Dark Shadows

Thu 21st Jun 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus II

20 June 2012, by Renee Dunlop

If you were a fan of the original Dark Shadows TV soap opera from the late 1960's, you were probably smacking your bloody lips over news of the film, especially one staring Johnny Depp and directed by Tim Burton. Who else could take such a wicked little tale and make it better? For starters, MPC (Moving Picture Company) who completed 340 shots from their two locations in Vancouver, under VFX Supervisor Erik Nordby, and London, under VFX Supervisors Arundi Asregadoo, both under the guidance of VFX Supervisor Angus Bickerton.

The storyline takes place in Collinsport, Maine, where the once wealthy and influential 18th century playboy Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp) plays with the emotions of the wrong woman. That woman is witch Angelique Brouchard (Eva Green) who takes her revenge by casting a spell over Barnabas, turning him into a vampire and burying him alive where he remains until he is released from the casket where he has lain imprisoned for two centuries. The year is 1972 and obviously much has changed, including the stability of his estate, Collinwood Manor, and the descendants who inhabit it.


Dark Shadows was shot on film, specifically stock was 500ASA 5219, and required careful matching of grain and film stock. The challenges involved underwater shots for zero gravity effects, high frame rates, and details such as all of Barnabas's eye blinks and reflections throughout the entire film, in every single surface, be removed. The underwater shots provided the ghost scenes and were shot at London's famous Pinewood U Stage that is capable of holding 1.2 million litres of water that is heated to 32°C. Since the actors were unable to move as quickly in the water as was required for the scene, some shots needed to be sped up to achieve the desired effect, and escaping air bubbles needed to be painted out. Proper keying needed attention as well since the red channel tended to dissipate past roughly 20 feet. And that was only for the hair. Tests showed the hair flowed better in the water shots but not so with the clothing. The solution to the clothing was to film using a huge air jet shooting at 120 frames per second, then combine the two methods into one image.

The film opens with establishing shots of Liverpool that is almost entirely CG, as the Collins family prepares board the ship that will take them to America where they hope to begin a new life with young Barnabas in tow. The boat, the dock, the landscape, props and buildings were all added by MPC Vancouver, then water and environmental elements were mapped to 2D cards to complete the scene. The only practical elements were the family on the walkway as they prepared to board the CG ship.




The two eras are connected by two sequences on Widow's Hill that focus on cliff deaths of unfortunate characters who fall to their ‘death’ upon the coastal rocks below. Handled at MPC in Vancouver under VFX Supervisor Erik Nordby, the 200 foot high environment was handled by combining Digital Matte Painting environments and practical assets. Sections of the cliff wall were sculpted using ZBrush and the resulting seven slices of varying resolution were projected with environmental textures, then carefully lit to blend in with the practical environment and set pieces. The action areas required a high level of detail for the close-ups, while lower levels were used for establishing shots.

In the background, a pine tree forest surrounding the Collins manor was created using Vue software. Multiple trees were individually planted and rendered with natural variations, then the resulting images were mapped to cards scattered about so that moving camera shots would portray the appropriate parallax for depth and believability.



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MPC London shared tasks with their Vancouver division. London was mainly responsible for the battle between the witch Angelique and Barnabas Collins, Angelique’s flesh cracking like a china doll, the ghost effects, wooden statues coming to life, blood running down walls, flowers dying and floors cracking.

And what gothic horror is complete without the requisite werewolf? Character Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz) handled the role, and much of her own acting was applied to the werewolf character. Wearing little prosthetic makeup, MPC tracked her facial expressions on set using tracking markers then recreated her expressions with 3D geometry that was tracked to her head movements. Her legs were also dressed with green stockings and replaced by animated CG limbs that resembled the appendages of a wolf. The look was more stylized than MPC had done before but they were able to lean on previous work from their films such as Harry Potter and Wolfman. However this time, instead of the ragged look of those forlorn creatures, Moretz's character was exquisite and manicured, accomplished by using MPC's propriety hair software, Furtility.




Witches are a mischievous bunch and Dark Shadow's Angelique is no exception. In one sequence she relies on a collection of wooden statues, brought to life through her magic, to join in her attacks and mayhem. The magic was just as magical as MPC's process that required the animation, effects and Digital Matte Painting departments to work together in order to achieve the effect.

Those effects were inspired by the great Ray Harryhausen's stop motion work, according to VFX Supervisor Angus Bickerton. Director Tim Burton reviewed concept sketches provided by MPC concept artist Mark Tompkins which were designed to show time lapses, particularly to assist with the animation of the sea serpent. MPC first scanned the practical models on set and used that data cloud to create identical high-resolution 3D models. The high-res models were rigged for maximum movement that was required for the witch-induced behaviors they would need to perform. The 3D statues also had to tear themselves from the walls of the Grand Foyer where they existed, handled by MPC's effects department. They also used MPC's in-house destruction tool, Kali, to create splintering wood that showered and exploded from one attacking statue that was hit with a blast from a shot gun. Dust, age and patina were composited in at the end.

The background in this scene received at least an equal amount of attention through the addition of growing destruction and blood running from cracks in the walls and oozing from the statues. Handled again by MPC's digital matte painting team, The background action increased throughout the 200 shots required, melding with the foreground action in order to enhance it without diminishing attention to the primary action.


Another of MPC London's tasks and perhaps their biggest challenge on this film was taking Angelique's flesh from a natural state to one resembling a porcelain doll covered with cracks. The effect was applied in increasing amounts over 115 shots as she gradually calcifies and shatters after she pulls her own beating heart from her chest, a bizarre almost human heart that glowed and shattered too.



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The initial stages involved solidifying the look that Tim Burton wanted through concept art and a great deal of exploration defining the characteristics of the cracking, how it shifted and how severe the cracks were for each stage. One of the main decisions was what the cracking skin would eventually reveal, if Angelique’s beauty would remain intact or would she peel away to reveal a horrible crone underneath. To explore these options MPC concept artists Dermot Power and Mark Tompkins worked with Burton defining the various stages of decomposition. Once MPC achieved the look that Burton was after, the actress was cyberscanned and filmed by one primary camera and two witness cameras. Concept sketches were projected on to seven different high resolution digital doubles of Angelique each with an increased amount of decay using object tracking with mocha Pro, providing the modeling team a template from which they could define the cracking process. Extensive rigging was required for the shot that had to be roto-animated to exactly match actress Eva Green's movements throughout the cracking sequence, then technical animators replaced Green with the disintegrating CG model. Some of the tiles were displaced to improve the dimensional effect. Further down the pipeline the lighting department lit both the cracked and intact models to assist with the compositing step.





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