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Reign of Fire: Breathing Life Into Dragons

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson sits down with co-visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw to talk about one of The Secret Lab's last effects projects, Reign of Fire, and creating the film's horrible winged creatures.

The Secret Lab studied flying dinosaurs before creating this dragon with a 300-foot wingspan and its offspring. Here, they fly high over the ruins of London, having burnt Big Ben and Parliament to ash. All images © Spyglass Entertainment Group,

Reign of Fire director Rob Bowman wanted to make his dragons as vicious, as organic, and as scary as possible. The job of creating living, breathing dragons and a post-apocalyptical world was given to The Secret Lab. Co-visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw reveals how they borrowed elements from nature to create a supreme predator who could destroy the world.

A 10-year veteran of visual effects, DeLeeuw's connections helped him find his first job. The brother of a college friend attended Moorpark College in California, where he saw a poster advertising an internship at a visual effects company called Dream Quest Images and told DeLeeuw about it. DeLeeuw applied, hoping his degree in computer science from UC Irvine, and experience doing stop-motion in his garage and occasionally torching his back yard with home-made pyrotechnics would land him a job doing visual effects.

The Secret Lab animation team faced a huge challenge in making the dragons look like real animals that could exist on Earth. Co-visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw is sitting far right.

Now a veteran of effects-heavy films such as 102 Dalmatians, Bicentennial Man, The Rock, Mighty Joe Young and Crimson Tide, DeLeeuw notes that Reign of Fire was the most difficult film he's worked on in his career. Inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark, he realized early on that the power of the image to tell a story is the real magic behind filmmaking and visual effects. When you can elicit emotion from audience members -- that is when you hit gold. The powerful, visceral images in Reign of Fire were achieved through the creativity of DeLeeuw and help from a crew of effects artists and some computers. Pamela Kleibrink Thompson interviewed Dan DeLeeuw, co-visual effects supervisor on Reign of Fire, to find out how the challenges were met on the hardest film on which DeLeeuw has ever worked.

The wireframe and render of the dragon. Before getting to this stage, Secret Lab had sketched the character on paper and sculpted it in clay.

Pamela Thompson: What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on Reign of Fire?

Dan DeLeeuw: This was the hardest film I've ever worked on. On Mighty Joe Young we dealt with character animation and Armageddon was full of environmental effects but Reign of Fire encompassed both character animation and environmental effects. The character animation was central because the dragons are the antagonists, the bad guys. The dragon is as much a character in the film as Matthew McConaughey's Van Zan or Christian Bale's Quinn. Working with the dragon was a challenge for the actors and the director. They had to have an understanding of the character and what it could do.

The Secret Lab combined elements of the snake, leopard, lion, eagle, hawk, vulture and crocodile to create the dragons.

The director wanted to make the dragons like real animals that could exist on earth. When most people think of dragons the images are based on mythology. When we did research on dragons, most of the images showed ornamentation on the heads, spikes on the backs. We wanted to make the dragon look like it really existed.

We attacked the design on three fronts. We sketched the character on paper, sculpted it in clay and built it in the computer. In the computer we built a basic model with a simple IK rig which was handed off to an animator. We found that some of the designs might look great as a silhouette, but once the animator attempted to move the model, it didn't work. The front legs are part of the wings and if we made the wings too big, the dragon couldn't walk. The wing size and legs had to be worked out so that the dragon did not walk like a gorilla.

Character design is not only how a character looks but also how it moves. We wanted to make an animal whose wings could support its weight. To make something that could really fly we studied flying dinosaurs. We took classic ideas and combined elements of various animals to create the dragon. The dragon is part snake, leopard, lion, eagle and hawk, vulture and crocodile. Another challenge was the dragons' skin. We had done leathery skin on Shep in George of the Jungle, but the dragons didn't have just leathery skin. The dragons were armored beasts with scales. Normally we would paint the scales on. But when the skin moved, the scales were displaced and we didn't want them to stretch. The scales had to be hard enough to deflect a bullet. We wanted the scales on the dragon to overlap like they do on snakes. We made the scales bigger over the chest of the dragon to protect the heart and vital organs. But it looked like fantasy art and didn't seem real.

An early version of the dragon with no scales. The animation team had to revise a hair program to create the kind of realistic scales needed.

To create the scales with the control we wanted, we changed the hair program we used on 102 Dalmatians. This was a procedural modeling system, which generated scales for the models at each frame. We took an animated puppy and replaced the fur with scales. The program allowed us to control the size of the scales. The scales are smaller on the arms to allow for movement. The scales ride on the surface of the dragon's skin. As the skin moves, the scales pull apart, the gaps separate, and the scales don't deform or stretch. Using the revised hair program, it was easier for us to change the color of individual scales.

We visited the reptile house at the L.A. Zoo to see how the scales worked on snakes. We also got to touch a crocodile skin that they had for kids. The scales are based on snake scales. On the ventral side of a snake the scales slide over each other without exposing skin. After our visit to the zoo, the scales on the dragon were laid out and textured like the scales on a crocodile.

The dragon is seen here with its scales. The revised hair program allowed the animation team to change the color of each scale so that movement wouldn't distort the skin surface.

Animation wise, dealing with the dragon was a mind-boggling challenge. On 102 Dalmatians we dealt with a CG dog, which was four legged animal. But the dragons were four legged animals that could also fly and land. The front legs have giant wings attached to them, with long arms and extremely long fingers. The wing acted like a giant cape on these kingly dragons. The wing span on one dragon was 320 feet -- it was as big as a 747 and there was 160 feet of wing behind the dragon when he folded them back. We recorded the measurements of the set and placed the dragons in a virtual set but it was a challenge because it was so big. There was 100 feet of tail with a mace at the end so it was difficult to fit the dragon into the set. We did a lot of animation tests. The dragon also could also bite.

There is layer upon layer of complexity in the film. The dragons are destroying the world and there is a huge amount of smoke and fire. Environmental effects were a big part of the film. We had spot fires and digital smoke. To make it look convincing the environment had to interact with the dragon. The dragon interacted with the smoke. After destroying the castle, the dragon returns to finish off the job and he lands on the castle. The flap of its wings causes the smoke to blow away. The animator had to be careful about the speed of the wing flap for the particles to work.

Dealing with fire was another challenge. Fire is part of the dragon's repertoire. We had a flame thrower that could shoot fire 110 feet which worked great when the dragon was on the ground. But when the dragon was moving through the air we had to create CG fire. We used basic computational fluid dynamics to make the particles move in a way that fire would actually move. We needed the fire to have volume so we used a volume renderer.

PKT: What was the interaction between the director Rob Bowman and the Secret Lab like?

DD: To help with the process, the director had an office within the building of the Secret Lab and he was very involved from early on. All the creative groups of the Secret Lab were in one building, so he could view the sculptures, the concept work and the final designs by Mike Meeker. We sent the director QuickTime movies when he was on location in Ireland.

This flap cycle was created to show what the dragon could do. The Secret Lab created a movement bible for the dragon from animatics like this one.

While the script was still being changed we would create animatics, small animations of what the dragon could do. We did flap cycles, diving, animation tests of the tail being used as a mace, we explored how the dragon breathes fire, how he holds his body and throws his neck forward. We created a lot of different pieces -- and ended up with a kind of bible for the dragon characters.

The director had a clear vision of what he wanted. It was nice to have such a collaborative relationship. The shots improved because we had so much back and forth, which is unusual on many films. But it was important on Reign of Fire because the dragons were part of the cast.

What's nice about a film like this is the dragon is not just the monster. The dragon is the antagonist. It's an ever present threat, a hurdle for the heroes to overcome. Everything we did was designed to give the dragon a malevolence, and a fierceness. The story is dependent on the character.

PKT: With rising expectations from the audience, what do you have to do to really wow them now?

DD: It's great that people are interested in visual effects and are becoming more knowledgeable about them, but it is difficult as well, because it is like a magician giving away his tricks. Even critics comment on visual effects now. So we have to up the ante. We try to make it as realistic and believable as possible.

The main stumbling block is not technology. We have the tools to do stuff that is realistic. The tools and talent of the people allow us to do more shots and tell better stories.

Now to wow the audience we have to work on character design. We've gotten to the point that the tools are accessible to more people and now we have to work to make the audience be awed by how cool the character is. In the case of a dragon, how menacing it is, and how it flies.

The inverse kinematics driven animation rig combined skeletal characteristics from leopards, bats and birds. The skeleton provides attachment points for the skin and muscle system.

We started out with a typical dragon, a lumbering dinosaur like T-Rex. But the director wanted to focus on the grace and fierceness of the animal. We started studying videotapes of animals hunting and stalking prey. Then we saw a tape of a leopard stalking through high grass. To stay below the grass he brought his legs very low to the ground and his shoulders were raised. This image of stalking was what we wanted. The dragon moves with a creepy, menacing walk but is graceful like a big cat. We did a lot of walk cycles for the director. We gave the dragon's long neck a vulture pose where we draped it down low and he hangs his head. The dragon flaps his wings like an eagle or hawk. We wanted the audience to feel that they had seen this animal before and they have -- in snakes, leopards, lions, hawks, eagles and crocodiles.

We can make creatures more easily but ultimately we make it harder. We don't want to do what we've done before. The tools have gotten better but we want to push the possibilities and try something new. With each movie we like to raise the bar on the look, technology and performance. It's like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute and we have to make one on our way down. But that's what makes it fun.

PKT: What is the biggest change in visual effects since you started?

DD: When I started there were big effects houses. They had specialty items that no one else had. You had to have a large company because it was a big investment in equipment. There were not a lot of boutiques.

Computers have made effects more accessible. There are more artists who are trained in schools. The students are better trained and know the tools. There are more people that can do it well. This is an exciting time for animation and effects. Setting up a company is much easier and that will allow more stories to be told.

At the render stage, the dragon is shown here after the muscle system has deformed the skin and the scales have been applied.

The tools don't get in the way of the process now. You can do more iterations of a shot. The machine can do more than just two years ago. The technology is getting easier.

When we did Crimson Tide, creating the wake was difficult. But now that job would be simple. Rendering times are faster and we can create a very realistic look.

PKT: What advice would you give someone who wanted to have a career in digital effects?

DD: It's good to understand all the different aspects of visual effects, especially if you want to become a supervisor. In a smaller house you can be a Jack (or Jill) of all trades, doing a lot of different things. But in a larger shop you need a specialized talent.

It's the nature of business that those who are the most successful figure out what they are good at. Really think about what you want to do, whether it's animation, lighting, technical direction or something else. Find out what you are best at and go for that. Concentrate and focus on your strengths.

I recommend computer courses too.

It worked out well for me. I got lucky. I've done scanning, color timing, compositing. Expand your skill set. People who really want to do it will practice at night at what they want to do after their job is finished. They'll stay late and practice. Start somewhere and show the supervisor you can do something else. It's much more assembly line now. You have more of a chance to do something else. Not as many people in the past were involved in effects. Show the supervisor what you can do.

PKT: What was the biggest thing you learned while working on Reign of Fire?

DD: I learned a lot. I have built an eclectic knowledge from all the films I've worked on. I learned about submarines from Crimson Tide, F-18s from The Rock and gorillas from Mighty Joe Young. I like to get as much background as I can when I work on a film so on Reign of Fire I learned about mythology and the anatomy of large flying creatures.

The final render is composited into the location photography. Smoke and round contact elements were created to integrate the dragon into the shot.

After the long hours and weeks of work, one day you go into the screening room and watch the film and find that you have a creature that comes alive. That's the rewarding part of the process. Between the science and the silhouettes, to see the film projected in a theatre and realize, "Wow, we made a dragon."

PKT: What about the future?

DD: Disney purchased Dream Quest Images a few years ago and folded it under the feature animation umbrella and formed the Secret Lab. Now Disney is going to subcontract all effects so the Secret Lab is being disbanded. The big players now are ILM, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Digital Domain, Rhythm and Hues, Cinesite and Centropolis. I'm grateful for all the opportunities I've had at Disney and am looking forward to all possibilities that are out there.

The next challenge for visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw will be to find an opportunity that will put his many skills to good use.

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson writes regularly for Animation World Network and Animation Magazine. You can find more of her writing every month in the Career Coach section of AWN. She is a career coach, recruiter and management consultant. Her many clients have included Disney Feature Animation, Dream Quest Images and Digital Domain.