By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of eOne, Paramount Pictures and Hasbro, Inc.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By CHRIS McGOWAN
Images courtesy of eOne, Paramount Pictures and Hasbro, Inc.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of Dungeons and Dragons in 2024, the most renowned RPG of them all, Paramount Pictures and eOne are releasing a new cinematic interpretation – Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. The movie strives to be true to the original lore and playful spirit of the D&D board game, which was designed by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and published in 1974, giving birth to the modern role-playing game industry and gaining tens of millions of fans in subsequent years. D&D’s roots lay in fantasy literature, including the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and miniature war games. The game has inspired novels, video games, podcasts, an animated series from 1983-1985, three live-action feature films from 2000 to 2012, and an upcoming eight-episode series from Paramount and eOne. It has also been referenced everywhere in entertainment from The Big Bang Theory to Stranger Things. It has been published by Wizards of the Coast (now a Hasbro subsidiary) since 1997.
The writers and directors of the movie “were clearly big D&D fans and players, and Wizards of the Coast – the guardians of the D&D universe – were heavily involved both in what happens in the story and in giving my VFX team support and advice as we came up with ideas and looks for the magic,” comments Ben Snow, ILM Production Overall VFX Supervisor.
In Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, a charismatic thief and a band of unlikely adventurers attempt to retrieve a lost relic, but things go awry when they run afoul of some sinister characters and ferocious beasts. John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein directed while Michael Gilio and Daley wrote the screenplay. Cast members included Chris Pine (Edgin the Bard), Michelle Rodriguez (Holga the Barbarian), Justice Smith (Simon the Sorcerer), Sophia Lillis (Doric, a Tiefling Druid) and Hugh Grant (Forge Fitzwilliam the Rogue). Legacy Effects took care of many creature practical effects, Ray Chan the production design and Barry Peterson the cinematography. ILM and MPC handled the VFX with help from Crafty Apes, Day For Nite and Clear Angle Studios.
“We sent a plates and environment capture team [to Iceland] to shoot stills and helicopter footage, including a great shot of an active volcano that you see in the film. Our characters and vehicles and sets were added in VFX by MPC using stills and filmed material and then enhanced. We based everything on the real photography and tried to use as much of it intact as possible.”
—Ben Snow, Production Overall VFX Supervisor, ILM
ILM was tasked with creating exotic D&D locations and bringing orcs, an Owlbear, various types of dragons, a Mimic Monster, a Gelatinous Cube and a Displacer Beast to life, among other duties. “Our creatures and magic spells were designed and evolved within the spirit of the D&D world,” says David Dally, ILM Visual Effects Supervisor.
Some days, the visual effects team were totally immersed in the D&D universe, during and after work. “The VFX on-set crew set up a D&D game,” Snow comments. “Charlie Rock, our VFX Coordinator, is an accomplished Dungeonmaster, and we had some enjoyable evenings gaming as a team. It helped us understand and connect, particularly those like me who hadn’t played in a few years.”
“Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves was a great VFX project due to the variety of work,” Snow says. “[It has] a rich universe of creatures, places and magic that the writers and directors were able to draw upon and that we could reference for the visuals. All the fantastical creatures were from the game and other D&D lore, but the directors were able to put their own unique spin on them. The directors had high standards of realism and we tried to shoot as much as possible. When it came to the digital work, they understood why and where we needed to use computer graphics, and our VFX team was given the time to get the passes and references we needed.”
The pandemic had a big impact on the whole production and visual effects processes, according to Snow. For example, the original plan was to shoot the opening in Iceland, but due to COVID and logistics it wasn’t possible to take the actors. Snow explains, “We sent a plates and environment capture team there to shoot stills and helicopter footage, including a great shot of an active volcano that you see in the film. Our characters and vehicles and sets were added in VFX by MPC using stills and filmed material and then enhanced. We based everything on the real photography and tried to use as much of it intact as possible.”
In addition to Iceland, filming took place in Northern Ireland in Belfast’s Titanic Studios and on location. “The quarantines affected where we could shoot,” Snow says. In one sequence, Doric escapes from Neverwinter castle. “It was a complex shot that MPC executed with collaboration from ILM. We’d originally planned a section to be shot on location, but the COVID lockdowns made that difficult, so we had a local scanning crew go out and scan the location based on our planning.” A CG version of the shot location was created.
Many practical creatures were made for the film, several of which received significant digital augmentation, according to Todd Vaziri, ILM Compositing Supervisor. “The giant fish creature that the villagers caught in their net, for example, was a giant puppet from Legacy Effects. ILM animated and rendered articulated eyeballs for the fish to give more life to the creature. In addition, ILM compositors warped and articulated the jawline and fish lips of the creature, as well as adding sheeting water glistening off the fish, and subtle splashes and drops of water coming off the creature.”
The Owlbear was the most popular creature among the VFX crew. It was also a tricky creature to nail down in animation, and finding the best blend of owl and bear mannerisms took some experimentation, according to Shawn Kelly, ILM Associate Animation Supervisor. “She’s a creature with the body of a bear and the head and feathers of an owl, so it was important to find a synergy between the two animals to create something that felt like a cohesive whole. We layered owl-like head movements on top of the bear motion and treated her beak and face as a blend between the two creatures. Replacing the typical fur groom for a quadruped with layered and owl feathers was a real challenge.”
“[The Owlbear] is a creature with the body of a bear and the head and feathers of an owl, so it was important to find a synergy between the two animals to create something that felt like a cohesive whole. We layered owl-like head movements on top of the bear motion and treated her beak and face as a blend between the two creatures. Replacing the typical fur groom for a quadruped with layered and owl feathers was a real challenge.”
—Shawn Kelly, Associate Animation Supervisor, ILM
The integration of Owlbear into the photography posed a classic challenge for visual effects. “How do we depict the power and speed of this large, dynamic creature without making the creature feel light and synthetic?” Vaziri recalls. “On the compositing side, we were very careful to add scale cues to help support the massive power of the Owlbear, including the displacement of dirt clods around Owlbear’s paws when she takes massive steps, and subtle dust and particulates when Owlbear went on the attack. The goal was always to make Owlbear feel powerful, dangerous and menacing, never light and floaty.”
Patrick Gagné, ILM Creature Model Supervisor, comments, “The Owlbear was a great challenge due to her multiple transformations. We needed to make sure the geometry of the base mesh was also suitable for a horse, a humanoid or an owl, for instance. The shape-shifting also needed to be split into parts for the animation department so they could achieve the effect needed. Toes becoming hooves, for example, as well as other face shapes for emotion. All of this was tremendously helped by the lookdev department.”
Snow adds, “The Owlbear was initially the way we first meet the Tiefling Doric and was going to be in one sequence, but we all fell in love with the creature and brought her back later in the film. Dungeons and Dragons has a whole host of interesting creatures from the lore,” says Snow about the Gelatinous Cube, which was both a conceptual and shooting challenge. “Gelatinous cubes have been featured in other movies and TV shows, so we wanted to differentiate ours and make it feel more grounded and believable.”
Vaziri continues, “We had to balance the realistic physics of such an object if it existed in real life and the visual storytelling requirements of the scene, which were frequently at odds with one another. Specifically, the refraction, reflection, fogginess and jiggle that would exist in a giant cube of gelatin were all heavily art-directed per shot to make sure the audience could clearly see our characters inside the cube and understand their motivations and strategy on escaping from the cube.”
“The Owlbear was a great challenge due to her multiple transformations. We needed to make sure the geometry of the base mesh was also suitable for a horse, a humanoid or an owl, for instance. The shape-shifting also needed to be split into parts for the animation department so they could achieve the effect needed. Toes becoming hooves for example, as well as other face shapes for emotion. All of this was tremendously helped by the lookdev department.”
—Patrick Gagné, Creature Model Supervisor, ILM
The Displacer Beast was another strange threat straight out of D&D lore. Dally describes it as “a big cat-like creature with six legs and tentacle projectors.” He comments, “It was great to work on such an iconic creature. The animators, asset and lighting team did a great job bringing the creature to life with its performance and realism. The comp and FX team worked together developing the projected beast’s disturbance effect. Snow adds, “For the shoot, we had stuntmen in black costumes chasing and interacting with the actors for designing the shots and to give everyone something to react to. We shot references of black fur the art department [had] sourced. The ILM team made the final CG version.”
“We had to balance the realistic physics of such an object [as the cube] if it existed in real life and the visual storytelling requirements of the scene, which were frequently at odds with one another. Specifically, the refraction, reflection, fogginess and jiggle that would exist in a giant cube of gelatin were all heavily art-directed per shot to make sure the audience could clearly see our characters inside the cube and understand their motivations and strategy on escaping from the cube.”
— Todd Vaziri, Compositing Supervisor, ILM
Dally enjoyed the battle sequence of the dueling hands. “The challenge [was] to get both hands to read as more physical and present in the environment, and not to be too magical. The Earthen Hand form is made from its immediate surrounding environment; it would tear up the ground as it moves about and returns the rock and debris to the ground once it’s passed. This was a really exciting challenge, having the hand interact with all of its immediate environment, attracting, forming and collapsing whilst battling the Arcane Hand.”
The Golden Dragon is at first an unassuming sculpture in the courtyard, which comes alive with an awakening spell and battles the heroes, including the Owlbear. Dally explains, “Upon waking, the dragon animation has a staccato/stop-frame quality about it, which is shaken off once it’s fully alive. Throughout the sequence we maintained some of its stone-like rigid qualities, with its scaled stone armor proving a challenge – we had to ensure it didn’t stretch like skin and maintained its stone armor.”
The Black Dragon Rakor was created by MPC and “hewed very closely to the D&D lore version,” Snow says. “He’s mostly featured in a flashback to a battle 100 years before the film. We decided that the fact he spewed acid made him a unique take on the dragon. Special Effects Supervisor Sam Conway’s team came up with an initial look for how the acid would interact with the characters and ground.”
To create a spin on the classic Red Dragon from D&D lore, the directors proposed the idea that the dragon be incredibly overweight but still pose a big threat to the team. Snow explains, “For the shoot, the special effects team made a variety of rigs for dragon interaction and large rigs for moving set pieces. Legacy Effects developed the model based on some concepts by Wes Burt [Visual Development Artist]. Our previz team and Day For Nite helped develop the design further. Then MPC added a ton of detail and refinement when they built the asset.”
The portal heist sequence involved stealing a painting containing one side of a portal. Action was shot through both sides of portals in different locations. Snow reveals, “Some of the sets were an elaborate collaboration between the art department, camera department, visual effects, stunts and special effects to allow us to capture the shots. It was crazy, and there was a lot of action during the shoot and up to the point where editorial took the elements and combined them in Avid to show that the plans were working. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief. MPC then took these elements and did some amazing compositing and a fair amount of reprojection, background cleanup and reconstruction to make it all blend together.”
The Doric escape sequence was “a big undertaking for a few minutes of film,” according to Snow. “The directors wanted a single shot following Doric through Neverwinter castle, out over the castle battlements into a cottage and through the streets of the city, all the way shape-shifting between different animals and her human form as all hell breaks around her. Day For Nite provided a previz building off work started by The Third Floor, and VFX used that to plan the shoot. We worked with the art department to work out the transition points between the different locations, trying to catch as much in-camera as possible, and using reprojections and blends to provide the background for our actors and CG. The team then created the creatures, worked out the transformations and blended the plates.”
For the Ethereal Plane sequence, it was a challenge to come up with the look of a magical sequence that is grounded foundationally in photorealism. Vaziri explains, “The slow, elegant destruction of the beach environment while Simon [the Sorcerer] wears the helmet had to happen slowly over the course of the sequence. We started by subtly moving sand around, growing grass, disturbing and stretching the rocks and mountains all around Simon and the Wizard. We wanted the water to displace by having orbs of seawater rise and become floating blobs. By the end of the sequence the beach is mostly obliterated, with pebbles and rocks floating and the world mushed together in a symphony of mountains, grass and water. When the wizard turns off the spell and the world becomes real again, it was a blast to collapse all of that distortion back into the real world. It’s a really fun moment, and hopefully it will get some laughs.”
The production wrapped in August 2021. Snow comments, “Post-production was mostly remote. I would go into ILM to look at shots projected on the big screen each week with one or two of the production team and others remote. I was able to look at shots not just from ILM but also our other vendors MPC and Crafty Apes there – the vendors would send us all the files. We’d do most of our director reviews remotely, but once we started finishing shots I’d fly down to L.A. every couple of weeks to look at shots with them at CO3 [Company 3 post-production facility].”
Vaziri concludes, “It was refreshing to work on a film that has obvious fantastic, otherworldly elements like wizards, magic, creatures and castles, [and keep] it grounded within a recognizable reality that we, the audience, can understand, but also to have fun with it. The movie is so witty and will get a lot of laughs. It’s a really fun film, and it was a thrill to be able to create our visual effects in a movie that has a little twinkle in its eye.”