Sovereigns of Fire
What do we do when we see them?
Dig hard, dig deep, go for shelter, and never look back.
In early 1996, writing duo Gregg Chabot and Kevin Peterka conceived a post-apocalyptic story depicting the last stand of humanity against monstrous dragons; aptly titled Reign of Fire, the script would have to wait several years before becoming a motion picture. Although this first draft would later evolve upon acquisition by Spyglass pictures, the driving force behind the project remained consistently the same: the desire to create the ultimate cinematic dragons — fast and formidable. “There was [an] agreement between Roger Birnbaum, my producer, and me,” said Rob Bowman, director of the film, “that ‘let’s not set up to do this if we don’t make a new benchmark for dragons’, and I was gonna make sure they were going to be as realistic as I could make them.” The duty to give life to about 130 shots of the fire-breathing reptiles was given to The Secret Lab, Disney’s in-house visual effects company — which was disbanded shortly after production of Reign of Fire was completed.
The original script proved to be too expensive to be brought to the screen, and as such underwent major modifications during pre-production — some even during production. This was due to a threatened writer’s strike, which not only shortened the pre-production phase — but also significantly affected the creature design process. Instead of the usual progression from conceptual designs, to maquettes, to finished models, the design team approached the designs on all three fronts contemporaneously. “We didn’t have enough time for the classic pipeline,” said Richard Hoover, one of the visual effects supervisors of The Secret Lab. “So we went at everything at the same time. Rob brought in outside storyboard artists — Matt Codd was the lead artist for that group, doing a lot of conceptual art and design work — as well as some physical sculptors, under Miles Teves, who were working in clay, just sculpting ideas.”
“Simultaneously, we had our own digital sculptors and 3D modelers working on designs and building the digital model, with Mike Meaker and Allen Battino from our art department producing extensive concept art. It was a creative workshop where everyone looked at what everyone else was doing — the modelers looked at what the 3D sculptors were doing, the 3D sculptors looked at what the artists were doing, and it went around and around until we finally got something Rob was happy with. Because we had to go to CG right away, we debated whether it was really necessary to do physical models; but I felt that having something tactile that everyone could see and touch, from executives on down to the artists, was important. In the end, once the physical sculpture was approved, we scanned that in and manipulated our CG models to match.”
The main body of design work was actually done by traditional sculptors. Art director Miles Teves was virtually the first artist of the creative team to begin to produce both concept art and sculptures, and was the most influential artist on the final dragon design.
This unusual and intensive designing process lasted a total of 9 months, encompassing the whole pre-production as well as two months of production.
Bowman likened the design process to “basically building an animal.” He said: “We had to determine the look, the physics, the physiology, the anatomy, the personality of the dragons — plus all the infinitesimal design aspects,” he said. “I was very specific about what I wanted, and the result was that we came up with a dragon that was unlike anything from any other movie.”
Miles Teves, probably in reference to the four-limbed archetype that was used, instead related that “we were trying to do a modern take on the dragon Vermithrax from the 1981 film Dragonslayer, which is one of the best dragon designs of all time. However, Vermithrax had the body of a snake with tiny little chicken legs, and our dragons needed to be more robust.” DeLeeuw also commented on the connection with Dragonslayer: “for the director, Rob Bowman, Dragonslayer was always the one to beat. And he wanted to build off of that but it in a unique way.”
Hans Ruedi Giger — an acquaintance of the director — was briefly attached to the project; he drew some concept designs in his house at Zurich and sent them to the director. All of those were discarded, and Carmen Scheifele, Giger’s long time partner and manager, discouraged him from having further involvement — finding the project to have “a weak script and story.”
A rather in-depth research on mythological dragons in various cultures was the very beginning of the design process. “When I took this movie on,” the director recalled in a featurette, “I began [a] research about what dragons meant to different countries, and I was surprised to see the number of countries that had their own dragon lore and mythology.” Richard R. Hoover, one of the visual effects supervisors, added: “we did a lot of homework on the mythology and all the renderings of dragons that have been done. We looked at hundreds of comic books, Chinese and historical mythological drawings. A lot of them had [humanoid] qualities, but Rob wanted to stay away from that.” Bowman’s intention was “to make the dragons like real animals that could exist on earth,” according to Dan DeLeeuw, one of the visual effects supervisors — the ‘creature specialist’ amongst the crew. “When most people think of dragons the images are based on mythology. When we did research on dragons, most of the images showed ornamentation on the heads, spikes on the backs. We wanted to make the dragon look like it really existed.”
The monsters had to evoke the feeling of a real species and that had actually evolved through natural selection. “Basically, they are at the top of the food chain now,” DeLeeuw said, “and there’s nothing humans can do against them. Everything about them is a weapon. They’re fighters — lean and very strong, with very little body fat. They’re the perfect predators.”
Various modern — as well as extinct — animal species were used as reference when it came to establish the Dragons’ anatomy, ranging from the skeletal structure to the textures of the skin. A paleontologist was even called for consultancy, given the creatures’ mysterious prehistoric origin. Despite that, the designers did not want them to overly resemble other Mesozoic reptiles. “One of Rob’s goals was that the dragon [would have to] look reptilian,” DeLeeuw said, “but we didn’t want it to look like a dinosaur. So when the early designs came back with big strong jaws, like a T.rex, we went back and slimmed those down and make them look more snaky.” Early digital tests also featured a longer neck and reptilian traits — such as a snake-like outgoing tongue — which were later discarded from the dragon design. Some iterations also featured varying numbers of teeth rows, inspired by sharks — another discarded idea.
The overall anatomy was inspired mostly from reptiles and bats. Particular attention was given to the wings and their proportions in relation to the body. DeLeeuw said: “The front legs are part of the wings and if we made the wings too big, the dragon couldn’t walk. The wing size and legs had to be worked out so that the dragon did not walk like a gorilla.” The wing structure was based on bat wings, “with a long bone at the wrist extending back, with the fingers coming further down the arm. When on the ground, the fingers supporting the membrane fold back, creating scalloped edges and a silhouette ideal for back lighting.” DeLeeuw also said: “a big thing was the silhouette the wings made – he really wanted them to lock on the ground. So with the webbing and the arms it was modeled more like a bat with these very long wrists that a lot of the wings attached to and gave it that very swept back look on the dragon.”
Crocodiles, lizards and snakes were used as reference for both the skeletal structure and the scales of the dragons. Advanced digital muscle systems composed an understructure that enabled the animators to focus on the actual performance whilst still achieving subtle and realistic muscular motion. This also applied to the digital skin, which would stretch and contract realistically when the model moved. The effects team wanted to avoid a leathery appearance for the creatures’ skin; due to that reason, they had to find a technique that would replace displacement maps. John Murrah, digital effects supervisor, said that “Dan didn’t want displacement maps for the scales. In case we had close-up shots, he wanted to see the scales move realistically, riding on top of one another, with just the skin between them stretching and not the scales themselves.”
The Secret Lab solved this issue by re-engineering a hair renderer program, precedently used for 102 Dalmatians, in order for it to render scales instead of fur. CG supervisor Adolph Lusinsky said that “it was Hank Driskill’s idea to change the fur system we had developed for 102 Dalmatians in order to grow the scales. The first test was to grow scales on some dog animation we had. It looked like corn-on-the-cob, but it told us we were on the right track. At first we were going to make the skin like a snake’s; but snake scales are shiny — which made the dragon look like a plastic toy — and the herringbone pattern blew the dragon’s scale. So next, we rented crocodile and alligator pelts and photographed different scales. For example, those that went along the arm, where the animal needed to bend, tended to be more pebbly than the armored scales on the back. We actually took a lot of those references and put them right onto our dragon.” Ultimately, the surface of the dragons’ skin was covered with thousands of individual digital scales, able to overlap and interact realistically. In addition, displacement maps were also used for additional detailing in certain parts of the body, including some regions of the head. A custom shader was used in order for the scales to maintain their shape when the skin would stretch.
As a final touch added to the finished textured models, some of the dragons’ character and history were suggested via scars and tears in the vast wing membranes. “I theorized that the dragons were always battling each other,” DeLeeuw said, “or the forces trying to eliminate them. So when we designed and painted the texture maps for the wings we added bite marks and made a bunch of holes to represent machine gun strafes. Once we got through with the damage on the wings, we went back in and made the dragon look as mean as we possibly could. And the more scarred and damaged it was, the meaner it looked. We suggested the dragon’s history through its scars.”
Different digital models with subtle differences were created to portray sexual dimorphism in the creatures. The female dragons were conceived as 160 feet long and with a 240-foot wingspan. The bull male — the first dragon awakened in an ancient underground cave — is instead 180 feet long and with an enormous wingspan of 320 feet.
The resolution of the conflict within the story of the film hinges on the existence of a single dragon individual that holds the key to the reproduction — and thus survival — of the entire species. In early script drafts, this creature was envisioned as a female — a ‘dragon queen’ nicknamed ‘Ashley’ by the production crew — with the other dragons being drone males. At a certain point during script revisions, it was decided to show a dragon egg, but because the scene it was featured in was before the climax — and thus before the confrontation with the hierarch — the sexes were switched: the ‘queen’ became a ‘king’, and the other dragons became females. Following this change, several redesigns were attempted but ultimately discarded, with the bull male’s final design reflecting the previous iteration. Evident sexual dimorphism is present: its head is proportionally different and features longer horns; and a cobra-like ‘hood’ on its neck acts as an additional threat display before the creature strikes.
Portraying convincing dragonfire was another challenge for the crew. In-keeping with the idea of making the monstrous creatures as life-like as possible, two real animal species were used as reference to create the flame breath. Director Rob Bowman found inspiration in spitting cobras. He said: “[I was] watching National Geographic, [and] they were showing this cobra spitting, and I said, ‘that’s it, that’s how we’ll do it.’ It’ll be glands that squirt out opposite chemicals — and when the two touch, there’s flame!”
The flame breath was also inspired by the bombardier beetles, small carabid coleopters. Their peculiar defense mechanism involves the ejection from their abdomen of two different chemicals, which react and produce a hot noxious spray. This was the actual base for the dragons’ breath, as explained by DeLeeuw: “our art director, Mike Meaker, had seen an African beetle with a similar defense mechanism. It sprayed a chemical out its rear and made sparks to ignite the stream. So our idea was that there are two glands at the back of the dragon’s throat, producing chemicals. The dragon spits out the liquids with muscles constricting the glands. When the two streams cross 15 or 20 feet in front of the dragon they naturally combust.” Before actually spitting fire, the dragons pull back and shake their head — then thrust it forward violently. This behaviour was once again based on spitting cobras.
The fire was created as a digital insertion in most of the shots, but certain sequences recurred to enormous flamethrowers — able to produce a fire stream up to 110 feet of length. “It was based on two three — or four — fire hose nozzles,” Hoover said, “that were spaced exactly the width of the dragon’s head and mounted on a huge tractor. Dave forced the propane out at some phenomenal pressure and ignited it. The flame would shoot over 100 feet, and it was so hot that no one could stand closer than 100 or 150 feet. On one occasion, it burned the insulation off the electrical cable buried a foot deep in the mud. I think Rob was always afraid we were going to hurt somebody.”
The digital fire was instead created with The Secret Lab’s fluid dynamics engine, with the practical fire on set used as reference. DeLeeuw explained: “our animators would animate the two cones at the sides of the dragon’s mouth to aim the fire. Then they would give it to our effects people and they would do the calculation for our CFD engine. With CFD, we were able to get a lot of realistic movement that you wouldn’t be able to get with just a normal dynamics model.” He added: “we looked at how the fire evolved, from when it first ignites and burns really hot to when it cools off, and we put that same thing into our fire renderer. So our fire actually transitions through stages, from very, very hot to starting to cool off, getting more detail in it until it eventually turns to smoke. Then we switch over from the fire shader to the smoke shader. We built all of that intelligence into the shader, trying to make it look real.”
The chemicals in the dragons’ mouth glands sometimes leak out, causing a literal ‘flaming drool’ effect. DeLeeuw commented on the idea: “we also wondered what would happen if, whenever the dragon got ready to breathe fire, it drooled from either side of its mouth like a dog. As this fluorescent blue fluid drips together, it sparks and burns as a cool blue flame. So, we had the dragons actually drooling fire.” The saliva was achieved with a combustible blue liquid, flowing from a remote-controlled device conceived by John Gray of Reelistic FX — who also contributed to the practical fire. These practical elements were shot separately and then tracked onto the digital dragon, creating the fiery slavering effect.
No less effort was put into establishing how the dragons would actually move — airborne or on the ground. The process began whilst the script was not yet in its final stage, according to DeLeeuw: “while the script was still being changed we would create animatics, small animations of what the dragon could do. We did flap cycles, diving, animation tests of the tail being used as a mace, we explored how the dragon breathes fire, how he holds his body and throws his neck forward. We created a lot of different pieces — and ended up with a kind of bible for the dragon characters.”
When in flight, the dragons’ movement and behaviour was based on that of predatory birds. “Those were best for determining how the dragon should land,” Hoover said, “how they should attack something from the air, how they should fly out, those kinds of things.” When flying, “we decided that everything would hang from the shoulders, like a hornet,” said CG supervisor Eamonn Butler. Hawks and eagles were once again used as the base of the actual wing movement.
Footage of crocodiles, iguanas, komodo dragons, vultures, and other reptiles and birds, as well as lions, tigers, and leopards, was used as reference for the ground movement. Hoover explained: “Once a dragon was on the ground, it became much more reptilian in its behaviour, which was just more wicked looking. Rob’s sound design guy had recorded a cobra in a trash can striking at the microphone; and once we heard that, it gave us ideas about what the mouth and neck and head attitude should be, and we carried that behaviour through the body.” Once again, the dragons should not move in a manner reminiscent of dinosaurs, according to DeLeeuw: “the first animations we did were very ‘dinosaury’ — big and lumbering, with too much of a T.rex step pounding the feet into the ground. Then I got a tape of komodo dragons and looked at how they moved. It was much more snaky, slithering on the ground; so we started thinking about that, and finally hit on a solution after looking at a couple of nature tapes of big cats hunting. In those tapes was a shot of a leopard slinking through the tall grass in a really cool pose where the shoulders came up high, and the legs were going forward and back, very much in line with the body — very feline. When we incorporated that with a snaky movement in the dragon’s long neck, the combination was something no one had ever seen before — but the separate movements resonated as familiar-looking.”
DeLeeuw also mentioned a connection with vultures to Animation World: “we gave the dragon’s long neck a vulture pose where we draped it down low and he hangs his head.” DeLeeuw also explained how the wing structure affected the ground movement animation: “it wasn’t like animating a dog or a cat, where you just have four legs. The dragon’s back legs were just there to help hold up the hips — while its weight was really supported on the wings. The arms were a combination of arms and wings; so as the creature moved around, we’d have another 140 or 160 feet of wing hanging off the wrist.” A dynamic wing membrane system was conceived by creature supervisor Rob Dressel and integrated into the existing digital skin and muscle system. This expedient freed the animators from having to animate manually every single wing dynamic — and enabled them to focus on the larger wing movements. During renderings, this system would create detailed movement within the membrane — stretching or fluttering. Dressel explained: “if the fingers were far apart or close together, we could make that membrane as tight or as droopy as we wanted. Once we got the software working, we saw really subtle movement that just blew away what anyone could do by hand. It was also art-directable, so you could set the material style as far as how it bounced and jiggled. Those and other controls made the dragon the most complex animation rig I’ve ever worked on.”
The effects team was also inspired by a classic cinematic vampire. “One day,” said Meaker, “he [Bowman] said: ‘just think of it as Bela Lugosi.’ He got down on all fours and started crawling on his forearms, putting his hands in front of his face. From that, we made a walk cycle where the dragon draws its arms and wings across its body, giving it a shrouded, mysterious look.” This posture also managed to ‘conceal’ the legs of the dragon, one of the last design elements to be finalized and which the director was unsure about. During flight the legs would strictly adhere to the underside of the dragon’s body. Complex techniques were used to believably composite the digital dragon models into sequences, with them interacting realistically with atmospheric elements — such as the smoke moved by the bull male’s wings when it lands on Quinn’s fortress.
To show the bull male’s injuries after the explosion caused by Van Zan, new surface maps were used to depict seared scales and damaged tissue. Hoover commented on the references, saying that “to get ideas, we looked at photos of burn victims from medical journals and all kinds of gross stuff. Then one day, I said: ‘you know, I come from Washington state where we used to buy half a cow for the family. Let’s just go buy one of those and burn it — and we’ll film it.’ I wanted a cow with skin on it so we could see what the skin would look like burnt; but U.S. department of Agriculture won’t let you buy a cow with skin on it — it’s not healthy. So we went to a grocery store and bought some beef, sliced it thin and put it on glass; and I had John Gray burn it in all different kinds of ways. First we put crisco oil on the glass; then we put the meat on that and cooked it. All the edges of the meat started curling and getting black and crispy, and the oil started going red and bloody. It was beautiful!” This process was filmed and used as reference for the new texture maps, painted by Mark Siegel. They were then augmented with digital smoke and animated with the CFD engine to waft realistically during the dragon’s flight.
Though the dragons were brought to the screen with computer generated imagery for most of the film, a full-size model was built to portray the fallen dragon, slain by Van Zan in the second act of the film. Construction of the massive prop was commissioned to Artem, a special effects house of London; it was the biggest project ever given to them. Starting from a sculpture of the dead creature by Miles Teves, a team of sculptors began working on blowing it up to full size. The massive sculpture took 10 weeks to finish, and artists such as Miles Teves and Bruce Spaulding Fuller worked on it. To ensure that the model would precisely replicate the digital dragons, “we scanned the maquette and generated cut-through slice data so that we could make accurate polystyrene forms,” said Chris Martin, supervisor of the construction process. “Then we took back an inch of area that was going to be rubber and put clay all over the forms to get a better final surface for molding. We made a multipiece fiberglass mold and used two-part rubber backed up with strong fabric because it was such a heavy thing. We used emulsion-type paints, some mixed with latex depending on where we were applying them. The wing was semi-translucent in places; so for almost all of that we used wood stain. The teeth were made out of acrylic so you could see through them and have a kind of x-factor.” Some teeth were removable: a deleted scene saw Van Zan plucking one out of the dragon’s mouth.
Sculpted in about 10 weeks, the model portrayed the whole body of the beast, with the exception of its left wing and its tail — which were digitally added to the practical dragon in post-production. The full-size monster was designed to fold up for convenient transport — which eased the duty of moving it from West London to the set in Southern Ireland. Since the dragon is not quite dead after falling to its ruin, puppeteers within the body articulated the mouth from within, making it slaver, and added subtle tongue and gland motion. Pneumatic ribs installed in the torso simulated the monster’s last breaths.
In a later scene, Quinn extracts a gelatinous, frog-like egg from the carcass; the model was created in clear polyurethane with a latex dragon embryo inside. “For the scene where Christian cuts through and removes the egg, we used the rig like a defibrillator, so the dragon reacted with kind of a wobble,” Martin said. He also recalled: “after we got it up, the director took a stroll around it. It was a tense moment, because he hadn’t seen it since it was half-made, but he said, ‘you’ve hit a home run’, and that was very encouraging. It was shot over a couple of days in smoky, wettish conditions. We dribbled artificial blood on the dragon, so it was like an abattoir inside it — and we had seats in there where our crew controlled the pneumatics. They had to pass the egg into Christian’s hands because it was covered in slime and he couldn’t get a grip on it.” The model was dismantled and scattered around location for another — deleted — sequence, where Quinn and the others see up close half-eaten carcasses of multiple female dragons.
Hoover commented overall on the project, in the light of it being The Secret Lab’s last project: “after doing this for so many years, I believe that if you feel a picture is going to be really difficult, then you have a better chance of doing something really special. And in this movie, I think we succeeded far beyond what I’d imagined.”
For more images of the Sovereigns of Fire, visit the Monster Gallery.