Of Vampires, Castles and Mechanical Bats

By Samuelson, David | American Cinematographer, June 1979 | Go to article overview

Of Vampires, Castles and Mechanical Bats


Samuelson, David, American Cinematographer


Production Designer and Special Effects Supervisor tell how their specialties help to build the unique mystique of the Dracula legend

As Production Designer on DRACULA, Peter Murton comes by his calling naturally, since male Murtons have been in the motion picture business for well over half a century. Peter Murton's father, Walter Murton, was already a name designer by 1919. His son Simon, an assistant in the DRACULA art department, now makes it a three-generation dynasty.

Peter himself set out to be a yacht designer, captivated by the shapes and the idea of turning timber into a living thing. World War Il soon shifted emphasis in the boatyard at East Cowes, Isle of Wight, to such functional fare as Naval Whalers and landing craft.

He dovetailed his first three years in the film industry with part-time architectural studies, a training that has stood him in good stead on many complex "hardware" pictures, including three "Bonds".

In drawing up his initial designs, he always takes heed of the problems of the many other production departments feeding off his work: "Because they turn out to be our problems in the end."

He has deliberately moved away from previous DRACULA interpretations, including Edward Gorey's splendidly Gothic stage sets. The John Badham/Peter Murton DRACULA has a muted flavor to its settings. "It is far easier to extract the brighter colors from a film in the design stage rather than having to play around with the end result in the laboratory."

For the past three years Peter Murton has been Chairman of the British Guild of Film Art Directors.

During the filming of DRACULA at Twickenham Studios, Murton was interviewed by David Samuelson as follows:

DAVID SAMUELSON: Peter, just remind me of the films that you have done in the recent past.

MURTON: Well, working backwards I was on a six-hour special TV production called IKE, THE WAR YEARS which will be screened in the United States later this year-directed by Boris Segal-and photographed by Freddie Young. Before that I was on a picture called DEATH ON THE NILE preceded by THE EAGLE HAS LANDED. I also designed THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN and art directed several other James Bond films. Coming back to Twickenham where we are shooting this big set for DRACULA is rather like coming home, because I built the sets for RULING CLASS here which were large but nothing like this one. This is the major interior set of the movie and is DRACULA's home-Carfax Abbey as it is called. I wanted to get away from designing the conventional staircase hall with a gigantic staircase down which everybody seems to fly, fall or do anything else like that, so instead of building two or three sets-like a dining room, a library and a hallway-1 conceived it all as one set so that we can spread the cost, which is quite gigantic. This set will cost, in the final outcome, more than £700,000. So I convinced the Director and the Producer that we could do this all in one stage and I think it will work out very well.

QUESTION: How long are they scheduled to shoot on this stage, do you anticipate?

MURTON: Well, they are scheduled for quite a short time-about a week and a half I should think. Then we have to say goodbye to it and tear it all down and wait for the next one to come along.

QUESTION: How long did it take you to build it?

MURTON: I started doing the designs for it way back in August of last yearthat's five months ago-and then the construction started about eight weeks before we shot this. But there was a lot of design work and modelling that went into it before that as a sort of gentle build-up to the final assembly.

QUESTION: Looking around us, there is a great deal of sculpture-particularly at the library end. Would you like to say something about this?

MURTON: This was all completely original design. People have asked where I went to find this decoration so that I could take casts of it. There is not one piece of actual moulding and detail sculpture here which you could ever find anywhere else. …

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