The Difficulty With Dragons

by Graham Edwards

Smaug's Eye - Image property of Weta Digital and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

Dragons. They get everywhere, don’t they?

In Europe, the dragons of fairy tale and folklore are best known for roasting knights and eating virgins. In China, the colourful serpent is a symbol of power and good fortune. If you journey to Australia, you’re likely to trip over the Rainbow Serpent, creator of the world and denizen of the Dreamtime. The Americas have Quetzalcoatl, winged god of the dawn, while in Africa snakelike dragons slither limbless through some of the most ancient mythologies on Earth.

Smaug, the latest dragon to fly across our movie screens, is famous for hoarding gold. His anatomy follows the traditional European model: four legs, scaly armour, huge leathery wings and a propensity to breathe fire. However, he’s more than just a monster, possessing as he does the power not only of speech, but seduction too.

As I write this, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is poised to hit cinemas across the world. Tolkien fans are hoping that this latest excursion to Middle Earth delivers the definitive Smaug. All that expectation must weigh heavily on the creative team, and I’m as curious as the next guy to see what Weta Digital have up their sleeves. You see, there are some very real problems associated with bringing to life a creature like Smaug.

In short, dragons are difficult.

Difficulty #1 – Dragons Are Big

It’s tricky to put a massive creature next to a tiny hero and get any kind of relationship going other than your basic visceral thrill. In the Harry Potter films, we see Harry first battling a Hungarian Horntail, and later riding a Ukrainian Ironbelly. The former is your standard arena beast. The latter provides a hazardous mount for Harry and his chums as they flee Gringott’s Bank, but it’s little more than an exotic ride.

When a beast gets too big, it’s hard to see it as anything other than, well, a beast. It’s hard to frame your shots. Pull back enough to see the whole dragon and your human protagonists are reduced to dolls. Go close on their faces and the dragon is just a mass of scales.

Dragon - Die Nibelungen

Picture credit: Decla Bioscop – The Kobal Collection

Difficulty #2 -Dragons Are Dangerous

I don’t just mean they’re dangerous in the stories. I’m talking about the hazards on set. In Cinefex #25, Eric Kettlehutt describes the fifty-foot articulated dragon he created for Fritz Lang’s 1924 epic Die Nibelungen (released in the US as Siegfried):

“The head and neck of the dragon were as hard as iron and moved around hastily and incalculably. An unfortunate stroke of this heavy mass could have broken a man’s bones.”

Fortunately, actor Paul Richter survived not only the physical jousting, but also the risks associated with the dragon’s fire-breathing apparatus – a hazardous assembly of acetylene fuel, lycopodium powder, assorted hoses and a pair of bellows, all of which combined to create jets of flame up to thirty feet long.

Difficulty #3 – Dragons Are Reptilian

Okay, on the face of it this doesn’t sound like a difficulty. But, if you’re trying to create something more than a monster, it’s a real problem. In order to engage with a character, we usually need to see something human in its countenance – and when you’re faced with a long, crocodile snout, rigid scales and eyes with vertical slits, that’s a big ask.

Draco – star of Rob Cohen’s 1996 movie Dragonheart – is a decent compromise between human and reptilian. Not only does his short muzzle allow reasonable articulation for spoken dialogue, but the artists at ILM also managed to incorporate into his face echoes of Sean Connery (the actor who provided Draco’s voice). The downside of this is that Draco ends up looking more like an exotic dinosaur than a bona fide dragon.

Vermithrax Pejorative - DragonslayerDifficulty #4 – Dragons Can Fly

One of my favourite dragons of all is Vermithrax Pejorative in Matthew Robbins’s 1981 film Dragonslayer. Beautifully realised in both miniature and full-scale form – and benefiting hugely from ILM’s then state-of-the-art go-motion system – I think this iconic creature still looks terrific today … most of the time.

Like the Potter dragons, Vermithrax Pejorative is not really a dragon but a wyvern. Unlike the six-limbed Draco, she has the anatomy of a bat, with two legs and a pair of wings. When she walks, her clumsy loping gait is brought perfectly to life by animator Phil Tippett. When she hovers, huge wings beating the air, she looks glorious. Sadly, when she’s swooping around, all she does is glide, and a lot of the drama is lost.

The decision to use minimal wingbeats was made by writer/director Robbins and his co-writer Hal Barwood. ILM’s Ken Ralston, who animated the flying scenes, fought against it. In Cinefex #6, Ralston says, “The first flying dragon I shot was not at all the way it ended up in the film. It was a slower, more serpentine thing; and there was much more flapping.” Robbins rationalises the changes he enforced by saying, “I wanted it to move with very little wing movement. The more it had to flap to stay airborne, the more it sort of seemed to be struggling.”

Conclusion

After all that, there’s only one conclusion to be drawn: it’s hard to put a really memorable dragon up on the screen. I reckon the Hobbit crew have got their work cut out checking all those boxes. In a recent video production diary, director Peter Jackson proves he’s ready for at least the first of my challenges by promising  to serve up a dragon that truly fills the screen: “The one thing that I knew I wanted from the very beginning,” he says, “was to make him just massive.”

So will Jackson succeed in his ambition? Will he deliver a dragon without difficulties? We’re about to find out.

3 thoughts on “The Difficulty With Dragons

  1. Pingback: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – Graham Edwards

  2. What do you think about the dragon in Reign of Fire. It is the best dragon I have seen in a movie.

  3. I agree. Vermithrax is still the best on-screen dragon I have ever seen. The reason the dragons from Reign of Fire looked so good is that the design was modeled after Vermithrax. Having those dragons on screen longer might have helped that movie more…

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