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April 24
2024

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

DELIVERING THE FIERY CAVE DRAGON FOR DAMSEL

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix.

When a young bride becomes an unexpected offering to a dragon, both the creature and the royal family that betrayed her get more than what they bargained for as she has no intention of carrying on the sacrificial tradition. This is the premise for the Netflix production of Damsel directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (Intruders) and starring Millie Bobby Brown, Ray Winstone, Nick Robinson, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Angela Bassett and Robin Wright. Dividing the visual effects work for the dark fantasy feature were supervisors Nigel Denton-Howes and Nicholas Brooks. “I came in at the beginning of post-production to help bring the dragon along because my background is doing creature stuff,” Denton-Howes states. “The original supervisor was more of an environments person.”

The notes of Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos regarding the wings of the dragon.

The notes of Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos regarding the wings of the dragon.

Responsible for the production design was Patrick Tatopoulos. who has made a name for himself as a creature designer. “Patrick was brought back as well in post, which is unusual,” Denton-Howes notes. “I managed to get him to work with the artists at One of Us, and I finished off the look development and all of the details that are needed to make [the dragon] look real when you get into the shots.” The desire was not to go for a lizard-inspired dragon like Game of Thrones. “Our dragon is much closer to a panther, which is why when we brought her into the environments and caves, she is just as comfortable running around the caves as she is flying around them. Whereas your stereotypical dragon is lumbering on the ground and graceful in the air,” Denton-Howes explains. Tatopoulos’ designs for the dragon were refined with the original version having a strong graphical orange line going down the flanks and back of the neck. “We followed the line to the spine and tail. That allows her to stand out in the caves. But the whole textural approach is that she is part of this environment and is supposed to blend in,” Denton-Howes says.

Great attention was spent by Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos to get the dragon anatomically correct, such as the hip bones.

Great attention was spent by Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos to get the dragon anatomically correct, such as the hip bones.

“Our dragon is much closer to a panther, which is why when we brought her into the environments and caves, she is just as comfortable running around the caves as she is flying around them. Whereas your stereotypical dragon is lumbering on the ground and graceful in the air.”

—Nigel Denton-Howes, Visual Effects Supervisor

Getting the fire simulations correct was a major responsibility for One of Us, which handled the dragon and was aided by on-set lighting.

Getting the fire simulations correct was a major responsibility for One of Us, which handled the dragon and was aided by on-set lighting.

Shohreh Aghdashloo provides the voice of the dragon. “There are certain sounds that are awkward for a mouth that big and a muzzle that long to make,” Denton-Howes remarks. “There is some lip sync, and we’re using the jaw a lot, but a lot of the motion and mechanics were actually done with the neck. When she inhales, the neck plates open, and it compresses like bellows when she exhales. We added a shiver to the neck plates to correspond to her emotional state. When she is confident, there is very little flutter in them and when she gets angry, they vibrate like crazy. That informed the sound design.” Something unusual for Denton-Howes was getting an opportunity to work directly with the sound design team. “We did a bunch of loops back and forth of animation and sound tests until we got a final dialogue sound that was going to work.”

The neck plates were utilized to help make it believable that the dragon could speak as well as convey the emotional state.

The neck plates were utilized to help make it believable that the dragon could speak as well as convey the emotional state.

The dragon was modeled on a panther, meaning that it was equally comfortable moving on the ground and flying.

The dragon was modeled on a panther, meaning that it was equally comfortable moving on the ground and flying.

Environments were enhanced to get a proper interaction with the dragon. “A lot of the environments are CG, but on the sets that were built we added all of the rocks and debris on top of them because they were actually bare,” Denton-Howes says. “When the dragon is walking, she can kick stones, and everything extended in the background is CG. When she is interacting with characters, like when one of the guards gets grabbed, it’s a takeover into an all-CG character. For some of them, the whole shot is CG. When we’re interacting with Millie, like when the dragon’s hand is on her neck, on set there were interactive elements such as claws that could press down to allow her to feel some of it. Then we also bent her skin in 2D to add indentations, and, in the dragon, there was some modeling to push in the pads of the thumbs and fingers to make them squishy so you can feel that the two are really touching each other.” Each cave was distinct. “One had stalactites and stalagmites. The main action area has giant columns and looks like a cathedral. Then there is the crystal cave that Millie climbs up. It’s done so you don’t feel as if you’re in the same place all of the time.”

Each cave was treated as a different environment.

Each cave was treated as a different environment.

“A lot of the motion and mechanics were actually done with the neck. When she inhales, the neck plates open, and it compresses like bellows when she exhales. We added a shiver to the neck plates to correspond to her emotional state. When she is confident, there is very little flutter in them, and when she gets angry, they vibrate like crazy. That informed the sound design. We did a bunch of loops back and forth of animation and sound tests until we got a final dialogue sound that was going to work.”

—Nigel Denton-Howes, Visual Effects Supervisor

The task for visual effects was to refine the details for the dragon.

The task for visual effects was to refine the details for the dragon.

Light continuity was the biggest issue for when Elodie (Millie Bobby Brown) is tossed into a crevasse that leads to the caves inhabited by the dragon. “You were starting at one place and knew what was going to be at the bottom,” Denton-Howes describes. “They were totally different stages and sets, and you’re telling a story of moving through space with bespoke shots where no two shots are the same, so you’re not reusing anything other than the digital double.” Assisting the cave lighting were glow worms. “Glow worms don’t have magical healing properties,  but they actually exist. The bluish white light was part of the production design, and Larry Fong (Kong: Skull Island), our DP, ran with that. Throughout the whole thing we were trying to be photographic. When Millie falls down and has the pomander, it goes to black and slowly comes back into lighting. The idea is that your eyes are adjusting to the dark. We were trying to find photographic reasons for there to be light, and glow worms were one of them. Even in the main caves, it was a tricky lighting scenario on the set because Larry didn’t have a lot of choice of how he lit because the stages were small.”

Modern-day elements like cruise ships had to be painted out.

Modern-day elements like cruise ships had to be painted out.

“Castles are like digital people where everybody knows what they look like, so you know when it’s not quite right. We did a lot of work on that, balancing fantasy with realistic. Initially, [director] Juan Carlos [Fresnadillo] wanted the castle to be clean and beautiful. but when you do that it doesn’t look real. You need to grunge the castle up and allow it to have a couple of centuries of weathering, but it’s still beautiful and magnificent.”

—Nigel Denton-Howes, Visual Effects Supervisor

Because of an actual drought, the colors in the plate photography had to be enhanced by Rodeo FX to make Aurea appear lush.

Because of an actual drought, the colors in the plate photography had to be enhanced by Rodeo FX to make Aurea appear lush.

Primary vendors for the 1,202 visual effects were One of Us, who was responsible for the dragon, Rodeo FX, who did a lot of environments and glow worms, Pixomondo, who handled the dragon, dragon lair, the opening and end sequences, and Important Looking Pirates, who created the harbor environment and Elodie’s homeland. Other contributions came from The Yard VFX, Rising Sun Pictures, Rebel Unit, Atomic Arts, Primary VFX, NetFX and TPO VFX. “Later in reshoots, we added the opening scenes of Elodie’s homeland as visual contrast, as well as for storytelling reasons,” Denton-Howes states. “When you get into Aurea, it needs to look realistic but really lush and beautiful. In the grade, [director] Juan Carlos Fresnadillo pushed it into gold and warmed things up even further, which is a subtle change.”

Looming over the castle is the Stone Mountain, which was inspired by the tooth of a cat.

Looming over the castle is the Stone Mountain, which was inspired by the tooth of a cat.

“When we’re interacting with Millie [Bobby Brown], like when the dragon’s hand is on her neck, on set there were interactive elements such as claws that could press down to allow her to feel some of it. Then we also bent her skin in 2D to add indentations, and, in the dragon, there was some modeling to push in the pads of the thumbs and fingers to make them squishy so you can feel that the two are really touching each other.”

—Nigel Denton-Howes, Visual Effects Supervisor

Weathering had to be added to the castle to make it appear more believable.

Weathering had to be added to the castle to make it appear more believable.

Atmospherics were pivotal in obscuring the Dragon Gate to the point that the viewer would not be sure if a real dragon was staring right at them.

Atmospherics were pivotal in obscuring the Dragon Gate to the point that the viewer would not be sure if a real dragon was staring right at them.

A lighting source in the caves are glow worms that have been given healing properties.

A lighting source in the caves are glow worms that have been given healing properties.

Rodeo FX had to replicate a partial set for the crystal cave so it would be appear to be a mountainous climb for Elodie.

Rodeo FX had to replicate a partial set for the crystal cave so it would be appear to be a mountainous climb for Elodie.

As for the Stone Mountains that loom over the castle, the feline anatomy was an inspiration, thereby tying the ominous natural landmark with the design of the dragon. “If you were to zoom out, the main mountain is analogous to a tooth of a cat, and for the lower mountains, you could put a jaw of a cat there,” Denton-Howes reveals. “The base of the castle is real in close-up shots extended up, and for most shots it’s entirely CG. That was time-consuming to do. Castles are like digital people where everybody knows what they look like, so you know when it’s not quite right. We did a lot of work on that, balancing fantasy with realistic. Initially, Juan Carlos wanted the castle to be clean and beautiful, but when you do that it doesn’t look real. You need to grunge the castle up and allow it to have a couple of centuries of weathering, but it’s still beautiful and magnificent.”



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