Vermithrax Pejorative – Part 1
By the early 80s, spanning from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad to The Brothers Lionheart, there was an ostensible lack of iconic dragon villains in motion pictures. Audiences had yet to see a fire-breathing beast that would terrify them — and this was the objective Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins set for themselves: they wanted to create a memorable, formidable dragon using the most advanced among the available technologies.
The duo thus embarked in what would become a quest to bring to the silver screen a monster audiences would never forget.
As often happens in Hollywood, old friendships aided them in their goal. Thanks to their friendship with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, both Barwood and Robbins were able to follow the production of films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, thus giving them an idea of how special effects-centered films are made. This, in turn, allowed them to give themselves certain limits when writing the script.
Barwood told Fangoria in 1981: “we knew what could be done, in general, and which things could never be done, so we wrote within those limits — which must be recognized, even with today’s high-technology special effects.” He added in a Cinefex article, “We were close onlookers, if not actual participants; and as a result, we had our wits about us when we started the project.”
The pitch for Dragonslayer dates back to 1979. After a failed casting attempt for an unrelated romantic comedy project, the duo decided to focus on another kind of film — a special effects-centered one. “We thought,” Barwood told Cinefex, “‘There’s a way to free ourselves from that kind of pressure and also head for a different kind of territory in terms of commercial possibilities.’ What we particularly got interested in was taking the maturing special effects technology, as seen in Close Encounters and Star Wars, and adapting that to a different kind of storytelling-dramatic venue which we liked better; and that was a fantasy idea.”
Barwood and Robbins’ romantic comedy was abandoned, in favor of a diametrically opposite species of film: a dark fantasy thriller, with a terrifying dragon as its main antagonist. Vermithrax Pejorative, described as 40 feet long and with an impressive 90-foot wingspan in the script of Dragonslayer, is a relic of an ancient age. Its hunger is kept at bay with a constant supply of sacrificial virgins, selected through a lottery. As later revealed in the film, the creature’s need for food also stems from the necessity of raising its young.
In order to keep expenses reasonable (the final budget amounted to about 18 million dollars), “we designed it so that the dragon would be in the movie as little as possible and yet be satisfying; and we always felt it would be safer to keep the creature in the dark, so you didn’t see the wires and the hooks and the levers and the matte lines. So the dragon was always appearing in dimly lit circumstances. Even in the final battle the level of light was low because of the eclipse, which was brought on purely to help the special effects: ‘uh, get the lights down! He’s coming back!'”
As the script was being written, Barwood and Robbins decided early on to hire a creature designer to produce dragon illustrations; those would aid in the process of pitching the project to studios. Their choice fell on David Bunnett, a fantasy illustrator with no previous experiences in film design — although he had previously collaborated with Janet Robbins — Matthew’s wife — in illustrating a weekly fantasy story, which featured a dragon. Bunnett was at first reluctant in becoming involved in the production of a motion picture, but eventually accepted the offer. His illustrations provided an original direction to follow for the design of Vermithrax. He also aided the two writers with the storyboarding process.
Their efforts paid off, as Paramount finally gave Dragonslayer the greenlight.
Despite the supernatural context of the film and Vermithrax’s bond with it, Barwood and Robbins were adamant in bringing to the screen a creature that would be believable. Barwood stated: “it’s a beast with magical origins, but nevertheless we always thought that it ought to obey the various rules of evolutionary biology. As a vertebrate animal, it only gets to have four limbs, you know — so there [are] no four feet and then wings on the back; the front feet have to also be the wings.”
The creative minds found their inspiration in prehistoric life. Specifically, a pterosaur from the Jurassic period became the filmmakers’ muse. Barwood continues: “the basic model is a flying reptile called the Rhamphorhynchus. If you’re into pterosaurs, you know that there are some that had no tails at all and instead had long back legs that extended outward to create tension on the wing membranes. Rhamphorhynchus, on the other hand, had a very long tail with a sort of spatulate piece at the very back, like a leaf, which was the stabilizer. That was the basic anatomical plan, although [the dragon] in its details it does not resemble a Rhamphorhynchus at all. David did it so we could have a dragon which could look magnificent when it was flying, and was strange and horrible when it was clumping around in its cave.”
Given Dragonslayer was set in the dark ages, an in-depth research was performed on dragons from medieval lore and art. Bunnett commented: “I did a lot of looking around at dragon literature. It was interesting but, ultimately, basically useless stuff. I found that dragons, as shown in the old pictures, were just plain goofy. Or else they would be very nicely done, but done by a sculptor or painter to fulfill the function needed by the art piece that was under way — basically a one-purpose dragon. If the dragon were shown in the air, for example, it would look very nice; but there would be no explanation of what this dragon does when it’s not in the air. Or, if it were shown on the ground, it would be this amazing ferocious thing, and it would have little bitty bumblebee wings and bright butterfly colors. You just knew that that would never fly, ever.”
Bunnett added in an interview with Weird Worlds: “designing a dragon isn’t just a matter of sticking wings on a dinosaur. Vermithrax is 40 feet long, with a wingspan of 90 feet. But she had to look light enough to fly. So most of her weight is at the head, neck, and shoulders. The rest of her is pretty streamlined.”
Vermithrax’s head became a puzzling challenge, as well. Bunnett said: “that’s really where the personality is expressed to a great degree, and that was a tough one. We went round and round on that, and we seemed to alternate between too plain, nothing-going-on-here, and ridiculous rococo [late baroque] ornaments flopping all over the place. But one Saturday afternoon, as I was watching football on TV with my little sketchpad on my knee, suddenly I just came up with an idea which was the solution to the dragon. It was the bony ridge over the eyes, sort of sweeping back over the temples and becoming the horns. That turned out to be the motif that made everything else work.”
The configuration of Vermithrax’s jaws was based on crocodiles, lizards, and in particular, rattlesnakes. “I came to realize that you had to construct the jaw similar to a snake’s jaw. If you have a simple hinge with one pivot point, it just looks like a duck. What has to happen is it has to, first of all, develop some height at the back of the mouth, and secondly the lower jaw has to move back. Otherwise, it just won’t have it.”
Vermithrax’s legs were based on a common chicken’s foot Phil Tippett had sent to the writers. Barwood mentioned: “it was a big beast, but it had to be able to fly. So it needed to be very lightweight, like a bird — which wouldn’t be that unusual since reptiles are sort of related to birds, through the dinosaurs. Phil went out and got a chicken foot and we made a model of it and blew that up. So that’s literally the dragon’s foot — a gigantic chicken foot.”
Industrial Light & Magic took on the duty to bring the dragon to the screen, during the ‘pause’ between the productions of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Robbins was very pleased for the availability of the company:”the first requirement was that if we did do a movie about a dragon that we deliver a dragon,” he said. “We were very, very committed to the idea that it would not all be people staring past the lens reacting to something over your shoulder — that eventually we would run up against it. And I think that had it not been for our association with ILM, we never would have undertaken it. It’s too terrifying to think of spending all this time on a movie and then coming up with a rubber duckie that’s going to flap and squawk. We knew about ILM’s operation so that we thought we could protect ourselves from some of the worst problems that would afflict a special effects movie, especially a special effects movie that would not command the biggest budget in the world.”
Important effects artists joined the project in fall 1979, including Brian Johnson, an Empire and Alien veteran. The ILM crew unit was under the supervision of Dennis Muren — and included Phil Tippett and Ken Ralston as “the key dragon effects people.” Many crewmembers spent time on both Dragonslayer and Raiders of the Lost Ark, another film produced in the same time.
Once the dragon design was approved, David Bunnett — with no previous experiences in sculpting — created a small-scale maquette in clay and sent it to Industrial Light & Magic. Phil Tippett designed the final Vermithrax based on this prototype. “Dave’s design was more of a direction,” said Chris Walas, one of the key members of the special effects crew. “It was really Phil that refined and defined the final design.”
Criteria involved in the refinement included adapting the design to the limits of a stop-motion creature: “my whole objective was to take their basic notion of a long-necked, long-tailed quadruped, and make it serviceable as a stop-motion puppet,” said Tippett, “and I did that mainly by making necessary aesthetic changes in musculature, relation of body parts, and overall scale consistency that a real 40-foot animal would have.”
Robbins commented on Tippett’s involvement with the design: “Dave Bunnett was not a trained sculptor, so the dragon he produced, while very good, was really more on the order of a sketch. Phil Tippett resisted our original concept at first, because he thought it would be too difficult to animate; but once he accepted it, it was really he who turned it into a finished piece of art. His dragon was perfectly textured, with just the right surface detail and scale size and everything. And he did a lot of work on the head. The head itself was compressed laterally so it was taller and longer, and the eyebrow ridges had just the right articulation. You could still look at it and say, ‘yes, that’s Dave Bunnett’s dragon,’ but there were a lot of subtle refinements. In one stroke, Phil had solved the overall personality of the head and given it a sort of noble quality to go with its nasty disposition.”
Tippett also added in an interview with the Visual Effects Blog: “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.”
Certain elements of the final Vermithrax design were dictated by the scale of the animation models and how they were to be manipulated. The creature’s musculature was fundamentally smoothed out. “One feature of the original design,” Bunnett said, “which is different from the final one is that the original was much more gaunt and ragged. But when you have to have a model that moves, you have to limit yourself; because if you have a design that exposes the musculature to a substantial degree, it’ll look fine when it’s stable, but when you see it moving you’re going to expect to see those muscles do things.”
The wings also underwent a cosmetic change, going from a more reptilian to a more bat-influenced appearance. Bunnett continues: “the wings look like bat wings magnified ten thousand times, and it’s a good look — in fact, I think it’s excellent. But initially, I wanted to have a wing which was a little bit more reptilian. In my mind, it would be a leathery expanse that would have cartilage sort of struts or something. But the people who had to manipulate it on camera felt that that was too difficult, and by going to a bat wing-type design they had the obvious advantage of stiff fingery things they could stretch a membrane in-between. So you have to keep in mind the difference between design and art. In design, there are sort of irreducible problems that have to be dealt with.” Interestingly, where reptiles always have no more than five fingers, Vermithrax has six (with four supporting the wing membrane, and two used for grasping and walking).
In addition, the ILM crew also designed Vermithrax’s colour scheme, which made the creature blend in its environment. Tippett recalled: “the issue of the dragon’s color wasn’t really addressed until I got to England. Amidst a hectic shooting schedule and hiring puppeteers for Ken and Jon to work with, I was lucky to pull Matt away from the set for a minute or two to confer on what colors should be used to integrate the dragon into the cave sets. I felt it was important to make the dragon look as though it was part of its world; so I would walk to the stages, pick up handfuls of slate and rock, and then go back to the painting area and derive some similar colors.”
Next: Part 2