Nosferatu becomes Orlok the Vampire in 3D

When asked what it would take to turn the movie Nosferatu into an anaglyph 3D movie, I thought for a moment and then replied “Seventy thousand dollars, a team of 10 to 15 visual effects artists and 3 months.”

Curious, I then asked “What do we actually have to work with?”.  Keith Carter, the Director of the project (and a good personal friend) replied “A very small budget… and YOU.”

Now to fill in some details.  The reason I was able to quote a price so quickly (which I would now consider way under budget) is because this story begins about a year earlier.

Carol Bidault de L’isle of Media Fusion in Washington, DC had acquired a library of recent independent films. Carol and Media Fusion help independent filmmakers that cannot find access to the marketplace. “Sometimes it is just a matter of repackaging these films, sometimes it’s re-editing that can make the difference,” she says.

Among these new titles was an odd copy of “Nosferatu,” by F.W. Murnau. “Nosferatu” was the first film to be made (although without permission) based on Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” and has developed a massive cult following since its release way back in 1922.

Nosferatu - classic shot of Orlok in the doorway

Puzzled with what to do with this film, Carol consulted with local filmmaker, animator and horror film fan, Keith Carter. It was Keith’s idea to refresh this classic so a whole new generation of viewers who might not care to watch a silent film would give it a shot. He proposed re-editing the movie for a more modern pace, re-scoring the music as well as adding foley sound effects to give new life to the action and… make it all in 3D.  Carol loved the idea and the process began.

Carol and Keith approached me to see if I could figure out a way to convert this 2D film into a 3D experience. Fortunately, I had already begun playing around with anaglyph 3D.  I was always intrigued with an effect that After Effects has called “3D Glasses.”  It seems pretty useless unless you have stereo footage already shot. I had been experimenting with 3D After Effects scenes that contained 2 virtual cameras. Using those cameras outputs with the 3D glasses effect creates perfect CG generated 3D imagery. I had also been working with Chroma Depth glasseswhich place various colors at different depths.

I knew I had to create a second camera’s perspective (which I call the Right Eye View) using only the original footage. Industrial Light & Magic achieved this when they turned “The Nightmare Before Christmas” into a 3D movie by basically recreating the entire film in their 3D animation application. It’s brilliant work, but we didn’t have the time, money, manpower or 3D animation expertise to pull that off.  I had to find a way that would work for a 2.5D compositor like me!

As I created a one minute 3D trailer for Media Fusion to show around (and to prove I could do this), I was trying out different ideas & techniques.  The one I used to finish the trailer took every second of an ENTIRE weekend… for 1 minute of finished footage!!!  I rotoscoped each element that I wanted to give depth and somehow (I haven’t figured out how I did this to this day) duplicated the rotoscoped mask, offset it a few pixels and used the After Effects “Reshape” effect, which basically morphs the pixels from Mask 1 to mask 2.  This worked but some of the shots had strange edge distortions.  It was, however, good enough to start generating interest in the project.

Orlok in his coffin

The one thing I learned from that attempt was it would never work for anything longer than a few minutes.

The project continued, slowly at first, until the day Keith came back to ask me what it would take to do a whole movie.  He was about to start editing and wanted to make sure this could still be done.  I told him to give me a few weeks, because the process needed refinement.  With a mild feeling of panic, I got back to testing.  I already knew I had to shift certain elements in each shot different distances to get this “new perspective”.  My goal was to find a way to do this that didn’t involve hand rotoscoping each element.

Three weeks later.

THE BAD NEWS: There was no other way to isolate the elements other than roto.

THE GOOD NEWS: Mocha, from Imagineer Systems, to the rescue.  Yay technology!

Keith Carter, director of Orlok The Vampire in 3D
Keith Carter

The Nosferatu footage, like any film from 1922, was jumpy, flickered a lot and showed its years with lots of dirt and damage (even after Keith edited out the worst of it.).  Mocha did an amazing job of tracking through the clutter and was the final piece to the puzzle that led me to believe that this can be done in a reasonable amount of time.

Since there are many versions of this film already floating around out there, production began under the new title “Orlok the Vampire.” (The word “nosferatu” appears in Stoker’s book as the Transylvanian word for vampire. Stoker named his “nosferatu” Count Dracula. Murnau named his “nosferatu” Count Orlok.)

Keith worked tirelessly trying to faithfully update the horror classic.  About a month and a half later, I got the hard drive that contained the first draft of the movie. Time to put my money where my mouth is.

Since time and money were tight, we decided to only rotoscope and fully treat the shots with Orlok the vampire in them.  That sounded reasonable!  I started exporting all of the shots that we agreed I’d roto… 70 shots in all!  My stomach dropped. With budget for only one effects artist (me), I decided not to look at the mountain of work.  Just take it one shot at a time.  I put on my cardboard red/cyan glasses (although you can get a variety of plastic glasses from Amazon), and began using the technique I had developed:

• First, roto every element that had a different depth. (without glasses on!)
• Shift these elements to create the new perspective. (with glasses on)
•Clean up the background plate.
• Finally, combine this new “right eye view” with the original footage using the 3D Glasses effect.

Here is how a typical comp looked in AE. 

AE comp for Nosferatu 3D

And here is a sequence in Mocha:

Mocha splines

The first shots took longer, but eventually, I started to hit a stride.  Even better, some new techniques were coming to mind and others fell into my lap.  I found displacement mapping helped give texture and subtle, articulated depth to the “cutout” images I was creating. I accidentally discovered that stretching a layer in one axis made it look like it was angled toward the viewer. That came in handy later, on shots like this one:

Nosferatu, Orlok 3D floor

Some shots took only a couple of hours, others took days.  Mocha really sped up the roto, but some shots had to still be done entirely by hand.  This process tapped almost every compositing trick I knew.  It was an intense few months, working 4 to 8 hours a day on top of my “day” job.  I would take every Friday off and try to spend any free time with the family.  Somehow with all the long hours and technical challenges, I always looked forward to seeing the next shot completed.

When you work this long on something, you lose perspective and sometimes have trouble discerning how good your work is.  I knew the process was working, because after working for hours on a few seconds of footage, the results would make me smile like a kid seeing 3D for the first time.  I looked for something in every shot that would add greater depth.  One of my favorite shots is when Hutter (our protagonist) is cutting some bread, just before the knife slips and cuts his thumb.  I was able to give subtle depth between his body, arms, hands and the bread.  If you look, it feels like you can reach through the hole between his arms and his body.

Hutter cutting bread from Orlok the Vampire in 3D

It’s a shot many may never notice since you quickly desensitize to the 3D effect after a few minutes of viewing.

Got your 3D glasses ready? Here are the clips!

Sample 1: A shot I just completed as part of the “additional shots” requested by the producer.  Having lots of tall, thin, waving plants makes roto FUN!!

Sample 2: Another shot added at the end.  I liked all the layers of depth, with plants in the foreground and behind talent.  Then the cat, slightly in front of the woman and the wall fading into the background.

Sample 3: My favorite shot in the whole movie!  I spent two or three nights on this one.  It has so much depth, and I had fun adjusting the effect back as the actors walked away from lens.  You’ll see Hutter start in front of his chair, then end up way behind it.

Sample 4: The castle exterior.  I see tons of flaws in this shot, but most people react positively when they see it.  I stumbled into several tricks (that helped me later) working on this shot.

Sample 5: A great Orlock shot (and a sweet effects shot for its time, nearly 90 years ago).  I liked giving the coffins a depth effect that lays back into the distance.

Well.  I’ve told you about 70 shots in the film… what about the rest of it?

The rest of the film was treated with a much simpler technique.  The “right eye view” has a displacement map effect applied to it.  With subtle tweaks, it can look almost as good as the rotoscoped shots… almost!  With this technique, I was able to treat the rest of the film in a few days.

The opening credits and end graphic were created with Photoshop and After Effects so I had layered files to work with.  This allowed me to use the same techniques used on the roto-ed footage with even better results.  The opening credits really pop!

3D credits

Finally, all of the dialog slates were given a subtle treatment.  Too much 3D made them harder to read, so we went with a less is more approach.  Can’t let effects get in the way of the story!

Dialog slate from Nosferatu

I didn’t get to see the entire film combined until my work was complete.  Keith had been working on the sound while I worked on the 3D.  We had a screening before passing it on to Carol and calling it  finished.  As hard as I worked and as great as I felt the 3D looked when I saw it completed shot by shot, it was nothing compared to seeing it all together.  The pacing, the music and the sound all felt like they were there from the first edit of this film and the 3D seemed to blend in just as subtly which makes the compositor in me happy.  I take pride in finishing a shot in which no one will detect my work.

After about a two week break, the producer called to tell us that our work wasn’t finished. “The Orlok scenes are great,” she told us, “but we need to add something more to the film.” We decided to roto other key scenes in the first part of the film, so that the audience can get a taste of the stronger 3D effects throughout the film.

Orlok dying at sunrise

As I finish this article, I have about 15 shots left in the pipeline. This will have been a five-month project, working an average of 5-6 hours per night, roughly five days per week.

In the end, the film is a wild ride with lots of new features, including an introduction by Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman (“Toxic Avenger,” “Class of Nuke ‘Em High”). The DVD version will also have a popup trivia version, a Director and Producer commentary version, the “Making Of,” two pairs of 3D glasses – and for the die-hard fans, a special edition with a comic book prequel and an action figure, complete with a miniature rat!

Orlok the Vampire in 3D DVD

I had never seen this film in its entirety before this project. I am very impressed with what Murnau was
able to do. It really does hold up all these years later — Orlok is still the scariest vampire to date! I hope the additions we’ve made really do draw in a new audience.


What I love about post production is the innovative spirit that makes anything possible.  This is why I started Freefall FX, an animation and effects house located about 30 minutes east of Washington DC on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where things are just a bit more relaxed.  Freefall specializes in animation and visual effects for ad campaigns, independent and feature films.  I enjoy doing the creative work, but not as much as I enjoy watching people react to the work I’ve produced.

Without the support of places like the Cow, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I guess I talk about the Cow a lot. If you look at the photo of my workstation, you’ll see the “Creative Cow” my kids gave me to put under my monitor so I’ll remember where to go if I need help!  You can find me in the After Effects, Imagineer Mocha,  Avid and Fusion forums as well as by searching “skipperjonas” on YouTube to find my channel.

Chris Heuer, Creative COW Magazine


Original article published on Creative Cow. Go to original article


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