In the late 80s, Raffaella de Laurentiis began proposing to various Studio Executives her pet project — a fantasy film set in the 10th century, about the unlikely alliance between a Dragon and a Knight. Written by Charles Edward Pogue and based on a story by Pogue and Patrick Read Johnson, Dragonheart was a project that for many years was unable to be realized, due to the complexity of its main character — a talking Dragon. Named Draco (after the latin term draco, in turn derived from the ancient greek word δράκων), the creature demanded an unprecedented special effects complexity — mainly due to the human range of expression he should be able to display.
An animatronic test was initially commissioned to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop; though impressive, given the limitations, the attempt proved fruitless in trying to convince the studio executives. With the theatrical release of Jurassic Park in 1993, De Laurentiis was convinced that digital effects could effectively be able to bring Draco to life. Universal, with whom the producer had secured a development deal, hired several effects companies to produce an animation test for the Dragon. At Industrial Light & Magic, the task was assigned to Steve Price, visual effects supervisor, and animators James Straus and Jim Mitchell.
Time restraints did not allow the artists much creative liberty, and as such they had to resort to a seemingly bizarre solution. Straus explained: “we had only two weeks to complete this test. We didn’t have a Dragon model and we didn’t have a technique for doing lip-sync — but we had to come up with something in that two-week period. So we took the T.rex model from Jurassic Park and quickly modified it, yanking its brows around to create horns. Then we took the wings off the Pterodactyl model from The Flintstones and stuck those on. We were cutting and pasting, trying to come up with something that looked remotely like a Dragon. What we ended up with was incredibly primitive, by today’s standards, but it was promising. When we showed it to Universal, the response was very enthusiastic. Everyone was amazed by it. Considering the limitations we had then, I can’t believe we actually pulled it off.” The test was enormously successful, and ILM was attached to Dragonheart.
For the design of Draco, Rob Cohen, attached as a director, hired Phil Tippett — who had brought Vermithrax to the screen many years before. Tippett recalled: “Raffaella called late in 1993, right after Rob had been assigned the movie. I’d looked over the script, so I understood what kind of movie they were making — basically, a buddy picture. Eventually, they both came up to talk to me; and Rob and I clicked. We spoke the same language, and he seemed comfortable entrusting me with finding a character and personality for the Dragon.” Tippett worked alongside his crew, mainly sculptor Peter Konig, as well as illustrator Doug Henderson, to design the creature.
20 to 30 maquettes were sculpted by Konig before a final design was actually selected; several factors were discussed: “we went through a series of thousands and thousands of design issues,” Cohen said. “The wings, shape of the wings, his color. What shape should his pupils be? How big should the eyes be? His teeth. How old is he? Should he have cracked teeth, worn teeth? Did he get into fights? Does he have scars? All these things that I wanted to do.” He also added: “I wanted him to be like a Swiss Army knife. I wanted him to have a resting tail and a fighting tail. I felt Draco needed to use his hands; so he had to have feet and hands, not just his wings and feet.” Draco would thus represent a traditional, six-limbed Dragon, as opposed to the “anatomically sound” Vermithrax from a decade before (a design that eventually spawned a trend in cinematic Dragon designs).
Tippett established the Foo Dog — a creature from Chinese folklore — as the fundamental design inspiration for Draco. “We went into a whole long series of things,” Cohen said, “and Phil said, ‘you know, the place we should start is with the Foo Dog.’ With the temple guardian dog of Buddhist shrines which is a lion mane… It’s half lion, half dog. And the Foo Dog, the beautiful thing about it [is that] has a certain lion-like elegance, a fierceness — but it’s ultimately an incredibly proud and visual… visually powerful creature.” Since Draco was a sentient, emotive creature, Tippett strayed from wholly reptilian designs and infused human traits in its face. He recalled: “our job was to make an archetypal Dragon that could act. Draco was much more than just a threatening primordial beast. For one thing, he had to talk — which automatically presented design problems. There aren’t very many facial types that allow for speech, so there was a great deal of thought that had to go into the design of the face and mouth. To accommodate the dialogue, we came up with a muzzle area that was something between a highland gorilla’s mouth and a human mouth. We also gave him retractable teeth so that he could look threatening at times, then tender at other times. That was always the difficulty with this character — he had to show a whole range of emotions and attitudes.”
The size of the creature was also thoroughly discussed. “It’s a buddy picture,” Tippett said, “and one buddy is this big and the other is that big. You’re gonna have problems in framing the shots. So, ‘what kinds of things can the Dragon do?’, really became an issue.” He also added that “I was thinking also a great deal about the release format of the film, what the rectangular frame was going to be. And so a great deal of the Dragon design was taking that into account as well — how it would be framed on a shot-to-shot basis.” Draco’s size was finally established as 18 feet of height, 43 feet of length, and 72 feet of wingspan — which could allow both to display of the Monster’s imposing nature and to shoot it alongside Bowen in medium shots. For this very reason, the Dragon’s jaws could also extend — a trait inspired by serpents — in order to be able to keep Bowen inside of it, during a key sequence of the film. “I kept drawing from nature — from boa constrictors, and I watched how they removed the pins from their jaws to open their jaws wide to swallow a creature two or three times the size of their head. And I said, ‘why can’t Dragons have detachable jaws?’ So in the scene where he swallows Bowen before he swallows him you see the… the pins push out, and the jaw distends so you could justify having a smaller head.”
A considerable issue also regarded Draco’s wings, on a both aesthetic and biological level. Tippett recalled: “we calculated how big the wings would have to be to make something of this size actually fly. We figured he would need a 125-foot wingspan — which was too big to be practical. So we played with that, minimizing the wingspan as much as we could without making the Dragon look ridiculous. We also had to work out the engineering problem of how the wings would fold out and expand, making sure they looked good in both configurations. In some of the designs, the wings looked great when they were out and flapping; but once we folded them in, they looked all wrong. A lot of effort went into figuring out what would work functionally, both in a flying mode and in a terrestrial mode.” Ultimately, those design issues were resolved with what Tippett defined as “cheating”. He took inspiration from the Lassie films: “there were twenty different Lassies, and they looked entirely different to the trainers, but to the audience, they all looked the same,” he said. “Audiences had never seen Draco before, so they wouldn’t notice small differences.” Peter Konig ultimately sculpted and painted the scanning maquette, which included detachable wings in open and close configurations.
The selected design proved to be particularly complex to be translated into a digital model. Tippett said: “we showed the final maquette to Rob, and he said: ‘that’s it! That’s it!’ He was very excited — but I could just see the faces of the ILM guys drop: ‘oh, my God…’ I knew this design was going to be a pain in the ass for them when I was doing it; but it was what Rob wanted. I kept their requirements in mind, but I didn’t let the tail wag the dog. Engineering, whether it is computer-generated or practical, has to come second to design.” Tippett also provided digital animatics to visualize certain key sequences of the film, which were used in combination with traditional storyboards. The first estimation of visual effects sequences amounted to 300, a number that exceeded the possibilities offered by the budget; the story was thus rewritten to accommodate 180 shots — a more manageable number.
The Draco digital model was supervised by visual effects artists and supervisors Scott Squires, James Straus, Alex Seiden, Euan MacDonald, Kevin Rafferty, and Judith Weaver. Straus recalled: “the Dragon model was so complicated and so highly detailed — with scales and spikes and all these things to make him interesting to look at — that to recreate it in the computer we had to go to a level of complexity never before achieved. The amount of data that had to be incorporated just to render one picture of the Dragon was unbelievable. Draco was four times more detailed than the T.Rex in Jurassic Park. There was as much data in Draco’s head as in the entire T.Rex. Since he was a major character, there were going to be tight close-ups on him throughout the film — and he would have to hold up. It didn’t leave us much room for doing computer tricks or shortcuts. We couldn’t cheat at all.”
The Draco maquettes were used as a starting point, but the digital model was manually built in Alias software. Four modelers were given the task: Paul Giacoppo, Paul Hunt, Bruce Buckley, and Dan Taylor. Each one of the artists began from a different portion of the Dragon’s body. MacDonald recalled the complexity of the process: “it was difficult to coordinate so many people building one model. Ideally, it would have been done by one or two people — but we were under time constraints. Even with four people, it took a full five months to build this model.” The digital model artists met the same design issues that Tippett and Konig had encountered before in regards to the appearance of Draco’s wings, and ultimately employed a similar solution. Straus recalled: “Tippett’s maquettes of the closed wing looked beautiful, as did the open-wing maquettes. But we soon discovered they weren’t really the same wing. We built the open wing on our computer model, then animated it to close — and it didn’t look at all like the closed-wing sculpture. In other words, that open wing could not fold into the configuration of the closed wing. Basically, they had cheated the sculptures a little bit. We looked at the structure of this wing and realized that it was an impossible setup — but we had to make it work anyway. We built a model of the open wing and a separate model of the closed wing, hoping we could find a way to ease one into the other.” MacDonald and his team devised a system of corrective shapes that would ease the transition between one wing configuration and the other during the animation, introducing folding shapes into the wing anatomy.
Digital artist Carolyn Rendu was assigned the task of recreating the maquettes’ characteristic textures and color scheme in the digital model; with the technology available at the time, the Dragon’s then shimmering and vibrant colors could not be fully translated digitally. “I had the five-foot long maquette to work from, which was beautifully painted, with all the detail,” Rendu said. “My job was to bring that same detail to life on the CG model. We couldn’t match it exactly in the virtual world, of course, because that is a world that only approximates reality. So we had to make certain adaptations, while keeping the spirit of the original model. I was primarily concerned with making him look beautiful and powerful.”
Straus added: “we retained a little of the [iridescent quality] and it was written into the main shader for the Dragon: but in most cases, you don’t see it. The iridescence pulled the character too much out of reality and into fantasy. We had enough problems with all the different textures on this thing. We had horns, scales, a dozen different types of skin, each of which had its own reflective qualities, et cetera. The gold shimmer tended to complicate all of that, visually.” In fact, certain elements were erased from the model in order to ease the animation of Draco. “We ended up shortening the distance between Draco’s eyes,” Straus said, “and also changing the size and shape of the eyes a bit. We also eliminated the tiny feathers at the edge of the wings and large, thumb-like points on the wings — both of which interfered with the animation.” As a last addition to the model, the connotations of its face were modified following those of the actor that had been cast for the voice of Draco — none other than Sean Connery.
One of the main characteristics that had impeded Draco from being brought to the screen before the advent of digital effects was his expressivity and ability to talk — which implied the necessity for lip synchronization. Discarding early the motion capture technology available at the time, software designer Cary Phillips devised a new program — labeled Caricature, or Cari — which allowed the animators to animate complex movements by combining different shapes. “With Cari,” Straus said, “we could do the broad expressions; but then, on top of that, we could go in and get all these tiny little movements, all over the face. It was so fast and interactive, we ended up using it for more than the lip-sync. We could use it to touch up animation on the body. We could use it as a viewer for all the little details, such as wrinkles and muscle movements.”
Where Cari provided the finer kinds of movement, Draco’s broader motion was still animated in Softimage, which was more interactive; the complexity of the digital model, however, made Cari a quite useful addition: it was a faster program, and could also animate a shaded model with varying levels of detail (as opposed to a standard wireframe). The initial animation was thus created in Softimage and then imported on Cari — where it was refined. “That made a huge difference in the animation,” Straus said. “It takes a lot of experience to know what you are looking at when you’re animating a wire-frame. After a while, all the lines start to blur together. Being able to animate with a fully shaded model was just incredible — the next step in this technology. We’d been able to do that before with simple models, but not with anything as complex as Draco. The software continued to evolve as the show went on — it just kept getting better and better. Cari was the big technical breakthrough on Dragonheart.”
To ease the animation process, Cohen had built a reference library containing Connery’s various film performances. Straus recalled: “the library gave us nice references of Connery when he was angry or flirting or whatever. We were able to pick up subtle character traits from those images, which was very helpful. Subtle moments, when there isn’t much discernible action, are the hardest things to animate. Broad action requires more actual work — but at least you know what’s going to happen. The subtle moments are like being presented with a blank piece of paper — what am I going to put there? When the Dragon is talking for extended lengths of time, or just lying there listening, what do you have him do? Linda Bel and Chris Armstrong did a wonderful job on those types of shots — some of the most extended, subtle character animation I’ve ever seen. Watching that stuff, there are moments that make me want to cry. He’s just alive.” Straus also added: “[Rob] didn’t just want a plodding type of Monster, the kind of dumb animal we had done before. He wanted a very agile, dynamic, quick and graceful creature. But at the same time, he had to be true to the Connery persona — powerful and confident. Rob did not want us to feel restricted in our animation by this immense body. He also wanted to go all the way in terms of the facial expressions and the body language. He wanted us to draw on all the strengths of Sean Connery’s vocal performance. The most important thing he stressed to us was that this Dragon had to have a soul. We could occasionally go into the comedy realm with the character — but, throughout, there had to be a center of dignity.”
Particular concern was posed by Draco’s eyes: “no matter how much expression we got on the face, if the eyes weren’t right, it wouldn’t look right,” Straus said. “Once we got the lip-sync down, and once the audience was accustomed to that, they were going to stop looking at the talking and start looking right into Draco’s eyes — the soul of the character. They had to look real and wet as if they had depth.” MacDonald added: “the eyes were an ongoing concern; they changed a lot throughout production, mainly in terms of texture and reflectivity. Finally, Barry Armour wrote a shader that was based on one used in Casper. It gave us control over different parts of the eyes, and it allowed us to do a lot with reflections and highlights.” Last touches in the animation included pupil dilation, based on felines. Specific digital shaders were written to portray complex effects such as the translucency of Draco’s wings, or the impression that the creature’s scales are wet and dripping with water. Draco’s fire was a combination of digital fire and practical fire elements filmed on set.
A test sequence was first shown to Cohen and de Laurentiis for approval. “For the test, we chose a shot of Draco at a waterfall,” Squires said, “for a variety of reasons. It involved a background plate that didn’t have any people in it, so there was no worry about whether that particular take would be used. We also chose it because it was in daylight — a worst-case scenario in terms of lighting. We wanted to work that problem out, right from the beginning.” With the sequence approved, ILM began the animation work, which lasted a year. A poseable maquette of the Dragon on set aided the director in establishing what he wanted in a specific shot.
The first Draco scenes included the waterfall scene, where the creature is first seen camouflaged as a rock. A practical rig, on which Pete Postlethwaite sat, was first built, and then replaced with a digital counterpart when the Dragon rises. “The shot of the stone Dragon was always a bit vague, conceptually,” said Squires. “Was he actually encrusted in the rocks? Was he supposed to change shape and form? Those issues hadn’t been fully hammered out when we started the shot, so it took some careful thinking and planning to get it.”
The first reveal follows shortly after. The following shots portray Draco in flight — some of the most complex to animate. Straus explained: “the wings were huge, with a membrane that had to move with some controllability and realism. It was very difficult — especially when he had to carry on a dialogue and fly at the same time. I had thought there would be three or four good, powerful, slow pumps of the wings, and then he would be gliding the rest of the time. But Rob said, ‘no, my Dragon is muscly and is always moving.’ He wanted Draco to be very active while he was flying — always pumping and thrusting with his wings. Rob sent us hilarious videos of himself acting out the flying. He’d be pumping his arms, yelling: ‘like this! Like this! Like you’re on the Nautilus machine!’ We kept pumping up the animation to meet his requirements, and we ended up with a very active flying motion.”
When the Dragon was on the ground, the animators had to determine the weight of his performance. Squires explained: “Draco’s size and mass dictated a certain kind of slow movement, but it is hard to get an interesting character out of something that is lumbering around. As it turned out, we had to determine his weight shot by shot. His weight varies, depending on his actions and his interactions with people and the environment.” Certain animation sequences were also influenced by the weight of the creature and changed according to it. Cohen’s original idea was a creature made of starlight, as explained by Squires: “Originally, Rob wanted us to see the Dragon flying upside down as he circled Bowen — as if he was made of starlight. One of the dichotomies of this character was that sometimes he was heavy, falling down and causing all this debris to fly up; but other times — such as this scene — he was supposed to be light as air, flying on his back right next to Bowen, almost backstroking in the air. When Rob first brought up the idea, Phil Tippett said, ‘that’s not going to work.’ Then Steve Price said, ‘that’s not going to work.’ And finally, I said, ‘that’s not going to work.’ And once Rob had the film cut and saw how the other shots were progressing, he realized that it was not going to work. We had to establish some rules of consistency for the creature. He couldn’t be big and lumbering in one scene, and floating in the next.”
Despite the major use of digital effects, Dragonheart also employed insert practical models, among which a full-size hand model used when Bowen is held down by Draco. A full-size mouth interior rig was also built for the first fight scene, where Bowen is taken into Draco’s jaws. Mike Steffe engineered the functions of the jaw, whereas Eben Stronquist worked on the tongue motion. He recalled: “the jaws were cantilevered out quite a bit, supported by two hydraulic pistons, and only closed about six to ten inches. That was partly for safety — we didn’t want to crush Dennis Quaid inside this thing.” The tongue was mechanized with hydraulic cylinders and linear potentiometers — and was fully articulated; it could perform a wide range of organic movements, puppeteered by four ILM crewmembers. In the final film, the model was surrounded with the digital Dragon head, at the cost of a continuity incongruence — as said by Squires: “we ended up rebuilding the CGI head to get it to match the jaw rig better. We’d had to cheat the scale of the practical jaw a little to get Dennis Quaid to fit inside; so we had to manipulate the CG head a bit, as well.” The scene was particularly complex, due to the needed tracking of the practical mouth section: the digital animation had to be precisely synchronized with it, and blend seamlessly. A number of other models — namely a tail section — was also built and filmed, but ultimately replaced with digital effects. Others were used purely as reference for the digital creature — such as a full-size head filmed for the scene where Draco emerges from the river and looks on a herd of sheep.
In the end, Draco dies and becomes a spirit, ascending to the Stars with the rest of its kind. Cohen wanted a unique representation of the sequence. Squires explained: “at the start of the show, we had collected videotape of all different types of spirits and glows from various movies. But Rob didn’t want anything like that. He didn’t want a hard-edged, ‘effectsy’ look to it. He wanted something entirely new. We experimented with Dynamation until we got a spirit look that was completely original.” Kevin Rafferty, part of the crew, added: “Tony Plett did a fantastic job on this sequence. We checked into the new particle renderer that was developed for Twister by our software department and saw that it could add a certain finesse to the Dynamation package. Tony went for it, and the outcome was startling.”
Straus’ favourite sequence in the entire film remains Draco’s monologue at Avalon, as it exemplifies the special effects philosophy of the project: “that shot was animated by Doug Smith, and I think it is my favourite of the show. It is subtle and yet powerful. Draco has an intensity about him. It is night and he is glistening from the rain. You see all these little changes in his expression as he is speaking; you see it in his eyes and all through his face. That shot represents exactly the type of thing we wanted to do on Dragonheart. You can’t look at that scene and say, ‘that’s a really good effect,’ because you are completely engaged by this magical, beautiful character. It never ceases to send chills up my spine.”
Rob Cohen also commented on the achievements made with Draco: “With the help of Phil Tippett and Steven Price, our first visual effects supervisor, I was able to get my Dragon put together in a way that I thought was very successful, unique, and ultimately functioned well to be the first computer graphic actor.”
For more images of Draco, visit the Monster Gallery.