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MPC Goes with the Lava Flow on ‘Dungeons & Dragon: Honor Among Thieves’

Led by VFX supervisor Axel Bonami, the studio’s team delivers 500 shots on Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis’ action adventure, including a multi-creature-transformation castle escape sequence, the cavernous, lava-filled Underdark, Themberchaud the dragon, a host of magical spells and one really cool portal.

One of my late brother’s favorite board games was Dungeons & Dragons. He even won an actual sword at a convention held in Ottawa during the 1980s. So, I find myself wondering what he would think of the latest cinematic incarnation, Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, directed by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley and starring Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis and Hugh Grant, where the wit cuts as deeply as the blade. 

One of the main vendors collaborating with VFX Supervisor Ben Snow was MPC, who worked on 500 shots over a period of a year and a half.  “It was great fun to bring these extraordinary environments to fruition but with a grounded approach,” remarks Axel Bonami, VFX Supervisor, MPC.  “D&D is an interesting mix of a fantastical adventure but anchored in the real world. There’s a great mix of amazing sets, great locations, costumes, and animatronics. The audience can therefore connect with realism but also enjoy the ride.”

Snow clearly expressed what was expected of the visual effects with the aid of concept art and detailed postvis.  “We had a good number of visual references given to us from production, and plates from real locations, so a lot of our research was learning more about these locations and referencing concept art and photography,” states Bonami. “With that number of shots, the scope of the work is always wide, from a single bluescreen removal for set extension up to fully animated, fully computer generated entirely built environments and assets.” 

MPC tackled a number of difficult creative tasks. According to Bonami, one was a long multi-transformation escape sequence, where “Doric escapes from the castle, changing from fly to mouse, hawk, cat, axe beak and deer, across multiple sets, and shared environment assets.” He continues, “One other challenge was the whole underworld sequence with the introduction of the dragon, Themberchaud. This huge set was anchored in a partial set they built, but would then develop into a large-scale world, with a hanging platform in a volcanic environment introducing a lavafall, Hill of Bones, and Terracotta Valley. The work ranged from complex large-scale animation to complex effects simulations and iconic establishing looks. It was challenging but fun to assemble and visually rewarding.”

Bonami goes on to explain how magic spells had to feel supernatural but grounded, sharing, “We did that by constantly referring to real world references, like bioluminescence, fire, sparks, infinity mirrors reflections, fluid turbulence and so on. Nature has such an incredible variety of fascinating phenomenon that it is important to do your research and get inspired by what is around us.”  That included portals and lightning strikes that had to be generated.  “The portals were based on an infinity mirror illusion and bioluminescence,” Bonami notes. “It was important to focus the effect on the integration of the other side, rather than distracting with the portal edge itself. We had a nice balance combining the principal photography additional footages that tied up the two sides, and as well as build up to the CG environment to create that very specific parallax in the painting frame during the wagon heist sequence. Lightning strikes get standard actual electric bolt references, and corresponding photographed artefacts it creates.” 

Animation studies were conducted for the unusual creatures populating the environments. “The movement of the ‘axe beak’ was based on an ostrich while for Themberchaud, sea lions, crocodiles and hippopotamus were all great source of inspiration,” Bonami shares. “There was some great principal photography with amazing on location references for the lighting intentions.  However, when it came to the lava underworld, we did use references from the 19th century painter John Martin; his color palette and dramatic composition were in line with the filmmakers’ vision. In the wide, panning environments, we wanted to keep that graphic composition, but still keep traditional visual cues to keep it grounded.” 

The film relied extensively on practical sets and real locations.  “That is always great for the visual effects teams to work with to keep everything grounded,” Bonami says, while noting that even so, one particular environment proved to be the trickiest to execute.  “Without a doubt, that was the Underdark, the lava environment, which includes the Hill of Bones, and Terracotta Valley,” he reveals.  “The scale was huge.  It has multiple areas of actions with 360 degrees views, and the use of multiple set extensions. We had to build a large full CG environment, with multiple smaller detailed set pieces to accommodate all the beats.”

“But,” he adds, “there were also smaller sets challenges, like the Doric transformation chase, as it travels through multiple sets, and some parts of it were shared with ILM. As well as the wagon heist with the painting portal. Many shots in the sequence required a full CG replacement to accommodate speed changes, and the difficult camera angles.” 

Roto proved to be a key tool in the visual effects arsenal.  “When covering large camera moves, it is always tricky to get the perfect greenscreen coverage, so our roto prep team ends up with some extensive work in some cases, and their expertise is very much appreciated allowing us to create the seamless blends when required,” Bonami says. 

Bonami also shares that digital doubles and face and limb replacements were a standard affair, used extensively, “from face replacement on stunt performance to CG body replacement and enhancement, and from accommodating re-speed and framing changes to digital doubles in wider or difficult action shots, like in the fight against Themberchaud or the flashback to the battle of the Evermoors.”

“MPC’s FX teams were busy with time-freeze bubble with hanging debris, Evermoors battle destruction, Underdark lava, fire breathing, destruction effects, magic spells, smokes, snow, dusts and water,” he continues. “We covered every type of effect you can think of, so it kept our FX team very busy. They did a great job. The effects work is so well incorporated into the story.” 

Complexity prevailed in the escape transformation of Doric as it unfolds as a continuous shot.  “Its two and a half minutes long, divided into 11 sub shots,” Bonami explains. “It covers a large number of different sets and environments, as well as creature animation. It involves a complex assembly of precise principal photography across multiple plates, expert layout stitching, majestic animation skills, environment builds and digital matte painting, a plethora of lighting setups, and a large puzzle for the compositing team. It all, in the end, participates in creating tension, and hopefully keeps the audience on the edge of their seat.” 

The project proved enjoyable for Bonami and the MPC team. “We are looking forward to people seeing the whole movie, and being as entertained as we were doing it,” he says. “The variety of visuals and sequences made us constantly challenging ourselves. The collaboration with Ben, and with John and Jonathan was rewarding. It was a great ride, and we enjoyed crafting these fantastic visuals to serve the story.”

Overall, Bonami concludes, the biggest challenge was facing the wide range of creative and technical challenges.  “D&D is a large mix of different visuals that all comes together in this fantastic adventure.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.