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 an imposing, fire-breathing villain. That 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 the quest of bringing 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 made the early decision to hire a creature designer that would 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. The artist 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: greenlight for Dragonslayer was given by Paramount Pictures.
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 Phil’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 [of] 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).
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.” Vermithrax’s movements were largely based on 16mm footage of lizards.
Paramount struck a co-production deal with Walt Disney Productions. Full-scale models of the dragon were thus able to be built by Disney’s special effects company — headed by Danny Lee. Tippett’s final dragon maquette was shipped to the Disney shop — where construction of the full-size models began. “They have a fantastic facility there, with a mill, and a mold shop and a metal-working shop,” Barwood said to Fangoria. “They’d had long practice building dinosaurs for the various Disney parks, so they were fully prepared for the job.”
Phil Tippett, Dave Carson and Jon Berg supervised the sculpting process, in order to maintain consistency with the maquette design. A series of full-size puppets was eventually constructed, despite doubts from even Lee himself. A 16-foot head and neck section of Vermithrax was built, with full neck, head, mouth, and eye movement. It was followed by a 30-foot wing section, which included only the arm, without the fingers and the membrane between them. Other puppet body parts included the left leg, complete with a grasping clawed foot, a 20-foot tail section, able to perform rough serpentine movements, and a full dummy of the burned carcass of the monster, shown at the end of the film. The wing section was ultimately only used as part of this last model. The gigantic puppets needed a crane to be operated. Skin for all versions was moulded in polyurethane. Danny Lee’s team also made an additional set of spare skins for replacement during filming.
Once in England, Tippett supervised the painting process of the full-size props to match the colour scheme of the small-scale puppets and maquettes. The full-size models were first filmed in the set of the exterior of the dragon’s lair, which was built in the massive ‘007’ stage of Pinewood. It was an elevated set (over 10 feet over the floor), allowing earthquake-causing mechanisms and space for the dragon’s head to rise from the ground. In the interior of the cave, the infamous ‘burning water’ was achieved with flammable gas, which was emitted underwater, and once in contact with a burning source, it simulated the flames on the water.
Filming the full-size models in the cave interior proved to be a monumental challenge. 13 people operated the full-scale head for the scene where the dragon rises from the lake, dripping water and opening its jaws. The single shot needed days to be achieved. Several planned shots met difficulty in the practical performance, due to the props’ structural limitations. Robbins commented: “there were many occasions where months of planning and storyboarding were thrown out in a matter of moments when we’d discover that the hoses weren’t long enough to reach the part of the set where we want to shoot; or the pump was going to break and take three days to fix; or a joint would smash when we dropped the claw and it wouldn’t grab anymore. When you’re in production, you can’t stop. You must shoot something and you must shoot it right now, or you’ll never get it. So the level of frustration was extremely high.”
This considerable loss of production time was resolved by transferring much of the setups for full-size dragon shots to the second unit — directed by Peter MacDonald. Robbins would just have to discuss the setup with MacDonald, and come to direct when a specific sequence was ready to be shot. At this point, Robbins realized that many planned shots did not require the advanced movements the first full-size head could provide. Using the additional skins previously made by Lee’s team, a new full-size head, labeled as the ‘B’ head, was built. It had a simpler and lighter structure, and it was rigged on a teeterboard that allowed upward and downward motion. It also featured simplified mechanisms allowing slight lateral movements. The ‘B’ head proved very useful and was used in a good number of shots, including the sequences where the dragon rises behind Galen — before he turns around — and the demise of Brother Jacopus.
Early footage of the full-scale head did not meet the filmmakers’ expectations. In contrast with its frightful appearance, its movements were inadequate and unrealistic. According to Dennis Muren, this because of who operated the enormous puppet: “the guys that worked the dragonettes, the babies, were experienced in performing with puppets and projecting their thoughts into those puppets. But the guys that were trying to work the big dragon were laborers, not puppeteers. Also, I think maybe it could have worked better than it did — if they had put some guys on it to work the bugs out. As it was, it just got rolled onto the set and was expected to work the first day — to act the first day, not just work.”
Chris Walas recalled another important issue — one with the sculpture itself: “the full head is only used in a very few shots as it was discovered to have a flaw,” Walas recalled on Facebook, “It was sculpted very symmetrically and there is an odd optical effect that flattened out the face in any head on shots, which were deemed unusable.”
It was at this point that Chris Walas re-proposed an idea that had been quickly disposed of in pre-production: a small-scale hand puppet. The concern of additional matte lines, compositing, as well as intercutting issues had made Matthew Robbins prefer the full-size head. Said concerns were now less pressing, and in the light of the full-size props’ failure, the hand puppet seemed an effective option. With the approval of the director, Walas went on to prove that notion; he sculpted and build the ‘close-up’ head puppet, which was shot entirely at ILM. This new creation, although with most of its functions left unused, proved indispensable for the project. In the final cut of the film, most of the shots of Vermithrax’s head are portrayed by the hand puppet, with only a sparse amount performed by the full-size heads.
Given its intended ‘hero’ role, the puppet was allowed to stray from the full-scale heads to a certain degree. Walas could thus ‘fix’ the sculpting mistake that made the full-size heads difficult to film. He commented: “the best way to tell them apart is the bridge of the nose. The full-scale heads have a straighter ridge. That’s one of the reasons we had to do a puppet — the straight nose on the full-size heads had a terrible foreshortening problem when viewed from head on. I actually made the entire forward section of the head tweaked at an angle to avoid the issue.”
The hand puppet could perform the full movement range of the full-scale head — with additional, subtler cues to its performance. Basic movements were provided by a pistol-grip control installed within the head. Other functions were supplied with cable-operated mechanisms, puppeteered externally by assistants — who used levers constructed by engineer Stuart Ziff. A motorcycle control handle on each lever enabled the performance of two specific functions at the same time.
Chris Walas commented on the expressivity of the puppet, saying that “most of the functions were not originally designed into the dragon. It was a reptile and reptiles don’t have a lot of facial mobility. So it was very difficult just deciding what to make move and to get it to move convincingly. It had the brows raising and lowering, the eyes moving back and forth, the eyelids opening and closing. The nostrils open and close. It snarls — they sort of insisted on ‘snarls’ — very innatural move. The temples pulse. The tongue swells in the throat.”
Chris Walas was generally aided by three assistants — though certain shots required up to a total of six puppeteers. The hand puppet was mainly shot live against miniature cave sets, with the sequences themselves set up and photographed by Rick Fichter. He was chosen to maintain visual continuity between the new shots and the sequences that had been already filmed. The hand puppet head was shot in slow-motion, with shots ranging from 32 and 48 frames per second. This technique gave a sense of mass to the creature, but proved to be particularly challenging. Walas said: “we carefully went over what it was going to do in each shot, and it was very difficult because we wound up having to do it in half the time or three-quarters of the time it was actually supposed to take. So what we finally wound up doing was going over it in real-time, and then counting it off as we went — which tended to work pretty well.”
Walas’ favourite shot of the creature in the entire film is when Vermithrax’s head snakes towards the camera, with darkness behind — suggesting the presence of the rest of the creature. During that shot, Walas stood behind the hand puppet, draped in black. As opposed to most ‘static’ shots of the head, where fire had to be composited and rotoscoped in, this sequence was just a show-off of the puppet. Walas commented: “that’s what I thought the puppet should have a lot more of — just a lot of movement. But part of the problem was that most of the close-up shots, or a fair amount of them, had to match flame shots. So we didn’t have a lot of leeway for movement.”
Despite all the issues the crew met with the full-size models, the biggest challenge for Dragonslayer would be animation. “We knew the dragon had a lot more importance to this film than some of the incidental things that appeared in only a few shots in Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back,” Johnson said. “The dragon had to be presented in a way that the audience would be absolutely stunned.” Since the beginning, Barwood and Robbins were convinced that the technique that should be used was dimensional animation. The ILM crew was at first uncertain in finding a way to convert the design into a convincing small scale animation puppet. Tippett said: “the design was so peculiar that it was very difficult to touch — especially the way the wings folded and covered up a lot of the body. As a practical stop-motion puppet, it was a very difficult hands-on sort of thing. That was one of the first reasons we started thinking we’d have to come up with another way of articulating this thing. And we figured that there must be a way of adapting motion control equipment that was available at this facility to plug into a pretty standard stop-motion puppet.”
“One of the things I’d thought of,” Muren recalled, “was trying to do it with muppets, where you have a rod puppet sort of thing — shot bluescreen but done live. That wouldn’t have worked either because you would have had five guys trying to make this thing look alive. They [could never] have synched up.” This technique would be experimented with a decade later, by Boss films (who would coin the label ‘Mo-Motion’) to animate the Dog Alien rod puppet in Alien³. The ILM crew, however, quickly abandoned the idea.
Stuart Ziff laid the foundation of an innovative animation technique. Indeed, the dragon would be a rod puppet — but connected to a puppeteering system. “It was obvious that the puppet was just too small to put any motors inside [of it]. Not knowing exactly how we wanted it to move, we came up with the idea that whatever it would be would connect externally. Since the dragon would usually be photographed in the dark, we would conceal rods coming up to the feet.” Ziff set to work on a motion control mechanism for the miniature dragon. A new technique would also allow the crew to stray from the usual ‘staccato’ effect of stop-motion: “what we all wanted was to break away from the stereotypical stop-motion look,” said Tippett, “which is not only an artifact of a succession of still photographs, but a simplified geometry in the blocking out of the shots that some animators are forced to do.”
In six months’ time, Ziff elaborated an innovative motion control mechanism to animate Vermithrax. No one among the crew at the time knew what the result of this new motion control technique would look like. Everyone was ready for a possible failure of the new experimental method — and was prepared to fall back onto stop-motion animation. Barwood commented: “we had to spend months constructing the dragon mover, and we had to spend more months learning to use it. We were all chewing our nails by the time we started getting our first walker shots [January 1981].” The results, ultimately, were beyond anyone’s expectations. “Eventually, though, we added some,” he continues, “because it became obvious that they were great.”
The motion control mechanism consisted of several ‘units’ — each comprising of a rod system. They were attached to a central coordinator piece. Each unit was driven by three stepper motors — which, combined with a series of mechanisms, allowed the unit and its rods to move in all three dimensions. Six units controlled the dragon’s movements: one for each limb, one for the dragon’s body and one for its head and neck. This entire system was installed onto a motion control cart, which was in turn mounted on a eight-feet track. There was a total of 19 stop-motion motors, 16 of which could be under motion control at any given time. When mounted on this system, the dragon puppet would be effectively suspended in mid-air while performing.
Ziff built the motion control system so that it could be dismantled and reconfigured in different configurations, depending on the requirements of a shot. The internal frame of the dragon puppets — a metallic armature — featured threaded holes to connect to the puppeteering rods. In turn, the rods were attached to the motion units via a combination of other rods and clamps. This expedient provided additional flexibility and prevented the rods from colliding with each other while puppeteering the model. The motion control system was able to move the dragon in real-time speeds, even though the crew never needed such a function (Ziff simply wanted the most available options as possible).
Using the knowledge acquired by Jon Berg and Doug Beswick during the production of The Empire Strikes Back, Tom St. Amand built the armatures. Hinges and swivels enabled Phil Tippett to lock off certain axes of movement. “If the dragon had to walk in a straight line,” St. Amand said, “obviously you wouldn’t want the legs to go cattywampus out. So with these you could lock off the joints which would make the legs do that.” Each joint was based on a simple axis swivel type of movement, barring the neck and tail — which were segmented with ball-and-socket joints.
Two three-feet long armatures for the ‘walking’ dragon (with a wingspan of six feet) were made, in the possibility of needing both working at the same time. Ultimately, the second armature served only as a prototype for animation and skin covering tests. Two four-inch puppets of Galen were also built for the shots that saw both the dragon and the warrior onscreen. Chris Walas preliminarily sculpted the walking dragon, with finishing touches by Phil Tippett; after moulding by the former, the latter would then finalize the fabrication.
The very first plan was to animate the head and neck conventionally — using stop-motion — whereas the rest of the body would employ the new technique. Dennis Muren explained: “we couldn’t figure out how to motorize the neck and head without doing everything bluescreen, and we didn’t want to do everything bluescreen. So the first shot Phil tried was when the mother walks out and looks at the baby dragon. Doing everything he could to focus attention on the head and neck — which is the only part that was just stop-motion — it still showed up as looking different from the rest of the puppet. In fact, it was perhaps more objectionable than if the whole puppet had been stop-motion. And this was the full miniature set, with scrims in there for smoke and all sorts of stuff. It was so complicated that we figured: ‘what’s the point of doing every shot like this when it’s a compromise. What we want to do is motorize that head.’ That was when the decision was made to motorize the head and shoot the stuff bluescreen.'”
As a result, almost all of the 20 walking dragon shots were realized with bluescreen. Once finalized, this new animation process acquired a new name. “I wanted ‘animotion’,” Ziff recalled, “so we could call the animators ‘animotors’. But that one didn’t float at all.” Eventually, this new animation technique began to be called ‘Go-Motion’.
Carson lamented the process of building miniature sets that would have been better on a different scale — had he known from the beginning that bluescreen would be used. Before it was decided to use bluescreen, Carson had built suspended sets. “It was impossible to actually construct a miniature cave,” he said. “It had to be done in layers of facades. And unfortunately, we found in the first couple of shots that it looked like layers of facades.” He added: “that’s where the real problem came — trying to get everything in such a small area. Then it turned out that we ended up bluescreening the dragon in most of the shots. Had we known we were going to take that approach initially, I could have built the sets at a different scale.”
This expedient eased the process of hiding the animating rods, which consisted in either masking them or rotoscoping them with articulate mattes. Generally, only the dragon’s head needed the latter technique. Sometimes, the rods could even be hidden by shadows or even anatomical details of the dragon itself. Setting up the shots proved to be particularly complex. The first step was determining the basic configuration of the mover mechanism. Construction of the attaching rod systems followed. In any case, the configuration had to prevent the rods to obstacle the dragon’s movements or pass in front of its body.
Once the mover was configured with the dragon installed in it, and the shot was aligned, the next step was to set up the tension of the dragon’s joints. This enabled said joints to respond appropriately to the rod movements. The 16 memory tracks were then built manually. “It was complicated,” Ziff said, “because each foot could go up and down, and back and forth, and right and left, but when you had to go in a circular motion — you could only program one track at a time — it was like working an Etch-A-Sketch with one hand and trying to get it to look circular. That was sort of difficult, but Phil mastered it.”
For a foot or limb to appear to stop whilst the dragon was moving forward (and thus the rest of the body was continuing to move), the unit controlling the foot would have to be programmed to move backward contemporaneously as the rest moved forward. Such programming was far more articulated than those done for the Star Wars spaceships — which had only one control unit. Tippett essentially learned about programming while filming Dragonslayer. The more complex shots of the ‘walking’ dragon would take up to 1-2, to even 2 and a half weeks to program. Actual shooting instead took up to one hour. Tippett said: “By the time we got most of the very complicated shots out of the way — which took about 2 months — we were able to finish up the final third of the shots in about 2 and a half weeks because we’d gotten so familiar with the system.”
Even with additional animation, once a shot was programmed, filming would proceed smoothly. Tippett recalled: “one of the major attributes of the walking dragon setups was, since these rods were plugged into all the various members, there wasn’t much necessity to gauge things with surface gauges. It was all pre-gauged and locked down. That really helped the continuity and the flow of the animation.”
One of the ‘walking’ shots — when Vermithrax emerges from a tunnel, enraged at the death of its offspring — went through a number of different iterations. Barwood recalled: “Phil had programmed the dragon to come through the cave after the babies are discovered to be dead. And he had him coming through the cave with his head kind of turning from side to side. I think what Phil had in mind was that that was a natural part of its gait, but the effect on screen was that it was paying no attention — like it was just kind of out for a romp in the cave — when really what’s going on in its tiny little dragon mind is: ‘I’m gonna get the sucker who killed my babies!’ It needed to have its face coming right toward you, full of menace. Well, Matthew got a chance to see that played back on video and say, ‘wait a minute. Let’s change that.’ And Phil did. But the rest of the move was still there in the computer memory and could be retained and put into the shot.”
Ken Ralston was assigned the sequences where Vermithrax would fly. Two additional ‘flying’ dragon go-motion puppets were made, with an aluminium skeleton that enabled a wide range of motion. The varying scale of the puppets depended on the requirements of specific shots. They were maneuvered using the spaceship-type motion control techniques used for Star Wars. The ‘flying’ models were slightly smaller in scale than their ‘walking’ counterparts — and were made with ball-and-socket armatures. The larger model featured a gearbox mechanism that enabled its wings to actually flap during flight. This moved only the forearms, and as such it would still be necessary to animate the wing tips by hand.
Ironically enough, Robbins did not want elaborate wing movements. Ralston recalled: “the first flying dragon I shot was not at all the way it ended up in the film. It was a slower, more serpentine thing; and there was much more flapping.” As it turned out, Robbins really wanted a master of the air. He explained: “we hadn’t really had a chance to establish a working relationship with Ken and Phil, and the ideas as to the personality of the dragon were not really in hand. There was a shot of the dragon where I felt it was flapping its wings too much. Ken really thought it was believable, but I just had to decide what I wanted to go with. The shot was, technically, as good as anything that was ever done; but in terms of the dramatic feel of the creature, I wanted something very different. I wanted it to move with very little wing movement. The more it had to flap to stay airborne, the more it sort of seemed to be struggling. Flapping just did not seem to be in tune with its regal nature, and so we dropped that idea from many of the shots.”
The dragon also had to fly fast. “We know it’s going too fast,” Robbins said. “We did some math, and it’s doing around a hundred and fifty miles an hour most of the time. But we make no apology for that fact. believe me, when it seems to be going the right speed, it looks altogether too languorous and relaxed to be able to generate the intensity you need at the end of the movie.” One of the most spectacular shots features the dragon hovering whilst breathing fire on Ulrich, during the climax of the film. “They had shot a plate of Ulrich,” Ralston said. “Then they shot a flame pass with the set all dark. And the flame was moving up and down — it wasn’t just locked off — so I had to match the flame with the head. That was my favourite shot.”
One of the ‘flying’ Vermithrax models was also featured in the only stop-motion sequence of the film — a long shot of the dragon on a rock mountain hide, writhing its wings and glaring down at the protagonists, just before the final battle. Production pressures prevented the ‘walking’ puppet to be used there, so Ralston simply animated one of the ‘flying’ dragons.
Tom St. Amand eventually joined the animation process and actually animated the last ‘flying’ shots at night, after Ralston had set them up during the day. Most of the flying shots were ultimately and relatively easy to film; it was not the case, however, for the shots of the dragon falling out of the sky, covered in smoke. On stage, a descending smoke bomb (by pyrotechnician Thaine Morris) was filmed. Ralston’s task here was to match the dragon’s movement to the smoke’s. The movement was then repeated via motion control, and a small light attached to the dragon provided a ‘glowing’ chest. Further embers detaching and flying off of the dragon were added to the shot by Loring Doyle.
A custom back-lit fluorescent bluescreen was used for the final battle, both for the creature and actors. “It was a very complex sequence,” Muren said. “Not many films end with ten minutes of bluescreen actors in front of created backgrounds.” The background eventually ended up to be a dark sky with ‘boiling clouds’. The background plates for the cloud formations were filmed in Hawaii.
Despite the long learning process, the advantage of go-motion is that it allows the puppet to move during the exposure of a frame — allowing natural motion blur to come about in the sequence, as opposed to stop-motion. In addition, according to Barwood, go-motion “allows the animator to store his ideas, the way you’d write them down if you were writing a script.” Robbins had unprecedented control over the animation. Tippett explained: “if the director saw the puppet was moving too slowly, he could say, ‘well, I want it to go faster.’ You’d shoot yourself if he told you that after you spent two days doing conventional animation. But this way, we just entered another value and could speed it up by almost any percentage he wanted.” Carson added: “the director was able to treat the effects shots the same way he treated the live-action. That caused us a lot of headaches and a lot of grumbling, but it’s the way most directors like to work.”
Vermithrax’s dragonfire was achieved with two flame throwers designed and built by Brian Johnson. Both used a gas under high pressure, laced with lycopodium powder; this caused the brightness and particular colour of the flames. The first, cannon-sized flame thrower was swivel-mounted; it was used in the wide shot in the Lake of Fire, and in the confrontation with Ulrich. Previously, an internal incendiary system had been installed inside the full-size dragon head, and although successfully tested, it proved unsatisfying on the actual stage. As a result, the fire was shot separately and optically composited with Vermithrax — whatever version of it — when it unleashes its fiery attack. The second flame thrower — of smaller size — was used for closer shots where the reach of the larger one was not required.
Sam Comstock supervised the compositing process. He was dissatisfied with some of the results, saying that “there was a little trouble on some of them with teeth. What looks like a matte line isn’t really. It’s the shadow of the part of the tooth that wasn’t illuminated, and that’s just the way it had to be lit. It doesn’t really light up the way a bunch of flame inside his mouth would light up. So there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about that. If you have a tooth that’s lit from one side, it’s going to be dark on one side. It would be too fastidious — even for us, I think — to try to animate in illumination for each tooth.”
When Valerian enters the Dragon’s lair to collect shed scales, she is attacked by one of Vermithrax’s babies. The baby dragons were designed by Ken Ralston. David Bunnett kickstarted the design process; he tried to find a physical appearance that would not inspire sympathy in the viewers. This fundamental guideline was due to the fact Galen was to brutally slay the creatures, and a creature for which the audience could have had affections for would have been counter-productive for the scene.
Bunnett commented on the process, saying that “the essential problem with the babies was that the baby of any species is cute and adorable.” Some designs were finalized but discarded. Bunnett continues: “we had one that looked like an eagle chick — tiny little flappy wings. You couldn’t even use it on Saturday morning television it was so cute.” Bunnett identified large eyes as a key design element to achieve empathy from the audience; thus, the dragonettes should go in the opposite direction and be endowed with small eyes. Ken Ralston then designed the final appearance, infusing “a lot of bulldog and bat in the face.” He also included ‘reverse-engineered’ details that would later grow and develop in the adult stage: a rudimentary horn on the snout, a small tail, and long arms with still undeveloped membrane.
The three babies were created as full-sized puppets by Ken Ralston, Chris Walas and David Carson, in addition to the single, featureless miniature model used for the scene where Vermithrax realizes its progeny is dead. One of them was to be decapitated and featured separated head and body parts that could be easily cut apart. Once on set, the full-sized dragonettes were operated from beneath, through holes in the floor of the cave set. The puppeteers were provided with monitors that allowed them to watch the movements of their puppets. The puppeteers had to stand to the fake blood and KY jelly (used to make the creatures’ skin glisten) dripping through the holes.
Ralston lamented a controversial scheduling choice, which put the slaughter scene before the sequence where Valerian discovers one of the babies. One of the puppets, intended to use for the latter scene, featured a mechanism that enabled its eyes to blink; said feature was destroyed, however, during filming of the former. Ralston recalled the unfortunate event: “one of the dumber things that happened, but just the way it happens in film — Dave Carson had rigged this thing so the eyes would blink; we had balloons all over to swell things on him and move all over the place. So what do they schedule first? The scene where Galen is tearing these creatures to pieces in the cave. The eye blink isn’t in the show at all because one of the first shots was Galen hitting this thing with the torch — which wasn’t planned — and he hit it square on top of the head, which broke the mechanism. I remember sitting under there getting my hand beat to pieces and looking at the video after he had done it. The eyes were just hanging out; the mechanisms, springs, everything was destroyed; the balloons in the throat had broken. He was even burnt, because of the torch. Then I had like three weeks for the earlier shots where Valerian goes down into the cavern and sees them.”
As a closing word, what Matthew Robbins really wanted was the monster to be the centerpiece of Dragonslayer. “I’d always conceived of Vermithrax as being the center of the drama,” he said. “In other words, he was my star. And insofar as I was able to do it, I wanted to be able to walk out on his set, pull his big head down and whisper in his ear: ‘don’t look so far right. Don’t be so close to the boy. Remember, you’re not angry; you’re just very cold.’ Or: ‘Now you’re angry’. In other words, I was directing, from my point of view, the lead actor.”
Special thanks to Chris Walas for providing some great insight for this article!
For more pictures of Vermithrax and its progeny, visit the Monster Gallery.