Flame on: Realtime reimagines dragons for The Watch
Realtime was a key creative partner on the BBC America series The Watch, delivering extensive post-vis, high-end VFX and crafting two very different types of dragon – from concept to final creature.
For the series, based in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, the studio was briefed to come up with ideas for dragons that hadn’t been done before, breathing life into complex, magical creatures that were grounded enough to be believable.
The art department came up with concepts for Goodboy, a dragon small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, and Noble Dragon, a creature the size of a jumbo jet and made up of FX-driven smoke, fire, and lightning.
These were then developed into fully CG, hand-animated creatures using Autodesk Maya and 3Ds Max, SideFX Houdini, Foundry Mari and Nuke, Adobe Substance, and V-Ray from Chaos Group.
Goodboy, a fan favourite, had to be charming while also functioning as a hand-held flamethrower. His facial animation was devised within the brief of incorporating Pratchett’s tongue-in-cheek wit as he interacts with the characters around him. Designed for a small supporting role, he became so popular he was written into the show as a regular character.
Realtime wanted to give Noble Dragon an ethereal, smoky quality, which meant it would need to be highly FX-driven. To make it feel different to the dragons familiar from other popular fantasy series and films, the team designed and modelled the character from the ground up, including scales – even though these wouldn’t be seen by the audience.
“It was really rewarding to work on the incredible dragons for The Watch, said Jonathan Rawlinson executive producer for Realtime. “The whole team really enjoyed being able to flex our 3D character design and building skills, and we’ve loved working with the fantastic team on the series.”
Principle photography took place in South Africa, creating the live action plates Realtime needed to incorporate the dragons. “The art department created a full-size replica of Goodboy for actress Lara Rossi (Lady Sybil) to hold in shot,” says Rawlinson. “He was then replaced in post-production by the CG Goodboy. This was partially to help with her performance, but we also hoped that in wide shots we could use that rather than the CGI model, to reduce costs.”
Smoke and lightning
Post-vis was carried out for all the key CG sequences using a mixture of filmed plates and full CG environments. “This allowed for a continuing creative dialogue with the showrunner, director, and producer, as well as Lola VFX who were in charge of creating the cityscapes,” explained Rawlinson.
At the same time look dev on the Noble Dragon was started. “There were a number of issues with a huge creature who is made of smoke, fire, and lightning that had to be solved. Legibility being the most important,” Rawlinson revealed. “As she had to work in both day- and night-time situations, a flexible tool set of passes was created to suit all conditions. It allowed for independent control over her eyes, smoky body, internal lightning, fiery throat and belly, as well as a skeletal pass to add definition to her skull and chest for the closer shots.“By doing this, we accomplished what we needed to; we made this dragon distinctly different from anything that’s come before. It takes what people think when they hear the word dragon and turns it on its head.”
The same can be said for Goodboy, who presented his own, if somewhat smaller, challenges, according to Rawlinson. “While the Noble dragon was all about the big picture, Goodboy is all about detail,” he said. “From the scarring on his face to the texture of his wings, fine, nuanced animation allowed this character to transition from cute to deadly, beginner to proficient flyer.
“In the end, both dragons came away looking different to anything we’ve seen before. And we think both dragons are a great addition to the series. This was a great project for us to flex our creative muscles and deliver something the client could be proud of.”
The Watch had its US premiere on BBC America, and will be released in the UK in late 2021. With Angie Wills as VFX producer, the show was directed by Craig Viveiros (The War of The Worlds), Brian Kelly (Outlander, Poldark) and Emma Sullivan (Silent Witness, Doctor Who).The series was produced by Johann Knobel (Shameless, Noughts + Crosses), with Simon Allen (The Musketeers, Das Boot) as lead writer. The executive producer was Richard Stokes (Broadchurch, Torchwood, Silent Witness).
Watch The Watch VFX creature breakdown