This is a particularly good time for lovers of cinematic dragons. Thanks to advances in animation software and live-action visual effects, and a growing skill set among the artists who use them, scores of scaly beasts are taking over screens big and small: There’s Maleficent, which opened last month, featuring a CGI homage to the dragon from Disney’s 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty; How to Train Your Dragon 2 releasing soon, which revisits the Viking fliers of the 2010 original; Godzilla, starring an honorary dragon; and Game of Thrones, whose threesome of dragons will continue to terrorise goats and humans through the season finale on June 15.
For Maleficent, the animators looked at everything from the fire-breathing dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug to the stop-motion creations of the fantasy-film legend Ray Harryhausen (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). “The main focus, though, was always to go back to the original Sleeping Beauty film,” said Carey Villegas, senior visual effects supervisor. And no wonder: That hand-inked beast, with its snapping jaws and glowing green eyes, remains one of Disney’s most popular villains, appearing at theme parks and in other Disney properties.
At one point in How to Train Your Dragon 2, the skies are nearly black with dragons, all wheeling and darting like gigantic reptilian warplanes. When asked what that 30-second sequence might have looked like if they had tried to film it, say, four years ago, the animators at the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, California, said that it wouldn’t have even made it to the storyboards.
The increased computing power of Premo, an animation tool designed at DreamWorks, allowed them to manipulate ever more complicated beasts, and to devise intricate scenes that would have been inconceivable with the previous system, Emo.
While Premo’s greater speed and abilities may be new, a lot of what’s on screen is based on something animators have been doing for decades: watching footage of real animals. The film’s enormous Bewilderbeast contains elements of a musk ox and a cockroach.
On Game of Thrones, the brood of Daenerys Targaryen, aka the Mother of Dragons, has grown from hatchlings small enough to perch on a shoulder to predators the size of a small bus. “As the dragons get bigger, the models get more elaborate,” said Joe Bauer, the lead visual effects supervisor.
When figuring out how HBO’s dragons will fly, there are questions of tonnage, lift-to-drag ratios and air displacement to wrestle with. One technical challenge for a future season: creating a dragon large enough for Daenerys to ride atop, as per a scene from one of George R R Martin’s books.
The pool of animators who work at this level of dragon making is relatively small, and many are friends. A few months back, while working at DreamWorks on Dragon 2, Jalil Sadool, the lead animator for the Bewilderbeast, was having dinner with an animator with Warner Bros. “He was telling me about how he was dealing with two dragons fighting in Godzilla,” he said. “And I was like: ‘All right! That’s what I’m doing right now, too!’ So, yeah, we talk about it. And we brag about it as well.”