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Framestore CFC Completes Hot Effects for The Last Dragon

When you're looking for a VFX team to bring an essential burnish of authenticity to a crypto-zoological documentary about fire-breathing reptiles, who you gonna call? Framestore CFC are delighted that The Last Dragon (UK title - Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real in the US) was nominated for its outstanding visual effects by the Visual Effects Society in its third annual Awards short-list. The 100-minute programme first aired in Germany in November 2004, and will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 7.00pm on Saturday 5th March 2005. It will also be screened in the US on Animal Planet, a network of Discovery Communications Inc. in March. The Last Dragon was created by Charlie Foley, directed by Justin Hardy, and produced by Ceri Barnes for Darlow Smithson Productions (Touching the Void).

A thrilling 'investigation' into these legendary beasts, The Last Dragon uses a docu-drama approach to bring plausibility to its subject. The programmes premise is that dragons existed from prehistoric times, co-existing with both the dinosaurs and then later with mankind, becoming extinct only relatively recently, thanks to man's ruthless hunting.

A 35-strong team from Framestore CFC delivered 167 shots - some 35 minutes of CG - in 25 weeks for The Last Dragon, making it one of the fastest turnarounds the company has ever delivered. "We were helped enormously by the experience we've gained with the Walking With Dinosaurs series and specials over the last few years," says CGI Supervisor Alec Knox, "From the dragons' walk/run/flight cycles, to tricks that give the impression that there's a physical camera move where it's actually done electronically, there were a hundred little techniques we'd developed on the dinosaur projects to get great results at speed."

The Last Dragon consists of two threads. The first is the dramatised story of Dr. Tanner (Paul Hilton), a rogue palaeontologist whose belief in the existence of dragons is triumphantly vindicated when he is air-lifted in to perform an autopsy upon some mysterious animal and human remains which have been discovered in a remote Romanian ice-cave. The second thread takes the form of a series of 'documentary' flashbacks, interwoven with Dr Tanner's adventure. These take us back to several illustrative moments during the prehistory and history of the dragon, showing the creature evolving into several different iterations - Prehistoric, Marine, Forest and Mountain. These scenes, which feature hunting, fighting, mating and nesting dragons, are authoritatively narrated by Ian Holm.

Shooting took place in three separate week-long segments between March and May 2004. These were in La Palma, in the Canary Islands, for the 'prehistoric' footage, Chamonix, in the French Alps for the mountain sequences, and at Anduzes, near Nimes, where a small bamboo forest provided the necessary 'Chinese' forest location.

Senior Compositing Artist Sirio Quintavalle supervised the shoot for Framestore CFC. "The ice-cave sequences were interesting," he recalls, "We were shooting in these extraordinary ice-clad environments, using flame throwers - a unique experience." The crew also braved the headaches and sickness that attend working at high altitudes, and Quintavalle also found himself donning a wet suit to create the necessary water interactions during the Marine dragon shoot. With a mere six-strong crew, everyone mucks in?

The Last Dragon bolsters its narrative with some ingenious 'scientific' explanations for various aspects of dragon physiology, including their ability to fly and to breath fire. Fire performs multiple functions for the dragons, as a weapon, a signal, a triumphant post-coital roar, a barbecuing aid, and sometimes to warm and form their eggs, which are kept in dragon-built 'kilns'. "We shot flames on location where appropriate," says Quintavalle, "And supplemented them with a flame-thrower effects shoot for the flying sequences and the kiln shots where we needed the flames to have a more magical quality. We built a model of the kiln in the studio, matched up the camera angles and flame direction to Lead Animator Neil Glasbey's rough animation and shot at 75fps. We also added magnesium powder for a bit of extra sparkle." The task of compositing the shots was later carried out by Quintavalle and others, working appropriately enough - in Flame and Inferno.

Leading the animation team, Neil Glasbey found that the shoot provided him with more than enough raw material. "The difficulty was deciding what to discard," he says, "The effects sequences were broken down into 8 different 'acts', and we suggested that they could have 15 or 16 key shots per act, and if we could throw in any extra we would. So the key shots were very important." Glasbey's team had to create a number of variant forms of the dragon, each with its own rigging set-up for articulation and animation. The dragon types to be seen in The Last Dragon are:

  •     Prehistoric bipedal with wings one adult female, one old stallion, one juvenile male (also T.Rex and Pteranodons for this segment)
  •     Marine quadruped with fluke on tail one adult male
  •     Forest land-based variant on Aquatic dragon one adult male
  •     Mountain quadruped with wings one adult female, two adult males, one juvenile

Working from maquettes supplied by the production, Knox and Glasbey found that some tweaking of the models was necessary in order to make them work. Recalls Knox, "One of the things we hadn't done before mainly because there ain't no such creature is a four legged creature with wings. It was tricky because the musculature around the front shoulders had to cope with working legs and wings, and that's just not really on, in evolutionary and bio-mechanical terms. But we managed to adjust the proportions to the point where it would work as an articulated creature."

Freed from the constraints of a strictly documentary programme, the Framestore CFC team were able to bring a greater degree of dramatic license to the material than is possible in the Walking With? series. As we follow these mythical beasts through their battles, their courtship, their parenthood, and their ultimate struggle for survival, you may even find yourself shedding a tear or two at man's eradication of yet another species even if it's one that never existed in the first place.

The Last Dragon
Directed by Justin Hardy
Produced by Ceri Barnes
Created by Charlie Foley
Executive Producers John Smithson, David McNab, Alice Keens-Soper

Computer Animation Framestore CFC
Director of Computer Animation Mike Milne
CGI Supervisor Alec Knox
CGI Modellers/Riggers Adam Lucas, Jakob Schmidt, Romain Segurado,
Sarah Tosh, Jon Veal
Animators Lead Neil Glasbey, Laurent Benhamo, Brendan Body, Stuart Ellis,
Stephen Enticott, Catherine Mullan, Darren Rodriguez
Technical Directors Jason Baker, Frederic Cervini, Robert Deas, Dave Fish, Dan Lavender, Alfie Olivier
Camera Tracking Joe Leverson
Digital Paint Artists Daren Horley, Elsa Santos
CGI Scanning Sean Varney, Guy Hauldren
Visual Effects Team Supervisor Sirio Quintavalle
Digital Effects Artists Tim Greenwood, Christian Manz, Darran Nicholson, George Roper, Pedro Sabrosa, Nick Seal
Editor Tom Parker
Co-ordinator Sarah Micallef
Line Producer Michael Davis
Producer Joanna Nodwell


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Related Keywords:The Last Dragon , Ceri Barnes , Darlow Smithson , Justin Hardy, Alec Knox,

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