Vermithrax Pejorative – Part 2
Paramount struck a co-production deal with Walt Disney Productions; as such, full-scale models of the dragon were commissioned to 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 were acted out 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.”