DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
DOP: Michael Ballhaus (ASC).
CAST: Gary Oldman (Dracula), Winona Ryder (Mina Harker), Keanu Reeves (Jonathan Harker), Anthony Hopkins (Van Helsing), Sadie Frost (Lucy Westenra)
“[Cinematography]… is about movement … what comes together when [a cinematographer] shoots a sequence … which frames will meet. What’s the rhythm of a scene, and how can he tell the story in the most visual way, the most dramatic way, to photograph a scene. And that is much more than painting with light.”
Coppola’s version of the 1897 Gothic horror, epistolary novel “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, is widely regarded as the most faithful cinematic interpretation of this classic tale. With a budget of $40 million and the most modern day technologies at this fingertips, he chose to express his vision by using lighting, in-camera effects and special effects techniques from the time in which the book was set. His determination to give the most authentic look of that time, while maintaining the sophistication of movie making that modern day audiences would accept, saw him dismiss the special effects technicians he was assigned, in favour of an eclectic group of artists. One of whom, was Michael Ballhaus, A.S.C., as cinematographer: “… I’m not a technician. I feel I am an artist.” 1
Set near the end of the repressive era of Queen Victoria’s reign in Britain, the film explores the concepts of good and evil, sexual repression and respectability and forgiveness and redemption using religious rituals and symbols. Coppola sought to create a vision of the tale which as a dark eroticism so as to mimic the psychological surrealism we experience in our dreams and nightmares.
In the opening sequence, we are presented with Japanese Kabuki-style puppets, silhouetted against a deeply coloured red/orange, smoke-filled sky, to represent the vicious battle between the Christians and the Muslim Turks. The Christians are victoriously led by the noble defender of Christ’s Church, Count Dracula, against the Turks as they fight over the sacred city of Constantinople. Dracula’s distinctive body armor, which resembles the human muscle tissue structure, represents the depth of his faith in God and his willingness to fight on His behalf. Upon returning to his bride, Elisabeta, he discovers she has killed herself, having received a false report that Count Dracula had been killed in battle. With her body laid out in state at the foot of the Crucifix at the castle’s altar, the priest informs Dracula that because she has committed suicide, her soul is forever damned and cannot be accepted into heaven. This devastating judgment invokes the rage of Dracula, who cries out against a god who would punish him so cruelly after having faithfully served Him. Unlike Christ, who also felt abandoned by God in his final hours on the Cross, but who ultimately accepted his fate as the necessary sacrifice to save humanity from sin, Dracula refuses his fate and vows to defy God. With his battle sword, Dracula stabs the Crucifix in which Elisabeta lays at the foot of, unleashing Christ’s holy blood, and drinking it to achieve eternal life.
In her first introduction to the audience, the camera dollies in from a distance, at the height of Mina’s seated level, as she types a letter. High-key lighting, a perfectly balanced and symmetrical placement of the character in the scene, with the colours varied, but restrained: the buttoned-up neck on her gown and her formal hairstyle all indicates her strong morality, respectability and character.
Lucy, being far more flirtatious and immature, is shown with a white coloured, off-the-shoulder gown exposing her shoulders, with her vivid red locks left unclipped and unrestrained, indicating her susceptibility to temptation and sin.
Dracula’s evil is represented in many ways: he transforms into mist, both dark grey, black and lime green. When he takes on the persona as a beast, his menace is represented visually by the effect of an intervalometer capturing random frames from each position of the camera, which gives a jaggered sense of a running animal. This “breathing of the camera” is one of Ballhaus’s signature techniques.
The film is filled with complex scene compositions, both physically and symbolically. Relying on crew pulling and pushing three or four tiers of backdrops in opposite directions at different speeds to achieve the illusion of train travel, for example. In this scene, we see Harker on the train reviewing the map of Transylvania as he heads towards meeting the Count for the first time. The map is lit from the ground up, to throw its image onto Harker’s face, so with one shot we can see that Harker is travelling, we understand that it’s a long journey from England, that Transylvania is a dark and strange land, and that Harker is unaware of the evil he is about to encounter. The audience is informed of Dracula’s supernatural powers when we see the vivid blue eyes of Dracula in the darken clouds ominously watching over Harker’s journey. Along with the voiceover of Harker as he reads out his journal entry, this one scene is rich with information.
Naturally, red is a dominant colour: from rich, brightly coloured blood sensually oozing from a new victim which in some scenes almost sparkles the way it has been lit, to the darker blood that Vampire Lucy spits out at Van Helsing, or when Mina finally chops off her beloved’s head. The billowing red chiffon represented Lucy’s temptation and fall under Dracula’s influence.
The use of fierce wind, clouds and storms are also used to represent Dracula’s menace. Indeed, as Dracula draws closer to London, the green of Lucy’s garden begins to seep out leaving Mina and Lucy, yet to meet Dracula, the last of the colourful things.
Inside Dracula’s castle, the laws of physics as we understand them do not apply. Using a matte box to prevent the top two-thirds of the film being exposed, rats were filmed running across a beam. Then turning the camera upside down, moving the matte box to protect the already exposed film, then filming Harker walking down the stairs creates the illusion in the final cut of the rats running upside down. Simple camera angles were used to show Dracula crawling on all fours down the side of his castle to meet the wolves howling below.
The theatrically long shadows of Dracula reveal his inner thoughts and intentions and acts independently of his physical self, who maintains the required social graces.
Studio lighting and appropriate house light fittings and lamps, informed scenes requiring warmth, like the party at Lucy’s house near the beginning of the film, through to the naked-flame torches at his castle representing how tied to the past Dracula is.
God’s forgiveness, and Dracula’s redemption, was revealed by a slanted, bright light, falling onto Dracula’s eyes as he died.
Difficulties in production
With a “no post-production” attitude, the film required many rehearsals for the actors and prop departments with Coppola. For the special effects team, extensive research was required to recreate relevant period costumes and set design, and also resurrecting old fashioned ways of creating effects, like having another actor mimic Dracula’s movements as faithfully as possible before breaking off into his own action for scenes as Dracula’s shadow. Without green screening, all sets had to made either to smaller scale (for the larger buildings, mansions and houses) and shot at a distance and perspective to incorporate those small models with real life sizes of gates, carriages, horses and people. Moveable walls in the scene where Harker is in a guest room at Dracula’s castle were needed to heighten a sense of claustrophobia.
The movie was filmed with Arriflex 535, 35mm format with the exception of the scene where Dracula first sees Mina in the streets of London. Coppola used his father’s hand-cranked Pathe camera which was a camera of that era, giving the scene a natural graininess and jumpiness delivering an authenticity that was lovely to watch. Even the cutting off of Dracula’s head in part of the shot, and Dracula almost going out of frame, offers a glorious reality to the scene.
This genre has never interested me, however, after doing research about the making of this film, including interviews with Coppola, his son, Roman and their visual effects camera operators, and even Martin Scorsese speaking about working with Ballhaus, I watched the film a second time, scene by scene, noting colour changes, lights, camera angles, costumes … everything. I’ve come to appreciate the artistry of this film, and realise sadly, that it may be the last of its kind. Ballhaus considered the reliance of modern technology to achieve effects was diminishing what he considers to be an elegant artistry and lamented that with so many options, directors and cinematographers would get lazy and be boring because there is no creation of imagery when filming. 1
Kim Aubry, In Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects of ‘Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, (2007), On-line documentary https://www.youtube.com
Kim Aubry, The Blood Is the Life – The Making of Dracula, 2006, https://www.youtube.com
Colombia Pictures, The Making of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – “Bloodlines 1” , “Bloodlines 2″, Bloodlines 3” , uploaded 2009 by McEmag, https://www.youtube.com
Colombia Pictures, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” Deleted Scenes, 2012, https://www.youtube.com
Columbia Pictures, Dracula (1992) epic intro, uploaded by Eme Zorrilla 2014, https://www.youtube.com
Columbia Pictures, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula”, (1992), Itunes
L Dale, “Bram Stoker’s Dracula – A Documentary”, (2007), Itunes
Jorn Hetebrugge , “My Film School Was The Cinema”, (2017), Goethe Institut, https://www.goethe.de
Cinefex Magazine, ” Heart of Darkness”, J Hubbard, (1996), No. 53
Deadline Hollywood , “Martin Scorsese Pays Tribute to Michael Ballhaus: ‘He Was A Precious & Irreplaceable Friend”, L Calvario, https:// deadline.com.
The German Way & More , “Michael Ballhaus”, Uncredited, 2007, https://www.german-way.com
C O’Falt , “Here’s Why Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus Was Brilliant: 13 Images That Capture His Style”, (2017), https:// http://www.indiewire.com
 The Digital Professor – Michael Ballhaus ASC explains why open minds are essential for directors of photography and camera manufacturers alike as filmmaking transitions to digital, Brian McKernan, Digital Cinema; New York (April 2004)