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The Top 5 Video Reference Lessons That Animators Can Learn From Toothless, Smaug and Other Dragons

by | Aug 2, 2014

© DreamWorks

Creature animation is everywhere – in commercials, games, tv and feature film. One of the most difficult creatures to animate is the king of mythical beasts – the dragon. The Animation Mentor staff gave this subject some deep thought. Here are the top five dragons we believe showcase both the physical power of the dragon and the complexity of the animation . Here there be dragons!

1. Smaug – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – WETA Digital

© Weta/New Line

Smaug is the star of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. Smaug personifies the archetypical dragon – a malevolent, gold-loving red dragon that threatens Bilbo Baggins and his fellowship. Benedict Cumberbatch voiced Smaug’s smooth baritone, and performed for motion capture cameras. We wondered: How did the animators get a jumbo jet-sized dragon to emote and interact with Bilbo?

Eric Saindon, visual effects supervisor for Weta, answers the question in this article:

“Getting Smaug to convincingly vocalize his speech in a way that maintained all of the richness and nuance of Benedict’s voice was a vital part of making Smaug work as character,” explained Eric Saindon, a visual effects supervisor for Weta, in a January 2014 interview. “[Smaug’s] crocodile-shaped snout and lack of humanoid mouth-shapes were an interesting challenge for animators who used reference footage of Benedict’s full body movements as he delivered his lines as a guide.”

2. Toothless – How to Train Your Dragon 2 – DreamWorks Animation

© DreamWorks Animation

Animation Mentor alumni Dane Stogner was featured on the Animation Mentor blog about his work on How to Train Your Dragon 2. In this feature, Dane shares animation tips he used to bring Toothless to life. What we learned: Sometimes the most unlikely animals can bring a great performance.

“For the first film, we mostly referenced black panthers, house cats and wombats for Toothless’ body language,” Stogner says. “He was very cat-like and stand-offish and mysterious, a scary creature that Hiccup had to befriend. So cats were appropriate. But, two out of three of us Toothless experts, and even Dean DeBlois himself, are greater fans of dogs than cats, and I think there’s legitimacy in the story for having his personality come across more puppy or dog-like in this film. He’s been living with Hiccup for five years. In addition, my favorite pet was my rabbit Waxwick, so I used any opportunity I could to throw in a little rabbit flavor. I’ll definitely try to add more in the next film. There’s a little behavior rabbits do that rabbit fans call binkying where they hop in circles. It’s really cute. They look a little like they’re having a seizure, but they are just happy.”

3. Drogon – Game of Thrones – Pixomondo


In season 3 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, we watched Daenarys Targaryen’s dragons grow from cute dragonettes into rebellious, dangerous teenagers. Pixomondo, the legendary German visual effects studio, had the challenging task of bringing these creatures to life. What was the hardest part, we wondered?

As the Pixomondo crew explain in this video, the most difficult task was ensuring that the dragons behaved in a way that was believable – even realistic. By using creatures like eagles and bats as video reference for their animation, they captured the speed and awkwardness of a hovering, adolescent dragon. In our humble opinion, it looks damn good!

4. Hungarian Horntail – Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire – Industrial Light & Magic

© Warner Bros.

Working together across the Atlantic, the team from Industrial Light & Magic animated and created one of the most exciting and terrifying dragons ever: The Hungarian Horntail. Harry Potter faced the Hungarian Horntail during the first challenge of the tri-wizard tournament in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. How did the ILM team make the Hungarian Horntail dragon so frightening?

In this article, the ILM team explains that they created the 3D model based on a maquette with a fourteen foot wingspan that was shipped across the pond from London. Animation Supervisor, Steve Rollins worked with creature developers and animators on how to ensure the dragon moved like a realistic, flying predator. Using video reference of owls, bats, and albatrosses, they developed the performance of the Hungarian Horntail Dragon for the big screen.

“When you see the movie, look for the head twitching, head cocked, and quick twitchy movements; these were all from the bird references,” Visual Effects Supervisor, Tim Alexander says.

Alexander did some animation tests to capture the realism of the dragon.

“Where the dragon crawls across the rocks, we’d do one version with it using its hind legs, another where it’s crouched down, using the batlike hands on its wings to crawl,” Alexander explains.

In the end, the whole sequence took nine months and 50 people to make Harry’s dragon come to life – wow!

5. Draco – DragonHeart – Industrial Light & Magic

© Universal

Draco – the monstrous dragon featured in DragonHeart – was created by the ILM team back in 1996. We loved this massive lizard – particularly as voiced by the rough Scottish brogue of Sean Connery. It took four ILM programmers and five months to create the 18ft. tall, 43 ft. long creature. How did the ILM animation team imbue Connery’s personality into the dragon?

Using Alias|Wavefront software (now Autodesk Maya), ILM animators used over 200 photos of Sean Connery’s facial expressions – as well as his previous films – as video reference to animate the actor’s facial performance into Draco. A short sequence took more than 25,000 man hours to complete.

Draco is regarded as one of the first virtual actors for CGI visual effects. For this momentous visual effects achievement, ILM was nominated for an Oscar. Draco paved the way to many more “acting” dragons as we come full-circle to Smaug from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

That’s it folks! Comment below if you think we missed your favorite dragon!

Excited to animate your own dragon?

Animation Mentor offers two high-level 12-week creature courses taught by ILM, Tippett Studio professionals. Start with Creature Animation: Locomotion to learn the basics and then take Creature Animation: Fight or Flight to breath life into your own dragon. Professional animators like Shawn Kelly, Animation Mentor Co-Founder and ILM Lead Animator, will guide you through the basics of creature animation. Register today and start your own journey as a creature animator!

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