• CGSociety :: Production Focus
    20 April 2011, by Scott Strohmaier


    There are dragons in the wilds of Utah. And there is one visual effects production studio that's responsible for their presence: BluFire Studios in Orem, Utah. For the past few years these mythological fire-breathing beasts have filled the cinematic skies thanks to the efforts of a small band of dedicated VFX artists at BluFire using MAXON's CINEMA 4D. BluFire's intentionally created dragons that looked more like actual creatures than something from horror movies or fairy tales. 'Age of the Dragons,' BluFire's latest effort, is a re-imagining of Herman Melville's classic novel 'Moby Dick.' Starring Danny Glover from 'Lethal Weapon,' and Vinnie Jones from 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,' the story is set in a mythical, medieval realm. Captain Ahab's (Glover) obsession to seek revenge on the great 'White Dragon,' for slaughtering his family and leaving his body scarred and mauled, drives him and his crew deep into a dark and dangerous journey.

    "We wanted the dragon to feel more like an actual creature that you find out there somewhere in the woods, rather than the kind of mystical dragons that are typified in these kind of fantasy films," says Matt Hoffman, BluFire's VFX supervisor.

    Relying on a combination of nature and Hollywood for inspiration, the BluFire creative crew drew on real-world influences like lizards, bats, frogs and dinosaurs when creating dragons for the film. Once the look of the dragons was set, BluFire established a system for bringing the dragons to life.

    To get this shot BluFire matched a CG dragon to a real-life flamethrower.

    The model for the dragon?s cave was just a simple form with 140 polygons.
    First, they used an animatic to get a clear idea on the timing of the film. Next they developed level 1 animation, which showed the blocking and movements of the dragons.

    Once the producers gave the thumbs up to this phase, the visual artists moved on to level 2 animation, which included more details, such as breathing and blinking. And level 3 consisted of rendering and compositing.

    CINEMA 4D played a key role in helping the BluFire team, who worked on the film for a year, create realistic creatures. Animated in Maya, one of the dragons was about 15,000 polygons, Hoffman explains, adding that the render time in C4D subdivided each polygon, creating four to five million polygons.

    This sub-poly displacement allowed a great amount of detail to be added to the dragons. For example, using C4D artists made sure light would bleed through the dragons' wings and "make them look like they've got blood running through their veins," says Hoffman.

    Matching perspective on this shot was challenging, says Matt Hoffman, BluFire's VFX supervisor. "It was a big dolly shot, so we had to match move it to make sure that the virtual camera was moving the exact same way as the real camera," he said.

    To add fine detail to this shot, BluFire artists used C4D's sub-poly displacement.

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    Blufire is proud to say that when these computer-generated dragons were finished, they were so realistic looking they fooled several film-industry veterans who saw the footage and thought that they had built a practical dragon for the film.

    In truth, aside from three scenes where small segments of a dragon were created for close-ups, all of the other dragon shots were computer-generated.
    After modeling was completed in Maya, displacement and all the fine details were done in Mudbox. C4D was used for shading. "The tools in CINEMA 4D were super instrumental to getting it to happen as quickly as it did," says Hoffman. "It's got some really great tools for smoothing out little problem areas and some great deformation tools, too."In addition to Maya, C4D and Mudbox, BluFire used After Effects, Nuke and SynthEyes in their creative pipeline.

    One of the few completely CG shot in the film, this dragon was modeled and animated in Maya and completed in C4D and After Effects.

    The approach Hoffman took on 'Age of Dragons' was reinforced when he saw 'Avatar' while he was still working on production of the film. "I saw a lot of stuff in 'Avatar' that was in the shaders I built for 'Age of Dragons,' and it made me very happy that I was doing something similar to something on much a grander scale," says Hoffman.

    BluFire didn't start out playing such a large role in creating creatures for 'Age of Dragons.' Their initial contract had them doing just five minutes of computer-generated dragon shots for the film. But after seeing their high-quality work, producers asked them to do much more.

    Not wanting to let the opportunity to put their own stamp on the film pass them by, BluFire made up a bit of a backstory for the main dragon. "We decided that putting a scene up in the clouds would be kind of exciting," Hoffman explains, adding that the team used PyroCluster to scatter particles across the big plane of the sky in order to create clouds.

    They also put together new, action-packed footage that shows how truly evil the White Dragon is as it chases down a baby dragon, only to kill its mother. "Eventually our goal is to own our own properties, so we'll come up with the film, produce it, own it, make another one, rinse, repeat," says Hoffman.

    Using C4D, BluFire's VFX artists created 20 versions of this shot in 30 minutes, Hoffman says. "I was able to render enough version to see where it felt right and know what I needed to do to make it pop."

    BluFire's reel
    Autodesk Maya
    Scott Strohmaier
    CGSociety MAXON C4D Forum threads

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