Return to Table of Contents
DVDpage 2page 3
American Cinematographer Magazine
Monster Hunter
Allen Daviau, ASC stakes out the horror genre with Van Helsing, which pits the fearless vampire killer against a famous array of fiendish creatures.

Van Helsing has arrived, and not since 1948 have so many of Universal's classic monsters gathered at once on the big screen to bedevil innocent villagers. Back then, the comedic duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello began battling many of the studio's fiends, bumbling through a series of creepy, comic misadventures before saving the day. Now, more than 50 years later, Universal Studios has reunited its most hideous villains to terrorize Transylvania's townsfolk.

Commissioned by the Vatican to rid the region of evil, the titular hero of Van Helsing (played by Hugh Jackman) turns action hero, arming himself with an arsenal of clever weaponry. After dispatching an unruly Mr. Hyde, Van Helsing's next task is to thwart Count Dracula's latest plot. The centuries-old Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) is ready to settle down and have children with his three stunning brides, only to find that fertility can be an issue for an aspiring father who's also undead. However, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Samuel West) finds a possible solution to the problem with his latest experiment: the creation of life from lifelessness in the form of Frankenstein's monster (Shuler Hensley). Soon enough, Dracula coerces the doctor into lending a hand - or at least his laboratory equipment. During his mission to stop this scheme, Van Helsing partners with the vengeful Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale), who wants to dispatch the count to rid her family of a generations-old curse: when the full moon rises, her brother Velkan (Will Kemp) develops a bite that is worse than his bark.

Van Helsing was directed by Stephen Sommers, who revived another of Universal's classics, The Mummy, in 1999. After that supercharged homage became a box-office hit, he followed with a sequel, The Mummy Returns, in 2001. To shoot his latest thrill ride, Sommers recruited five-time Academy Award nominee Allen Daviau, ASC (E.T., The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Avalon, Bugsy).

Van Helsing marks Daviau's return to theatrical features, a realm he last visited in 1999 with The Astronaut's Wife. Away from the big screen but not idle, Daviau has been shooting mainly in the commercial world, and he also found time to participate in the color timing and printing for E.T.'s 20th anniversary theatrical and DVD release in 2002.

Daviau immediately recognized that Van Helsing would be a massive undertaking; thankfully, he was able to join the production very early to help shape the picture's aesthetic with Sommers and producer Bob Duscay. "Part of this film is an homage to the Universal horror films of the Thirties," Daviau says. "When we were first brainstorming the picture, we looked at a lot of clips and picked up elements from those pictures. One of the films we watched was The Bride of Frankenstein, and I noticed the night-sky backing they had used. Our production designer, Allan Cameron, subsequently made some huge night-sky backings that appear in key scenes."

In truth, describing Cameron's work on the project as "huge" is a gross understatement, as this writer can attest after paying a visit to the production in Downey, California, one night last spring with AC executive editor Stephen Pizzello. Working within a giant warehouse formerly used by NASA, Cameron had constructed a detailed replica of the Notre Dame cathedral's famed bell tower, in which Van Helsing would grapple with Mr. Hyde. But even more impressive feats of engineering awaited in the facility's sprawling parking lot, where crews had constructed the interior of Dracula's castle and a scary-looking bridge, nearly as long as a football field, that led up to the castle. "Steve loves to do shots that show vast sets," Daviau notes with droll accuracy.

Shipping containers, the kind one usually sees stacked precariously high on ocean cargo vessels, were butted against each other and stacked about 10 high, forming walls against which the sets had been built. The castle interior featured a dirt floor, flaming cauldrons and gigantic columns with flambeaus. Conceptually designed to have almost infinite height, the practical set, though enormous, still had its limitations, so the uppermost reaches would be added digitally. The towering double doors to one side of the chopped-top set brought to mind the jungle gates in King Kong. Alas, Fay Wray was nowhere to be found; instead, slimy green pods containing Dracula's offspring were suspended from various overhangs.

On the set, unsatisfied with his performance, Jackman asked Sommers for another take of a parting kiss with Beckinsale. Daviau, seeking old-school proximity, watched from his seat next to the Panaflex Millennium and near a small 2K floor-standing Book Light.

The Book Light, a technique pioneered by Jordan Cronenweth, ASC, is an entrenched part of Daviau's lighting repertoire, especially for actors. Basically, this fixture functions by bouncing light into a frame of Griffolyn and then through a frame of gridcloth - when seen side by side, the two frames look like an open book. The cinematographer used Book Lights of all sizes (up to 20'x20') to cast a very soft, wrapping light. "I'm a sharp-lens, soft-light cinematographer," he states. Stationed evenly along the top of the set wall were tungsten 20Ks aimed through diffusion and 1/2 CTB. Others were hidden on the ground behind columns, and all were tied to a dimmer board. A hard-source Bebee light was parked behind the wall, its arm elevated high above the set.

"That was a big location," Daviau recalls many months later at the ASC Clubhouse, his eyes widening at the memory. "It was funny, because we were doing the interior of Dracula's castle, but we were doing it as a night exterior simply because it gave us the space to work. I had a large Bebee light 120 feet in the air and as far back as I could get it and still cover everything. I played that as my principal edgelight. Then we had sources of flame that were all remotely controlled. I mixed gold-gelled tungsten light with that. Plus, it was a big Lightning Strikes operation, because lightning is a running motif throughout the picture. The largest unit we had was 500,000 watts."

For shots on the castle bridge, Daviau opted for 18K HMIs with 1/2 CTO to provide more punch through the heavy rain emitted from rain bars. Running along the length of the bridge on one side was a massive bluescreen lit by Far-cycs. "Once you've achieved the evenness on the screen, that dictates what your stop is going to be," he points out. "We worked it all out to a stop of 2.8. Visual-effects facilities used to want the bluescreen underexposed by a half to a full stop. This time, Industrial Light & Magic [ILM] made the specific request that it be on key. I asked [visual-effects supervisor] Scott Squires why, and he said it gave them more flexibility that way."

The responsibility of implementing Daviau's lighting schemes on the various sets fell to gaffer Larry Wallace. "Larry's been my gaffer since 1989," says the cinematographer. "One of the interesting things he engineered was something that would be representational of torchlight." Unofficially known as the "Medusa," the lighting instrument sits atop a single C-stand and features 12 to 15 snakelike flexarms that end in liquid-CTO-dipped bulbs, all of which are wired to a variable flicker circuit. Daviau mentioned that one of these pulsing units was hidden inside the castle's central tower, mimicking a firelight glow that could be seen through the iron-barred tower window as Jackman and Beckinsale performed their kiss. "After building and testing the Medusa, Larry sent it over to Prague to Andy Arnautov, who engineered the 220/50-cycle version," Daviau details.

Page 1



© 2003 American Cinematographer.