Blood Relations: The Making of Dark Shadows

Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Angus Bickerton, Arundi Asregadoo, Anton Yri, Mark Breakspear, Christophe-Olivier Dupuis and Eddy Richard about their work on Dark Shadows…

“I was coming off Voyage of the Dawn of Treader [2010], the third Narnia film, and they were starting to go into pre-production for Dark Shadows [2012],” recalls Visual Effects Supervisor Angus Bickerton who had a brief 15 minute chat with filmmaker Tim Burton (Sleepy Hollow); he was subsequently hired to work on the big screen version of the original 1960s ABC television series about the interactions of a cursed two century old vampire with his human family. “I haven’t sat down and watched all 3000 episodes,” admits Bickerton. “I know Tim and Johnny Depp [The Rum Diary] both are Dark Shadows fans. Johnny Depp is the producer on the film and he’s been harbouring the project for awhile; my understanding is he asked Tim to direct.” The native Britain learned from his American colleagues who grew up in the States during the 1960s that children either watched The Munsters, The Addams Family or Dark Shadows which “was more Gothic, darker, romantic – a daytime Gothic soap opera. They would all come home from school and catch the episodes that would be on later in the afternoon.”

“Literally they’re bouncing ideas off of each other, if not on the set then behind the scenes,” states Angus Bickerton when describing the creative partnership between Johnny Depp and Tim Burton who have collaborated on eight films together. “A number of the key ideas from some of those sequences came from discussions that Johnny and Tim had while we were shooting. Tim definitely wanted to let the sequences be driven by the characters. We didn’t do any pre-viz and did nominal storyboarding. We did a lot of concept work but Tim wanted us not to have any effects or anything practical driving the scenes.” Not utilizing any pre-viz made the planning process harder. “It means that you’re in flux. Everyone likes going into a production to have a definitive list of what you’re going to do. The Art Department had to be the most structured because they had to build the sets, while the Special and Visual Effects Departments had to be flexible. It made it interesting. I liked the way some of things grew organically because they are derived from the drama.”

“I have to be honest. I think it evolved,” confesses Angus Bickerton as to the campy tone of the movie. “I didn’t feel the humour and the campiness in the script. You knew setting it in the early 1970s, referencing the style and the look at that time, there’s going to be some humour about that. We all thought, ‘If there is going to be any humour it’s going to be dark and Gothic.’ If you look back you’ll see some interviews where Tim Burton says he wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was becoming. Personally, I love Jacque Tati [Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot] and silent French cinema; I always wanted to do a film like that. I was watching Johnny Depp on the set and I thought, ‘What a pro and a gentleman!’ Always working, looking after everyone, and always on the case. What I didn’t notice until I saw a cut of the film was how brilliant a comedian he is.”

“One of the early things from Tim was he wanted everything to be real,” reveals Angus Bickerton. “We created everything. We created the inside and exterior of the house, the landscaping, and the town of Collinsport. Everything was built and extended in visual effects. We were the quiet department that enhanced all of the fantastic set builds and expanded them without it being obvious. We built a huge miniature for the exteriors of the house which we shot in daylight outside for real. The only times we are probably overt are in flashback sequences, the stuff taking place on the cliff edge; that’s the one place where Tim allowed more stylization to come in.” In regards to how the look of the picture was articulated to him, Bickerton states, “We had a brilliant production designer [Rick Heinrichs] who has worked with Tim many times before, and he would work through his team of concept artists to get the visuals ready. I have heard in the past Tim Burton does a couple of signature drawings which set a style; we didn’t get any of that on this because I think he didn’t want any of his stuff to [serve as an] influence.”

“On the whole our main job was to support the look and feel of the film,” notes Angus Bickerton. “We are not a grandstanding effects film like Avengers [2012] and that’s one thing Tim tends to shy away from. If anything Tim would rather you not know that there are any visual effects in the film at all. You’ll know there are because of the design of some of the sequences; he wants you to feel like a film made in the 1970s. He likes that style. Tim has such a strong clear vision that’s not cluttered with a lot of fancy camerawork and that’s why he has a recognizable style. I have a theory that these days there is a style of film that’s tremendously kinetic. I’ll buy into it. I love those films. They’re either bordering on being a game or you could go into the Bourne series where everything is handheld and shaky; this idea of being a visceral experience. But do you get any lasting lingering images out of that? Not at all. You get them in every Tim Burton movie because of the way he shoots and makes films.” Bickerton continues, “If Tim doesn’t want to move the camera because there’s no need to he doesn’t. You have Johnny Depp in the strong bold Gothic look, the camera is staying on him and he’s being incredibly subtle with a hint of Keaton about him; what you get is an instant icon because you’re holding on someone longer than you would do in most other films.”

“The big challenge was that we were doing the CG makeup effectively,” reveals Angus Bickerton. “Two of the characters transform in the end battle between Johnny Depp and the witch. Tim was worried about building out on the characters and wanted the chance to let some of the design evolve; he didn’t want to lock it into the photography. We effectively did CG prosthetics onto the characters that had to look seamless. When you come to do that sort of thing it means an awful lot of roto match moving or rotomation of the live-action.” As for the flashback sequence the native of Britain observes, “They harked back to more of a 1950s Hollywood melodrama style – a Wuthering Heights. Some tremendous design work was done in the 1950s when Art Departments and filmmakers used to work out their frames. We looked at a number of films like that from the period.” The goal to maintain a sense of realism was helped by having a physical location to conduct the principle photography for the Maine town of Collinsport. “The fabulous set was built on the back lot at Pinewood. We had fishing boats and nets, wires, and cables; it was meant to be a busy little seaport so it had to be populated with seagulls and activity. We had to do street extensions so you had to see people in cars going down side streets. We only built the main street thoroughfare and they had to build the rest of the town; that involved cyberscanning the set, building extensions to that geometry, texturing, using texture reference from the set, replicating and cloning the style and design of the Art Department set.”

“We went to four companies,” says Angus Bickerton when discussing the facilities chosen to work on the 1000 visual effects shots. “MPC London got the finale of the film which was a bunch of creative work; they’ve got the track record and have done it before. MPC Vancouver did all of the Cliff Top Sequences. We went to Buf in Paris for some boutique work. It was my first foray with them and I was a little cautious. I would gladly take a lot more work there. We had a sequence called the Sexual Whirlwind and some custom bits of 3D that needed to be done. We went to The Senate; they composited effectively all of the miniature work, which are many exteriors of the house, and that was combined with live-action. Method Vancouver did the extensions of the town and sequences like the Hall of Mirrors and the Train Station; most of their work was very good and pretty invisible.”

“Angus is extremely creative and conveyed the look he was after through a variety of reference material which he and his team had put together,” states Moving Picture Company VFX Supervisor Arundi Asregadoo. “They ranged from films like Ryan’s Daughter [1970] to Mario Bava’s La maschere del demonio [1960]. Angus’ research also included paintings from a number of artists including John Atkinson Grimshaw; the material he gathered helped to show his methodology. In some cases, Angus created comps of elements he thought of using, or intended to shoot. The team at MPC found it invaluable as it really helped us get a feel for the style of the movie.” To handle the growing workload the London-based VFX company recruited its Canadian facility to help out. “We decided that the The Battle Royale sequence would be worked on from London and the Widows Hill sequence would be created by the team in Vancouver.”

“It was a pretty tough show for the amount we had to achieve in a short space of time but the major artistic challenge the team faced was creating the look of Angelique as a porcelain doll,” states Arundi Asregadoo. “We had over 130 shots to roto animate. The process had a number of different stages. We started with concept images which were a collaboration between, Mark Tompkins, MPC concept artist, Dermot Power, Tim and Angus. These images were then translated onto a digital model of Eva Green [Casino Royale], to create the layout of the cracks. Using this model, we created a rig, an animated model, which gave Tim the flexibility to design, how the cracks appeared and moved with Angelique. Tim was very keen for us to maintain Angelique’s beauty; this was achieved with using a combination of plate projection, blended with the CG render enabled use to life like look.” In the finale, two characters go through major transformations. “We had to create very accurate digital doubles. We sent a lot of time roto animating the actor’s performances. The lighting team did an amazing job recreating the lighting condition. It was a combination of plate projection combined with the CG renders in comp to create the final look.” Applying CG makeup on the faces of the two performers was no small task. “The integration of the CG renders with the live action plates was tricky. We tried to retain as much of the action in the plate as possible. In the case of Angelique, we kept her eyes to retain as much subtlety of her performance as possible. For other parts of the image, we used a combination of plate projections blended with the CG renders. For the look of the werewolf [Carolyn], we used a similar approach. We combined, rendered CG fur on the face [using MPC’s ‘Furtility’ software] with projected parts of the plate to create the final look.”

“This was simply a matter of following the design of the maquette and set piece built for the film,” states Arundi Asregadoo when discussing the stylized cliff featured in the movie. “We gradually blended that into some more naturalistic cliffs.” The stylized approach complicated matters when incorporating the visual effects into the scene. “There was no easy way to sell ‘reality’ with such a stylized natural surface, so a blend between the two was necessary, but the team did a great job sticking to Tim Burton’s style.” Practical effects where also utilized. Angus was very much in favor of using practical effects where possible, anything from Angelique spinning head, to shotgun blast of the wooden statues. In the case of the blood running down the on the paintings, elements were shot on a green-screen surface which matched the set. Angus would put together comp using the element to demonstrate how he wanted it to be used in the final shots. In one of the shots, Tim wanted a vase of flowers to wither. We used time-lapse photography to keep within the style of the film. James Kelly, MPC’s photographer spent four days shooting the flowers decaying against a blue-screen. The final images were the then comped onto the plate.”

“The Senate dealt with everything to do with Collinwood Mansion so a partial set was built on location called Bourne Woods outside of London; that was the entranceway to the house and we shot scenes there,” states Angus Bickerton who also paid a visit to Longcross Studios, a former military tank testing site to film a creation designed by a company called Mattes and Miniatures. “It’s topped off with miniature and I went for a miniature at 1/3 scale because ultimately it had to collapse and burn down. We shot it over a week and a half in all sorts of light conditions. We matched the alignment of the model to the sun path, matched the alignment of the partial set. It sometimes involved image projecting the miniature. We would shoot key positions and projected them onto geometry to track onto the live-action. There were a couple of instances where we created some CG shots later on.”

“Any time you see the manor except when it’s in the far distance we were involved in that,” reveals The Senate VFX Supervisor Anton Yri. “During the principle photography, they shot the actors in front of a full-scale ground floor of Collinwood Manor. On top of that was a blue screen. For all of those shots, they shot a third scale miniature which needed to align up with those cameras specifically for each shot. Because we didn’t have any motion-control used in the film with the manor basically we’d line up reference frames, maybe one at the beginning, middle, and the end of the shot. We could then use those to project onto geometry of the manor and run that through Nuke. It worked well for the majority of the shots. There are a number where we needed to use just the miniature. What we eventually did was a wide shot which was made up from scratch; we would use the miniature plates and augment them with CG trees, backgrounds, and matte paintings. There were a couple of shots where the manor is under construction that we used the basic CG shell of the house and pulled off the walls and roof, and replaced those with a wooden structure within. We had to the research quite carefully the building practices of 18th century because all of the wood they would have used wouldn’t be so perfectly cut and machine sawed so everything had to have a rough slightly dirty feel to it. There were also loads of additional pieces like general building sites ladders, scaffolding, tool boxes, ropes, and a million bits and pieces that you find on a large building site so we had to research those as well. We had to look into what sort of cranes that they used in the age so that involved us looking at old building references.”

“The camera had to start on the distance of Collinsport and sweep across to give a good relationship of the distance between the town and Collinwood Manor which is high up on a hill a few miles away,” states Anton Yri who had to orchestrate the sweeping camera movement as a single shot which passes over the surrounding forest, travels into the unfinished residence, and concludes looking down on the forecourt where the Collins family watches the manor being constructed. “We had to start at a basic level and get a rough layout of the entire coastline where Collinsport was located and piece together where the geographical locations of the town and house as well as the height of the hills. Once we had the general layout we could then start looking at creating a camera and a CG crane for it to sit on. We did numerous pre-viz examples of the camera, time, and lens. It took quite a bit of back and forth to get the layout to look right; once we had that we started with earnest putting the whole shot together which took some time. Everything [except for the people shot on film] was created from matte paintings to CG trees, house, crane, and even the forecourt where the family is standing was a miniature which we had to augment with matte paintings and CG.” Creating realistic trees was a not an easy task which involved matching the ones shot during the principle photography. “Anything organic can be tricky because there are so many natural details and variance. It’s quite a balance between getting uniformity but also a variety, and then we added layers of mist and tiny bits of movement to the trees themselves and light bit of life, like birds.” The British VFX facility was also responsible for the destruction of the constructed building in the Collinwood Manor Burn Sequence. “We did a couple of shots where the manor is completely ablaze so in those shots we had set the miniature on fire. The last few shots of the miniature shoot were the manor catching fire, the tower collapsing, and the door exploding out so it’s a dramatic shot. We relied completely on using the miniature plates which were shot at 96 frames per second to give the small flames a sense of scale by slowing them down.”

“We were involved with planning out the shot where a dynamic camera sweeping through the factory,” states Anton Yri referring to the Angle Bay/ Fishing Canning Sequence. “We had to workout what was the best way to film the green screen workers. ‘So we need the camera at this height, at this angle, using this lens and that should cover that section there.’ We had to replicate that for all of the workers throughout the factory.” As for constructing the interior of the cannery, Yri notes, “That was something that got handed to us early on in the post pipeline. The cannery itself wanted it to be a hustling and busy factor floor; they shot a small segment of it in front of a green screen. In that respect, the ground floor where all the people were working was quite straightforward in what we had to do. We had to replicate what was happening in front of the green screen and multiply that back. We added a layer of workers working in front of a conveyor belt canning fish. Up on the ceiling we needed to create a cool looking conveyor belt system where the cans are being delivered around the factory; we were given a bit of artistic license in that scene. We had these conveyor belts weaving, dipping, and going all around the factory; it added a nice sense of movement because you watch as all of these cans weaving around. The entire thing was built in Maya.” The shiny metal cans were problematic. “It was difficult to find a way to render [them] in reasonable amount of time without causing weird buzzing and artifacts issues.”

“At the start of the film Barnabas Collins is buried in a coffin by Angelique, and this is the first time that we see him in the modern day,” states Anton Yri when discussing the McDonald’s Construction Site Attack Sequence. “These construction workers, who are building a McDonald’s slightly out of town, dig him up accidentally; he bursts out of the coffin and attacks them. We were tasked with building the 1970s style McDonald’s restaurant. It had to be completely designed, researched and built in CG so it could be pasted anywhere throughout the sequence. We also had to build a giant McDonald’s sign which had to be of that period. We had to do some online research and make phone calls to McDonald’s to find out what they were exactly like in those days. Once we had a rough idea about that we could then use Maya to get a rough layout idea of the restaurant. The notes were passed on to the Art Department to give us some confirmation that we were right. It’s a very fast action sequence. There were wire removals to do and we had to add in additional blood elements. We had to create a CG coffin lid and chains that burst out as Barnabas flies up out of the coffin and straight at the camera.” Motion blur was incorporated to “give the idea that he has super speed.”

“Angelique has this porcelain skin and as the film progresses she gets more jealous of Barnabas’ relationship with this other lady in this film, Victoria,” remarks Anton Yri. “The shot we had to do was the first time we see her cracking. Angelique is in such a rage she’s shaking and shuttering, and these cracks start to appear down her face, neck, and into her chest. That was a job where we needed to do some accurate object tracking of her and create a 3D geometry to have that crack moving accurately across her face and down her chest. We matte painted in the crack and once we had a signoff on the look it was the case of working on the animation and how the crack appears and how quickly it appears, and tried to make sure it didn’t come across as a 2D effect. It involved some 3D modeling to make all of the pieces within the cracks reacted differently from each other. It wasn’t an easy job. We only had one cracking shot to do whereas MPC was responsible for doing loads of them so we had a guide to follow as well as I had done a lot of R&D into the timing of it.”

“The Senate also did all of the Josette Ghost Sequences,” states Angus Bickerton. “She is the spitting image of the character of Victoria Winters who at the beginning of the film goes to Collinwood as in the opening titles of all the episodes of Dark Shadows. It was the same actress playing Vicky and the Ghost of Josette; we shot her on green screen at 120 frames a second, and on a bicycle seat turntable on a perforated platform with blowing wind from all directions, which was shot at 144 frames a second. We slowed down the material and her hair; any dialogue scenes we had to re-patch Vicky’s mouth at 24 frames a second. We also shot her in a tank at Pinewood; it was a custom stage dedicated to underwater photography. We shot Vicky there because Tim liked the way her dress and hair would flow in the water. The downside in shooting in the water is the sheer viscosity makes any moments a lot slower and harder to do; we tried to mix and match to get an unusual look. Sometimes we are comping underwater hair on elements of Vicky shot at 144 frames a seconds green screen. I don’t think there are any instances of a full figure shot underwater. We ultimately ended up using underwater elements to augment the dry-for-wet shoot as we call it.” Bickerton adds, “Tim said he wanted to make it feel like it was done optically” because the 2D gag ‘feels more appropriate for this film which is set in the 1970s.’”

“We worked primarily on [the sequence] when the ghost is seen floating down a corridor and ends up on top of the chandelier in the main foyer area,” explains Anton Yri. “At the end of that she would topple back off the chandelier, hit the marble floor and the marble floor would need to react as if she was landing in water. We had to make sure she had a nice realistic gliding motion. In order for her to fit into the environment we shot some reflections passes. We’d shoot the hallway pass as one, and then shoot another pass whereby the crew walked down the hallway slowly moving lights up and down and over the walls. We needed to merge those two passes together to project the reflections onto the main hallway pass and that was timed with her floating down corridor.”

To add to the creepiness CG crabs were created. “Right at the start of the process [it was something] they wanted to do when she first appears in a doorway underneath a sheet,” explains Anton Yri. “The lady who uncovers her thinks it is a little boy pretending to be a ghost. To make her look weird and creepy they came up with the idea that she had drowned and wanted to have a crab crawl out of her mouth when she starts to speak. But then they decided they didn’t want any of the crab. Quite close to the end of our delivery schedule they decided they did wanted a whole bunch of them. We had object track her with the green screen plate so we had a very accurate 3D representation of the ghost herself. We had to model and rig the crabs to make them all very similar but also add muscle differences to them. It was a case of doing animation tests and passing those through as quickly as possible. They wanted them to bunch up on her when she is revealed and then quickly scatter away. They started off tiny crabs but got bigger. I fell in love with the idea of these crabs so I wanted them to standout. One shot we had six crabs shuffling away over her face, around her neck and over her chest. In the next shot we had the original one which pops out of her mouth when she starts to talk and runs off her cheek and into her hair. Those were some interesting challenges those shots. We haven’t done a lot of creature animation here so it was something we wanted to get involved in and were pleased to be given the job.”

A funny scene in Dark Shadows involves Johnny Depp brushing his teeth without the help of his mirror reflection. “That was work done by Method,” states Angus Bickerton. “There’s no roto involved. Ultimately, the toothbrush ended up entirely CG. We shot Johnny Depp with a mirror in front of him so you could see the action he was doing with the toothbrush. The CG toothbrush matched his action. It was a complicated camera movement; however, the reflection in the mirror was simple. It involved the shooting of some tile plates.” Method Studios VFX Supervisor Mark Breakspear enjoyed producing the cinematic moment. “That was a fun one off shot,” says Breakspear. “His teeth don’t reflect but the foam on the teeth does. Angus shot a practical element of a toothbrush on green screen to give us an element of the foam. We reshot it on our end because the angles weren’t quite right. We built the CG toothbrush.” The movements of Johnny Depp had to be mimicked. “We have a lot of tools to match acts of motion. We artistically allowed the toothbrush to be at a certain angle to catch the light reflections or we moved lights around to help that. In reality the toothbrush would have been quite dark and plastic but you wanted it to shine.” The creative process was more time consuming than hard. “We tracked it all together and it ended up going into the trailer. It wasn’t major difficult because we shot enough elements. It was well prepared and thought through.”

“We’ve done a lot of work with Angus in the past centred around environments and different locations,” states Mark Breakspear. “For this movie, the first big challenge was creating the village of Collinsport which is where the whole movie takes place. We filmed in Pinewood and they used the water tanks set at the back. They built small facades of streets without any roofs around the water tank then we had to extend that in every direction possible so that it looked like it was a fully alive and working seaport. That required a lot of effort from all of our departments right from scanning the practical set and shooting, all the way through to pre-vizing how it would look, building the models inside the computer, texturing and lighting based on practical photography of the real set, tracking them together and making an environment that looked real. Added to that environment were things like seagulls, a CG ocean, boats on the horizon, people off in the distance, and trees native to that location.” To assist the effort the Art Department provided drawings as to “how they imagined the city was going to look from a distance. But it was up to us to construct a town that felt real. We had to cheat a few things because from some of the angles they shot you wouldn’t really see the town. They wanted it to be nestled in this little cove with steep sides. We built the village going up the sides of this whereas as a technical set plate you would see the sky we would replace everything and putting hills going up with buildings and streets, cars, lights, and electrical polls.”

“That was one of the big reveals of the town,” states Mark Breakspear in regards to the sequence where antagonist of story drives through Collinsport. “Angelique is driving in her car and everyone in town looks up to her because she is the most powerful person in town prior to Barnabas arriving. It’s a collection of shots where we’re behind her or in the car with her and all we’re seeing is what was a small set and we’ve extended everything in multiple directions to make it look like she is driving through a much bigger village. She’s driving a lot further and around more corners and bends. It really does work when you put the whole thing together. We are very proud of that sequence as well.” When questioned on how to achieve a seamless set extension, Breakspear replies, “It’s variation but not too much variation. Your buildings have to fit the style of the buildings on set which were designed from a conglomeration of images they found of East Coast architecture. We had to mimic the mimicry in such a way that it felt real. We scanned the entire set. We had the architecture from a physical point of view so it was a case of texturing and lighting the buildings to make them feel real. Some of our buildings are off in the distance and we allowed the light to glint off the walls; we blew them out so they’re almost overexposed. That’s how they would be in reality if they’d filmed it. All of the sudden the shot comes alive because it feels real.”

“The other two challenges were single scenes,” states Mark Breakspear. “Our heroine arrives at Collinsport by train so there’s this opening montage where we see a real Downeaster from the 1970s going through the Maine landscape. We had to create the station that the train pulls into so the train is CG; she steps off the green screen box in a green screen background onto a small piece of platform that they built practically at Pinewood. We cyberscanned the environment, extended it, and added a CG train. The train has to start pulling away and there has to be other people on the platform, and there’s also the other side of the train station which had to be replaced with Maine looking environments. We had to build it all. It’s one of those sequences where you watch it and when you’re in the know you know but when you watch that sequence she arrives on a train, gets off, and walks out of the station. That is why I love doing visual effects because people watch it and they’ll go, ‘What did you do?’ I’ll go, ‘That train wasn’t real.’ They’re like, ‘What?’ And then they realize that this is the 1970s and that train isn’t going to be allowed to be used for a whim of a movie director.”

“The other sequence which we worked on was named the Hall of Mirrors,” says Mark Breakspear. “In the story, Barnabas is talking to Elizabeth played by Michelle Pfeiffer [Dangerous Liaisons], in the old house that he used to live in 250 years ago; she says, ‘Look it’s no good. We’re broke. We’ve got no money left. It’s all gone. Our family has been broke up for a couple hundred of years. Our fishing shop is completely closed down. We’re out of money.’ He says, ‘No, you’re not. Why haven’t you tapped in to the secret wealth of Collins?’ Elizabeth goes, ‘What secret wealth?’ Barnabas stands by the fireplace; he reaches up and twists a certain way a knob with a wolf’s head and the fireplace breaks apart revealing a secret passageway. They go down this secret passageway and it’s all lined with mirrors. Barnabas walks down this twisting corridor and there are mirrors on both sides. You get this infinite reflection going off in each direction. As great an actor as Johnny Depp is he wasn’t quite able to work out how not to reflect in a mirror and so it fell to us. We scanned the inside of the corridor. We removed it from the practical plates completely and rebuilt entirely in CG so that we could control what reflects and what doesn’t. We brought back her reflection, and he’s hold a lamp which is swinging in the air with his hand, an old candle lamp. We kept that. We added CG tracks to the practical one and reflected it. You get the infinite reflections where he should be as a gap and then you see her reflection. As they walk down this corridor you suddenly become aware, ‘Wait a second. Where’s his reflection?’ It’s going to be one of those effects that will going to grow over time because people will not notice it the first few times.”

Reflections of Johnny Depp had to be replaced throughout the movie such as when he returns to Collinsport after being released from his coffin. “He walks around a red car and reflects all over it,” recalls Mark Breakspear. “We had to paint him out of the reflection. One of the hardest things you have to do is what people perceive as being the easiest. If you say to them, ‘I’ve got to do a CG dinosaur and have it attack a village.’ You go, ‘Okay, that’s going to cost a lot of money.’ But you say, ‘I’ve got to remove someone’s reflection from a car.’ They go, ‘That’s going to be hardly anything.’ We have to bill it that way but in reality the difference in cost is not as great as you might think in terms of hours spent in comp on that shot. You’d be surprised how many man days it takes to remove a reflection from a shiny object in a way that is completely transparent to the end that you cannot tell. It’s one of those things again that people will go, ‘Look he’s not reflecting in the window. He’s not reflecting in the edge of a telephone. He’s not reflecting in the side of a lamp or reflective light. All of these little things have been removed as well as all of his blinks.” Breakspear chuckles, “You think about how many times a person may blink in a movie and you have to get rid of all of those. You have a lot of shots where it’s painting out this one moment where he blinks or maybe the camera caught half a blink so his eye seems to flutter and open again. We had to get rid of that flutter. On the individual shot you scratch your head and think, ‘What am I doing this for?’ But when you see it build up in these multiple shots suddenly you have this big piece of work that doesn’t have it in it, and it’s cool.”

“Angus’ brief was pretty straightforward because the VFXs we had to do were quiet simple to visualize: a disco ball exploding, a glass wall breaking, and Alice Cooper to make younger,” states Buf Visual Effects Supervisor Eddy Richard. “We designed several look for each effect and Angus was making his choice; he had a very good idea of what Tim Burton was expected so we had very rarely to change something that Angus approved.” Richard collaborated with colleague VFX Supervisor Christopher Dupuis on the project. “At the beginning, I was taking care of the Alice Cooper’s sequence and Chris was supervising the other shots. After a few weeks Alice Cooper was rolling so we split the responsibilities depending on the amount of work on the remaining shots.” The rejuvenation of the famous musician was the biggest challenge. We looked for pictures of the young Alice Cooper to see what could make him younger but the same man [and it’s not so easy to define]. Then we choose to mix a 3D and 2D method. We wanted to change the shape of his face and arms. To do so, we modeled an old Alice Cooper and a young one with the same 3D topology. We had to animate the old one to match the real Alice Cooper on each shot. Then we projected the shot’s plate on the old Alice Cooper model. We did a 3D morphing of the old model to match the young one. With this process we could reshape his morphology but all the shadows were the same as the plate so we still had a lot of wrinkles to remove in 2D. To remove all the wrinkles we patiently applied 2D processes almost frame by frame and we get the final result.”

“The main visual research we did was to define the look of the broken glass wall,” remarks Eddy Richard when addressing the Sexual Whirlwind Sequence. “It had to look realistic but Tim Burton had also requests to make it impressive. So we had to find a compromise between the two. For the tongue, Tim Burton had drawn us the shape he wanted so the main research was about the animation.” Christophe-Olivier Dupuis states, “Tim wanted something thin like a snake tongue but sufficiently strong enough to move the cheeks of Barnabas. We made a lot of different animations to get the right feeling.” The main challenge was the tearing shirt effect. “The arms on the shirt have been shot in several passes and we had to connect all the waves on the shirt to make them match to each other by warping them,” explains Richard. “We had also to generate the tears and add fibers on them and to add light interactions between the hands and the shirt.” Dupuis reveals, “We decided to rebuild every thing in CGI [shirt and arms] to place the tears. The original shot [the master] was shot with a roll camera movement. We started by a stabilization to be more comfortable to work, after that we had to rotoscoped the CGI arms to get the positions in space against the shirt and extract shadows of them. We rebuilt the shirt, one part in displacement and another with a model deformed by a kind of muscle; to finish we’d placed tears and open the shirt’s scars. To be precise on the shirt we had many tracking points.”

The French VFX facility was tasked with the breaking of the disco ball. “We started by doing a physically correct simulation of the explosion of the ball but the explosion was not very impressive,” says Eddy Richard. “Tim Burton wanted something with a lot of twinkling pieces exploding all over the room. We had to again find a compromise between realism and impressiveness.” A digital solution was employed. “We recreated the original mirror ball shot on the set,” states Christophe-Olivier Dupuis. “After that we calibrated the CGI solids simulation based on physical law. We amplified the bounce reactions of each mirror pieces and fake a little bit the quantity to obtain the finally version.” Richard proudly declares, “I think that the result looks cool.”

“The laughing paintings on the wall of the castle were also another effect we had to do,” notes Dupuis. “At the beginning, we had several of them to do but after the editing only one shot stay.” Three paintings had to be animated at the same time. “We made CG characters for each. Afterwards, we made the animation based on video shot by Angus to define the comedy, but those references were not expressive enough to work well. We proposed some different acting. The peculiarity of this one was to build each animation true to the painted frame in CGI, and record the result in 2D because a canvas is a flat element; that way we made sure there was a good perspective.”

“Some sequences like when Angelique played by Eva Green drives through the town have a nice feel to them,” reflects Visual Effects Supervisor Angus Bickerton. “She drives up to and walks into the Angel Bay Cannery which segues into the whole sequence in the cannery production line. It’s completely invisible and it supports the sequence. There’s a subtle story there which I quite like.” Unlike his previous effort Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton has elected to choose a more traditional path for Dark Shadows. “The IMAX version involves sending the final graded film off to IMAX for them to do their propriety scaling up. Early on we flirted with the idea of 3D. Tim strongly felt right from the get go that this wasn’t a 3D film. He didn’t want to do it. He shot on film. He and Bruno Delbonnel [Amélie], the DOP, wanted to shoot on film. It doesn’t need to be 3D at all. We were all relieved when Tim got his way.”

Production stills © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

VFX images © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved. Images courtesy MPC, Method Studios Vancouver, The Senate and Buf

Visit the official websites for Dark Shadows, Method Studios ,The Senate, MPC, and Buf; be sure to check out Trevor’s Tim Burton filmmaker profile, Freakishly Clever.

Many thanks to Angus Bickerton,
Arundi Asregadoo, Anton Yri, Mark Breakspear, Christophe-Olivier Dupuis and Eddy Richard for taking to the time to be interviewed

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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  • Angelica Smiley

    This movie is hilarious ! I also cant wait to see Parker Posey in The Love Guide next week! I think Johnny Depp and Parker Posey should make a movie together! Hilarious!