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In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola released a new version of Bram Stoker’s venerable Dracula. Adapted several times to the silver screen before (most famously with the likes of Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee as the Prince of Darkness), Coppola was determined to make his take stand out from the rest. He envisioned a sweeping epic that would be equal parts romantic, gothic and horror. Although it’s debatable how much of an overall success the result is, with the likes of Keanu Reeves delivering one of the most infamous British accents put to film, what is indisputable is the movie’s visual splendor and its impressive traditionally-made visual effects.
The Dracula novel takes place in the late 19th century, near the birth of cinema. As a way of paying homage to the time, Coppola decided to create all of the special effects used in the movie in-camera, without the aid of green screen or CGI, and all of it filmed entirely on a sound stage. Even optical effects were kept to a minimum and only used in two cases. The idea was to craft a movie that would’ve been technically feasible to make one hundred years ago. When Coppola brought forth this idea to his VFX supervisors, they told him it would be impossible to do this with the set-pieces he had in mind, that there was just no way to accomplish it without digital trickery. Undaunted, Coppola simply fired them and hired his son Roman to help him deliver his vision on screen.
For FearEra’s Horror month, in this week’s Film Frame Friday we will be showcasing a few of the old school and clever visual effects of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Multiple Exposure Photography
Multiple exposure is a technique in which the camera shutter is opened more than once to expose the film several times, in Dracula’s case done to different images. Coppola widely uses in-camera double exposure (and sometimes even triple) cinematography throughout the film as a means to link scenes or characters together. He employs this technique to insert characters or objects into a scene, an entire scene within a scene, or to transition from one scene to another.
Dracula makes ample use of this age-old film technique, in which detailed, large scale paintings are used to represent otherwise complex and lavish landscapes and scenery (such as the Transylvania countryside and Dracula’s castle). Although today this is somewhat of a lost art replaced almost entirely with CGI recreations and digital compositing, Coppola used this technique entirely in-camera. This was done by first filming the live action part with the background blacked out and unexposed. Then a cut-out would be placed over the live action footage, the film would be rewound, and the background painting would be filmed, effectively combining both. In some cases, glass is used. If done correctly, the result is seamless.
Lucy, now in the process of becoming undead, enters her own crypt. As she comes down the steps, the candles in the room are lit up by her vampiric presence. One of the most simple tricks in the movie, the candles don’t light up at all, they’re in fact being snuffed out. Lucy, played by Sadie Frost, simply walked up the steps backwards as stagehands put out the candles. Then the film was played in reverse. This also helped give her an unnatural sort of motion, which further heightened the strangeness of her new state of being.
As Jonathan Harker shaves in front of a mirror, we see Dracula’s hand inching towards him, placing it on his shoulder. Accurate to traditional vampire lore, we do not see Dracula’s hand or body being reflected on the mirror. But how is this possible? Reeves is clearly being reflected on there! We’re in fact seeing no reflection at all, there’s no mirror whatsoever. It’s Reeves right in front of us looking through a hole in the wall with a duplicate background behind him. The back of the head that we’re looking at is that of a double’s.
Shadow of the Vampire
Inspired by the use of shadow in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, Coppola gave Dracula’s shadow a life of its own. His shadow was literally its own character played by a separate actor. It was just a matter of proper use of lighting and Oldman and the “shadow puppeteer” working together to achieve the unsettling effect.
The Train and the Journal
As mentioned before, Dracula is an epistolary novel, which means it’s made up of a series of documents such as letters, journals and newspaper clippings, and this adaptation strives to showcase some of that narrative style. In this scene, Jonathan Harker is traveling to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula, and is recounting his trip on his journal. At first glance it looks like an image of the journal has been superimposed over the footage of the train, but look closely and you’ll notice the shadow of the train’s smoke is being cast over the book. How is this achieved without digital effects? Remember how the entire movie is shot on a sound stage? This means it is simply a model train. As for the journal, the VFX team built a gigantic book and placed it in front of the model train, and filmed everything together. All that was required was some clever thinking, the right angle, and the appropriate placement of a powerful backlight.
The Stagecoach Driver
For the last leg on his trip towards Dracula’s castle, Jonathan Harker boards an otherworldly stagecoach. The mysterious driver helps him in by stretching his arm in an absolutely inhuman manner. To achieve this shot, they placed the driver on a crane separate from the actual stagecoach, and merely physically moved him towards Reeves in tandem with the camera so as to preserve the creepy effect, and then back out again.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula in a sense marks a before and after in the world of visual effects in cinema. Just a year earlier James Cameron had released his seminal Terminator 2: Judgment Day, showing the world what CGI could do, and that it was here to stay. Although Dracula won Academy Awards for Best Costume Design, Sound Editing and Art Direction, Robert Zemeckis’s CGI-pioneering Death Becomes Her won for visual effects. In fact, Dracula wasn’t even nominated for that category. What was a celebration of classic cinema techniques was deemed to be unimportant and unimpressive. The torch had been passed to the world of computer graphics. But while the computer-made imagery of most movies of that era has aged like cheese, the visuals of Coppola’s Dracula have aged liked the finest of wines.
Note: some information was sourced from the In Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects of Dracula special feature found on the Bram Stoker’s Dracula Blu-ray.