The Van Helsing Interviews: Allen Cameron

The Van Helsing Interviews: Allen Cameron talks to Van Helsing's Production Designer.
Updated: 02-25-2004

Interview by Staci Layne Wilson for Interviews conducted on the set of VAN HELSING in Los Angeles, CA., May 2003.

Allen Cameron, Production Designer

Q: In the designing of the sets, how influenced were you by James Whale and those older classics?

CAMERON: I wanted to pay tribute to them, so in the laboratory, especially, you see the influence. Obviously, we bring it up to date for modern audiences. In the actual instruments in the lab, you'll see the shape of the lab itself is like a cone as in the original film. I took the basic elements then embellished them to my own sort of style.

Q: Did you do the same thing with Dracula's castle as well?

CAMERON: A little bit. Not so much because I wanted Dracula's castle to be my own design. I think playing homage to one element is enough.

Q: What actual architecture did you base your design of the castle on?

CAMERON: Well, they almost go into a parallel universe, so I was trying for a unique architectural look. It takes a lot of elements from Hindu architecture and some Goudyesque, and a lot of elements which I then sort of made into my own sort of style.

Q: How was the physical space set up for the sets?

CAMERON. It's a joint effort, really. I designed the sets in my head and I don't try to make them fit into a space. This space was big enough to accommodate everything I needed to go. The biggest sets are at Downey (in California). These sets are kind of the smaller ones.

Q: Yeah, barely any room to swing a blue whale!

CAMERON: (laughs) Well, yeah. Downey's got the interior of Dracula's castle – the foyer, the bridge and the two towers.

Q: So the interior is so big, you had to shoot it outside?

CAMERON: Exactly.

Q: What was the most challenge for you, design-wise?

CAMERON: Well, I think Dracula's was more of a challenge because again, trying to come up with a look that you haven't seen before. I always find that movies where you have to invent things is much harder than if you're doing a dentist's office or a doctor's office or a hospital, because it's a known thing. That's why I like doing sort of sword and sorcery fantasy movies, because they are much more challenging and more creative.

Q: Anything specific that created a challenge for you?

CAMERON: They all are a challenge, really. I think there's 72 sets on this movie. Just the quantity and the scale of it is a difficulty. If you've ever had anything done at home by builders or architects, it's actually getting things done on time that is difficult, and when you've got 72 rooms to build and very specific schedules and dates to adhere to, that's the hard thing from my point of view. And then it becomes a quality control issue, because you can obviously get the sets built, then to get the finishes and refine each one of them is a difficult thing.

Q: The first ten minutes of Van Helsing is in black and white – do you do anything different set-wise for that?

CAMERON: I started years ago as a TV designer and black and white was just coming to an end. So it was an interesting transition to color. I mean, you had to learn a whole new technique for color. It was quite interesting, for this movie, to have to go back to a whole lot of years ago and try to remember. You do design differently for black and white.

Q: And, what sets are in the black and white footage?

CAMERON: Frankenstein's castle, windmills... I don't know, it was 47 weeks ago, now.

Q: It seems like Frankenstein's lab is gray, and Dracula's is black. Is that a correct perception?

CAMERON: Yeah, sort of beigey grays. I saw the old movies, and I wanted a bit more warmth in Frankenstein's lab, so it's actually mid-grays with beiges and then the machinery itself adds copper color. With Dracula, I wanted icy and cold and violent.

Q: Does the Wolf Man have a lair?

CAMERON: There are some questions I'm not allowed to answer.

Q: Are most of your sets supported digitally?

CAMERON: Yes. I did The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, so I've worked with ILM a lot and so I do the overall kind of look, and the matte artists embellish them.

Q: What was your aim for the overall look of the sets?

CAMERON: Probably a gothic look is the best way to describe it. I didn't want it to look like a fairy tale, necessarily. For the castles, we went to a famous one which is in the Czech Republic, which is a very gothic, tough-looking castle – it not a German romantic. It's based in medieval reality, and even though there's a gothic feel, I wanted a sort of architectural reality to Dracula's castle. So you actually look at it and think it could exist.

Q: When should computers take over from the actual sets?

CAMERON: I think if there's a lot of interaction with the artists, I think it made for much better acting if there's a real set. A lot of sets are just computer-generated and I think the acting suffers for it.

Q: Why are some of the sets digitized?

CAMERON: Some are digital because of the sheer scale. I built a bridge which was 200 feet long, but the final bridge should be 1000 feet, obviously it would be too expensive to do it for real. And you can use the actual part of the bridge I built, so the actors have something to relate to, but the whole rest of it will be put in digitally, because in some shots the actors can be digital as well because they'll be so far away. But once you get into the faces, the close ups and medium shots, I think you have to have those sets.

Q: What's the huge machine in Frankenstein's lab?

CAMERON: Call it whatever you like. I don't know, I just looked up massive things in Victorian inventions and early electricity, and it's an amalgam of a huge amount of different information.

Q: That thing obviously doesn't exist in reality...

CAMERON: Well, as I said, it is based on mechanical Victorian reality, but in bits and pieces. I just wanted a large-scale thing standing in the middle of the set! It looks impressive. It channels the electricity down into Frankenstein's lab.

Q: Is that what makes the monster come alive?

CAMERON: That's the thing that brings all the electricity from the thunder storms going on overhead and channels it down into him, yes.

Q: Do you have any colorful sets?

CAMERON: Well, have you seen the trailer they put together at all? The ballroom is... there are several sets like the ballroom, sort of a lot of swirling of color and ripples, and mirrors and candles. But again, it's a kind of controlled color palette. It's more like a Velasquez than a Van Gogh.

Q: How closely do you actually work with ILM?

CAMERON: Really closely. Really closely. For example, this set we're on was used a couple of weeks ago for the upside down scene – this is the ceiling – and Dracula rises out of his coffin and walks across the floor, walks up the 60 foot column, and comes on the scene where the brides are hanging upside down. There were wires, and so the brides and Dracula were hanging upside down for real. You could do that digitally, but it somehow looks much better when you've real hair hanging, real skin, and so on. Gravity's actually working when you hang the real actors upside down. But in the transition, in the big, wide shot of the set, is going to be an ILM creation with digital characters. But the close up stuff is my sets. So I work with ILM because obviously they have to create the wide shot based on what I've designed.

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