Part of “Underworld”‘s look is working with a nearly monochromatic environment. Aside from maybe three instances of reddish color in the blood or velvet, “Underworld” is otherwise a blue-tinted black-and-white film.
I was really out to make a living, breathing graphic novel. When you look at a comic book, it feels monochrome to me. It has those blacks and blues. I wanted the audience to sit down and, with the exception of turning the pages themselves, just watch a comic book play out. To achieve that, we did all of the timing digitally, so you have a lot of range to tweak things in a way that you can’t chemically (“color timing” is the post-production process, traditionally handled by the lab, of balancing color levels either to achieve shot-to-shot continuity between lighting effects). I would arrive at a set and love the look of it in terms of its architecture, but the walls would be yellow, and then there would be a blue phone booth in the background and a red bench. I’m a freak about color. If there are more than three colors in a frame, I think it looks like a Muppet movie. But going digitally, you can look at a set and say, “This doesn’t look good now, but I can go in later and select the bench, turn down the red. I can select the yellow walls and turn them back to a colder color.”

Beyond that sort of surface aesthetic, there doesn’t appear to be a lot of digital trickery or cheating in “Underworld.”
Big budget or low budget, I prefer to do everything practically (“practical” effects are those captured on-camera, rather than added by computer or as opticals – wipes, dissolves, etc. – after shooting). I’m not a big fan of CG, especially for creatures and things like that. If you’re Spielberg, and you have a blank check, you can make the dinosaurs look the way that they’re supposed to. But if you’re making a film for $21 million, I think you’re shooting yourself in the foot by going the CG route. Even if I had $120 million, I would start with practical creatures and just putting a guy in a suit. I don’t think anything was going wrong when Cameron did “Aliens.” I kept referencing “Aliens,” that a man in a suit is far better in my opinion, and I don’t see why it started to push the other way. I love the technology, I do like special effects, but I think they are a tool that’s there just in case. I will try everything I can possibly do, and if I’m using CG, it’s because there’s some part of me that feels like I’ve failed to do it practically.

One advantage of computer graphics in movies is that it allows monsters to move faster. In the latest “Alien” movie, for instance, the alien can quickly snake up through the rafters, while with makeup and stop-motion effects, you get a lot of lurching, herky-jerky stuff. How did you get your werewolves to chase characters at full speed?
That is difficult, and I do understand how a director can get to a point where he says, “Forget it. Let’s just go CG.” Working with practical creatures and guys in suits on stilts, assisting them with wires, and trying to get the animatronics right is a pain in the ass. It’s very difficult, especially when you want some kind of speed. The animatronics in the head worked in such a way that if the teeth are open, then the actor can see, but if the teeth are clenched, he can’t. If I want the werewolf to charge forward, then I have to have the mouth open. There’s all that kind of stuff. Getting the werewolves to bound down the hallway, we had to build the hallway upside-down and shoot each werewolf separately on wires as he bounded from wall to wall, then comp all three together. That’s where I think CG is helpful. All the plaster bits that fall off, all the claw marks in the wall, that’s all CG, all the small touches. But it was difficult. I can imagine just the speed you could shoot if you just shoot a plate shot of the hallway and say, “You know what? It’s all gonna be CG.” It took us three days just to set that thing up and get the stunt right because you’ve got a really heavy actor in a latex suit with animatronics and wires coming out of the foam. It’s a pain, but it’s real.

What about the werewolf’s on-screen transformation? Werewolf movies are always cutting away and then coming back after more prosthetics have been applied. “The Howling” was pretty revolutionary in that respect because you could actually see the transformation take place as the effects guys inflated condoms beneath the skin.
Of course, I went back and rented everything to take a look at it. I love that film, but it’s funny to watch it now because that transformation takes about 20 minutes, and that woman is just standing there screaming next to an open door the whole time. But everybody’s fixed on the transformation during that time. A lot of people have mentioned that this film has the transformation from beginning to end without cutting away.

How did you do that? With morphing?
That’s where we use CG. Like I said, there are things that I think work really well with CG. We start with the real actor and end with the real prosthetic, but the in-between is CG.

It also helps that you’re in a dark sewer when it happens.
You need all the tricks. I specifically set it up so that, if you notice, during the action sequence in the subway, when they jump out of the train, all the fluorescent lights start sparkling so you have this backlit moment for the transformation. In that entire action sequence, the only reason the fluorescents start sparking is for that CG transformation.

This movie reunited you with creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos. What was it like working with him again?
I’d had a relationship with Patrick, just seeing his work and working with him when I was doing props and crew stuff (on “Stargate” and “Independence Day” “Godzilla”). I’m an artist myself — I started out doing storyboards and production design — and he’s an artist. I knew that I could sit down with him and start with my drawings, and we could just sit at a drawing table and pass drawings back and forth. I was heavily involved in the creatures; every step of the way was drawing with Patrick.

Get the rest of the interview in part four of LEN WISEMAN EXPOSES “UNDERWORLD”>>>

Posted on September 18, 2003 in Interviews by


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