Production VFX Supervisor Ben Snow discusses key visuals on Paramount’s new fantasy adventure, including Industrial Light & Magic’s work on a shapeshifting Owlbear, a Gelatinous Cube, the surreal Ethereal Plane, and lots of magical spells.
Development hell has defined Paramount Pictures’ Dungeons & Dragons cinematic franchise since the film trilogy concluded in 2012. However, the more recent fantasy genre revival, especially in high end episodic, provided the right opportunity for filmmakers John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein to forge their own vision with Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. In the new film, the quest of for a lost relic leads to a series of life-threatening misadventures for a ragtag team of adventurers; the cast includes Chris Pine; Michelle Rodriguez; Regé-Jean Page; Justice Smith; Sophia Lillis; and Hugh Grant, who were supported by Production Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow and an army of visual effects vendors that included the heavy digital arsenal from ILM.
“There have been attempts to make a Dungeons & Dragons movie over the last decade or so,” observes Snow, “and I found a trove of artwork at ILM from a previous iteration, but it was a more serious, almost Game of Thrones type of look that they had. What was funny about this is the opening scene is supposed to be setting it up like that gritty monochrome Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings fantasy look and then it becomes this bright colorful fun world. Lots of concept art from Ray Chan [production designer]. Legacy Effects did a bunch of creature concept work. Wesley Burt was one of the main concept artists. With COVID-19 causing delays, we actually did get to do a lot of concepts, but there was so much to work out. I had to think about 50 something spells on this so then it was, ‘How will I do something different?’
Previs was not extensive, but plenty of postvis was produced with an eye towards providing room for exploration. “We were working with Scott Benza and Kevin Martell,” remarks Snow. “Scott is an animation supervisor extraordinaire and was visual effects supervising on this for ILM and Kevin is one of ILM’s leading animation supervisors. There were a couple of things where we were like, ‘Could you explore these actions?’ Even during the shoot, when we were shooting a scene where Sofina has brought this stone dragon to life, Scott was in his hotel room animated a new beat for that scene. We were able to then go out onset the next day and talk through with the stunt team and the directors liked it. It was worked into the choreography with Michelle Rodriguez reacting to that animation we had created.”
Practical elements were a fundamental part of creative process. “One of the things that I appreciated about Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is that it’s a throwback to the types of films that I’ve always used to deal with, which is a plate-based creature picture,” notes ILM Compositing Supervisor Todd Vaziri. “The feel of the sequence has already been built in by the cinematographer, props, and set decoration so we can focus on the creature effects.”
Interactive light was used selectively onset. “More often than not I’ll ask the DP to give me a great reference, for instance, with the flaming swords in the battle that takes place in the Underdark between Xenk and Dralas, who is one of Sofina’s evil henchmen, where we shot references with the sword lighting up so we could see what the light would look like and guide the artists,” Snow remarks. “Because there was a debate about when he would use this magic sword it made a lot of sense to add that in in post and use the interaction as a guide.”
The visual effects design process was greatly influenced by the desired tone for the story. “Anybody who has been working a long time in visual effects has had to do magical spells at one point,” Vaziri shares. “That’s where the spirit of the film comes into play. You could get a film where the director is like, ‘When you’re conjuring a spell, we want it to feel otherworldly, like something we’ve never seen before. I want it to pierce through the screen and grab you.’ Then others will say, ‘I want this to feel plausible and understandable to the audience.’ In this movie, there is link to something in the real world with each of these spells so that the audience can go, ‘Oh, I get it. You are doing a water spell.’ We created this fine mist that had enough character to make you understand it’s magical but didn’t’ go too far to make you go, ‘This is synthetic and some kind of computer program.’ It’s a tricky line to balance.”
For the Gelatinous Cube scenes, reality had to be cinematically altered. “We want you to plausibly think that these people jumped into this giant cube of gel,” Snow reveals. “We did a bunch of tests and experiments to try to work that out. In the end, Jeremy Latcham, our producer, brought some Barbie dolls and had Sam Conway [Special Effects Supervisor] make a big tub of clear slime and put it in a clear plastic bucket. You could grab them and go, ‘Wsssh’ into the bucket of gel and instantly know, ‘That’s what happens to their hair and clothes. End of story.’ Sam found a type of wax that you could poke your finger through. We shot some interesting references where we put someone’s arm into the wax and had them pull it out. But as an actual useable element even this clear pure thing becomes opaque quickly. In the end, we did things like put thin silicone membranes that the actors could push their faces into and shot passes that Todd and the team were able to use to essentially composite in what they look like with their faces squished.”
Stuffies and stunt performers assisted with the creature interaction onset. “For the intellect devourers that are like brains on legs, the art department sourced me some brains,” recalls Snow. “I was too embarrassed to pull them out for every take but towards the end of the day I said, ‘Now I’m going to do my brain reference pass.’ I come out with the brains cupped in my hands to get referenced of these things. Then we had stunt performers to play proxies. I always try to have them in a costume that is relevant to the creature.”
Doing full screen transformations was not an option, particularly with the shapeshifting Doric. “Owlbear landing on a horse and fully transforming into Doric had to happen in a short amount of time with the camera orbiting around the horse,” remarks Vaziri. “I personally comped that shot. There is a transformation going on the whole time, but we use the horse’s head like a magician’s sleight of hand where you’re looking here but something crosses your field of view and for a moment, you’re disoriented, almost like a Texas Switch. It was an attempt to confuse the eye for a brief moment, but it is still one fluid camera movement.”
Face replacements were largely taken from other footage. “In general, I didn’t do as much as I would have liked on this, but my preference is to shoot the actors in the same context of the stunts,” explains Snow. “Sometimes that’s not possible, for example, if second unit is doing a huge fight scene and the actors are on a different set shooting something else, I can’t always drag them over to the other set and get a lot of footage of them. For the fights where we had to do face replacements, the ILM team did a great job of culling through a lot of the footage and finding like performances that we could use. That technology is going to evolve a lot in the coming years with the advances of AI based techniques. That will actually help us with face replacements a lot. There are some beautiful digital doubles that hold up well. ILM did a beautiful Sofina but honestly. we didn’t use them that much.”
Principal photography took place in Northern Ireland, England, and Iceland. “There is a rich history of Dungeons & Dragons, not just the Dungeon Masters’ Guides, but in novels and all sorts of D&D related things,” Snow says. “For Neverwinter Castle, Ray Chen gave us some nice references of Malta and the sort of light that you get there. Even though we were creating this in digital we tried to pin it to these are the sort of stones that you would find. We were shooting at Alnwick Castle in England for some of the shots so that was a departure point. Château de Beynac became a reference, and we shot a lot of stills. For the scene when Dorac escapes from the castle we were going to shoot in Rocamadour, a beautiful hillside town in France, but because of COVID-19 it was going to be impossible for us to logistically to get over there. But we had a French company go over and scan it for us in great detail high resolution and that was material that both ILM and MPC could use for making their Neverwinter.”
Surrealism defines the Ethereal Plane. “Simon, one of our leading characters, puts on a helmet while on a beach and is transported into a different world that is still that beach, but where time is moving at a different rate, and the atmosphere and environment is changing and morphing in slow motions,” observes Vaziri. “From my perspective it was the most difficult conceptual challenge for the movie. How do we represent this?” The final aesthetic was a departure from the source material. “It’s tricky because the ethereal plane in lore is a misty flat odd place,” remarks Snow. “The directors had this conception that it was Daliesque. Everything is distorted and warped. We had originally conceived of it as more of a 2D intensive thing and it was certainly 2D intensive, but it ended up being more of a blend of 3D and 2D.”
Another difficult environment to decide upon was the pillar maze. “You’ve got these giant blocks that rise and fall,” states Snow. “At one point, Ray wanted to put grease on everything, but the directors wanted them to be cleaner. In the end Ray designed these metal sliding things into these pillars and then Todd and the team added all this dust and interaction. [Visual Effects Supervisor] Dave Dalley and the ILM Sydney team added a bunch of little elements to make it look like you got a sense of the giant pillars moving so it didn’t feel too easy.”
Overall, there is no shortage of visual effects work in Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves. According to Snow, “The film is a well stuffed box of candy with tons of different things. I’ve seen it now two or three times with an audience and what’s interesting is there are definitely moments that everyone enjoys, like the scene where the characters are interviewing these corpses in an ancient Bavarian battleground. Or when Holga visits her somewhat diminutive husband, people love that because of the casting. It’s great to get the delight that people get when they watch it. It’s something I enjoy, so my main takeaway is I want to do another one!”