alzmann explains. “At one point in the beginning we had about 10 people on the design team, just drawing werewolves and vampire monsters, Hyde, the (Pygmy bats) and just doing lots of iterations of what the looks might be for those. We’d send those down to Stephen [Sommers], and Stephen would kind of go, ‘Well no this is I think kind of more where we’d want to go.’”
Director Sommers had so much respect for the talent at ILM he even allowed their creations to affect his development of the film. “On this piece, for instance,” says Alzmann holding up a sketch of Hyde and Van Helsing fighting, “Brian O’Connell, one of our designers, he’s like ‘Well I’m going to put him on the roof of Notre Dame…and we’ll see all of Paris.’ And Stephen saw it and was like, ‘What was I thinking? I was going to have them inside. Now it’s gotta be outside!” That wasn’t the only thing different about their collaboration with Sommers. As you’ve probably noticed from some of his other films, he likes his visual effects…well, bigger. Or as Sommers himself would put it, “badass.” “Badass is his favorite term,” explains Alzmann chuckling at the reminder of Sommers relentlessly using that adjective. “If it’s a monster, its gotta be really big and muscular and badass.” Through numerous iterations of the werewolves, Sommers explained he wanted them, as well as Dracula, to be like the rock stars of their day, correction badass rock stars. The creative team at ILM then added longer, more flowing hair and adding more and more muscle or “Schwarzeneggering” him as Alzmann puts it. It was at that point when Sommers approved the design and said, “Yeah! That guy looks like he can crack a telephone poll over his knee!” At most ILM had ten designers working on VAN HELSING (creating three werewolves, the Hellbeast, Dracula’s three Brides, Hyde, and Dracula himself), but as the main bulk of the work developed the team was whittled down to three or four. Artists would work on their own separate ideas for characters and as they were approved by Sommers, they would become the lead designer for that specific character. As they designed, they were freed up by Sommers’ dedication to using CGI to create the vast majority of the effects (the bride’s makeup being the only practical effect). “Once we knew it was CGI, the limitations, they’re kind of none,” says Alzmann. “You just want to do the coolest thing you can think of.”
Once Alzmann and his team finishes up work on the VAN HELSING creature design, the work then segues over to the visual effects team who has to now figure out how to bring these creatures to life. Douglas Griffin, Motion Capture Supervisor on VAN HELSING, brought us somewhere no outsider had ever been before – the ILM blue screen stage. Hidden inside a little warehouse on the backlot is a room blanketed in a deep royal blue. Red lights circle the stage. On the ceiling are scores of black discs, each with a different pattern of white rings on the surface used by the camera like barcodes to detect exactly where it is on the stage. To the right is a giant bank of computers and servers – the control desk if you will. Hanging in the middle of the set where two blue jumpsuits covered in small dots connected to tiny transmitters sewn into the fabric. It took all these elements to film the complex scenes where Dracula’s brides transform wreak havoc. Sommers wanted to retain elements of the human form of the actress after she transformed to make it more believable that the actress in question, Josie Maran for example, had become that ferocious creature. He wanted to retain their sexuality and some of their human movements while still being able to manipulate the body, adding wings, etc. To achieve this, Griffin and his crew decided on a unique new method they dubbed the “hybrid technique.”
“On a conventional blue screen environment, we filmed the Brides from the neck up, and simultaneously motion-captured their body from the neck down,” explains Griffin. “So we had a 3-D body from [shoulder] down, 2-D image for their head.” Because they had to tie the 2-D head to the 3-D body, they used motion capture to track precise positions of the torso and neck, allowing them to dictate how the character would move. In addition to making the performances more realistic it also allowed you to differentiate between the brides.So how exactly do you motion capture (or mo-cap as ILMers are fond of calling it) an actress? Remember the red lights surrounding the stage? They are actually motion capture cameras. “The way they work,” Douglas begins to explain, “is they’ve got their own little light source that projects light out. You take these markers and you put them on a body and they reflect light right back to the camera. And if you have enough of these cameras around they can track the 3-D points that these markers on the body, that’s how you track how someone moves.” Yeah that’d be enough to get my head spinning in circles but that’s not even the most difficult part. VAN HELSING posed a particular problem because the actresses needed to be light for film. With a computer in front of him tracking the mo-cap suit hanging on the stage, Douglas shows what happens when you flick the lights on. “As soon as you add stage lights, to properly expose film, these little reflections from those little sources get washed out.” The screen, which once showed a rough 3-D outline of the suit, now shows nothing but white. “There’s no way those little LEDs on these cameras are going to compete with these huge stage lights you get on set.” Not to be denied, ILM’s staff got to work on their new hybrid technology. “What we decided to do is actually develop our own little markers that, instead of reflecting light actually projected light. So we developed these custom circuit boards, they house high-powered infrared LEDs,” says Griffin holding up a marker no larger than a nickel. “This little gold thing is an LED that projects light, extremely bright. However it’s invisible, it’s infrared, so it’s not visible to the naked eye, nor can you see it on film.” This allowed them to film, say, Josie Maran’s movements for both film and motion-capture in the same environment.
“Once the brides were created, there was still the task of getting them to look like they were flying through the Transylvanian village. Sommers shot tracking footage in Prague using a crane camera that was “match-moved” by ILM on computers. They matched the buildings and the perspective on the computers and match-moved the computer created tracking shot to what Sommers had filmed. They then used animatics of digital versions of the brides to help discern what their performances should be and once the final products were put all together, you have a camera flowing through a village with a CGI bride flying through and terrorizing the people below.So the whole process looks something like this. We would take the aerial footage that we shot in Prague at the Transylvanian village, and we would what we call “match-move” it, match the same perspective, so those little digital buildings in there show that we kind of match-moved it. We spent a few weeks, this well before shooting the Brides, where we worked with Stephen Sommers, figuring out exactly what the Bride performances we’re supposed to be. And we had animators put together these rough animatics, with a digital version of the Bride, and this let us know exactly what the performance should be. So now we’ve got this camera that flows through here, and a CG bride that’s supposed to do something like that. The hybrid technology wasn’t the only new piece of technology the staff at ILM had to create to overcome an obstacle. Ben Snow, the Visual Effects Supervisor, explains the werewolf hair caused a particular problem. “Hair before this in computer graphics had been done with either short, Stuart Little-type hair or thin, wispy Gollum or Yoda type hair, or long, beautifully shampooed hair like in FINAL FANTASY. And really there weren’t a lot of great ways of doing that so we had to sort of create a new set of tools for that. Also we we’re dealing with the sort of movie physics of creatures flying at hundreds of miles an hour, and then turning on a dime.” And then there was that problem of how a werewolf comes to be a werewolf. “We also had the problem,” Snow says with a sigh, “of creatures transforming (and) ripping off their skin.” With a chuckle he adds, “we had to develop a bunch of tools for that.” While it all sounds like fun yet exhausting work, all at ILM are increasingly aware that an overload of CGI in a film can be a major critique. Snow says while it’s all great fun to work on, it’s sometimes, “not all appreciated when you come out to the final film because it’s so much stuff and such an onslaught that when you see it in the theater its like, ‘Whoa!’” They’re all excited for the VAN HELSING DVD though because it highlights their work in a way that wasn’t done many years ago. Because so many effects, from grand creations to tiny details you’d never notice, are fit into a film, often things are overlooked. But on a DVD, with all the extras provided, you can take a look at things in greater details, study them and find a better appreciation for the artistry behind it. For those eager to learn more about this (or for those just looking to check out a movie that finally gets Dracula, Wolfman and Frankenstein on screen together), the VAN HELSING DVD hits stores today (read JoBlo.com’s review here) and is available in two formats. The standard edition features two audio commentaries, outtakes and a tour of Dracula’s castle. But if you want the real meat and potatoes, you gotta check out the Ultimate Collector’s Edition. The 3-disc set features everything on the standard disc and adds five featurettes - Van Helsing: The Story, The Life, The Legend; The Music Of Van Helsing; Darkness Falls: Dracula's Lair Is Transformed; Stephen Sommer's On Universal's Classic Monster: Dracula; and, The Road To Dracula – plus a tour of Frankenstein’s Lab, Van Helsing’s Map, Text/Photo Galleries, DVD-ROM features, a playable preview of the VAN HELSING X-Box game, Poster Archives and the complete original DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN and WOLF MAN movies complete with new commentaries. With all that information, you can find out a whole lot more about the making of the film. Just don’t expect to find any inside information on STAR WARS.
Photos courtesy, Universal Studios, TheForce.net, San Francisco Chronicle
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