Enjoy the VFX breakdown of Dragon Girl, highlighting a selection out of a total of 220 VFX shots, 170 featuring a dragon and resulting in 12 minutes of animation.
3D character animation
Although (live action) options are mostly also considered before making the final choice to solve things with visual effects, it was quite evident from the start that a CG creature would be the right approach for Dragon Girl.
The dragon is one of the main characters in the film, required to perform a whole range of actions and emotions hard to obtain with a puppet or a 'man in suit'. Both were used for referencing and placeholders by the way, but the final on-screen appearance is created with a digital 3D creature.
The first step in getting to a full 3D/CG character is the design. Experienced and talented Dutch character designer Wouter Tulp took on the challenge of coming up with a design that incorporated both 'cuteness' and a reptile-like characteristics.
Technically we're creating a 3D model or asset, but the result has to be an actor in its own right
Several studies of facial expressions and emotions.
One of the key images that got the design to the next step.
The dragon is one of the main characters in the film, required to perform a whole range of actions and emotions hard to obtain with a puppet or a 'man in suit'.
Both were used for referencing and placeholders by the way, but the final on-screen appearance is created with a digital 3D creature.
Sculpting is the next step in the design process: the final character designs are translated into 3D space by another specialist that understands anatomy and how to convey the key characteristics of a 2D drawing into a full 3D digital model.
Maarten Verhoeven is known for his impressive Zbrush skills and experience with dragons and other fantastical creatures and characters. He sculpted the dragon model.
Untextured 3D model of the dragon by Maarten Verhoeven.
As the final rig of a character is used by many animators over a considerable length of time, in many different scenes and with different demands, it should be thoroughly tested before it enters the real production pipeline.
'Rig wrecking' is the process of stress-testing the rig, trying to find the limits and see where, when and how it 'breaks'.
'Rig wrecking' test by Constantine Krystallis
A rig provides the controls for animators to bring life into a character by giving it different poses over time. A bit like how a puppeteer operates a marionette puppet.
Rigging a character is another specialism that requires technical understanding of how a model behaves under different circumstances, but also how the animators will use it to create the performance of the character.
Lookdev, short for Look Development, is the process during which the look and feel of a character, environment or other digital asset is determined.
Often, many iterations are needed to arrive at the final look of what ends up on the screen. For the dragon character, finding all the right characteristics and details are important, as it is featured so prominently throughout the film in many differents scenes and situations.
Different phases showing the development of the dragon with notes addressing color, texture and details such as skin characteristics.
Knowing what is required of an asset upfront is crucial: what does the character need to do in the story and are all those features provided by the design choices?
The dragon arrives with its wing broken and it is cared for by Sarah who will later apply bandage to it.
The dragon needs to breath fire.
Over the course of the film, the dragon gets more and more dirty.
We created a timeline of the narrative with important 'milestones' that affect the design of the dragon character.
Creating a reptile-like creature that looks cute, was quite a challenge
Real life examples and references of nature depicting animals are an important part of getting up to speed: what do we find intriguing and want to take from that for your own character?
Making sure consistency and 'logic' from those references are sensibly applied to our dragon character, linking certain parts of real world examples to the digital asset, is a collaborative effort between several departments.
Amazing colours and patterns of reptiles and amphibians provided inspiration for some of the dragon's characteristics.
Proposal for 'mapping' specific features of real world reptiles (logically) onto our dragon asset.
Equally important is how the dragon's scale relates to the character of Sarah, who will be interacting with the creature a lot and even flies on its back. The dragon had to appear 'young' (baby-like), but couldn't be too small for Sarah to sit on its back.
To get a better understanding of how the dragon's scale would relate to Sarah and what the implications would be for framing and composition (using different lenses), Planet X Technologies' DeepSpace VR platform was used. DOP Trond Tønder and director Katarina Launing could visit a digital environment to further explore the dragon's future presence in the film.
With the measurements of the actor portraying Sarah known to the VFX crew pretty early on, different scaling options for the dragon could be visualised.
The crew uses DeepSpace to explore the scale of the dragon next to Sarah, whose height was known as soon as casting was complete.
An edited turntable showing the many steps and iterations the dragon went through until arriving at the final look.
Some research is of a more technical nature. Sub surface scattering (or 'SSS' in short) is a good example of this.
The amount of SSS determines the translucency of areas where the skin is thin, like ears or the wings.
Sub surface scattering can also be observed in humans when, for instance, ears are strongly backlit (by the sun) and the blood inside the ear boosts the reddish color that results.
Sub surface scattering (SSS) studies.
Close-ups revealing details and study how big the dragon can appear on screen without losing believability.
Dive deeper: other projects that have used DeepSpace
In August 2021, Dennis Kleyn (vfx supervisor) and Peer Lemmers (animation director) won the Amanda Award in Haugesund, Norway, for ‘Best Visual Effects’ in Dragon Girl.
Director Katarina Launing was in charge of bringing the story of a young refugee girl, who meets an orphaned dragon, to the big screen.
Planet X was responsible for the complete visual effects share of the movie from pre to finish. Featuring well over 220 shots, 170+ with a fully animated CG dragon (one of the first attempts of this scale in The Netherlands), the efforts resulted in 12 minutes of engaging screen time performance.
We brought a dragon to life (with most of the team WFH) for the Norwegian-Dutch co-production 'Dragon Girl'.
To take the lead on the animation department, we turned to experienced character animator Peer Lemmers to supervise a team of 7 talented animators.