The Dragon at Gringotts
A gigantic dragon was tethered to the ground in front of them, barring access to four or five of the deepest vaults in the place. The beast’s scales had turned pale and flaky during its long incarceration under the ground, its eyes were milkily pink; both rear legs bore heavy cuffs from which chains led to enormous pegs driven deep into the rocky floor. Its great spiked wings, folded close to its body, would have filled the chamber if it spread them, and when it turned its ugly head toward them, it roared with a noise that made the rock tremble, opened its mouth, and spat a jet of fire that sent them running back up the passageway.
-J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
The Ukrainian Ironbelly in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (whose species name was actually not mentioned in the novel) was a violently mistreated, unhealthy animal, subject to imprisonment and torture by the goblins. The concept of animal abuse applied to a dragon became the key element of its characterization in the film adaptation, on both a design and animation level. Visual effects supervisor Tim Burke related: “this dragon had been underground all its life and very badly treated. It was important for David Yates that this came across in the dragon’s character, so the audience would have empathy for it.” Visual effects supervisor David Vickery further elaborated: “Tim Burke envisaged the creature as an emaciated, malnourished, mistreated wild animal and David Yates insistent that the audience needed to emote with the creature – to sympathise with it but at the same time be terrified of it.” In another interview, he also added: “it was always supposed to be a really tortured, malnourished, emaciated dragon. We even had to look at some horrible RSPCA photos of dogs that had been mistreated for reference, which had a certain look in their eye.”
Concept iterations of the dragon were handled by several artists, with the bulk of the design established by Paul Catling. The concepts initially explored a variety of different looks, but eventually dialled back to a more faithful rendition of the novel description; what shifted from version to version were the animals used as the base for the anatomy of the head and other body parts, as well as the texture and size of the scaly covering. Eventually, the design steered towards an elegant configuration with a crown of thin horns on the head and a long, beaked snout.
The art department then supplied the concept art work to Double Negative, whose crew dedicated to the creation of the dragon was ultimately composed by up to 100 members — lighting artists, creature effects technical directors, compositors, matchmove and rotoscope artists. The dragon was actually one of the first portions of the digital effects to begin being worked on. “Some of the first concept images we were given for The Deathly Hallows Part II were of the dragon,” said visual effects supervisor David Vickery. “They depicted an emaciated yet feral looking animal, sprawling in a dank and cavernous environment.” Conceptual designers Kristin Stolpe and Andy Warren further developed the dragon design, crafting a series of models in Maya, Photoshop texture studies and Mudbox sculptures using the art department concepts as reference. “At this early stage the creature went through a lot of changes,” Vickery related. “We designed shackles, muzzles and harnesses that could be used to restrain the creature and painted high res textures to show how the dragon could be wounded, scarred and disfigured. There were hundreds of subtle tweaks and variations made to the design of the creature during this phase.”
Particular attention was given to elaborating on the texture, quality and colour of the dragon’s skin. “We spent a long time on the getting the right color of the skin,” Vickery said. “They didn’t want it to be a pink dragon, or a blue dragon. It was amazing how sensitive everyone was to the tinniest little hint in the skin. The other thing was making it tortured and emaciated enough that you felt sorry for it. David Yates was adamant that it not be a creature you look at and be disgusted by – you were supposed to emote with it. You had to look at it and feel simultaneously terrified and sorry for it.A number of body wound and disfiguration designs were also explored and added to the skin to highlight the unhealthy state of the dragon.
Stolpe and Warren’s renderings were used as the base reference for the construction of the digital dragon, handled by Rick Leary’s modelling team. As the dragon had only been visualized in two-dimensional renderings up to that point, it was crucial to make its appearance adapt to scrutinization from all angles. “Individual still images often give you a false impression of an object’s shape,” Vickery related. “When you look around that same object in 3D it suddenly looks very different. We wanted to get the creature modelled as soon as possible to avoid this and really start to understand its from from all angles.”
Lead character rigger Tom Bracht and creature lead Gavin Harrison were responsible for the simulation of the dragon’s emaciated quality, achieved with a combination of layered dynamic simulations (which also included a vein layer) and a muscle rig system built in Double Negative’s rigging tools. “We had creature technical directors scripting lots of new pipeline tools to handle the many layers of cloth, muscle, bone, skin and tendon simulations we knew would be required to create a convincing animal,” Vickery said. He also explained that “we had to subdivide parts of the creature rig so that we could employ different simulation techniques on separate parts of the dragon’s anatomy. We utilized the dragon’s skeleton as a sculpt deformer. As the dragon breathed, her ribs would heave, her muscles and tendons would flex, and her skin would slide over different portions of her body to different degrees.”
Vickery explained the muscle and skin simulation process in detail: “[the animators] had some very finite controls over really small details. Aside from your usual rig elements, they had wobble controls for loose skin underneath the neck, they had fairly accurate controls for positioning the panels of the wings and the cloth between the wings. Chris Lentz, the animation supervisor, and his team would go through and do that and then it got passed over to the dynamics team. The first thing they would do is simulate the muscles. We had built an accurate skeleton of the dragon, which had a fairly simple muscle geometry built in. We then had a Dneg plug-in called Beefcake which allowed the geometry of the muscles to then deform and inflate or deflate the exterior of the skin. We then had a displaced set of tendons across the neck, the shoulders and the hips, which were controlled by the effects guys and animated to fire on and off all the time. They also added in controls for veins – essentially where they start moving underneath the skin. On top of that we added in skin-sliding over the top of the bones and muscles. We painted maps to allow the skin to slide in some areas and not others. Then we added the cloth simulation for the wings. Plus we had all the chain simulations around the neck and shackles for the feet. And of course we then went through a whole lighting and rendering process.”
Burke provided Double Negative animation supervisor Chris Lentz with reference footage of rescue dogs and Russian circus bears. Much like its design, the behaviour of the Ironbelly had to reflect its condition of an abused animal. “The body language was so apparent in the way these animals held themselves,” Burke said, “their posture, and their eyes. We showed that in the dragon when the goblins use the clankers. This creature has been taught to fear the noise — a bit like Pavlov’s dog — and so it’s cowering and terrified.”
Scenes with Harry and his friends on the dragon’s back were the biggest technical challenge relating to the dragon effects. “Getting the lead characters to sit convincingly on the back of the dragon was a massive technical challenge for us,” Vickery commented. “We really wanted to avoid the slow grinding mechanical feel that you often get when humans have to ride or interact with large imaginary creatures.” John Richardson’s mechanical effects team devised a practical interactive section of the dragon’s back that the actors could ride on a motion control base. Vickery recalled: “we provided John Richardson with our finished Maya model of the dragon and he used this to CNC-machine a 1:1 scale 12 foot sculpt of part of the dragon’s back. Nick Dudman then used this to create a flexible foam latex skin that would form the creature’s hide whilst John Richardson built a mechanical rig to control its movement. The rig had pneumatic rams to drive the dragon’s shoulders up and down, twist the neck and spine in three places and lift the top of the tail.”
The rig was controlled by digital animation supplied by the animators. “John detailed the components of his rig and we built our own digital version of it and constrained it to our 3D dragon in Maya,” Vickery said. “Our Lead creature technical directors Gavin Harrison and Stuart Love wrote a series of tools that allowed us to extract our previs animation and use the data to drive John’s mechanical rig. We could animate the creature in Maya, export the data and see the mechanical rig do the same movements on set but this time with the actors on the back!!”
The practical limits of the rig dictated specific shooting adaptations, such as lower frame rates for certain shots. Vickery said: “the rig itself had a pretty good range of motion but was so heavy that it was never going to achieve the speeds we were seeing in our dragon previs. We had to adapt our shooting methods for each shot to make sure we got the most out of the rig. Some shots were filmed at 18fps and re-sped to make the dragon back appear to move faster.” The rig was then replaced with the digital dragon, composited into the shots. Certain sequences also implemented digital doubles of the actors.
For scenes where the Ironbelly breathes fire, Double Negative effects animation supervisor Alexander Seaman used footage of John Richardson’s pyrotechnic effects that had been devised for the Hungarian Horntail as reference, and created digital fluid flame effects.
The dragon finally breaks free from imprisonment, and rests perched on top of the buildings — breathing slowly. “David Yates wanted this to be the first time we could really scrutinize the beauty of the dragon restored to her former glory,” Vickery related. “There was some incredible work in the skin and muscle deformers. As it spreads its wings, we used Maya nCloth simulations to create sag and dynamic flutter in the wing membranes. We broke that into separate meshes because it was so high-resolution, then ran nCloth on the fingers and the wing tips and reintegrated that into the creature body.” Large flying birds such as Albatrosses were used as reference for both the stumbling take-off and the flight scenes.
Goblins and wizards shrieked and ran for cover, and finally the dragon had room to stretch its wings: Turning its horned head toward the cool outside air it could smell beyond the entrance, it took off, and with Harry, Ron, and Hermione still clinging to its back, it forced its way through the metal doors, leaving them buckled and hanging from their hinges, as it staggered into Diagon Alley and launched itself into the sky.
For more pictures of the Ukrainian Ironbelly, visit the Monster Gallery.