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

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

By Josh Weiss
Kate Beckinsale and David Wenham in Van Helsing (2004)

What does Universal's collection of silver screen monsters have in common with American football? 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, 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.

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Recently looking back on the making of the film over a chat with SYFY WIRE (in an interview conduced before the writers' strike), 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 NFL season kicking off this week with Sunday Night Football match-ups on Thursday, September 7, 2023 with the kickoff special between the Detroit Lions vs. Kansas City Chiefs; and the Sunday night game on September 10, 2023 between the Dallas Cowboys vs. New York Giants, 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

"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."

Kate Beckinsale and Richard Roxburgh in Van Helsing (2004)

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) around the 25-minute mark.

"It was hundreds of extras and Hugh Jackman’s 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 sixty-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**!’ 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 available on digital and Blu-Ray from Universal Pictures.

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