Stephen Sommers and ILM Take Universal’s Most Famous Monsters into Another Dimension in Van Helsing

What could be better than having Stephen Sommers, the director who reincarnated Universal’s Mummy, perform the same magic with Dracula? Have him revive all of Universal’s monsters.

“After Mummy Returns, I wanted to do something smaller, but I couldn’t come up with an idea,” Sommers says. “I didn’t want to do Frankenstein again; Coppola had already done a cool Dracula, so I thought, ‘What if I could combine them all?’ I knew it couldn’t be just ‘a hero takes on three famous monsters from history,’ but if there was a story… and then one day it dropped in my head. Dracula has these gorgeous brides — what have they all been up to? There would be spawn, but they would be born undead. How would they bring them to life? Hey, Frankenstein has the key to life.” The result, Universal Pictures’ Van Helsing, written and directed by Stephen Sommers, features a motley  crew of Universal monsters: Dracula and his brides, Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde, and a few werewolves.

Anyone who saw his earlier films would expect Sommers to push the characters and creatures in Van Helsing into another dimension and he did. Frankenstein’s monster (actor Shuler Hensley) has a light show playing in the back of his head, an effect designed by Patrick Tatopoulous and realized by Industrial Light & Magic.  Mr. Hyde is nine-feet tall and smokes a cigar. The vampires grow an entire mouthful of sharp, jagged teeth and when they completely turn into their vampire selves, it’s a sight to see: “I’m not afraid of bats,” Sommers says, referring to the typical cinematic portrayal of vampires. “But something with a 15-foot wingspan that’s part human, that’s scary.”
As for the werewolves — “Powerful, strong, mean, nasty, badass, cool and really scary,” says Christian Alzmann, art director at ILM who led a crew of artists that designed nine creatures for the film — three werewolves, four vampires, vampire spawn, and Mr. Hyde, creating, in the process more than 1000 pieces of artwork.

Gathering in the model shop to discuss maquettes. From left to right: ILM VFX Supervisor Ben Snow, Creature Designer Carlos Huante, Art Director Christian Alzmann, VFX Supervisor Scott Squires and Animation Director Daniel Jeanette.

Creature design began in February, 2002. “We started on the artwork while Stephen [Sommers] was still writing scripts,” Alzmann says. For the wolves, ILM modelers worked from maquettes, many sculpted by concept artist Carlos Huante; however, modelers who created digital doubles for principal actors began with scans and photographs taken on set during principal photography in Prague.

Notably, in addition to CG characters being added to live action plates in post production as usual, the digital models of Mr. Hyde became an integral part of motion capture sessions directed by Sommers, and the CG brides were used during bluescreen shoots under the auspices of Sommers and director of photography, Allen Daviau.

Hyde in the Belfry
For Van Helsing’s first formidable foe, Sommers picked Mr. Hyde. “I decided to have a little fun with him,” he says. “I thought of Dr. Jekyll as the kind of guy who gets sand thrown in his face, so he made the elixir to create someone taller, larger, stronger and bigger. But it went a little awry.”

Rather than use prosthetics, Sommers had ILM create an entirely digital character. “I had to fight the studio a bit,” he says. “But I’m bored with men in suits. Sometimes pure CGI doesn’t work, but ILM did an unbelievable job.”

Director Stephen Sommers on the set.
The monsters aren’t the only effects: Dracula’s castle was an ILM miniature.

Even though Mr. Hyde was a monster, he had to look enough like a human to convince the audience he was Dr. Jekyll in another form and thus became the latest example of the evolution toward photorealistic digital humans in film. “Mr. Hyde is in 50 shots in multiple environments and in close-ups,” says Craig Hammack, R&D supervisor, “so, he has a true human skin, although we transformed it to give the feeling of an oversized man with saggy, flushed, blotchy flesh.” To mimic the translucency of skin, the team used the latest generation of subsurface scattering techniques developed by ILM’s Christophe Hery, who recently won a Technical Achievement Award from the Academy for his pioneering research in this area. Texture maps painted in Photoshop provided color, texture and control for Renderman shaders that created the final rendered look.

That rendering was then slightly altered during compositing to make the CG character seem more photographic using a technique designed by compositing supervisor Marshall Krasser that displaced pixels to soften the hard, digital lines in Hyde’s face without affecting the overall sharpness.

Frankenstein’s monster has a light show at the back of his head, courtesy of ILM.

Van Helsing finds Mr. Hyde in Paris; their fight is staged inside and outside the belfry of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, ending with a dramatic crash through the cathedral’s Rose Window.  To create the confrontation, Ben Snow, co-visual effects supervisor (with Scott Squires), working from previsualizations created by Sommers’ previsualization supervisor Rpin Suwannath and from animatics created at ILM, had live action plates of Jackman shot against bluescreen in Prague. The small belfry set was later augmented with CG backgrounds and a CG model of the interior and exterior of Notre Dame at ILM; Paris was a painting. To help the background and texture painters, Snow took digital stills in the cathedral and from the top of Notre Dame looking out over Paris. The mood for the sequence was set by Daviau who, later, worked with Krasser to oversee color timing when the film was scanned at ILM.

The three vampire brides with flashing teeth were a constant mix of live action and ILM innovations. “The brides look like they’re actually in the environment,” says Sommers.

Mr. Hyde’s animation started with realtime motion capture of Hensley, the actor who also played Frankenstein’s monster. Using bluescreen plates of Jackman taken in Prague that were match moved to derive the camera’s motion, ILM’s motion capture crew added the digital Mr. Hyde character to the plate. During the motion capture session, the digital puppet was animated by Hensley’s actions. “We used all the tricks,” says Daniel Jeannette, animation supervisor, who also worked with Sommers on The Mummy and Mummy Returns. While Hensley was being motion captured, Jeanette and Sommers could see the digital Mr. Hyde performing with the live action Van Helsing; data captured from Hensley was scaled to fit the nine-foot CG model and the character was composited into the plate in realtime.

For facial animation, a crew of up to 15 animators worked from dialog recorded by Robbie Coltrane who used an animatic as reference. The animators, in turn, used video reference of Coltrane to help with Hyde’s facial expressions. “He didn’t have many expressions,” says Lee Fulton, technical animator. “He was angry, mad, hurt or chewing his cigar.”

In addition to Hyde’s animated performance, the crew used improved versions of the studio’s flesh simulation tools to cause his skin to slide appropriately over muscle and bone. “Hyde has a lot of weight and mass,” says Hammack, “so the flesh sims needed to retain that volume. We also needed stability so that when he moved fast, he didn’t jiggle everywhere.” Completing the illusion were dynamic simulations that animated Mr. Hyde’s pants, hair and cigar smoke procedurally.

The Vamps

At the vampire’s costume ball, the mirror’s not just slimming.

In one of the most stunning sequences in the film, three vampire brides with huge white wings and flashing teeth (Elena Anaya, Silvia Colloca and Josie Maran) swoop out of the sky and attack a village, swiping at the people, grabbing them, lifting them into the air. “The brides look like they’re actually in the environment,” Sommers says. “They don’t look like three girls filmed on a bluescreen stage. They’re flying, doing loop-de-loops. People are running and screaming in every direction.”

The village was built in Prague, a huge set with two cemeteries, a church and a town square the size of a football field. To film the sequence, Sommers used a complicated cable cam system similar to those used for overhead shots during football games. The brides, however, were filmed while flying in wire rigs in a bluescreen set, but with a twist: Because the brides would have sinewy CG bodies and giant wings in these flying shots — only their heads would be real — ILM decided to capture data from the actresses’ performances while they were being filmed so that the CG bodies could be more precisely and easily fit onto the brides’ heads. Unfortunately, the lights used for the bluescreen photography washed out the reflective markers used for motion capture. Under the direction of Douglas Griffin, motion capture engineer, ILM’s Kevin Wiley solved that problem by designing active LED’s that emitted dots of bright light; the actresses wore blue suits with these LED’s sewn into them when they performed on wires in the bluescreen set. “This not only solved the problem of locking the torso and the head, we were also able to retain some body postures and use the data to inform keyframe animation,” says Jeannette.
Before the bluescreen shooting began, Jeannette’s animation crew created animatics from the live action plates using detailed CG digital doubles for the brides. “We ran the animatics through our rendering pipeline to see what we could get away with,” he says, adding, “They also gave Allen [Daviau] some ideas on how to light the bluescreen shots.” While a bride was being filmed, her head was composited onto a CG vampire body, which was animated with data captured from the actress. And, the hybrid result was composited into the live action plate in real time so that Sommers, Jeannette and Squires could see how the flying brides would look in the plate.

In addition to the complicated match moving, animation and compositing needed to seamlessly marry the brides’ heads with their digital bodies, ILM created photorealistic digital doubles, and for those, the crew needed a new hair simulation engine. “The brides’ long flowing hair needed to keep its mass and volume as it flowed over a large section of body,” Hammack says. If the hair began colliding with the surface and with other hair, the result could have been a tangled mess. The new engine avoids that problem by never letting the hair fully collide. “We know where it is relative to the surface and as it gets close, we push it away.”

Big Bad Wolves
The wolves, on the other hand, presented a different kind of hair problem. “I didn’t want to just have a guy growing hair,” says Sommers. “I’m bored with that. I wanted something different that still made sense. So I thought of werewolves, like alcoholics and drug addicts, as pleasant during the day, but at night, when there’s a full moon, turning into hideous things. They become uncomfortable in their own skin and reveal their inner monster.”

That idea was most vividly expressed in sequences in which Velkan, Anna’s brother (Will Kemp), writhed in agony as his inner wolf tore through his human skin — and again, when his inner human ripped through his wolf skin. Because Velkan’s transformation scenes always started or ended with Kemp, the visual effects crew took the transformation concept art to Prague.  “We were able to show him the motions we designed,” says Alzmann. “That made the effect easier to do.”

But not easy. The transformation from human to werewolf became the most difficult of all the Van Helsing effects at ILM. “It’s really been a struggle,” says Snow. “We started R&D on the transformation technology a year and a half ago and we were still working on it in March. It’s so complex.”

The werewolf shots contain just about everything that’s difficult to do in terms of creating characters with computer graphics — from making a photorealistic digital double as complex as that of Mr. Hyde, to creating a realistic animal with fur…and then, to top it off, the characters transformed from one into the other. Simulating fur with computer graphics and make it move appropriately as a character moves is tricky in the calmest of situations, but the werewolves’ fur had to be generated and simulated while the underlying skin changed shape, was shredded, and sometimes thrown to the floor. A mathematical nightmare.

Further, to do the transformations back and forth, the crew had to build and rig models inside models — in effect, put a digital double inside a wolf and a wolf inside a digital double.

To build the digital double, ILM modelers used two types of reference, a cyberscan and a multi-camera setup in which six digital cameras took pictures of Kemp’s face simultaneously. Gentle Giant handled the cyberscans; ILM the multi-camera setup. Both were done in Prague. Also in Prague, high-resolution digital stills of Kemp’s body were taken for later use by the texture painters.

Data from the cyberscan was fed into Softimage XSI and used by modelers to build Kemp’s entire body; images taken with the multi-camera setup were used to check the model of Kemp’s face for accuracy.  “We tried to put the actor in a controlled environment and then mimic that digitally with the model, the lighting and the textures,” says Andrew Cawrse, modeling supervisor.

Separately, modelers built a werewolf and then created a system so that any part of the digital model could transform into the wolf and back again. For example, animators could slide the ears on Kemp’s digital double to the top of his head to create wolf ears, and then slide the ears back onto the side of digital double’s head. His nose could stretch into a muzzle; his teeth could grow and multiply. “We can have different pieces of the anatomy changing at different times,” says Cawrse. “Stephen [Sommers] could say that he wanted to have the hands change at frame 45.”

To have the skin rip while the body changed the crew used cloth simulation controlled with carefully designed patches that could break apart. “Cloth is made of a mesh of springs held together with tension,” explains Hammack. “If it’s stretched to the limit, it breaks. We could snap a spring at any point on any frame to break the patches apart and, by duplicating points at the breaking edges so they could be in both places, we were able to keep the fur attached to the skin.”

In the Veklan transformation scenes, there are moments when the character onscreen has werewolf arms, the digital double’s body and legs, the werewolf’s head with Kemp’s eyes — but only for a few seconds because the transformation continues. Animating these transformations became so complex that the animators gave modelers the timing and the modelers created the shape-changing performance.

And So Much More
Although the film’s monsters embodied some of the most difficult effects, the movie is filled with other intricate visual effects shots — from the first 15 minutes of black and white scenes of villagers attacking Frankenstein’s monster, to Dracula stepping out of a fireplace with his face in flames, through scenes of CG pygmy bats — the vampire spawn — flying and dying, a toothy ballroom scene, a remarkable stagecoach chase, Dracula’s castle — a miniature created at ILM — to the powerful fight between Van Helsing and Dracula, and more. In addition to ILM’s 460 shots, Illusion Arts and Hatch contributed effects as well.

“This movie is wildly visual,” says Sommers. “It’s so complicated. Definitely scary, but a really fun ride. I think it turned out well.”

The FX and Daviau

“Allen asked us what kind of lights we wanted to use for the bluescreens — we had a lot of bluescreens,” says Ben Snow, co-visual effects supervisor at ILM. “We usually find a half a stop to a stop under is good. We often use Kino Flos to make bluescreen extractions easier, but it really depends, and production wanted traditional movie lights. We found that on this film, with this film stock, and the type of shots we had, we could use tungsten lights with a blue gel to illuminate the bluescreen.

Allen wanted to use Kodak 5218 film for effects, which is a faster film stock than usual. He likes to test everything, so we did a bunch of tests in LA because the brides wear translucent garments and have long hair, so the extractions wouldn’t be easy. The film stock was fine in terms of the extractions and we could take advantage of the extra exposure latitude with the 400ASA.”

“Allen has had experience with a number of effects films, so on location, we showed him the previz and tried to place as few restrictions on his team as possible,” says Squires. “If they felt it was best to do this or to use that type of camera move or if he wanted to light in a particular way, we tried to be accommodating. Sometimes, we had stand-ins and full sized mock-ups so he’d know to light areas that would have creatures, because can be easy to forget. When we photographed Hyde, we had an actor wear a helmet with a foam core version of the head above his head to know how tall he was.”