Movie Fact #761 – May 24th, 2015:

Twenty-five percent of the film’s budget went into the special effects to bring the dragon Vermithrax to life for the 1981 fantasy film “Dragonslayer”. It was no easy feet!

Graphic artist David Bunnet was assigned to design the look of the dragon, and was fed ideas on the mechanics on how the dragon would move. Bunnet then rendered the concepts on paper. It was decided early on in production that it was deemed necessary to design a dragon with an emphasis on its flying abilities as the film’s most important sequence would have been the final battle. Also Bunnet designed the dragon to have a degree of personality, deliberately trying to avoid creating something like the titular creature from 1979’s “Alien”, which Bunnet believed was, and I quote, “too hideous to look at”. Bunnet’s work was only the beginning of the process to bring this creature to life.

After Bunnet handed his storyboard panels to the film crew, it was decided that the dragon would have to have been realized with a wide variety of techniques which is why the resulting dragon on film is a composite of several different models. Phil Tippett of ILM finalized the dragon’s design and sculpted a reference model. Danny Lee of Disney Studios closely followed in constructing the larger dragon props for closeup shots. Two months later, Lee’s team created much as they finished building a sixteen-foot head and neck assembly, a twenty-foot tail, thighs and legs, claws capable of grabbing a man, and a 30-foot-wide (9.1 m) wing section. The parts were then flown to Pinewood Studios outside London in the cargo hold of a Boeing 747.

Brian Johnson was hired to supervise the special effects. He began planning both on and off-set effects with various special effects specialists such as Dennis Muren, the effects cameraman, who stated, “We knew the dragon had a lot more importance to this film than some of the incidental things that appeared in only a few shots in Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. The dragon had to be presented in a way that the audience would be absolutely stunned.” And that was only production’s job!

A special effects team of eighty people at ILM studios in northern California worked eight months after the completion of principal shooting in producing 160 composite shots of the dragon. Chris Walas sculpted and operated the dragon head used for close-up shots while the model was animated by a combination of radio controls, cable controls, air bladders, levers and by hand, thus giving the illusion of a fully coordinated face with a wide range of expression.

Tippett also built a model for the scenes in which the dragon would be required to walk, but he didn’t want to use standard stop motion animation techniques. So he had his team build a dragon model which would move during each exposure rather than in between as was once the standard. This process, which was named “go motion” by Tippett, recorded the creature’s movements in motion as a real animal would move, and removed the jerkiness common in prior stop motion films.

Finally, Ken Ralston was assigned to the flying scenes so he built a model with an articulated aluminium skeleton in order to give it a wide range of motion. To accomplish some sense of realism, Ralston shot films of birds flying in order to incorporate their movements into the model. Like the walking dragon, the flying model was filmed using “go motion” techniques with the camera programmed to tilt and move at various angles in order to convey the sensation of flight.

Famed director Guillermo Del Toro has stated that, along with Maleficent’s dragon form in 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty”, Vermithrax is his favourite cinematic dragon and even went further to say that “One of the best and one of the strongest landmarks [of dragon movies] that almost nobody can overcome is Dragonslayer. The design of the Vermithrax Pejorative is perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made.” He’s not alone. Author George R. R. Martin, who writes the “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, once ranked the film the fifth best fantasy movie of all time, and called Vermithrax, as he so simply put it, “the best dragon ever put on film”, and the one with “the coolest dragon name as well”. In fact, the Vermithrax is mentioned in the fourth episode of the television adaptation to Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series. “Game of Thrones” (2011-Present). Also, fantasy author Alex Bledsoe stated that “everyone has a ‘first dragon’, the one that awoke their sense of wonder about the creatures. For many it’s Anne McCaffery’s elaborate world of Pern, where genetically-engineered intelligent dragons bond with their riders; for others it’s Smaug in The Hobbit, guarding his hoard deep in a cave. But for me, it was the awesome Vermithrax from the 1981 film, Dragonslayer.”

After all this praise…need I say more how perfectly “Dragonslayer” succeeded?

Published in: on May 24, 2015 at 9:31 AM  Leave a Comment  

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