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Van Helsing: Why the NFL Owes a Debt of Gratitude to Stephen Sommers' Wild Monster Mash Movie

What does Universal's catalogue of classic monsters have to do with football? The latest in camera technology!

By Josh Weiss
Three characters walking in a courtyard in Van Helsing (2004)

What does Universal's collection of silver screen monsters have in common with the National Football League? If you answered "absolutely nothing," you wouldn't be wrong. However, there was a very brief moment in time when these two incongruous topics overlapped for the betterment of both filmmaking and sports broadcasting.

This unexpected collision of beast and pigskin occurred during the arduous, six-month production of 2004's Van Helsing (now streaming on Peacock), which brought together nearly all of the famous fiends of Hollywood's golden period — Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman — in a thrilling smash-and-grab fantasy adventure fronted by Hugh Jackman.

Looking back on the making of the film over a chat with SYFY WIRE last year, writer-director Stephen Sommers (no stranger to the Universal Pictures monster library, having successfully rebooted The Mummy in 1999 and its 2001 sequel) revealed that Van Helsing served as the proving grounds for a new type of swooping, wire-based camera system currently employed by the NFL. 

With the Super Bowl coming up this weekend, it's the perfect time to remember how one of the coolest shots in live sports came to be. Turns out, we can thank Van Helsing.

For More on Universal Monsters:
A Decade Before the Dark Universe, Van Helsing Was a Wild Remix of Universal's Monster Worlds
Leigh Whannell's Wolf Man Reimagining Howls Forward with Christopher Abbott, Julia Garner
Remembering Almost a Century of Universal Pictures' Dracula Saga at the Movies

How Van Helsing Served as a Testing Ground for NFL Cameras

Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing (2004)

"There’s a camera that goes over the field," he explained. "They had cranes and cameras on cars, but they’d never put cameras on wires and flown it over people. We got them very inexpensively because they wanted to test all this stuff. They wanted to prove it to the NFL, and they did. I’d explain the shot in the morning and we would go shoot for 12 hours. It would take them 10 or 12 hours to set up the shot. We’d come back and we’d do the shot."

The untested camera rig was mainly utilized for shots seen through the point-of-view of Dracula's airborne brides — Verona (Silvia Colloca), Marishka (Josie Maran), and Aleera (Elena Anaya) — as they attack a small Transylvanian village (a practical set constructed in the Czech Republic).

"It was hundreds of extras and Hugh Jackman running through and obviously, the Brides aren’t there. You put them in during post-production, but we need the plate," Sommers added. "We need a shot of flying over the village, looking at Hugh Jackman, and whipping up onto the steeple or whatever. We spent 12 hours doing this. We got it all set up and there’s all these extras there and we shoot it. I can’t remember how fast the camera [was moving]. It was zipping down this wire and it got away from them. You’ve got a big camera flying over a crowd of extras and Hugh Jackman at 60-something miles an hour. They lost [control] and it whipped across the whole village and up by the steeple and then [mimics ominous metallic clang]."

He continued: "All the wires are snapping and pulling out and the camera just hung there. I go, ‘Holy sh*t!’ They’re saying, ‘This was a disaster! We spent 12 hours setting it up!’ I’m looking at the shot going, ‘Guys, we got it!’ And they go, ‘What do you mean? It didn’t do anything that you wanted.’ But I looked at the shot and said, ‘This is faster and much more dynamic than I ever thought was possible.’ It was a great shot. And from then on, it went fairly smoothly. We’d go shoot for 12 hours, they would set up a shot, we’d come and do that shot, flying wherever we were flying and then we’d tell them about the next shot. They’d go and take a nap and start setting up the next shot. We’d get there in the morning and do another shot with them and we’d go away for another 12 hours of shooting. Anyway, that whole rig was really fun to work with … They perfected it by the time they got it into an NFL stadium."

Van Helsing is now streaming on Peacock.

Originally published Sep 7, 2023.