“You’re not used to seeing such large creatures in real life—that are blue,” says ILM visual effects supervisor Samir Hoon, speaking of Saphira, the dragon with the hue-flecked name who is at the heart of prodigious scribe Christopher Paolini’s epic fantasy novel Eragon.Of course, it may indicate that work hours at ILM inveigh against spending much time swimming with whales—blue whales, in particular, but then, who among us has? But even if there were such whales in the Pacific waters of ILM’s new Presidio headquarters in San Francisco, there would still be a lack of real references for designing a dragon, unlike other mythical digital beasts, like King Kong, or Aslan from the Narnia tales—both of which, Hoon notes, have plenty of real counterparts in the ape and lion worlds from which to draw.”We did use [Paolini’s] book as a reference,” Hoon allows, including looking at how dragons were previously concocted by ILM for Harry Potter and Dragonheart.It also helped that director Stefen Fangmeier is himself a former FX supe at LucasWorks and made some initial designs for Sephira—whom Hoon calls “a character, not a creature.”But Sephira “doesn’t talk” to her dragon rider, the titular Eragon, at least not through conventional means. There’s eye movement, facial gestures—and a lot of telepathy.But whose face? One hallmark of CGI characters has been to use an underlying human performance (Andy Serkis as Gollum and Kong) or a voice actors’ actual face (Holly Hunter and Craig T. Nelson in The Incredibles) to add subtle “realism” to the created face.But Rachel Weisz, the actress giving voice to Sephira, wasn’t cast until most of the work was done, so Hoon and his team had to basically “make up” a face, including deciding “how much wrinkling” there’d be (no reflection on the skin of the lovely Ms. Weisz, but rather, a concession to the presumed lizard-like textures of a dragon’s epidermis), along with how much iridescence the dragon should exude.There were practical considerations for the latter: “In a warm environment, blue goes slightly greenish,” and the dragon’s name, after all, was neither “Jade” or “Esmeralda.”So there was much “playing around with lighting and rendering,” the latter made easier with the use of Pixar’s RenderMan software, along with ILM’s own Zeno software. And given the nature of renderings, things changed en route: “We ended up redesigning the wings,” Hoon says, noting one of the changes made since the initial riffs off the original character designs, which had trended more towards “bat wings.”And it was perhaps the rethinking of wings that led directly to the virtual invention of “sceathers”—a name that cries out for Lucas lawyers to get busy with paperwork at the trademark office. Sceathers are “a cross between feathers and scales,” and seemed authentically dragon-like after all that character referencing in other dragon movies. (With, one assumes, a slight jigger of recent dinosaur science thrown in, as we learn the large beasts that preceded us on earth were more and more birdlike than we at first imagined.)Yet, despite all the hard work and careful thought, Hoon was soon to experience a wistfulness common to all parents, as he notes that “we did the baby dragon”—Sephira as she grew. And when she grew she, left the nest, to be rendered in adulthood by the busy digit-wielders at Weta Workshop, a half-planet away in New Zealand and themselves no strangers to dragon-like creatures.Aside from issues of luminescence and vulnerability-to-greenness (along with the expected dragony fire issues, the flames here being a “combination of CG and live action”), there were two main flying sequences, which the ILM folks referenced by their emotive qualities: “the unhappy flight and the happy flight.”These were done with the use of “aerial plates shot in Hungary and Slovakia,” combined with virtual backgrounds used with bluescreens, part of the motion-capture work done at Pinewood studios to show a rider ensconced in his dragon saddle.And while Hoon knew these sequences would change with the layering in post, there also was a final live-action component of forest shots done at a reputedly enchanting location some “800 miles outside of Vancouver,” which may give you some sense of the remoteness.Those shots were done “inside the forest canopy”—think Ewoks flying through trees, only more so—with the help of a small, remote-controlled helicopter, its blades only some three feet across, but sturdy enough to hold a camera of its own.Part of the change Hoon refers to came after these elements were brought together. While “a significant part of the movie had been prevised,” sequences often wouldn’t look “dynamic enough.” Fangmeier was content to allow Hoon’s group to tinker with that dynamism as they saw fit, realizing that as the film’s director he was now playing a much bigger role than he used to when he was a supe himself.”You try to embellish as best you can,” Hoon says, without trying “to do everything for every shot the first time you build it.” But eventually, Sephira’s growing, and chasing—both happy and sad—were done, and it was up to Weta to bring her ever more fully into the wide, sceathery world.For Hoon, it was time for some well-deserved rest, and he was headed out of town when we caught up with him. We never found out if the destination involved blue whales.
Written by Mark London Williams