It’s dark, it’s rather noisy, and there’s a massive dragon directly behind my head, his eyes aglow. I’m not that scared though — this is an animatronic dragon for the arena version of Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon, due to open in Melbourne in just a couple of days.
I recently had the opportunity to go backstage at Sydney’s Fox Studios, where Dreamworks, Global Creatures and The Creature Technology Company were putting together the many massive dragons required for a stage show of this kind. Massive in both scale and scope, the smaller flying dragons only weigh in at around 400kg, but the largest dragons can tip the scales at 1.6 tonnes. The smaller flyers are pre-animated, but larger beasts use three operators; one driver for placement and two Voodoo puppeteers to control the dragon’s limb movements and facial characteristics.
It’s all hustle and bustle with forklifts, dragons-that-resemble bicycles dwarfed by larger ground-dwelling dragons and a few flying dragons as well. They’ve let me in backstage on the agreement that I won’t take any photos, so all I can do is go off the already available press materials — there’s still a few dragons that they want to save as surprises for when the show opens on March 2.
The guide for my tour was Kenji Oates from Q Motion Automation. As a company they’re handling the software flying side of the dragon performances. There’s previous pedigree for the companies involved in the production side of things, as they worked on the highly successful ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’ arena show. That show only had a few flight performances, however; when you bring dragons into the mix things get considerably more complex.
There is also an interesting mix of technology backstage; the majority of dragons are largely hydraulic, but the backstage IT infrastructure is a mix of custom silicon and off-the-shelf parts. The automation software runs on Windows… but not on Windows boxes.
“Our automation software runs on Windows software, but it’s on Mac systems,” Kenji told me. “Because… they’re pretty, but more importantly, because they get excellent worldwide support for the hardware, which none of the others do any more. They’ve all kind of stopped that. You can’t just walk into a shop and say ‘give me another one of these’, whereas you can with a Mac.”
Automated dragons — most particularly, those that fly — are handled on tour by only two operators. There’s only so much tweaking that can be done with a flying dragon in any case. “We’ve developed consoles to speed up and slow down movements, but most of the movement is pre-determined, because if you start tweaking too much, things get out of sequence,” Oates told me. “We were going to do flight at 2m/s; now we’re down to 0.6m/s. It’s a question of trolley gearing and safety constraints, especially when there’s a performer on board the dragon. When you see it [on stage] it’s still visually impressive, though.”
There’s a fair distance between the backstage operators and the rails that hang from the ceiling upon which the dragons fly, and that means they’re controlled wirelessly. In this case, they’re using the Ruckus wireless system. It’s a 5GHz wireless system, but one with a serious focus on reliability. Ninteen different directional antennas run from each Ruckus control unit, which dynamically chooses which antennas to use to get the best signal result through to the target. The Ruckus system measures multiple packet paths to work out which one is optimal; it’ll then send to that optimal path continuously.
Before a dragon can fly, it has to have its animation discretely mapped out, and this is a task for the animators working in Maya and 3DS Max. That’s a precise job that they’ve been working on since last August, although actual dragon builds, handled through The Creature Technology company, has been going on for much longer.
One thing that I didn’t expect to see backstage was a rack of old-fashioned joysticks, but that’s exactly what’s used as a control interface for the larger ground-based dragons; it allows for axis of movement to be mapped out and controlled based on things like the movement and eyelines of the actors on stage in real time.
Chatting to CTC’s Sonny Tilders, he told me that the Dragon show has taken some learnings from their experiences with Dinosaurs, along with some brand new technology. “CTC’s pioneering a new control system for the dragons, specifically designed to control creatures,” he said. “There’s a lot of functionality there that’s been gleaned from using third-party systems; our new system has a lovely GUI on it, so you can clip and drag a whole lot of expression mixes around as needed. The term expression mixes comes from its use in the Jim Henson system; we use it the same term although it’s also used to control larger movements.”
The larger dragons themselves are heavy, but they’re surprisingly soft. Tilders explains why this is so. “They’re essentially beanbag sacks underneath the skin. Under the skin there’s an anatomical muscle layout, because that looks a lot better when the dragon moves. If you just had a bendy-straw kind of thing under just sculpted skin, it doesn’t look as good. The beauty of this system is that it scales up, and as you move all the muscles underneath look really good. We developed that for Dinosaurs, and Dragons is like Dinosaurs on steroids.”