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May 04
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

ON THE WATCH FOR GOODBOY AND THE NOBLE DRAGON

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of REALTIME VFX.

A group of misfit cops attempt to save their corrupt city in the fantasy procedural comedy The Watch.which is based on the acclaimed Discworld series by English author Terry Pratchett. The eight episodes were created by Simon Allen (Das Boot) for BBC America with REALTIME VFX providing extensive postvis and delivering two distinctly different dragons with one being pocket-size and the other made entirely of smoke.

Two weeks were left of principal photography in South Africa when the coronavirus lockdown occurred and subsequently caused the production to shoot the end sequence for Episode 108 in the U.K.

Development of Goodboy and the Noble Dragon occurred while filming was taking place in September of 2019. “No one ever wants you to do anything that is referenced back to something else, but inevitably there is always a reference,” notes REALTIME Visual Effects Supervisor Sue Land. “Potentially, there is a benchmark in style; however, from there on in you’ve got to come up with something that is different and also fits the purpose. The Noble Dragon went through quite a few of iterations of what she should be. Was she a dragon surrounded by or made up of smoke? She ended up being a dragon just made up of smoke. Then later on down the line we had to re-jig her so that she got an eye. The Noble Dragon is like a bat where she has all of the bones that go down [her body] and they emit smoke, but there is no webbing between them. Because the lightning is actually the Noble Dragon, it would show up her form. We cheated a little bit and used some of the structure that we had built to look like she has a ribcage.”

“The lightning was controlled in compositing and could be turned on and off so we could give a bit more of a performance out of it,” continues Land. “She is a smoky dragon and often had to come out of banks of smoke. The South African sky was blown out completely because it was so bright. We put clouds in so that the Noble Dragon is always coming out of something that feels tangible.”

Sue Land, Visual Effects Supervisor, REALTIME VFX

“When Goodboy comes out, winks to camera, and is a flamethrower; that is really bonkers! It’s such an unexpected thing and also immediately quite quirky, like the show.”

—Sue Land, Visual Effects Supervisor, REALTIME VFX

Spiting fireballs, the Noble Dragon sets fire to a city. “There were practical elements of fire that we embellished,” says Land. “We didn’t have anything filmed with scorched marks. It was like she got a fireball in her throat and threw it out. It was different and fit in with what had been shot in South Africa.” The Noble Dragon is approximately the size of a jumbo jet that generates quite a lot of dark smoke, notes Land. “The Noble Dragon had to be slightly crowbarred into a couple of sections to make her look good. She also had to appear relatively intimidating. It’s interesting what makes a dragon. At the end of the day, it’s the wings, tail and how she flies.”

The Noble Dragon hurls fireballs of destruction.

“The smoke gets naturally affected by her speed and travel, thereby creating a wake,” explains Land. “We had to be careful with shots, like when she rears her head and turns; that is where we had to be more bespoke. She had to demonstrate trying to break free from the control of Carcer Dun (Samuel Adewunmi) and does this head shake. Initially all you got was a load of billowing smoke. You couldn’t see her. Then we had to make it so you could see enough of her to know which way round she was; that had to be crafted in with multiple simulations.”

Interaction with the cast was not an issue, says Land. “People see a dragon and run like hell! The greenscreen was marked up with an eyeline for Captain Sam Vimes [Richard Dormer] and Lady Sybil Ramkin [Lara Rossi] to look at.”

Six-inch-long Goodboy became so popular that he was upgraded from a small supporting role to a regular cast member. “There was a need to make him more than a little flamethrower,” notes Land. “Goodboy breaks the fourth wall and winks at the audience. He belongs to Sybil and lives in her jacket pocket.”

The miniature dragon was inspired by an armadillo lizard with the addition of wings. “Because he is based on a real creature, the nice thing is you’ve got that to refer back to. He is a slightly different color than an armadillo lizard, but the quality of his skin, which is there as a defense mechanism, is not very reflective. We wanted to make it feel that Goodboy has been in battles before, so he has some scarring around him, his wings have a bit of tearing on the side and his front paws have some scale damage. His wings resemble bumble bee wings in the sense that they don’t look like they’re going to support the body. He flies in a floppy way with his body hanging down and the wings having to beat. It’s always a struggle for him.”
A stand-in was given to Lara Rossi to hold that provided a size reference. “We slightly truncated his tail from the stand-in because it was getting quite long and didn’t make a good silhouette,” explains Land. “Goodboy had to fit in the palm of his hand, so it was all about how she held her hand and where he puts his feet on her hand.” The hard part, says Land, was that Goodboy had constant interaction. “He is a sandy color. The South African sunlight is quite strong, which meant it cast good contact shadows onto her hand. The wings are like those of a bat, so they let light through.
The flamethrowing, six-inch-long Goodboy is based on the armadillo lizard.

Lara Rossi, who portrays Lady Sybil Ramkin, had a handheld flamethrower on set in order to provide a point of reference for Goodboy.

“The lightning [of the Noble Dragon] was controlled in compositing and could be turned on and off so we could give a bit more of a performance out of it. She is a smoky dragon and often had to come out of banks of smoke. The South African sky was blown out completely because it was so bright. We put clouds in so that the Noble Dragon is always coming out of something that feels tangible.”

—Sue Land, Visual Effects Supervisor, REALTIME VFX

An effort was made to retain as much of the hand of Lara Rossi to ensure a believable interaction between her and Goodboy.

“Little things like him putting [Goodboy’s] toe over her finger gives you a lovely moment of contact that is a real thing. The animation was beautifully done to give that hesitation when he goes to fly off.  Goodboy jumps and behaves like a real animal. Even though he’s mythical we tried to keep him grounded in what the real creature would do because that’s what is believable.”

—Sue Land, Visual Effects Supervisor, REALTIME VFX

You could get it work nicely but still see some separation. We had a CG hand proxy that we put him on, but in actual fact there were so many micromovements with her hand that we had to put him back on in compositing and spline warping. Little things like him putting his toe over her finger gives you a lovely moment of contact that is a real thing. The animation was beautifully done to give that hesitation when he goes to fly off. Goodboy jumps and behaves like a real animal. Even though he’s mythical we tried to keep him grounded in what the real creature would do because that’s what is believable.”

What a character needs to do must be kept in mind during the design process, like Goodboy requiring to wink. “Goodboy has an eyelid,” states Land. “It was how much he could turn his head [that determined how he] could do that performance and wink. We pushed him as far as possibly with the rig because we never thought of doing such an anthropomorphic performance with him. When Goodboy finally says, ‘Goodbye,’ there is a lovely moment where he takes a couple of steps backwards, runs, bounces off of the sides of her hand and goes up. It was well-observed by the animator because that’s what a creature would do. It’s a lot of effort for him to get up there. The rig had to be able to cope with all of that. It was a complex rig that was mainly done for his body movements. In terms of articulation, he could open and close his mouth, but not for vowels. The difficult thing was the shape of the eye and how much of the eyelid showed. We didn’t want it to be too slitty because that’s actually quite scary and reptilian. One of the references that production gave us was Puss in Boots from Shrek, which has these big, round eyes. He had to have friendly eyes.”

When Goodboy is attacking, Rossi had a handheld flamethrower. “The problem with that was the point of emission wasn’t quite where Goodboy would be,” notes Land. “So even though we had real fire as reference, most of his fire was done in Houdini to try to make him match.”

Some assets were shared with Lola VFX, says Land. “Whenever we had to put the Noble Dragon over an environment that Lola VFX had created, they gave us their initial layout. We would often put our dragon in, give them a layout back with a camera. Then they would work it up, and then we would get the final plate and put our dragon on. When Goodboy flies off, that is a matte painting delivered to us as a final background plate to use.”

An endearing scene is the introduction of Goodboy. “When Goodboy comes out, winks to camera, and is a flamethrower; that is really bonkers!” Land remarks. “It’s such an unexpected thing and also immediately quite quirky, like the show.”

Oftentimes the plate with a stand-in for Goodboy was used, as opposed to the clean plate.

A concept sketch of a curled-up Goodboy.

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