The initial request from “Wizards of The Coast” (the creative producer for the movie) was the movie to feature a Red Dragon. Fortunately they gave us the opportunity to design our own dragon exclusively for the movie, that later would be added to their own army of beautiful concepts and dragons used in their books and games. This was quite an honor and we grabbed this chance with a big dose of excitement. Our concept team led by our chief artist Angel did a great job and designed more than 50 different dragon designs. For the final selection our main criteria was that we want a unique dragon, something that was not seen before, and I think that the final concept of the six-eyed dragon is exactly what we were aiming at.
After the concept was modeled in Zbrush and re-topologized in 3d Coat, the rigging department took the lead and started building the animation rig.
After many hours of RnD and a lot of tools developed for the task, we’ve had a pretty robust rig with a lot of “extras” like skin sliding over the skeleton, muscle bulging, wing and muscles dynamic simulation, which helped a lot to achieve a believable movement and deformation of the creature. “A full muscle-driven system for the dragon was out of the picture for this movie, mainly because of time and budgetary reasons, that’s why we took the approach using the pose deformer. As a base we used an off the shelf pose deformer, but at the end we changed it quite a bit and made it more responsive and fast. This helped us fix a lot of creases and other deformation artifacts and add another layer of muscle definition, which worked very well for this project”, says Pavel (Lead Character TD).The final animation rig for the Vile Dragon
Parallel to the rigging process, our paint/texture artists were working on the texture of the dragon. We used The Foundry Mari and Photoshop for some final touch ups. It was great to have the opportunity to paint directly on to the high resolution 3D model and have an instant feedback”, comments Angel. Working with Nuke for compositing forced us to rely on full linear color space pipeline, which was OK because we had our tools and workflow set up and tested with all previous projects. Working with Mari for the first time presented some challenges, but at the end it was all good and it worked.
Having more than 300 shots in making for a very tight period of time would put quite a pressure on the project managers and thanks God we had Shotgun – our VFX online management system. “Being able to see all versions of each shot, rendered overnight, with comments from the artists and comparing with previous versions was one of the treats I liked the most”, says Victor - the VFX Supervisor for the movie. “Shotgun was used on every level of the VFX process, from monitoring of the progress of the whole movie, review of the work done, to assigning and keeping track of the hundreds individual tasks for the artists triggered by other finished tasks upstream in the pipeline”, continues Victor.
All animation was done using Maya's off-the-shelf animation tools and relying on keyframe animation. “Having such an advanced rig helped us a lot to finish all the shots with the dragon in time. I am animator for more than 20 years, but I have to tell you the setup we had for the dragon and the Slaymate were the best rigs I've ever used. Almost all of the secondary animations, like muscle juggle and wings movement were done after we finished the animation using dynamics and cloth in Maya. There was a small tool written for the muscle jiggle that we used a lot as well, which gave us much better results than the one integrated in Maya.”, explains Daniel – the lead character animator.
“Shooting the dragon scene only for two days without storyboards or animatic brought a lot of issues during the layout and animation stages. The dragon had to be scaled up and down up to 30% for different shots, because the space around the actors was not enough or because the camera was not framing it properly. Luckily we used a lot of cheats and I think at the end nobody can tell about those problems looking at the sequence. Problems like this are common in that budget niche and are not something new for us”, says Victor.
After all of the layout and animations were approved by the clients, we moved to rendering and compositing the piece.
“Here is the place to say how helpful the feedback from the client was for us, usually brought by Brian Rudnick – the scriptwriter and producer of the movie. He worked very close with us, and his input, suggestions and fast turnaround of everything we sent his way was invaluable for the process. His contribution actually made this project doable in the small amount of time we’ve had”, adds Victor.
For the lighting and rendering we usually relied on HDR maps we took onstage during the production. For this movie we had some issues with those. Here Nicolay (the lead shader artist, look developer and rendering wrangler) explains why. “When working on a live action scene where we must integrate a CG creature we usually rely on HDR maps and just a small amount of tweaking is needed to achieve very good results. Because of the compressed shooting schedule of the dragon sequence (two days) and having only one representative from the studio on set - our VFX supervisor - we were not able to acquire all the HDR that we needed. There was few made by the VFX sup, but they were not enough. I ended up doing mostly the lighting using the old school approach – by hand.” The rendering was done in VRAY render in Maya. “We have been testing it for more than one year already and despite the belief that VRAY is only good for architectural and hard surface models, we got great results in very short amount of time resulting in organic look with all the qualities of the layered human skin”. During the rendering process we relied on our own render manager called Sisyphus, developed by Nicolay and his team. “During the years we have tested many off-the-shelf solutions and, despite the qualities of each one, I understood that they were not flexible enough for us. That led to the decision to develop our own which perfectly fits in our workflow and our render farm hardware.„
Despite the efforts of the entire 3D team, the responsibility for delivering spectacular shots was on the compositing team, led by Alexander. “Our pipeline is floating-point based from the beginning to the end, which guaranties consistent results throughout the process. The files coming from our 3D team are 16-bit EXR (half float). For this movie we decided to render a larger amount of rendering passes in order to be able to do some re-lighting and final tuning in Nuke. I was relying heavily on using UV maps for selecting and working only on some parts of the rendered model, which saved us a lot of rendering time. This made our renders very heavy and the responsiveness and the interactivity of Nuke, (which by the way is for sure the faster compositing package out there) was compromised. When I composite I have a rule that no matter how big and complex is the shot I am working on, it has to render in no more than 20-30 minutes, everything above that reduces the amount of possible iterations and compromises the final quality. For all those reasons I built some macro tools in Nuke which were a compilation of all the tweaks I had to do in regard to the creatures. This saved me a lot of time from going back and forth through all the tools I was using.
Relatively late during the post-production process it became clear that another all-CG creature has to be created and this time it was a human type, biped creature which interacts with the main actors and has to look believable and to express big range of emotions. It was clear from the beginning that a motion capture approach was out of the budget. That’s why our VFX supervisor turned to “performance capture” process. An actress was hired to act and perform the role of the Slaymate. We shot her performance with two of the cameras on set plus some witness cameras for reference. Later the actress was painted out from the shots and replaced by her digital double.
The performance was not rotoscoped on top of the live footage and was used only for a reference for the animators. This great concept was designed and drawn beautifully by our Lead Concept artist Angel, the meticulous job of modeling was done by lead organic modeler Stilian. “My main challenge was to capture the emotion in all of the expressions we decided would be needed. The concept looks like a deformed human face on top of a skull, which is quite recognizable, and to keep the skull feeling and to have flexible and rich articulations and expressions was quite a challenge. First our idea was to create an expression for all of the main emotions, but this was not working quite as well as we thought. At the end the animators were creating their expressions using a lot of pieces and variation of the facial features. I had to create almost a hundred correct shapes in order for all of the combinations to work properly”, explains Stilian.
For the expressions we used a mixed approach between blend shapes and pose deformer and was employing the FACS face coding system. The character rig with the cloths and the hair was a perfect companion to the great work everybody did on this character.
There were challenges integrating the CG actor with the live footage because the CG double was significantly shorter than the actress performing on set. “Initially the idea was that the CG creature would cover most of the actress, but because of the anatomy of the Slaymate and the difference in proportions we had to remove a substantial amount of the actress. This was especially painstaking while the performance was on top of the actors. We literary had to paint their performance by hand”, explain Valery (digital compositor) who did the most of the clean-up for the life action performance.
In the course of less than two and a half months we’ve managed to complete the whole sequence on a par of sequences belong in a movies with multiple times the budget we had.
Besides the two main CG sequences, we designed and executed a lot of D&D magic effects, teleportation effects, matte paints. Bezz the Vermin lord turning into a swarm form was a complex FX set up. The final sequence (The death of Shatrax) had a variety of VFX including the disintegration done entirely in Nuke, a whole sequence featuring Helmed horror – a ghostly warrior that guards the Slaymate and many more.
Dungeons and Dragons 3 was another proof that the VFX and full CG creature and environments are not only trademark for the big budget shows. On the contrary, they are the cheapest way to add production value to the picture. The times where the CG and VFX were the main expense are long gone. Now the VFX save money that would be spent on stunts, set building, even wardrobe and makeup. When used smartly they can make a $1 mln. movie look like a $7 – 10 mil. movie. And that is a dream come true for every producer. And we from Cinemotion are here to help this happen. With a team of just 15, for less than 9 months, we proved that a professional approach and the resulted quality are possible even on a shoestring budget.