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When the Star of the Movie Is a Dragon

By Terri Stone

When the original Pete’s Dragon was released in 1977, the fact that the human actors shared the bill with a two-dimensional cartoon dragon was part of the appeal. Since then, tastes and technology have moved on. In the 2016 reimagining of the film, Elliott the dragon is as convincingly real as Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, and newcomer Oakes Fegley (Pete).

While Elliott’s authenticity is a treat for the audience, it meant months of painstaking work for the filmmakers. Producer James Whitaker says that the visual effects were more complicated than any movie he’d ever done because “our movie star was a dragon. He's the thing that green-lit the movie. We needed to feel as much for that dragon as we feel for any character in the movie, perhaps even more.”

A crack team joined forces to meet this challenge. David Lowery, the film’s writer and director, explains: “When you’re making a visual effects film, so many different artists have to come together to create any one element in a shot. You have the artists who create the textures of the fur, the artists who create the skin, the artists who do the initial model, the artists who do the animation. Then you have the lighting, the special effects like smoke and atmosphere...”

Many of those artists were from visual effects company Weta Digital. Although Weta knows a thing or two about dragons—they’re responsible for Smaug in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug—Elliott was not your stereotypical winged lizard. Gino Acevedo, creative art director at Weta Digital, remembers the early meetings in which Lowery conveyed his vision for Elliott: Relatable yet not cutesy, realistic but absolutely no scales. Instead, Elliott should be covered in fur, and he should evoke a friendly dog, not a mythical monster.

Gino Acevedo at work on the dragon in Adobe Photoshop CC.

Acevedo and his colleagues turned to photos and video of real animals for their inspiration. “No one does it better than Mother Nature,” Acevedo points out. “Why try to reinvent the wheel? People videotaped their own dogs walking and running and eating. And there was one particular video of an Arctic fox trying to find little critters burrowing under the snow. He would leap up into the air. It was great to see how all the muscles moved, and the fur dynamics. Animation copied that kind of stuff.”

While realistic fur is always tricky with computer-generated characters, Acevedo says that the color of Elliott’s fur complicated matters: “There aren't a lot of animals in real life that have green fur.” So Weta examined animals with green skin, such as chameleons and snakes, and birds with green feathers, such as parrots. Finally, they hit on the shade of green that helped make Elliot believable.

official United States trailer for Pete's Dragon

‪Click to watch the official trailer for Pete's Dragon.

As they refined the concept designs, Weta used Adobe Photoshop CC. “It was a huge help in being able to do a lot of different iterations,” Acevedo says. For example, getting the eyes right was crucial. “I did a lot of designs as far as making them bigger, smaller. It’s easier for me to do those changes in Photoshop instead of on models.”

He went through similar experiments with the claws, which had to look realistic without being scary. He again referenced photos of actual dogs. “Once I found some really good high-res images, I used Photoshop to lay them on top of the renders to get that detail.” 

ELLIOTT’S ENVIRONMENT

In the re-imagined Pete’s Dragon, the emphasis on realism goes far beyond Elliott. As Lowery explains, “If we’re going to have a movie in which one of the main characters is a 20-foot-tall dragon who will never be on set, it’s important for everything else to be as real as possible. So all of our locations are places that we actually went to. We would drive two hours to the woods every morning to get as deep into the heart of the redwoods in New Zealand as possible.”

Even so, there were times that the physical world couldn’t deliver what the filmmakers had established during the pre-visualization process. When that was the case, “We needed the visual effects to complete that natural environment,” Whitaker says. “We were asking the audience to buy into it being real and that meant that there was a greater need for every shot to have a realism and authenticity that matched what we all know exists. You know what a forest looks like and you can imagine what a cave looks like. You can't imagine a dragon but you have to have the two of them working together so it all feels like one. We were able to do that through great visual effects. Adobe was an important part of that.”  

Click to watch interviews with the top creatives behind Pete’s Dragon. 

A BOY AND HIS DRAGON

Like most films, making Pete’s Dragon involved a lot of technology. (For more on the roles Adobe software and services played throughout the process, see “Disney’s Pete’s Dragon Soars into Theaters.”) But what audiences will remember is one special relationship between an orphaned boy and his giant protector.

Says Whitaker, “The whole goal from the beginning was to make the most simple, emotionally engaging movie possible with these two unlikely friends. These guys, they have the greatest bond. And they both know they're safe together. I love that.”