Dragons in VFX: extended interviews

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Recently, Inverse asked me to write a short history of dragons in visual effects, and I showcased some of the incredible work done in stop motion through to the latest in computer graphics. While researching I spoke to a bunch of the visual effects supervisors behind those dragons, including Phil Tippett, Dan Deleeuw, Sven Martin and Derek Spears. There wasn’t space in the Inverse piece to feature all of the great detail these supes went into, so I thought I’d post their answers at vfxblog. Hope you enjoy!

Phil Tippett, Dragonslayer

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Designing Vermithrax Pejorative: I based my design off of some initial concept work that Dave Bunett had developed with Matt Robbins and Hal Barwood. I developed the character further so it could be properly articulated, so it could move in a way that seemed naturalistically possible. The requirement from the script was that she be a very cranky, dangerous, very old dragon, perhaps thousands of years old. She was the last dragon, the last of her kind.

Going with Go-motion: Go-motion allowed for very positive registration of the stop-motion puppet, and allowed the puppet to actually move while the shutter of the camera was open, allowing for motion blur. The reason for the varying scales of dragon had to do with the practical requirements of each scene and shot. The big go-motion dragon – it had a 6 ft wingspan – was used for the ambulatory shots in the cave that required a full-body performance. A close-up high-speed puppet head was used for greater close-up detail. A full-scale live action mechanical prop was created to shoot on the sets in England, which was built in scale to the live actor Peter MacNicol. Then there were two other, much smaller, dragons for the flying scenes that had about a 2-ft wingspan, which were shot against bluescreen on the main stage. The matches were quite close.

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Dan Deleeuw, The Secret Lab – Reign of Fire

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Crafting the dragon: For the director, Rob Bowman, Dragonslayer was always the one to beat. And he wanted to build off of that but it in a unique way. A big thing was the silhouette the wings made – he really wanted them to lock on the ground. So with the webbing and the arms it was modeled more like a bat with these very long wrists that a lot of the wings attached to and gave it that very swept back look on the dragon.

Another big part of the design was that they wanted the dragons to look like they’ve been in a lot of battles – that mankind was devoured by the dragons but we didn’t go out easily. So the big male dragon was full of bullet holes and the wings were shredded. It was something that was more practical based and not magical. So for example when it breathed fire it was two chemicals in its mouth that mixed together – as much science-fact as we could bring.

Wild animal: It was definitely intended to be a wild animal. We based the animation on a lot of tiger reference, where a male tiger would have a big territorial area and the females in the area will have sub-sections in that that they travel through. Reference was a big deal – there was one video I remember where a tiger was hunting some kind of deer, and it’s so powerful that it would just use its front paw to smash it to the ground – that was one of the ideas that went into the design.

Tech: At that time at The Secret Lab they had done Dinosaur and 102 Dalmatians. One day we were thinking about how to put the scales on the dragon and when those things deform you don’t really want the scales to change shape. We were sitting there and going, I wonder if we can grow scales like we grow hair? Our tech supe went off and picked a dalmatian from 102 Dalmatians and they did a quick test in a couple of days and they changed the growing of hair into the growing of scales. This little Dalmatian puppy walked up with scales on its back and we knew we could grow scales! We wrote a program so that as the dragon’s face deformed you could define a matte that you could make solid for areas of the skin that you wanted solid. Then between the scales you could make it a different colour so that it would expand between them – it preserved the general shape of the hard scales. We also wrote a fire renderer, a CFD (computational fluid dynamics) simulator for the fire and hooked that into Houdini and made a volumetric renderer.

Sven Martin, Pixomondo – Game of Thrones

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Dragons, the early years: Starting with the baby dragons on season two, we had to stay true to what viewers where left with at the ending of season one, as there was no story time passed between the seasons. The look did change quite a lot, with a grittier, darker and more aggressive design, so we had to make sure that they still carried the same personality and character. Speaking of character is actually one of the most tricky aspects we were faced with over the years. It was crucial presenting the dragons always as living animals, with instincts and wild behaviors, but at the same time they should connect with their human counterparts and show a hint of human reactions. So we had to be very careful giving them all three a different personality and readable emotions without leaving the world of realism – as much as we can speak of this on Game of Thrones.

To support this approach of real animal references, we also changed the proportions more and more towards a functional anatomy. While the dragons at the beginning where mainly sitting around and eating, they started to fly in season three. We therefore scaled up the wings and formed the chest more towards a birdlike lightweight construction. From the technical side, season two was actually quite challenging for us, as we had all three dragons chained together on a small altar. For the simulation team this meant dealing with simulated wing fingers and tails dragging on the stone surface, while three chains had to collide with these, the wings skins and with each other!

With the later seasons the dragons itself became more and more complex with their growth. Nearly doubling their size every year, the complexity of the rig, the textures and the amount of scales forced us to come up with smart solutions. The amount of textures for example went up by factor ten from 70 to 700 between season 4 to 5 and ONE chest scale of the dragon has now the size of a WHOLE season two dragon!

Integrating the dragons: The production team around vfx supervisor Joe Bauer and vfx producer Steve Kullback made sure the actors could always interact with something. While Emilia Clark could rehearse with a life-size puppet in season two, she later got a ball-on-a-stick for eye lines or stroking performances. With the dragon being too large later for a puppet, we used a slightly smaller green painted head representation in scenes where Drogon is resting on her lap or when the other dragons get chained in the dungeons. The whole approach became much more complex with Dany starting to climb and ride on her dragon. With storyboards a previs as a guideline, we started to do pre-animations before the actual shoot. These already very refined animations where used e.g. to steer a flame thrower fixed to a Motion Control arm.

With the animations handy before principal photography, the actress could ride the actual dragon performance on a motion control gimbal, similar to a flight simulator. The buck she was riding one had two independently controlled elements, which resulted in a very organic movement.

For outdoor scenes on location far away from any high tech equipment, we relied on a hand puppeteered rig, referencing the pre-animations by eye. Both ways worked pretty well and made it a believable illusion.

Dragon influences: The biggest influence came actually from the already older movies like Phil Tippet’s go-motion animated ‘Dragonslayer’ for example. We referenced ideas for the fire spitting as well as purely majestic poses. Personally I’m also still impressed by the work done on ‘Reign of Fire’. The design and animation is very animalistic and their dragons are presented more as beasts than actors. Many shots still hold up in terms of rendering, simulation and compositing and is in my view an underrated vfx work. The camp fire scene of ‘Dragonheart’ is one of my favourites in terms of living in the same scene – it’s a beautiful lighting and I totally believe the two friends having a conversation at the fire. With having movies like ‘The desolation of Smaug’ produced at the same time, it’s funny to see how similar ideas develop independently far away from each other. Playing around with ideas for a design update on Drogon, we did concepts of fire glowing behind the chest scales short before the blast. We dropped that idea being a little too fantastic for Game of Thrones, but could see the effect later on Smaug. Of course our artists also get influenced by concept paintings Weta dropped for their final design, but we always came back to real animal references at the end.
As mentioned before, Game of Thrones is a more medieval than fantasy world, so movie references have been rather scenes from ‘Jurassic Park’ than others.

Derek Spears, Rhythm & Hues – Game of Thrones (season 5)

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Drogon challenges: One of the first concerns you are going to have in executing such a sequence is animation. Without great animation it is going to be hard to be successful. We also had challenges in integration as the environment was very dusty and smokey with inconsistent lighting. (Our plates were shot at different times of the day.) We had pre-animated some of the shots so that practical, MoCo driven flame elements were shot on set, which made the fire more realistic and tied into the environment. We also had to extend the set with a digital environment and a combination of pre-photographed crowd elements on cards and digital crowds to create the scale needed.

Matching live action: A combination of HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imagery) driven lighting and good composting was how we integrated the dragons. You can never underestimate the value of good compositing, especially in a situation with a lot of atmospherics such as dust and smoke. Being able to get the details right, like getting black levels, sharpness and adding small detail like sand and dust interaction I believe help sell it.

Favourite dragon VFX: Obviously Smaug from the Hobbit comes to mind. It is beautifully rendered and animated with an amazing level of technical complexity. Fortunately, we did not have to make our dragon speak. I think work like this sets the audience expectation for us, pushing us to achieve a high level of realism.

And check out the run-down of dragons I highlighted for the Inverse article.