Return to Table of Contents
DVDpage 2page 3
American Cinematographer Magazine
Page 2

Production on Van Helsing actually began several months prior to the extensive Downey work, in January 2003, during the dead of winter in the Czech Republic. Though Daviau and key personnel had scouted there previously, they arrived in the country with only 17 days of prep before principal photography.

Naturally, two of the most difficult locations of the entire production were shot during the first three weeks. The first was the interior of a Czech history museum in Tibor that served as the Velarious family's castle. "It was all on the second floor, so everything had to be transported up," Daviau says. "Outside, we had to hang a big night-sky backing so we could shoot in the daytime. It was tented to a certain extent so that we wouldn't get direct sun in there. I was able to have the moonlight come over the top of the backing and into the windows of the place. The 18K HMI with half correction had the most punch. For this picture, I tended to favor the half-blue correction because that makes the moonlight more monochromatic. While we were shooting that, the riggers were cabling the cathedral."

The cathedral used for the show was the 400-year-old Roman Catholic Church of St. Nicholas in Prague, which has been turned into a museum. This location, which also proved to be challenging, served as the setting for a vampire costume ball. The cathedral's interior was redressed as much as possible to avoid any connection with such a sacrilegious, though make-believe, event. "It was the most difficult interior I've ever shot in, because it is a gigantic church," the cinematographer relates. "We had to use every side altar, every balcony, everything in there that we could keep out of the shot to place lighting equipment. The art department helped us by building pieces that we put to the sides as blocks so you couldn't see the lighting instruments, which were gelled in gold and mild CTO. There were a tremendous number of 'candles'. They're really refillable tubes that are sleeved in wax and contain oil that burns much like an oil lamp. Some lighting instruments we had to take out digitally. We used a balloon light that just vanished digitally in post this week! We are very proud of what we were able to do in there.

"Thank God for this new film stock, the Kodak Vision2 500T 5218," he adds, having learned its merits in such a difficult location. "When we started preproduction in October [2002], I shot a test on this film, and it is the best film stock I've ever seen. The joy of 5218 is its incredible contrast range. I shot the entire picture on it. It's a 500-ASA film that I rate at 400. I like things to print up in the scale. If Technicolor calls to say my green printing light is in the very high 30s or low 40s, that's where I like to be. It gives me much more flexibility later on. My dailies were looking very close to the final image, and in other cases were a good point of departure."

The final image would go through the digital-intermediate (DI) process, and though Daviau knew this from the beginning, he didn't alter his approach to shooting. "When dealing with a DI, some people make the mistake of thinking they can shoot it flat and then do a lot more later on," he says. "But what happens to your communication with your director, your editor, your designer and the people you work with on a day-to-day basis? One of the greatest things about this movie was that we had film dailies every morning, from Barrandov Studios' film lab in Prague, and from Technicolor in California. Questions would come up, and we could answer them at the next day's dailies.

"What we don't have right now with digital dailies is a printing light," he continues. "With film dailies, I was seeing everything at a fixed gamma, and because I knew the printing light, the laboratory could tell me where my exposure level was and I could control the contrast. I was able to talk about how moody something should be. By maintaining control over the dailies each day, I had a color reference that was the reference for everything. Knowing what you are doing and being able to show it onscreen is crucial, and that tells me two things. First, film dailies are absolutely necessary in order to show the cinematographer's intent. Second, when you get down the line, directors and editors fall in love with the work picture, which makes it hard to change something drastically after that. At the end, if you suddenly put the contrast in, it's not their movie anymore, because that's not what they fell in love with. It's better to keep people informed from the day that you shoot the film to the point where you're about to release it. Communication is what it's all about."

The reference dailies also were vital to the extensive production of visual effects. "With so much effects work, the film dailies were great for this picture," he attests. "We would send clips to ILM [which completed well over 350 effects shots] and to the other effects houses and say, 'Match this.'"

It's not a Universal horror film without hapless townsfolk, and to house them on Van Helsing, production designer Cameron constructed a full-scale village outdoors in the Czech countryside. Of course, the village is frequently raided by Dracula's three brides, who are shown flying through the air as they hunt for human provisions. "That particular sequence in the Transylvanian village was very complicated," Daviau says. "We shot it in winter, always in overcast weather. At the end, when spring was arriving and the sun stayed out, we were getting only one shot at dawn and one at dusk. The rest of the time we were hiding inside, shooting interiors. The flying brides were all done digitally. After principal photography, we had about two weeks of bluescreen work in Playa Vista where we just shot the brides."

During the village work, first unit called on Cablecam to photograph swooping action plates of the brides as they grabbed villagers and carried them away. In post, these shots were composited with shots of the villagers, who were lifted practically on set with wire rigs. The Cablecam rig was suspended between giant trusses that bookended the village. "I think it was a very big but worthy investment," the cinematographer admits. "Cablecam did a terrific job." The second unit, headed by director of photography Josh Bleibtreu, whose work Daviau praised as "superb," did some additional Cablecam work, but Bleibtreu also had Flying-Cam's remote-control helicopters at his disposal. These proved especially useful during a dramatic high-speed chase in which Van Helsing's horse-drawn coach is pursued by a vampire-bat monster.

"When Steve Sommers gets excited about something, he goes for it," the cameraman enthuses. "We had the 30-foot Technocrane, the 50-foot Techno and all kinds of different instruments. We used Steadicam, the Foxy crane, Libra Heads and Pete Romano's HydroFlex underwater housings. Our key grip, Jim Shelton, had to engineer a constant interchanging of equipment that would do specific jobs."

Though Sommers' last four films were shot in either Panavision anamorphic or Super 35mm, Van Helsing was framed in the standard 1.85:1 format. "Both Allan Cameron and I made the case that this picture had a lot of vertical elements - a lot of castles and towers," Daviau says. "We both pitched Steve to go spherical for the verticality, and I think ILM loved the idea of not being in anamorphic for all the effects. I tend to favor spherical photography because you don't have to strain for the extra stop."

Primo prime lenses were affixed to the cameras, with the 40mm and the 21mm being popular choices. Primo zooms also were employed. Two cameras, positioned as close to the same axis as possible, and manned by operators Paul Babin and Tom Connole with assistance by 1st ACs Reggie Newkirk and Jimmy Jensen, were used often to cover scenes - one to shoot a wide shot while the other grabbed a close-up. The two operators have been working with Daviau ever since the 1992 film Fearless. "Steve [Sommers] doesn't shoot piles of coverage," Daviau notes, "but I thought we were able to manage our coverage quite well. Bob Duscay is not bashful when it comes to requesting the coverage he thinks he'll need to make a scene work in post."

Page 2



© 2003 American Cinematographer.