Alain Bielik talks with the creators of the new 3D adventure-comedy in which Prince Charming is a dragon hunter's worst nightmare.
It all started 12 years ago when graphic book writer Arthur Qwak came up with a story idea based on dragons and hunters. He developed his original five-page treatment into a detailed story while working with Valerie Hadida on character design. The concept was intriguing enough to be developed into a comic book series, and an animated television series (it briefly aired on Cartoon Network in 2006). Now, Dragon Hunters has become a 3D-animated feature film directed by Arthur Qwak and Guillaume Ivernel (who also was the art director for the movie).
The story takes place in a futuristic, medieval world that is infested with a variety of terrifying creatures collectively known as dragons. Good-hearted swindler Gwizdo and noble warrior Lian-Chu have been taking advantage of the situation: they pretend to be heroic dragon hunters and collect "advance payments" for dragon kills... that never come. During their journey, they meet Zoe, the grandniece of Lord Arnold, a wealthy man who is scared to death by the return of the mightiest of all dragons, the World Eater. Little Zoe soon drags Gwizdo and Lian-Chu into their first actual dragon hunt... and the greatest adventure of their lives.
"Dragon Hunters is basically a connection," Qwak explains. "On one side, you have dragons and the fantastic universe that is associated with them, and on the other side, the problems of making a living as a professional hunter: contracts, deals, payments issues, delays, etc. For a person like Gwizdo, Prince Charming is a hunter's worst enemy, as he does the same job for no money!"
When the movie was put into production, the filmmakers had more than a decade of visual development at their disposal. Yet, for the transition from 2D to 3D to succeed, the design work had to be developed further. "For the general look, I was inspired by German romantics a la Caspar Friedrich, and by orientalist paintings," Ivernel says. "I was also influenced by the work of some great illustrators of the 1970s such as Roger Dean or Moebius. And, of course, by Japanese animation."
Arthur Qwak had other references in mind. "I thought of Disney classics such as Snow White, and of some other movies such as Jaws or Time Bandits. I also looked at Heavy Metal magazine and the works of Moebius, Giger or Corben. We wanted Dragon Hunters to be funny and scary at the same time. When we designed the movie, we tried to visualize it as a 'Tom & Jerry meets Lord of the Rings'!"
Major Project, Smaller Team
To create the animation and the environments, Qwak and Ivernel turned to Mac Guff Ligne, Paris, a company with a strong background in live-action digital effects (Blueberry) and 3D character animation. However, the team had never produced a full-length 3D-animated movie. "We had created all the character animation for Michel Ocelot's Azur and Asmar," notes Head of 3D Bruno Chauffard. "The animation was produced in 3D, but rendered out with a 2D look. The sets were traditional 2D paintings. This time, we had to create everything, which was a completely different challenge."
At Mac Guff, up to 150 persons worked on the project, but on a daily basis the average was about 90 artists. Animation was produced by a team of 25 animators over a six-month period. The whole structure was significantly smaller than what is typically done in American studios. "Our team was much smaller, and our hardware too," says character and lighting supervisor Nicolas Brack. "Some American studios have a 4,000-processor render farm. We had no more than 650, but in reality the shots were processed on 200 to 300 processors on average."
Adds Chauffard, "Since we didn't have the same kind of technical and human resources as our American colleagues, we compensated with a maximum optimization of the whole production process. We went to great lengths to detect any bug and problem as early as possible. Our goal was to take the right technical decisions in preproduction, avoiding any costly change later on. Once the movie was in actual production, we couldn't afford to change the approach for a shot or an element. Also, we benefited a lot from the fact that the directors knew exactly what they wanted, both from an artistic and a narrative point of view. There were no significant changes during production, which allowed us to be extremely efficient."
Dragon Hunters was mainly realized on proprietary software that Mac Guff has been developing over the years: Symbor for 3D animation, MGLR for rendering, and Trukor for compositing. Maya was also used for some of the 3D work. Given the unusual size of the project, the team had to develop an asset management tool called InK. "This tool allowed us to keep track of the situation of any given shot -- what had been done, what was being done, what still needed to be done," Chauffard says. "Our artists could access any individual element or layer in any shot. It could be geometry, a particular shader, an animation file, etc. InK also allowed two outside contractors to access the same fully updated database."
Once the design phase was completed, the team started working on the characters. First, an artist sculpted character study maquettes. These were then used as a reference to model the digital characters. "None of them featured any real modeling or rigging challenge, except for the dog and the World Eater," Brack notes. "The former had to be able to stretch and squash in any direction, a la Tex Avery, which presented certain difficulties. As for the World Eater, the challenge was its sheer size: 450 feet (150 meters) tall! It was going to appear in wide shots and in tight close-ups. At one point, the characters manage to climb on its back, and the dragon's body turns out to be so huge that it becomes the whole set in itself! That presented quite a challenge in terms of shading. We didn't want to have one shader for long shots, another one for waist-up shots, etc. So, we managed to develop a single shader that worked from any distance."
Layering Up Animations
When time came to animate the characters, animation supervisors Kyle Balda and Laurent de la Chapelle and their team used traditional key-frame animation, combined with a great variety of simulations and dynamics. "The main animation was all key-framed, but there were many secondary animations to take care of," Brack explains. "Zoe's braids, Lian-Chu's ponytail and other hairs were either hand-animated with dynamics added on top, or a dynamic simulation that we manually fine-tuned. The directors didn't want these animations to draw unnecessary attention. Fur simulation also had to remain subtle. All the characters' costumes featured some kind of fur, and the dog was, obviously, all fur. We used a proprietary fur system to create these different looks."
The team also combined key-framed animation with soft body dynamics for a giant caterpillar-like dragon. The body fat had to bounce and wiggle in a realistic way as the creature moved around. RealFlow was employed to generate a fluid simulation for the sequence in which the same nasty dragon throws up a deadly substance.
Animation was not only limited to the characters, as the environments themselves required a great deal of rigid body dynamics simulations. "I don't think there was one single set in the movie that we didn't destroy in one way or the other," Chauffard observes. "The final sequence takes place in a ruined city that is being destroyed as the action progresses. We built about 50 different buildings out of fully textured blocks, so that when a piece exploded, it looked fine from every angle. The same blocks were used in another sequence to create thousands of ruins that are magically hanging in midair. Those individual pieces were attached to particles that were then animated dynamically, creating this eerie floating movement. The sky was a 360-degree cyclorama that allowed us to point the camera in any direction. The clouds nearer to camera were volumetric renders."
When a scene combines multiple character animation, fur simulation, dynamics simulation, a 450-foot dragon, and a highly complex environment, render times can become intimidating. However, Mac Guff Ligne managed to keep those processing times under control. "When we started this project, I told everyone that we shouldn't have any shot requiring more than two hours of render time per frame," Brack recalls. "That was our limit. So, we developed lighting set-ups that enabled us to have relatively constant render times whatever the image was. When we noticed that a shot required much longer, it meant there was a problem somewhere. It could be as simple as a reflection on the corner of an eye -- it didn't bring anything to the shot, but it was very costly in terms of render time. So, we always took the time to identify these unnecessary details and get rid of them in order to bring the shot down to a reasonable processing time."
Keeping control of the render times was of paramount importance for the team to meet the deadline: the whole production lasted less than 18 months... "We worked a lot in layers as a way to optimize the whole process and have a better control on the final result," Chauffard concludes. "We had one layer for the characters, one for the hair, one for the environment, etc. Each layer had its own render time, and the total render time couldn't be over two hours per frame. It meant that compositing played a key part in putting those shots together and in creating the final look. Then again, we couldn't have done it without the very precise technical preparation that took place in the early stages of the project. We worked really hard early on to fix what needed to be fixed. There was no 'We'll figure it out... ' In the end, we managed to meet our deadline, and we still produced some remarkable images."
Alain Bielik is the founder and editor of renowned effects magazine S.F.X, published in France since 1991. He also contributes to various French publications, both print and online, and occasionally to Cinefex. In 2004, he organized a major special effects exhibition at the Musée International de la Miniature in Lyon, France.