• CGNetworks Production Coverage :: Dragon Slayer
    Kuczera's Dragon Slayer
    Robert Kuczera, 1 November 2004
    Edited by Lisa Thurston

    "In a time when dragons threaten mankind, there is only one man who fights against them all. His name is Tarragon." Thus begins Robert Kuczera's story of a hero whose occupation is to rid the earth of the scourge of those fire-breathing beasts. But as Tarragon is riding Black Bull, his brave battle horse, to work one day, he doesn't realize this one will be different...

    CGNetworks is pleased to present an interview with Robert Kuczera about the making of CG short film, Dragon Slayer. Kuczera, whose work includes animation for the Harry Potter 3 Hippogriff, used Alias Maya to model and animate the six main characters.

    Who is Robert Kuczera? Tell us your story, how you got into animation, and what are you doing now.

    I was born 1973 in Oppeln, Poland and moved with parents to Germany when I was 2 years old. I gained my Abitur (German equivalent to A-Levels) in 1993. After finishing my Civilian Service I gained a six month internship with the animation and TV production studio TEVOX GmbH, which was followed by a further year and a half there working on character animation. I was always interested in traditional art and due to my background in animation was greatly impressed by Pixar's 3D short films.
    Watch 'Dragon Slayer' excerpt (6.5MB)
    Watch 'Dragon Slayer' excerpt (50 sec, 6.5 MB MP4 format)
    A friend of mine, Michael Sieber, worked in this animation studio TEVOX GmbH and at this time I realized that it was possible even in Germany to do 3D animation. In those days, Alias Power Animator was only available on an SGI. Now it is totally different, you can buy Maya for your PC at home and it costs you about 10% of the price from Power Animator.

    After that I spent a year as a freelancer, working mostly for the animation studio The Light Works, in Cologne . There I was responsible for the 3D characters in games and entertainment. But this wasn't enough for me, I wanted to learn more about character animation and learn how to tell good stories.

    In October 1998 I started my studies in the animation department at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg and successfully completed my studies there in February 2003. During my time there I worked as a freelance animator on film and postproduction projects for various companies like Black Mountain GmbH, Stuttgart .

    I now work as a freelance character animator for postproduction houses like Framestore CFC and Smoke and Mirrors in London . You can see my character animation work in Harry Potter 3. I worked on the Hippogriff, the half horse, half bird creature.

    How did you come up with the idea for Dragon Slayer and what inspired you?

    A friend of mine came up with a grain of an idea about a dragon slayer who was confronted with a baby dragon. This picture was so strong, that we decided to work on it, It took us over a year to get a final version of the story.

    From there on we developed a lot of different versions of the story. And this was the time when I found out, that it takes a long time to get a good result on a story. Even in the production we changed and added things.

    So I think finding a good story is one of the most difficult parts in making a movie. Leon the professional has a similar story and basic idea. Also the situation of many people I know inspired me. They do a job because they have to do it. They never took enough time to find out if their job was the right one or if it makes them happy. Is it really what they want to do for the rest of their life? You spend half your day working… That's a lot of time.

    What specifically were you trying to achieve with the story of Dragon Slayer?

    Dragon Slayer is a short film which shows the situation of many people. A lot of people do their job without passion. They don't take the time to find out, if the job they are doing is he right one and gives them enough satisfaction. At the end you work the most time in your life. Maybe there is another job you always wanted to do?

    If people begin to think about there life and try to change it, it always has something to do with a key moment in life. Something has to happen that makes them change. This is what happens in our story. But it's not only about the right job, it's also about a life task. This can be different for everyone. Someone takes care for other people, others raise children... What do we expect from life?

    In the end, this is a story about the change of a character. The professional dragon slayer admits to himself what his dream job really is – a blacksmith. By doing so he also raises a little child. But he also has to suffer for what he did. Raising a little child is not so easy, there is a lot he has to learn. How do you treat a pubescent? What will our hero tell him when he grows up and where he comes from?

  • Making of Dragon Slayer - continued...

    Concept Design - Can you elaborate on the concept designs for the main characters?

    While developing the story, I worked together with Michael Sieber and another character designer on the characters: Tarragon our hero, Otis, the dragon baby, Bullie, the battle horse and the dragon mother.

    First we needed some tests to find the final characters. The first designs of the hero were too friendly and too lanky. But then after some more designs we were satisfied. The dragon slayer had to be a killing machine who had been doing his job for many years with a good heart inside but never thinking too much about what he was doing. It was much more difficult to find the design of the dragon's baby. We did a lot of tests and it took us some time until we were happy with the result - a little baby dragon that looked so cute you never would be able to kill him.

    Can you elaborate on the technical aspects of creating and animated these characters?

    All objects in the movie are modeled out of polygons. The reason for that is very simple. Polygon objects are much more flexible than nurbs objects. And subdivision surfaces don't work as they should in Maya.

    The polygon objects were created using the box modeling technique. You begin with a very low poly object, such as a box and you put more and more details into the object by extruding and splitting polygons. I mainly used the Extrude Polygon and Split Polygon tools.

    The final result is always a low polygon character that has as many polygons as you need in order to show the needed details. At the end, you smooth the character and get a high poly object. For animating, you use the low-poly object and for rendering you smooth the character. I used Mel scripts to simplify that process.

    When I was modeling the baby dragon I made a mistake. I didn't put enough polygons into his wrinkle. So there were some bad looking deformations. But when I found it out, it was to late, so I just had to live with it.

    Maya models

    Character concepts

    UV mapping for baby dragon

    All characters have been UV-unwrapped. The result was a tiger-like unwrapped skin. It was very important that every polygon had its own pixels in the UV editor. Otherwise you had some bad deformations in the texture.

    The texture was then projected on to the characters and I converted to solid textures in order to paint over the textures in Photoshop again. In the end I had a UV-based pixel map to work with.

    The entire move took me 4 months to animate. The workflow I used was like this: I posed and blocked the characters already in the animation, so I could use the blocks later to start my animation. After this, I put more and more details into the animation.

    It was very useful to wait some days before working at the animation again so I would have a new view for the shot and could improve the animation with a fresh eye.

  • Making of Dragon Slayer - continued...

    I used the standard Maya renderer. The first tests with mental ray and global illumination didn't work well, because the rendering time was much too high, even though I used a renderfarm with more than 50 processors. The render time was much too high, so I faked the global illumination look using a light dome with directional lights. These directionals have pixel map shadow with 1024 resolution and blur 3.

    It was very important that the shadows blurred into each other because I wanted to have a diffuse shadow with soft light. The main light (sun light) had a raytraced shadow which was always sharp and there was no flickering. This main light was yellow and the soft directional lights were blue.

    The renderfarm we used had about 50 CPUs, each with 2000 GHz. To distribute the jobs onto the CPUs I used the rendertool Royalrender.

    I spent a lot of time making the rig, because I find it important to have a very simple and intuitive interface to animate with. As a sample, I used the rig from Jason Schleifer on which I did some modifications. First I killed the stretch function from the extremities because it was not usable for my kind of animation. Instead of that I put a stretch and squash function onto the head. I used the nonlinear deformer squash and bend.

    To simplify the interface I put the blend shapes of the eyes, mouth and eye brows onto the controller of the rig, in order to pick them very fast. Additionally, I put attributes on to the controllers in order to drive the left and right face parts separately by connecting the blend shapes with the driven keys. So I had a very intuitive interface and my workflow was very fast.

    The blend shape editor in Maya was not particularly useful for me, because the interface is not so good. The idea of putting all controllers, IKs, clusters onto one layer in order to fade them out is very good though. This made it possible to put everything that was not useful in the animation interface aside. Also the colored controllers made it possible to have a better overview in the animation. Another tool I used was the jiggle. I used it to get some more natural behavior for some body parts. It was especially useful for the horse hairs and the reins.

    What software/hardware did you use?

    3D Software: Maya 4.5, Maya Cloth
    Compositing: Combustion 2.0
    Color Grading: Avid Symphony
    Music: Pro Tools
    Other Software Premiere, Photoshop

    What sort of a team did you have to assist with the production of Dragon Slayer, and how long did it take from concept to completion?

    For the most part I was working alone on the film. Over the whole period there was always some other people helping with something for a short time. They helped my out on some familiar stuff like modeling, texturing, rigging, and compositing. Others did more specialized things, such as cloth simulation, using the cloth tool, preparing the rain using particles, or making fire. This was very helpful, because I wasn't very familiar with particles like rain and fire, and dynamics like cloth.

    Then there had to be some specialists, who did the music, sound design and color correction. These were fields I was not familiar with at all.

    The project was completed in a 24-month period consisting of 9 months in preproduction, 12 months in production and 3 months in postproduction

  • Making of Dragon Slayer - continued...

    What sorts of challenges did you face when making the short film?

    The challenges started from day one, where the main problem of the story was to show a convincing change of the hero's character in a short movie. Mostly if you tell a short film the story is simple or you just try to tell a joke. The characters don't really change or grow much. You just have to try to have one strong turn at the end of the story. Not so in my case. I tried to imitate the structure of a full feature film and bring it to a short film, including portraying depth of character, his needs and wants, his background and so on. In my short film you know from the middle of the film how the movie will end, but you have to see it and to feel it. When I watch films in the cinema, very often I know how the film will end, so that is not the point. What I think is important is that you believe the characters and feel with them, or – even better – identify with them.

    So the main challenge was to give that much background information and make sure that everyone understood the character's needs. We created the situation at the beginning when the dragon slayer was meeting the blacksmith and his son. At this point I was a little afraid nobody would understand that the dragon slayer already had this need somewhere in his head, but didn't realize it.

    In this short introduction I could show a lot of stuff. For example, his dissatisfaction with his situation. You can see it how he is riding on his horse unambitiously, and the view of the people towards him shows a lot of his situation. The people only see the heroic side of his work. They admire him and give him a lot of respect; he is something of a star. But we see his real life; it is boring and unfulfilling.

    To make his character deeper we created the introduction sequences at the beginning and at the end. We could show much more of his background and understand his decision at the end by making this short review of what happened and what will happen. These snapshots of Tarragon are ironic, especially at the beginning of the movie where what we see is not what we get. The picture shows a shining hero, but what we see at first in 3D images is the opposite.

    Then there were various technical issues. I had some anti-aliasing problems using Maya's depth of field. So we had to fix this in the compositing using additional masks. Then, for some shots I had to break the scenes into different layers, because Maya wouldn't render the scenes. They were just too big.

    At some point after we had recorded the music by an orchestra, the movie was shortened. So it was much more difficult to fit the music to the new length of the movie. Thanks to our musician though, who did an excellent job using the music program to cut everything together. Finally, nobody realized that it wasn't meant to be like this. He also created new music synthetically and mixed it with real sounds.

    If you take care of a project on your own, sometimes decisions are difficult to make. I experienced this and realized it was better for the project if I discussed the problems of project with people from the team. At the same time, it was also very exhausting to find new people for the project again and again, especially because there was no money for the project. I had to finish the movie by a specific date, but I still had to earn some money meanwhile, in order to have enough money to live. So I also had some time issues too.

    If you could have done anything differently, what would it have been?

    I would work together with a script writer right from the beginning of the project in order to make the development time as short as possible. I would work with 2D Storyboards from the beginning to save some time, instead of doing the 3D animation straight away. I would also try to find a permanent team of 2-3 people to help me over the whole production period. The best case would be if they each could be helping me in specialized fields.

    What about the music? Who did the music? Tell us about how it was composed for the short.

    The film music was composed by a student, Julian Pesek, and brought in by the Ludwigsburger Orchestra. Additionally, the musician composed a song for the credits with a singer. After the music was finalized we decided to shorten the film by about 1 minute. This was a small problem, because now we had to fit the music to the new cut, but in the end it worked out.

    Parallel to the music, Frank Casaretto did the sound design. Both musicians worked on the final cut, while we did the compositing.

    I received a special prize for the short film in Germany , the title “Prädikat Besonder Wertvoll” which means that the short film is pronounced to have ‘special value'. Now I am working on the film version, which means that I render the whole film in HDTV resolution! And it will be put on to actual film at the end, so there will be a film copy.

    Thanks to CGNetworks and the whole Dragon Slayer team.

    Related Links
    Watch 'Dragon Slayer' excerpt
    Related 'Dragon Slayer' CGTalk Thread
    Dragon Slayer website
    Robert Kuczera 's website

    Words and images by Robert Kuczera
    Edited by Lisa Thurston

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