Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 5 (May 2005)


If dragons actually existed, what would they be like? That is the question considered in Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real, an hour-long “docu-drama” from Animal Planet in which myth merges with reality, much as CG imagery merges with live footage. The program’s premise is that dragons lived on Earth from prehistoric times until relatively recently, but died out in the early Middle Ages as a result of human predation and encroachment on their habitats.

This entirely fictional account begins with the discovery of a dragon specimen preserved in the mountains of Europe, and continues with an inquiry into the nature and physiology of the mythical creatures. The scientific investigation, performed by real actors, is interspersed with flashback episodes in which digital dragons appear amid real-world footage.

If the look of the show recalls the BBC animated special Walking with Dinosaurs, it’s no accident: Framestore-cfc, the London-based visual effects and animation studio that produced Dinosaurs, also created Dragons. In fact, the studio’s work on Dinosaurs, and also on the TV specials Walking with Prehistoric Beasts and Dinotopia, as well as the Harry Potter movies, helped prepare the group for the task of creating dragons.

Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real was created by Charlie Foley, directed by Justin Hardy, and narrated by actor Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame. The CGI team included Mike Milne, director of computer animation; Alec Knox, CGI supervisor; and Sirio Quintavalle, visual effects supervisor, all Dinosaurs veterans, in addition to Neil Glasbey, lead animator, whose credits include Walking with Prehistoric Beasts and work on the hippogriff creature in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

The CG sequences of the program vary in style, involving various types of dragons in unique settings. These include a prehistoric battle between a primitive dragon and a Tyrannosaurus rex; a marine scene with a limbless dragon swimming underwater; a forest environment in which a flightless dragon stalks a tiger; and a climactic mountain scenario in which a female dragon seeks and finds a mate, raises a daughter, and battles humans who invade her lair.

Early on, the program’s creative team took pains to account for the dragons’ physical characteristics. For example, how were such large animals capable of flight? (Their internal “flight bladders” contained lighter-than-air hydrogen.) How did they breathe fire? (They ate platinum, which set up the necessary chemical reactions.) Although these answers were created to support fantasy, they’re partially based on real-world examples. For one thing, most animals, including humans, harbor gas-producing bacteria within their bodies, and the dragons’ bacteria just happened to be of the hydrogen-producing variety. The developers got the idea for the platinum ingestion from the manner in which elephants deliberately consume minerals such as salt from rocks.

With the “scientific” basis for the creatures established, the Framestore art team’s task was to create and animate the dragons. In keeping with the realistic, documentary style of the show, the creatures needed to look believable and move realistically. But of course, “it was a tricky thing to do, because they don’t exist,” says Glasbey.
The visual effects crew at VFX/animation studio Framestore-cfc used Alias’s Maya to model and animate dragons for a unique style of television docu-drama that blends fiction with reality.

At the start of the project, the group scanned maquettes of each type of dragon, creating high-resolution models. It wasn’t possible to rework, or in the case of the T. rex, reuse, models from earlier projects such as Walking with Dinosaurs, notes Quintavalle, first because the BBC owns the rights to the dinosaur models, and second because the models were created in Softimage’s XSI, while Dragons was produced in Alias’s Maya. Also, he notes, models, as a rule, are usable for only three or four years before they become obsolete from a technological standpoint.

Next, the artists rigged each dragon with a simple skeleton for the preliminary animation. Then, as the project proceeded, the group animated the models with greater detail and complexity, while a second team textured and lit another set. The complex animations and the detailed models were not combined until late in the process, enabling the Framestore artists to save time.

The animation process itself was especially challenging because there are no large, winged, fire-breathing animals in nature to use as examples. So, the artists turned to other sources, such as flames from flamethrowers, which they filmed and then composited into the footage for the fire-breathing element.
To create this fire-breathing dragon, the crew first shot film footage of real flames (from flamethrowers) in a real environment, then added the computer-generated dragon and some additional effects.

The wings, however, posed the greatest challenge, says Glasbey, because “it was difficult to create a character that was consistent both in flight and not.” As a result, the animators faced issues such as where to attach the wings so they wouldn’t interfere with the animals’ walking-or flying, as early wing iterations collided with the dragons’ bodies when they became airborne.

The animators used real-world examples for the dragons’ flight patterns-the wing movements of birds and bats, for example-but this was only so helpful because of the extreme body mass of the beasts. “A real creature of that size would need enormous wings to actually fly,” Glasbey says. But animating what an animal the size and shape of a dragon would probably look like while flying, paradoxically, did not look convincing. So, eventually, the animators had to compromise, striving instead for what looked believable, even if, by the laws of physics, it wasn’t. “We would work with a model on screen until it took on a life of its own,” he adds.
A dramatic chase involving a flightless dragon through the flat light of a misty forest setting required the digital effects team to use shadows sparingly in the scene.

Finally, for coloring and texturing the models, the artists used a variety of programs, including Maxon Computer’s BodyPaint 3D. Real-world reptiles provided some inspiration for the dragon scales and skins, and “we knew a lot from Dinosaurs about what worked and what didn’t,” says Quintavalle.

Once the artists finished the models, they composited them into the live footage. The physical backgrounds, according to Quintavalle, provided the desired level of realism far more than CG backgrounds would have. Actual actors and a real tiger used in the film also added to overall realism.

The live shots were obtained over a three-month period in three different locations: the Canary Islands for the prehistoric footage, a bamboo forest in France for the forest dragon segment, and the French Alps for the mountain dragon scenes. Each of these locations provided different challenges. For the prehistoric segment, the action moves from the bright light and stark background of a volcanic crater to a “flat light” environment in which the characters race in and out of fog. The mountain scenes, many of which were shot in an ice cave, included live actors and flamethrowers, elements that added to the general complexity of the shots, especially “in an ice environment, where reflections are going on everywhere,” says Quintavalle. He notes that the new image-based lighting technology in Maya helped in this area, enabling, among other effects, subtler shadow falloffs.

The ice cave scene presented logistical challenges as well. The location was at high altitude and, therefore, was taxing to the crew. And the floor of the ice cave was a sheet of ice that required everyone to wear crampons. The use of flamethrowers added an extra measure of danger to the mix.
To create the effect of a dizzying descent, the team merged mountain footage for a top-to-bottom effect, then added CG dragons spiraling downward.

The third element of the Dragons production-aside from the models and the backgrounds-is the fire. Particularly in the final mountain dragon scene, fire appears frequently and in different guises: A pair of courting dragons scorches the earth at the end of their mating ritual, a dragon woken from hibernation tries desperately to breathe fire but can only produce a few puffs, and a mother dragon blows fire on a rock nest to keep her eggs warm. For this last effect, says Quintavalle, “we gave the fire a magical quality by adding a bit of magnesium dust to make it sparkle.”

The Framestore crew had a short amount of time in which to create Dragons-just 25 weeks. The end result, with 167 shots and 35 minutes of CG, represents a milestone of sorts in terms of turnaround time at Framestore. Behind this success were tools such as Autodesk Media and Entertainment’s Inferno, used for compositing. The crew’s background with Dinosaurs helped as well-they already had experience creating walk/run cycles for large, unlikely beasts.

A new sort of test posed by Dragons, however, was the dramatic emphasis. “That was the biggest challenge,” says Quintavalle. “We were used to making a natural history sort of program, but this had to be more dramatic. Each shot had to be cinematic. We couldn’t just shoot animals walking in herds.”

According to Quintavalle, the most successful shot of this type is the one portraying the courtship ritual performed by the two mountain dragons. The dragons interlock with each other, than spiral downward from the top of the mountain in a mating embrace until, mere feet from the earth, they separate, snort fire toward the ground in a sort of rocket-booster maneuver, then soar upward. (This scene is based on the manner in which bald eagles actually mate, sans the fire breathing, of course.) In order to create the scene, the crew shot the mountain range in several segments (base, middle, and peaks), merged the footage, inserted dragons, and panned down on the clasped couple as they tumbled past the mountain footage.
A digital dragon breathing digital vapor inspects a real rock situated atop real snow in the mountain dragon segment of the program, filmed in the French Alps.

Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real appeared on Animal Planet in the US this spring, and in the UK under the name The Last Dragon. That title refers to the plight of the episode’s beleaguered mountain dragon, among the last of its kind. Even though the story is completely fictional, viewers may find themselves relating to the environmental message, and experiencing sympathy for this fearsome predator that is only trying to carve out an existence for herself and her young. Because her needs interfere with those of humans-she has begun taking livestock from nearby farms-her days and those of her kind are numbered. It’s a state of affairs that will be all too familiar to viewers of real-world nature programs, and demonstrates yet another way in which this fantasy story blends with reality.

Jenny Donelan is a contributing editor for Computer Graphics World. She can be reached at jdonelan@adelphia.net.