Francis Ford Coppola Used Magic To Make The Special Effects For Bram Stoker's Dracula

Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 "Dracula" was promoted as a faithful adaptation of the 1897 novel, down to its full title "Bram Stoker's Dracula." Don't think for a moment this means the movie is a stuffy stage reading, concerned only with literally adapting the text. No, Coppola's rendition of Stoker is one of the most visually audacious films of its decade.

Mini-documentary "In Camera: The Naïve Visual Effects of Dracula" explores how Coppola and his team used entirely in-camera special effects, resulting in a film as tactile as it is lavish. Coppola explains this choice was motivated by period accuracy:

"Given that the book 'Dracula' was written around 1900, being the same date as the birth of the cinema... coming out of magicians and illusions and basically magic tricks, I thought would not only make the film entirely in a false place, in a studio, but I would only use effects done as they would have been done in 1900."

To complete his vision of a "Dracula" movie which looked like it had been directed by Georges Méliès, Coppola fired his original effects team, who were advocating for digital effects and post-production inserts. He then hired his 26-year-old son Roman, already on-hand as 2nd unit director, to supervise the visual effects. According to his father, Roman is a stage magic "enthusiast," and so shared his interest in staging the film's effects live. After all, magicians rely on physical effects and slights of hand as much as movie directors do. Father and son Coppola used the techniques of an illusionist to bring "Dracula" to the silver screen.

Magicians' shadowplay

In 2020, Roman Coppola spoke with Den of Geek about his work on "Dracula." During the conversation, they touched on his fondness for stage magic and the ways that influenced the film's effects.

For starters, it was Coppola's uncle David Shire (ex-husband of his aunt Talia) who introduced him to stage magic. Coppola visited magic stores and shows as a child, but fell out of the hobby during his preteen years. As an adult, though, his interest resumed. He recalls: "As a younger person in my 20s, I started to get back into it and get a lot of books, and collect certain apparatuses. It's just something I found a real love for."

He consulted those books for ideas on "Dracula," such as "Magic: Stage Illusions, Special Effects and Trick Photography," written by Albert A. Hopkins the same year as Stoker wrote "Dracula." Hopkins' book was especially useful because it had a bibliography of other magic texts. This led Coppola to "Caran d'Ache" (birth name Emmanuel Poiré), who pioneered the idea of shadow puppets. The work of d'Ache inspired the battle scene in the prologue of "Dracula," which was rendered entirely in silhouette with the use of shadow puppets.

Eerie geen mist

Coppola's "Dracula" wasn't as accurate as advertised (the genuine love between Dracula and Mina is an invention of the film). However, it was more faithful than previous adaptations when depicting the whole scope of Dracula's powers, particularly his shape-shifting.

In the novel, when Dracula first enters Mina's room, she sees a, "pillar of cloud in the room, through the top of which I could see the light of the gas shining like a red eye." Terence Fisher's 1958 "Horror of Dracula," on the other hand, simply had the Count (Christopher Lee) silently appearing outside Mina's (Melissa Stribling) bedroom door.

In Coppola's film, Dracula appears as a green mist. The mist passes through Mina's window and then curls up on her bed. After a close-up of Mina writhing and talking to the unseen Dracula, half-awake, the scene pulls back to a wide shot of the two embraced.

How was this mist created without digital effects? Dry ice smoke, green lights, and a mirror. The mist was shot in a replica of Mina's bedroom set, but one covered in the black fabric Duvetyne, allowing the green mist to pop. Interviewed by Entertainment Weekly, Francis Ford Coppola discussed how the mist was combined with later shots to create the illusion of Dracula entering the bedroom.

"That was double-exposed. The mist was shot as an element by itself. You photograph a scene and then you make good notes and you put the film in the refrigerator. A week later you take it out, put it in the camera, and photograph the next element."

Since the Coppolas vowed not to use post-production inserts, double exposures were their go-to method for composite shots.

A matter of perspective

During "In Camera," Roman Coppola notes that because cameras only have a single "eye," they lack the depth perception of humans. This is why forced perspective, or distorting an object's true size in an image, is possible. The technique is one that Coppola relied on for a sequence where Harker (Keanu Reeves) travels to Transylvania by train. The most memorable shot is an extreme close-up of Harker's journal with the train seeming to drive atop it. The framing resembles a double exposure, but the shot was actually accomplished by shooting a model train and a 20-foot replica of the book together; the size was necessary so that the sunset shadows would fall onto the book correctly.

This control of perspective is a recurring motif in "Dracula." In a scene where Harker shaves as Dracula sneaks up behind him, Harker's "reflection" was created by sticking Reeves' face in front of a hole in the set wall and then shooting a body double from behind on the other side of the wall. When Harker wanders through Dracula's castle and rats run along the ceiling, the crew combined double exposure and control of perspective. They shot the rats running with the camera upside down and a black matte box blocking the rest of the frame. This meant the shot of Harker fit nicely into the frame when the film was double exposed.

Reeves, who had a first view at these illusionists working, was amazed: "'Terminator 2' is all computer graphics and this is like ropes and mirrors and that kind of hocus-pocus which is delightful." Magicians and filmmakers both control audience response by controlling what their audience sees. Audiences go along with it because, to quote a certain movie about stage magicians, "[they] want to be fooled."