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Sound and vision: Dracula

Posted on Mar 20, 2020 by Chelsea Fearnley

Sex toys, screaming babies and rebellious cloaks. We talk to the people responsible for the sound, SFX and VFX in the BBC’s Dracula

Words Chelsea Fearnley / Pictures BBC/Netflix

Let’s start with the score. A mix of murky orchestral dirges and romantic flourishes that stink of Dracula: his toxicity infects each piece of music – but it’s only when you pay close attention that you actually notice it.  

David Arnold – perhaps better known as composer for the James Bond films – reveals that he experimented with all manner of unsavoury sounds, including glass rubbing with real blood, coffin lid percussion and an ‘organ’ of screaming baby sound effects.

“I got Doug Sinclair at Bang Post Production to send me all their recordings of screaming babies, and I programmed them into software that allowed me to change the pitch, yet retain the sound and tone,” Arnold divulges. 

“To have screaming babies among the score evokes a human reaction of unease and panic. It’s instinctive and it’s the same sense of horror that Dracula exudes.”

Sounding horror

Doug Sinclair was the supervising sound editor on the series, meaning he was responsible for the sound effects and foley sound departments. 

He reveals that sound effects are often conjured through stock effects that have been treated and combined with different noises, whereas foley reproduces everyday sounds – and these are made in-house. 

Claes Bang (left) and Dolly Wells
Claes Bang (left) and Dolly Wells sample some of the effect department’s fake blood..

“Foley often works simultaneously to sound effects but can sometimes be discarded for a sound effect when an action requires more weight,” he explains. “When Harker enters Castle Dracula for the first time, for example, the castle’s doors unexpectedly slam shut behind him. A door closing would usually be covered by foley, but we used a sound effect here to add more drama.”

Foley and sound effects working together can be heard as Dracula emerges from the body of a werewolf. Sinclair reveals that “the bone breaking and dog yelps are effects; the chunks of gloopy flesh ripping away from the wolf’s body are foley.”

 

Devil’s dog

Which brings us onto how that particular scene was created – a scene that is, without a doubt, perhaps the most grotesque of the entire series.

“The idea was that Dracula would be born out of a wolf,” say Dave and Lou Elsey. “It had to be odd, frightening and strange, and a lot of work went into that.” 

The Elseys are prosthetic make-up artists who own Igor Studios in Los Angeles. Their involvement on the show’s visual effects was paramount, as the series’ visual brief requested in-camera effects as much as possible. 

The wolf was a custom-built puppet with a cavity that allowed actors to crawl out of it via a hole underneath the set. Differently sized contortionists were hired to come through the hole and out of the wolf’s body in weird, twisting shapes to capture the transformation’s horrific and other-worldly quality. 

“One of the contortionists was female, so we made a male body prosthetic for her to wear, and both contortionists wore a prosthetic of Claes Bang’s head before he [Dracula] emerged as the final element of that sequence,” explains Dave Elsey.

The separate shots, depicting the different stages of the transformation, were then edited together to make up the scene. 

A crucial practical effect of that sequence, however, could only be achieved by melting down and remoulding some rather adult material. Dracula emerges from the wolf in something that looks a bit like an amniotic sac but is, in fact, a sex toy. To achieve the desired effect – which required “tough but breakable and slightly translucent plastic” – only the material from a flesh light could do the trick!

Last minute prosthetics

The process of making facial and body prosthetics starts with an image of an actor, as this helps direct the design in Photoshop. However, John Heffernan’s prosthetics for his character, Jonathan Harker, had to be done without a reference because he wasn’t cast until the very last minute. 

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I got Doug Sinclair at Bang Post Production to send all his recordings of screaming babies

“Fortunately, he was the perfect casting for the look we had come up with,” explains Lou Elsey. “Camera tests with Tony Slater-Ling [see the last issue of Definition to read an interview with the DOP] revealed that his skin tone needed to be more complex than we had made it, especially because Tony went for a natural, candlelit lighting environment.”

Dave Elsey adds: “It was later added that he would escape Castle Dracula by jumping from the roof, so we added decay to his prosthetic, where he might have hit rocks on the way down or been nibbled by fish after landing in the water.”

Digital effects enabled subtle yet horrifying sequences
Digital effects enabled subtle yet horrifying sequences, such as this fly crawling into Jonathan Harker’s eye

Muted vfx

Jonathan Harker escapes to the convent in Hungary where he is quizzed by Sister Agatha about his time at Castle Dracula. During that scene, a fly lands on his eye and goes inside it.

“It’s all anyone could talk about, but it really wasn’t that difficult to do,” laughs Matt Wood, VFX supervisor at Space Digital. “We already had a fly that we built years ago for another one of [director] Jonny Campbell’s series, and we knew that it could perform reasonably well. It was designed so that an animator would only need to move it around, and its legs and wings would automatically do the right thing.”

What is interesting is that the way this fly got inside Harker’s eye wasn’t actually decided until the edit. 

“It was scripted that the fly would go inside Jonathan Harker’s eye when he blinked, but that looked awkward when we tried it. We ended up coming across a take that featured him glancing off to the side, and it was suggested that the fly could burrow behind his eye from the corner of it,” Wood explains.

“The actor looking off to the side made it easier for the fly to slip inside almost unnoticeably, so we riffed off that idea instead of sticking to the script.” 

The subtlety of this effect is an example of Wood’s visual brief, from which he was asked to create visuals that are ‘in service to the story’.

Practical effects were used wherever possible
Practical effects were used wherever possible, a nod to Dracula’s rich cinematic history stretching back almost a century

He explains: “Johnny Campbell doesn’t love visual effects. He prefers to keep them muted, and only in the foreground when they really have to be. For instance, when I first read the script I thought, great! We’re going to make a CGI castle: a big, grandiose thing – but actually, that was the last thing Johnny wanted.”

Castle Dracula is a real castle, Orava in Slovakia. Wood’s input was to make the castle look as remote as possible, by painting out surrounding motorways and car parks. He also created environments that proved impractical to film. 

“Everything that Jonathan Harker sees when he looks out of the castle’s tower window at night was built by us. The courtyard he sees when he looks down is a CG 3D model, the sky he sees when he looks to the side and above are digital matte paintings, assembled from photographs I took around Orava.”

Wood worked from daytime photographs because when they were edited for night in Photoshop, the clouds and buildings were still visible in the distance. He notes that, “this helped emphasise the feeling of classic horror.”

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Tricky cloaks

Writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss advised Wood that the series is a ‘love letter to all the old Draculas’, and that the visuals should embody that. 

“That doesn’t mean we reverted back to old-school techniques,” he clarifies. “It would have been too expensive, and audiences wouldn’t have accepted it – saying that, we reinvented an old gag for Dracula’s cloak.”

Wood reveals: “It’s often assumed that anything is possible in CGI, but when we tried to simulate Dracula climbing the castle walls – and in that scene, it’s scripted that he moves from side to side and up and down – his cloak was all over the place. It looked ridiculous!”

Previously, wall-climbing gags would have been done by filming someone crawling across the floor and tilting the camera in a way that made it look as though they were climbing a wall. And whatever they were wearing naturally hung towards the floor, because of gravity.

“We realised it’s the image that’s been established in people’s minds – they expect to see Dracula’s cloak clinging to the wall because of this old gag. So, in our cloth simulation, we flipped gravity on its side and ended up with an image that felt right,” Wood enthuses.

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The courtyard Jonathan Harker sees when he looks down is a CG 3D model
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Downsizing delivery

Dracula was delivered in 4K for budget reasons but, as DOP Tony Slater-Ling revealed in our last issue, the first two episodes were shot in 6K with Canon K35s. 

“When you shoot 6K for a 4K delivery, you can push in on the image by 50% and get close-up shots for free, but anything that gives the edit more flexibility can sometimes backfire on our department,” explains Wood. 

“We’ve got to keep track of all those push-ins, or where they might have rotated the 4K frame within the 6K frame and so on, because there’s more likelihood of us slipping up and delivering something that isn’t quite the same as the way they had done it. It’s not a passion killer, but it can catch you out.”

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Dracula is currently streaming on Netflix and BBC iPlayer.

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