Dark Shadows VFX

Tue 19th Jun 2012, by Paul Hellard | Production

CGSociety :: Production Focus

19 June 2012, by Mark Breakspear

When I was asked to write a little piece about Method Studio’s work on Dark Shadows, I wanted to focus on the work we did in creating Collinsport, an idyllic east coast fishing town. It’s pretty hard to convey all the details that the team went through for this work, and I’ll never do it justice in the limited space I have. Writing as the supervisor is always a hard thing to do, I constantly change I, to we, to they. It was a ‘they effort’ and ‘they’ did an amazing job. Though I name a few names in this write up, please understand it was a massive group effort and behind every pixel there lurks two things… a talented artist and a seagull.

We first heard about the movie through Angus Bickerton, a visual effects supervisor with whom we’d worked before, on Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. It seemed at the time that everyone in the universe had heard about the original Dark Shadows TV show but me. Growing up in England, we were subjected to The Munsters, but had never seen any of the 1400+ episodes of Dark Shadows. I heard that children would rush home from school to see the show. Essentially set in Collinsport around the Collins family, Barnabus, played by Canadian actor Jonathan Frid would risk his life to save his family from disaster.


I was a child of Doctor Who and I didn’t rush home from school for it. I rushed home from school because I hated school and loved to watch TV, any TV.

Early in the summer of 2011 we headed to set at Pinewood in the UK. We were charged with building the digital version and extensions of Collinsport, the scene where Victoria Winters arrives by train, and the scene where Barnabus reveals 
the secret passageway and escorts Elizabeth Collins to the hidden family treasure store.

I’m going to focus on the environment build of Collinsport, but each of our three awards presented unique problems for us to solve. The sets had a period look and needed to cover both 1750 and 1970. The train station scene was shot on a small exterior set that needed nearly 90% environment builds to complete. The hall of mirrors set presented infinite reflection issues and was integral in showing us that Barnabus is indeed a vampire.

The art department had a very developed and concise view of how Collinsport should look and feel. It was rather fantastic that they knew exactly what they wanted right down to every little detail. They provided us with the CAD models they had prepared for the construction teams, and we used that as an early concept to build from. As with all construction, there are differences between the plans and the actual set, so we used Duncan Lees at 4DMAX to scan the whole set after it was made so we had a highly accurate model to build from.

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For Collinsport we need to make sure that the two time periods felt different, but still felt connected and visually linked as the same place. The plan of the streets essentially stays the same in very old towns, only the buildings changing over time. We used this in the design of Collinsport, letting the initial set design dictate the shape and style of the larger town build. Growing up in a tiny village in the UK, whose records date back to 800 AD, the roads had not really changed, but the buildings obviously had. We had buildings that dated back easily to the 1200s, but for the most part, everything was brand new (i.e. built in the last 300 years).

The practical set was designed around one main street, with blue-screens at the terminus of each side street. The entire set backed up next to the paddock tank at Pinewood so they could have real boats docked in the harbor. Because of this, the entire set was built raised off the ground by about 18 feet. It was a pretty remarkable thing to note that when you stood on the road, you actually stood on a surface suspended above the ground by scaffolding below.

We had to extend all of the side streets, as well as finish off the dockside area and ocean. For the layout we began building a replica of the practical set that was built in Pinewood. We expanded the streets in every direction, adding new buildings, cars and people in the style and design that the art department had built the few real buildings. The construction crew did not finish off the rooftops on the buildings as it was deemed a much more cost effective solution to have VFX finish them off. Seeing as we were building and extending the town anyway, it was indeed far more efficient.

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With any environment build, you don’t initially know how much you will have to build, and you hope that during the course of shooting, you will be able to narrow down the scope of the build to those areas featured in the movie. It doesn’t always work out that way, and in this case, we had to build so much of the various areas of Collinsport, it just made more sense to build the whole thing so we could view it from any angle, rather than delay until we had plates to focus on the areas that needed the most finishing and detail.

But, a town is so much more than just buildings. We had to add masses of details and ‘gak’ that would bring the streets to life. Even before we added any digi-doubles in the background, we needed to add street lamps, wires, cars and birds. Our street wires were an ingenious thing using a fur system. Digital artist Skye Freeman worked with CG Supervisor Dan Mayer to create the mass of wires that crisscross the streets. They also had to be able to gently move about due to wind currents and connect to the electrical poles in the same way as the practical.

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The road surfaces needed to look old as well, so our matte painting team helped create convincing looking roads. Even on set they spent a lot of time creating a road surface that was peppered with prior roadworks to add to the sense of reality. As Collinsport is a fishing town, there are lobster nets, boats, nets, fishing tackle and masses of old barnacled fishermen all over the place. We duplicated this look, adding it in wherever we could to match the look and feel of the practical sets.

The town was then broken into various passes for the compositing teams and rendered out of Maya in mentalray. Dan Mayer oversaw the whole process, having also worked on several of Angus’s previous features. Our Nuke compositors, lead by Comp supervisor Martyn Culpitt, placed all the elements together, grading and refining key edges as required. The lighting in the city was set up beautifully by lighting TD, Mert Yamak, matching the subtle bounces and reflections and spending time trying to get the same look and feel in other shots that the practical non-VFX shots showed.

Despite there being very large blue-screens all around the city, for some wide shots, they were still too small. We relied heavily on roto and match-move to help us isolate out some of our locations. Combining their roto mattes with the keys the comp team were pulling proved very effective in achieving the shots. We used the LIDAR model to undistort the photographs we took of the practical set.

The hardest thing for the Collinsport shots was believability. Because every human being has seen a town, the ocean and general street ‘action’, you don’t have much wriggle room for what looks real.

We realized early on, that we would have to add seagulls to most of the harbor shots. Our seagulls were rigged and animated in Maya by Michael Mulock. He built a series of animations that could blend from one to another, flying, hovering, swooping etc and then created paths for them to follow. Depending on the path, the seagulls would use different animations that made sense to their position. Each shot was then set up with unique flight paths that made sense to the movement. Angus and Tim could direct as they pleased, and we would add seagulls in as required.


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We studied seagulls in the local area, filming how they took off, flew and landed. Also watching how they behaved in each of those modes. Seagulls are constantly looking around for food, even when flying and even though many of the CG gulls are small in frame, you can make out all the details.

Our rigs were designed primarily to control complex wing and head movement. We didn’t create a feather system for the wings, we just were never that close, but we did build quite a complex model to give the illusion of detail where we needed it. For every shot, the level of detail was amazing, the Method team really did a great job creating a totally convincing environment in which the Collinsport band could tell their story.

On a side note, if you ever needed to get rid of a body, I’d just cover it in bread and leave it at Granville Island in Vancouver. It would be gone in 60 seconds. Never turn your back on a seagull.

Next week, CGSociety revisits the production of Dark Shadows with a view of the work done by MPC




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