By Mary Ann Skweres
In preparing for shooting Van Helsing, cinematographer Allen Daviau, ASC sat down with the film’s writer and director Stephen Sommers for lengthy viewing sessions of some of the classics of the genre, such as Bride of Frankenstein. Conceived as an epic homage to horror films of the ’30s, Van Helsing starts out with a full eight minutes in black and white before segueing into a desaturated color palette. As the film progresses, the color scheme remains mainly at a low saturation level, with either cool night or cool overcast day exteriors.
The movie was shot partly in Los Angeles and partly in Prague, where an abundance of gothic locations made it an ideal choice for 1888 setting. Daviau worked closely with Sommers and production designer Allan Cameron, a favorite of the director, to come up an appropriate looking location for the film.
Daviau remembers that one of the most challenging scenes was the Vampire Ball, which was shot in a 400-year-old cathedral. The space was huge and unheated, and like a big marble refrigerator, colder inside than outside in the snow. “We were able to get some people to go up and cover the up-high windows with black so that we were able to shoot nights during the day,” recalls Daviau.
The scene, like many in the film, was seen to be lit only by firelight. The art department supplied candles that were plastic tubes filled with special oil, to give a perfect candle flame without ever burning down. The mere size of the location posed a daunting task to rig, he remembers. Lights were hidden in balconies and side-altars, and some had to be removed digitally. A balloon light was used for top ambiance. On shots of the ceiling, the digital effects artists at ILM replaced the light with images of the ceiling.
For other scenes, where firelight, torches or candles were the authentic sources of light, gaffer Larry Wallace developed a special firelight electrical source light that the crew referred to as the Medusa, because of its twelve light bulbs on flex arms. Designed to be easily hidden, it had a built-in flicker circuit and a built-in dimmer so cables didn’t need to be run to dimmer packs. Real torches and candles appeared in the shot, with the Medusa light hidden somewhere nearby. This kept the movement of the light consistent with apparent sources.
Daviau brought some of his key crew members in from L.A., including camera operators Paul Babin and Tom Canol, key grip Jim Shelton and three camera assistants. “When you have operators that have been with you for a long time, they make such valuable contributions in terms of the shots and how they are found and set up,” says Daviau.
Because a tremendous number of scenes were shot hours from Prague, Van Helsing had a large second unit shooting simultaneously. Daviau credits second unit director of photography Josh Bleibtreu for his “phenomenal and beautiful work,” such as the carriage chase sequence which, though scripted as a night sequence, ended up being shot at dusk on a number of different days. Use of digital intermediate made it possible to blend these shots.
The new Kodak 5218—the first of the Vision 2 stocks—became available as the project was coming together. Daviau realized there couldn’t be a better stock for dealing with digital intermediate, because it interfaced perfectly and the contrast range was, “the most phenomenal I’ve ever seen in a film.”
In fact, everything in the film was shot on that one stock: day, night, color, and black and white. The black and white sequences were printed on Kodak title stock 5369, providing film of excellent contrast. The remaining dailies and release prints were all done on regular Vision stock. Barendorf Studio Laboratories, one of the top European labs, handled the film dailies.
Editor and producer Bob Ducsay suggested doing the entire film in digital intermediate, so Daviau went into the film knowing that the finish would be with a 2K quality image, the same image resolution of the film’s approximately 1,200 VFX shots. Knowing the resolution range for the majority of the picture, Daviau took the original non-effects photography and finished those in 2K.
The ability to alter parts of the frame was a big plus for Daviau. “One of the things I love is that we can darken the floors, because when you have a large scene with a lot of backlight, you’re lighting the floor up hotter than you’d like to have it,” he says. “Steve [Scott, EFILM colorist] was able to float mattes to keep the floor and parts of the walls darker. It is wonderful to have that.”
The digital intermediate process allowed Daviau to go in and change contrast as well as density of color. This gave the film consistency and allowed him to control the look of the whole picture.
Daviau believes that with all the new technology and the never-ending challenges of film storytelling, the most important requirement of a cinematographer is “a very open mind.” He prides himself on his. Besides a combination of the techniques that cinematographers have always used, they now have a greatly expanded range of tools to make the images necessary for an innovative, yet well-told story, he says.
By Mary Ann Skweres