CFC's Effects Give Life to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

By Magid, Ron | American Cinematographer, December 1994 | Go to article overview

CFC's Effects Give Life to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein


Magid, Ron, American Cinematographer


Computer Film Company uses modern methods to invigorate Kenneth Branagh's reinvention of classic horror tale.

When Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley penned the creation of the Creature by Dr. Victor Frankenstein, she wasn't terribly specific about how life was endowed to the assemblage of limbs and organs lying on the good Doctor's slab. Wrote Shelley, masquerading as Frankenstein, "It was on a dreary night in November that... I collected the instruments of life around me that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet."

From the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have tried to determine just what Ms. Shelley meant. When Thomas Edison produced the first filmed version of Frankenstein in 1910, the monster was concocted in a large black witch's cauldron. In the classic James Whale films for Universal Studios, Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), the monster's mother was lightning, raw electricity harnessed in the incredible art deco machinery crafted by Kenneth Strickfaden. These original Frankenstein films spawned an entire cinematic lineage into the late '40s. In 1957, England's Hammer Films reinvented Shelley's tale as The Curse of Frankenstein; the creation scene in that picture combined the Edison and Universal approaches by dunking the monster into a coffin-shaped hydroelectric bath.

With a few new innovations, that is also the approach taken by director Kenneth Branagh in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, TriStar Pictures' latest spin on the legend of the "modern Prometheus." In Frank Darabont's screenplay, Frankenstein has not only built an elaborate electricity-gathering laboratory; for good measure, he's also placed his lifeless creation in a saline bath filled with electric eels! As in the classic Universal films, live Tesla coils were used on-set to create a certain electricity in the air; to heighten the effect, the Computer Film Company stepped in to digitally enhance the images under the eye of veteran British visual effects supervisor Richard Conway. Chris Watts, an American who had previously served as effects coordinator for Mike McAllister on The Hudsucker Proxy and Demolition Man, was CFC's visual effects producer.

To bring this latest creation scene to life, director Branagh envisioned flooding the very air of the laboratory with electricity. "[Cinematographer] Roger Pratt shot the scene beautifully, which gave us a good starting point," Watts enthuses. "The [filmmakers] wanted to have a lot of electricity in the atmosphere. Some was supposed to come from lightning and the rest from electric eels. Together, the lighting and the eels provided the 'animating force.' The [crew] used million-volt Tesla coils to generate electricity on the set. The problem was that [director] Ken Branagh, who also plays Dr. Frankenstein, wanted to be right in the middle of all of this ferocious sparking. The equipment was lethal, and if the electricity had hit any of the actors, it would have been all over."

Clearly, the production was not going to put its director and cast at risk; CFC solved the problem by adding most of the electricity in post, via computer graphics. "Nearly all of the sparks on the creation sequences were added by CFC," Watts says. "The production supplied various types of spark footage. CFC effects designer Paddy Eason chose some elements featuring a long spark arcing between two electrodes. In other cases, he used images of larger sparks coming from a single electrode, like the branches of the tree. Those images were scanned into the computer using our proprietary input system.

"Because the shots had a moving camera, it was necessary to track the sparks into the scene. Paddy used a combination of hand tracking and custom software to achieve this. For the larger sparks, he was able to animate a path through a sequence of frames, and use the computer to bend the spark to fit this path. In the course of doing this, he was able to add additional effects to allow for focus pulls, interactive light and perspective changes.

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