This is a particularly good time for lovers of cinematic dragons. Thanks to advances in live-action visual effects and animation software, and a growing skill set among the artists who use them, scores of scaly beasts are taking over screens big and small. There’s Maleficent, featuring a CGI homage to the evil fairy-turned-dragon from Disney’s 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty; How to Train Your Dragon 2, which revisits the Viking fliers of the 2010 original; Godzilla, starring an honorary dragon if there ever was one; and Game of Thrones, whose threesome of dragons (spoiler alert) will continue to terrorise goats and assorted humans through the season finale next week.
For Maleficent, Disney animators looked at everything from the fire-breathing dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (given the overlapping production schedules of the two films, there wasn’t much to see) to the stop-motion creations of the fantasy-film legend Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). ‘‘The main focus, though, was always to go back to the original Sleeping Beauty film,’’ says Carey Villegas, senior visual effects supervisor for Maleficent.
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When Hiccup and Toothless discover an ice cave that is home to hundreds of new wild dragons and the mysterious Dragon Rider, the two friends find themselves at the center of a battle to protect the peace.
And no wonder. That hand-inked beast, with its snapping jaws and glowing green eyes, remains one of Disney’s most popular villains, appearing at theme parks and in other Disney properties. For the 2014 version, the animators increased its digital wingspan to 70 feet (‘‘That dragon in the animated film had these little tiny wings,’’ Villegas says), got rid of its front legs, and moved the forepaws to the ends of its now-massive wings. An eight-minute sequence in which it torches a huge throne room is a mix of CGI and live action, with stuntmen blasting out real fire to simulate flaming breath, and animators adding lavalike ‘‘dragon dribble’’ to the beast’s jaws.
To make the dribble, ‘‘some of our special effects guys would soak cat litter in kerosene, light it, drop it from a high altitude, and photograph it over a black background,’’ Villegas says. ‘‘It created this really cool strand of flaming, dripping fire.’’
At one point in How to Train Your Dragon 2, the skies are nearly black with dragons, all wheeling and darting like gigantic reptilian warplanes. On the ground, two dragons the size of whales slam into each other amid hundreds of warring Vikings. When asked what that 30-second sequence might have looked like if they had tried to film it, say, four years ago, the animators at the DreamWorks Animation campus in California, quickly say that it wouldn’t have even made it to the storyboards.The increased computing power of Premo, an animation tool designed at DreamWorks, allowed them to manipulate ever more complicated beasts, and to devise intricate scenes that would have been inconceivable with the previous system.
‘‘If you had two characters on at the same time, you’d have to turn one off, just so the whole thing wouldn’t slow down,’’ says Thomas Grummt, the lead character animator for Cloudjumper, one of the film’s star dragons.
While Premo’s greater speed and abilities may be new, a lot of what is on screen in Dragon 2 is based on something animators have been doing for decades: watching footage of real animals in the wild. The film’s enormous Bewilderbeast, for example, contains elements of a musk ox (the way its body reacts when slamming into another similarly sized beast) and a cockroach (the wiggly antennas).
‘‘We could design as broad a range of dragons as we wanted,’’ says Simon Otto, the film’s head of character animation. Extra sets of wings, multiple cowls and nose plates: The dragons became much more complex when animators stopped thinking about what a pain it would be to animate all of those extra little appendages. ‘‘It’s like we’re God,’’ he says, ‘‘and we’re creating this world that we love.’’
On HBO’s Game of Thrones, the brood of Daenerys Targaryen, aka Mother of Dragons, has grown from hatchlings small enough to perch on a shoulder to bat-winged predators the size of a small bus. ‘‘As the dragons get bigger, the models get more elaborate,’’ says Joe Bauer, the show’s lead visual effects supervisor. ‘‘And with more functions, the animators have more things to manipulate.’’
Over four seasons, the dragons have sprouted increasingly detailed battle armour and developed threat poses that include inflatable facial bladders (imagine the threat postures of frilled lizards, but much, much bigger) and jutting jaws (‘‘like a shark just before it’s about to feed,’’ says Bauer).
When figuring out how HBO’s dragons would fly, there were questions of weight, lift-to-drag ratios and air displacement with which to wrestle. Animators use digital wind tunnel simulations to visualise how the beasts will look in the air, and consult footage of birds of prey for style pointers. ‘‘Most often, we’re duplicating an eagle or an owl,’’ Bauer says.
When one of the dragons flash-fried a particularly mouthy slave master in Morocco last season, the effect was fairly easy to achieve, at least for the animators: a stuntman was set aflame on camera, writhed around for a bit, and then the dragon was added in postproduction. Other effects, of course, are not so simple. One technical challenge for a future season: creating a dragon large enough for Daenerys to ride atop, per a scene from one of George R.R. Martin’s books.
The pool of animators who work at this level of dragon making is small, and many are friends, regardless of which studio employs them. They often seek one another out for help and advice, or just to hang out and talk shop. A few months ago, while working at DreamWorks on Dragon 2, Jalil Sadool, the lead character animator for the Bewilderbeast, was having dinner with an animator who was working on a project for Warner Bros. ‘‘He was telling me about how he was dealing with two dragons fighting in Godzilla,’’ he says. ‘‘And I was like: 'All right! That’s what I’m doing right now, too!’ So, yeah, we talk about it. And we brag about it as well.’’
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Maleficent is now screening. How to Train Your Dragon 2 screens from Thursday.