07 Legions of Bats: VFX and SFX

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“And all around them, the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings. The vampires’ time has come.”
—Stephen King, “Salem’s Lot”

While a majority of Dracula Untold is character driven, with the lion’s share of the film shot for camera, there are a number of key moments and scenes that require top-notch visual effects. Such scenes include the siege of Castle Dracula when Vlad literally vaporizes a cannon ball before creating the illusion in the minds of the Turks of the castle transforming into a giant dragon, and, of course, the “hand of bats.” Led by visual effects supervisor CHRISTIAN MANZ (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1), Framestore brought Shore’s vision to life.

The “hand of bats” depicts Vlad controlling a whirling mass of the mammals, conducting them and directing them to the Turkish camp. There, they wreak havoc among the garrison and herald Vlad and his vampire brood’s entrance.

These sequences were a huge undertaking. Manz provides: “It’s a difficult thing to pull off because thousands of bats floating around in the sky could look pretty corny.” To root it in reality, Manz looked to formations of starlings. He shares: “They move in a very fluid and interesting way when you get thousands of them.”

Taking this as the visual concept, the team used a combination of motion capture, mapping a performer’s hand movements, CGI and cameras mounted on wire to create the POV of the bats smashing into the ranks of Turks. Manz provides: “The ‘hand of bats’ has to smash down and eviscerate 100,000 people, so that’s quite a lot of work from us. In reality, we had 130 people in the quarry. We used a wire cam with a camera flying from about 160 feet in the air down over the quarry toward the Turks, and extended out into the army. Then we placed CG bats all over them in post.”

Vlad leaps off the monastery tower, mutating into this mass of bats, storming Mehmed’s camp with his vampire brood. Manz explains: “We didn’t want to do the old Christopher Lee where he turned into one bat. We were trying to think of a cool way of doing that, so we’ve got him turning into multiple bats instead.”

De Luca expands upon the VFX supervisor’s explanation: “The ability to change form into a beast, a burden or a bat is time honored. Of course, it’s been done before, but we do it in a pretty original way. Vlad controls a swarm of bats that can take shapes and come down on people en masse. That is an original spin on a traditional power. So we tried to explain the powers, show where they came from, and then show them in use in original ways.”

Breathing new life into an established character is what led the creative focus for re-imagining the physical attributes of Dracula. In creating a new look for Dracula, the team first looked at known vampire images that had been seen before. Shore shares: “Because Vlad breaks the rules when he escapes Broken Tooth Mountain, it presented an opportunity to explore vampire mythology that hadn’t been seen before.”

Because Vlad wasn’t locked into the mountain, the filmmaking team felt justified in keeping his face human, showing only glimpses of the Ekimu (demon) underneath. The Master Vampire is more progressed because he’s been trapped in Broken Tooth Mountain for thousands of years. The Master is a creature of the night, hiding from the sun’s deadly rays. His skin has become translucent to the point that his teeth and his veins can be seen beneath the skin. The VFX department worked closely with hair and makeup designer DANIEL PHILLIPS (The Queen, Closed Circuit) to achieve a parallel—albeit gradual— physical transformation for Vlad.

Phillips explains: “We started with a very soft, handsome, heroic style. Then as the need for blood increases, we lightened Luke’s skin. We changed his color tones, paled the skin, sunk the eyes down, hollowed the cheeks out—just to give a feeling that he’s in a dark, bad place at that particular time. Then once he feeds, we gradually bring the colors up.

“It’s not until the very end that we see the true fully exposed Ekimu at the same time as others see it,” continues Manz. “Hopefully, it is as shocking to the audience. It was a huge challenge to create a vampire we can empathize with, but, like Frankenstein and The Elephant Man, there is something grotesque that scares the majority of Vlad’s people.”

Reflecting on the look of the creature that has haunted his dreams for all of these years, De Luca concludes: “The vampire look in our film is distinct in that it’s still scary, but there’s an element of heartbreak to it also: a soul has been given up to darkness. There’s a twisting, or a deformity of the human spirit and the human appearance that makes you see just enough of the human being underneath that you know something’s been lost. It’s a marriage of man and beast, and when this thing goes on the attack, it’s very scary.”