Glen McIntosh and Eragon

by Manuel Alducin

Glen McIntosh recently finished duties as Animation Director for the just released Eragon. We talked to him about his career in traditional animation and at ILM and the challenges of bringing Saphira, the blue dragon from Eragon, to life.


Eragon and Saphira

Manuel: So how did you get a chance to finally be the animation director on Eragon?

Glen: Well, I was very lucky in one respect; like sort of my area of interest has always been dinosaurs and mythological creatures. And so to be able to - working on the raptors and working on the lizard creature in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, working on a lot of aliens and monsters, and then also doing the character work, the close-up acting shots of Yoda and the close-up acting shots of General Grievous and close-up tests and acting with the various characters, Saphira sort of embodied everything.

She was a combination of the animal and the dinosaur types of movements that I had done for Jurassic Park III and the Star Wars films and the close-up character work that I had done in ET and of Yoda and General Grievous, where she had to be a realistic large animal that also had to emote and create a performance and not just be this gigantic monster that ran around eating people.

Manuel: So I'm guessing having Stefen Fangmeier as the Director, made a few things easier?

Glen: What's been interesting with Stefen is that because of his history and the fact that he's worked on so many movies for Industrial Light and Magic, that was a big advantage, but also the fact that the movies that he has worked on were movies that sort of were ingrained in our world, in the natural world meaning that they didn't create fantasy worlds that were done with a model or digimatte paintings.

He concentrated on movies like Twister or The Perfect Storm or Master and Commander; and all of that was filmed practically and then CG elements were incorporated with it. So what was interesting about Eragon was they would shoot live action plates, as opposed to filming models or digimatte backgrounds, and then inserting Saphira into these live actions plates, which was incredibly challenging because she had to look as real as the actors and the environment that she was living in.

Manuel: One thing I like is the design of the dragon. I think Patrick Tatopoulos did the initial design but I'm guessing that after ILM got the project you probably got involved in the way she looks in the screen?

Glen: Yes, absolutely. Actually, Patrick, his design was not used or I never really saw any concept work of Patrick's even though I had seen him do things. I know of Patrick's work in the past. But the dragon that we worked from was designed by an artist named Claudia Mullaly, who used to work at the ILM Art Department. And then her artwork was tinkered with and adjusted by Carlos Huante and Christian Alzmann from our ILM Art department. And then I also - because of my background in drawing and design, I was also constantly doing anatomical studies over top of the concept artwork.

And what we found was that we had to adjust the proportions of the dragon, the length of the neck, the length of the tail, especially the length of the legs, the size of the wings. Like, subtle, little refinements that you find when you go from a concept drawing into the 3 dimensional world; and you're manipulating a puppet in 3 dimensional space.

And what we found was that the front legs needed to be lengthened to be the same length as the back legs because of the animation. Over and over again Stefen said "I want her to be regal and majestic and move like a lion when she's on the ground". Well, the initial artwork had her back legs so long that we couldn't create a lion's gate that you would find in nature.

So lengthening her front arms to give us the ability to go into nature and study nature and assign her the attributes and mannerisms of a real lion to make her feel real. And by doing that, people know how a lion is moved. They've seen it before; so when you do that, you've created sort of a visual anchor in the audience's mind so that they're more easily able to discern it as a real animal even though it's this big blue dragon of fantasy, if that makes sense.

So there's a lot of adjustments that were made to the design to make it easier for animators to look at animals in nature and for them to incorporate those mannerisms. When she's on the ground, she moves like a lion, when she's in the air, she soars like an eagle meaning that her wings are large enough and they support enough of her weight so that she doesn't have to be constantly flapping like a bird with a smaller wing surface like a sparrow or a pigeon.

She has wings like an eagle, and she can soar majestically. And it also affected how - like, the structure of the wing itself meaning that a traditional dragon has wings like a bat where it's like the skin membrane is stretched between the boney fingers. And we found that on Saphira that tended to look very demonic and monstrous, and that's not her character. So we gave her wings more like an eagle, but we covered them with these, like, blue scales and thickened them up so that there's, like, a musculature to them that makes it look like they're very strong and powerful wings.

We actually brought live bats in; and for the size that they are, the membrane of the skin that stretches between the the finger bones is incredibly thin and fragile. And we definitely didn't want to imply that she had fragile wings that would tear very easily. We wanted wings that looked very strong and powerful so that when she went into battle, she looked like a menacing warrior.

Manuel: Did you have to worry much about the wings because I thought they looked very interesting. It's like the surface has the structure of feathers, but they look like scales.

Glen: Yeah, it was. I mean, there was a definite plan to show a different kind of dragon than anything we've seen before. And people have seen that, the leathery bat wings before. But you're right. We didn't want her to feel too much like a hybrid creature meaning that she's a creature of fantasy. But we didn't want to give the impression that she was like a gryphon, which is like the true body of a lion and the true wings of an eagle.

So we would minimize the amount of sim or flutter that you would have in the wings because they're actually these enlarged scales that move in the wind but don't necessarily flutter, meaning that they're feather-like structures. But they aren't, they're a little bit more rigid. They don't have the soft quality of a feather so that people didn't get the impression that they were too flimsy or fragile.

Saphira and Eragon
Saphira integrated into a live action plate with Eragon (Ed Speelers).

Manuel: Yeah, and they look great. The other thing that was also interesting was the face, because it's not exactly like a dragon face. Like the one from Dragonheart. It doesn't actually speak, though Rachel Weisz does the (telepathic) voice, but it does emote a lot.

Glen: We did reference Rachel Weisz; what we did do was use her voice. By nature the dragon is reptilian and then it's covered with scales. Saphira has a long neck, a long tail. She has big claws. But as far as her face is concerned, what we found in reference in the natural world is that if you take true reptiles meaning snakes, crocodiles, lizards, they do not have muscles in their face to commit any sort of expression.

Meaning that if a crocodile - a crocodile skull is essentially just skin stretched over it. And what you find is when you look at a crocodile or a lizard, the expression that they give is very cold and emotionless; and that's kind of what makes it look scary. But we definitely wanted to avoid that with Saphira because she's a character that has to act with Eragon.

And the audience has to know that she's feeling sad or that she's feeling angry. So we looked again to the natural world at what animals can give expression, and we looked back to lions meaning that if you can tell when a lion is angry and the skin bunches up on its nose when it growls and its eyes get very, very wide. And there's also a mammalian characteristic of the skin covering the jaw joint, so you'll see the skin stretch.

And you can also tell when a dog or a lion is sad. But we did not want to do the overly expressive cartonishness of, for example, if Saphira was happy, she never smiled. So it was walking that fine line of making it obvious to the audience that she was a smart, regal majestic character that was able to emote and express her emotions. But she was not going to be so cartoony that she didn't feel like a real animal.

Closeup of Saphira from Eragon
A closeup of Saphira snarling.

Manuel: What challenges did you have while building the model, did you have to sim the scales or maybe add some muscles?

Glen: What we tried to do was, like, there is a very subtle jiggle, but it's the same jiggle you would find in a horse when it's galloping meaning that Saphira was never intended, even though she's a very large animal, to be fat or jiggley in the same way that an elephant has very loose skin or a hippo has a lot of body fat that covers its muscles.

A horse and a lion are very large animals; and yet, their musculature is right underneath the surface of their skin because they're so active and athletic. And that was something we tried to incorporate into Saphira's anatomy so that you definitely got the impression that she was an athletic animal that could move very quickly and with a lot of strength and power.

A lot of that was done to sort of to try and convey just how powerful she would be when she was in movement. And the other thing that we encountered was that in Christopher's books, she's described as this brilliant blue color. And we found that in nature you typically don't have animals that are incredibly large and also a vibrant color.

Typically you have smaller animals trying to ward off larger animals from eating them with their vibrant colors; and yet, she's described as having these brilliant blue scales. The initial attempt was to try and make her exactly like Christopher's description in the book where she was a bright blue. But in the actual shots that just came across as fake.

So what we tried to do is to have the best of both worlds. We dulled her - the color of her scales down so that they had sort of more of a silver bluish gray. There were special textures that were incorporated into her scale detail so that when she would turn into the light, she would have sort of an iridescent turquoise blue glow like when the light catches a python after it's just shed its skin.

And that way we're able to show what a beautiful animal she is, and we're also able to convey this brilliant blue color that's described in the book while still keeping her in the real world by not having her a bright blue color all the time.

Saphira and Eragon in flight
Saphira's wings and flying were one of the major challenges for the ILM VFX and animation team.

Manuel: So how big was the animation team by the way?

Glen: Animation team got up to 20 animators.

Manuel: I'm guessing that was pretty intense.

Glen: Yeah, it was. It meant the animators on the team had to have an understanding of the animal movement and acting and performance. And then based on the different shots, being able to incorporate the animal movement with the acting for the given shots. But it was a challenge to not make her performance too cartoony, and so we were constantly looking at the natural world for reference.

Manuel: Did you have different setups or models for her different actions, like walking, flying or acting?

Glen: It was the same dragon model. We also had the baby dragon which Rick O'Connor was the lead animator on the baby dragon sequence. And so we had a baby dragon model which was different from the adult. And it meant subtle adjustments and refinements to the anatomy to sort of show off how she was - how different she looked as a baby meaning that she has larger eyes and larger hands and feet.

And she (the baby version) has a layer of fat covering her muscle so that the audience doesn't think that it's just a scaled down version of the adult. And then we would create a library of flying cycles and work off of each other's and be inspired from each other where there would be a particular landing piece of animation that the two leads, Rick O'Connor and Delio Tramontozzi would do that would nail exactly how heavy she should be or how big she would be in a takeoff or a landing and then show that to the other animators so that there's a consistency in her movement and her performance.

Manuel: Were you able to, maybe reuse some previous assets, since ILM did the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire dragon, or see what they had in terms or reference and cycles?

Glen: The Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire dragon was different in its anatomy in that there's sort of two basic styles of dragon that are popular in western mythology meaning that there are dragons that are essentially the anatomy of a bat, meaning that their arms are their wings. And those are the kind of dragons that you see in movies like Dragonslayer and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Reign of Fire.

Saphira in her anatomical structure was more akin to the dragon in Dragonheart in that she has front legs, back legs, and a set of wings. And so we couldn't really use the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire dragon for reference because it was more a foe that essentially chases Harry Potter and tries to eat him. And the style of flight and the way it moves was - would be a little too scary and monstrous compared to Saphira's style which was - it's just much more elegant.

So it meant sort of inventing a style of flight that was unique to Saphira so that people wouldn't be reminded of them, of other movie dragons they had seen before.

Manuel: When you hear about the big challenges in those movies one thing that stands out are the wings, especially when they extend and contract, with all of that folding. Did you do anything special about it and find a solution or trick, or how do you handle that?

Glen: Well, we found that on a bat - like I was saying before - that the membrane of skin that is stretched between the fingers of the bats are is incredibly thin and fragile. And when you extend that out to animal that is 45 feet long, you either have something that looks paper thin that looks like it would tear quite easily or you have something that is torn and tattered and really raggedy looking.

And that's sort of what you find on The Lord of the Rings fell beasts and what you have on the dragon from Dragonslayer. That makes the dragon look very creepy and aged, and Saphira is very young and majestic. So adding those feathers created, from a design point of view, it helps her character. It was really a challenge because now you're not just having the skin and the enveloping between the fingers extend and contract.

You've got hundreds and hundreds of small, scaly feather-like structures that can't penetrate with each other. They have to overlap like you would see on the feathers on a bird wing. So it meant Aaron Ferguson, the creature enveloper and on the show, he was the creature supervisor; and he spent days and day and days trying to come up with mathematical algorithms that would not have the geometry of these feathers interpenetrating with each other when her wings would fold and expand.

Manuel: What about the joints on the wings because sometimes on the wingspan they kinda like flip funny when they're contracting against the body. Was that another problem about how to make those joints work?

Glen: It was, yeah definitely. There were controllers for what we defined as her elbow and her wrist, and then we had joints that ran out along the length of each of her fingers. And then on top of that, we had these feather-like, scaly structures. We were able to control the shape of the wing very well. Aaron and his team had created this great rig so that we could get the wings almost into any pose.

But it would be very tricky to crunch the wings up into what we identified as the Delta wing pose which was sort of her streaking across the sky when she was flying, sort of akin to a peregrine falcon when it goes into a dive to attack a pigeon. And so you arrive at a point where all of these scales start mashing in on each other.

So it was very tricky for his team to do that, and Paul Giacoppo created a number of shapes to smooth out the silhouette so that nothing gave away as much as possible the impression that she was a CG creation.

Manuel: In those kind of situations I'm guessing you're doing a lot of posing, like cartoon posing, to get better silhouette and stronger reads on Saphira?

Glen: Yeah, yeah. A lot of times it meant, like, the animators would take their best guess at putting the wings in an interesting dynamic pose; and the enveloping on the wings would be so crunched up that the enveloping would break. And so then I would go to Paul and his team to sort of smooth out the silhouette so that it was cleaner.

Manuel: Oh, okay.

Glen: Everyone's sort of working in conjunction to give her these nice poses to her wings because they definitely were one of the trickiest parts of her anatomy.

Manuel: So how do you handle the teamwork exactly? Do you assign a team of animators to specific sequences, or you have a group of guys on the wings and some guys that take care of the facial animation?

Glen: Well, there were animators that some of their strengths were in the close-up acting performance. Maya Kaiser was one of the animators that she just naturally gravitated towards the acting of the quieter close-up moments where she would put all of the subtle detail in her blinks and her facial muscles.

And then there were other animators that prefer doing the big action shots like the dragon sweeping across the sky or crashing into the forest or diving into an army or soldiers. Typically, what we had was we broke it down where there were two leagues.

Rick O'Connor was the lead of the baby dragon, and Delio Tramontozzi was the lead on the adult. So we were able to break up the sequences that way, and Rick had a team of seven or eight animators that he worked with specifically on the creation of the baby. And then he had a couple of adult sequences that he worked on as well. And then Delio had other adult sequences that he had a team of people working with to create her performance.

Manuel: Do you also work on other things, like digital doubles?

Glen: Yes, absolutely. Eragon was a digital double for a number of shots. The digital doubles at ILM have progressively been getting better and better over the years, and we got to a point where we were very confident to bring the digital double very close to camera. And then there are a lot of tricks that we do where. there was what we call the m-rig (motion rig) where the actor is laying on top of this moving platform that represented the geometry of the dragon's back.

And then it had already inherited animation that we had done before the blue screen shoot. And then we take the Eragon element and put it onto our CG dragon, and then we're able to add other subtle layers of detail. But then for when she's speeding away from camera, we can use a wing flap where he wings come up and mask the transition from the live action Eragon to the digital double and vice versa just to make sure that the shots are as dynamic as possible and we're not limited by the 2D card of Eragon.

So for a number of shots, yeah; we did do the digital double to make the camera moves and the movement of the dragon as cinematically dynamic as possible so that we weren't limited by the constraints that they used when they filmed the m-rig in London.

Sometimes it was unintentional. There would be some shots where it had been decided that it would be an m-rig shot, and then we would work on it and realize that we could get a better camera move and a more interesting angle on Eragon and the dragon if we went all CG. And so we would do tests and see what that looks like and see if it's obvious that the character is a digital double.

And if it wasn't, then we would try and massage the shots to see if it could work. In a lot of the shots it's very successful.

Eragon: a flying sequence with Saphira and Eragon
For dramatic action shots, Eragon (actor Ed Speelers), would be replaced by a digital double.

Manuel: So you may only have to make minor adjustments like when he is touching part of Saphira?

Glen: Yeah. Typically the 2D card of Eragon would be constrained to the 3D model. And you could translate the camera away in a perspective and still have the perspective of the 2D card hold up. But at some point, you either adjust the dragon or the camera far enough away that the perspective of the Eragon element falls apart. And it reveals itself as 2D, which is exactly what it is. It's just a 2D image. So at that point we would introduce the idea of trying a digital double. And for some of those shots, the digital double gets incredibly close to camera; and I think it's very hard to tell which is which.

Manuel: Do you go to the blue screen studio to supervise the shoot or go on location?

Glen: Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to go; but it wouldn't have worked to go to Pinewood because I was too busy. At that point, we were well into production; and I was too busy supervising the blocking of a number of sequences that didn't come in.

But we had video conference calls with Samir Hoon, the ILM visual effects supervisor and Mike McCallister, the visual effects supervisor constantly checking with them to make sure that the data they were receiving was good and that we were able to get as much out of her performance as possible.

Manuel: So in a sense you were calling them for information and sending them animatics or ther kind of elements and tests back to Pinewood.

Glen: Yeah, we did that initially; and then we'd send the data to London. I did have the opportunity to go to Hungary for two weeks to work with Samir, talking about how, where to place the dragon and talking, and working with him on the editing of the aerial footage for when Saphira and Eragon are flying around.

So that was very helpful to be on location, and I actually got the opportunity to do some sketches working with Stefen as to what sort of pose the dragon would be after it crashed in the forest. That was a great experience, and it was also very helpful from my point of view to get the impression of what Stefen had in mind and what sort of ideas he had regarding the dragon's movement that I could then come back and relay to the animator.

Manuel: I was also reading that some of the dragon shots were done by Weta?. I'm guessing you had to coordinate with them?

Glen: Typically there was a clear delineation made between the work that we had done and the work that Weta was doing for the final battle. There was a train of animation data so that we're making the performance consis - as consistent as possible. So we would get - we had sent them movement studies and flight cycles.

And then they would do flying shots, and then we would look at that and compare it with ours and as well with the close-up acting to make sure that the performance interface was as consistent as possible.

Manuel: So they had to match your animation in some sort of way.

Glen: There would be, every once in awhile, an animator would hit on a specific movement that really nailed Saphira's performance. And then we would, regardless of the studio, we would trade that information back and forth and take inspiration from it.

And it was very exciting that, what I consider the two best digital effects houses in the world, were combining their artistic minds to create Saphira.

Manuel: Did you work on non character animation on the film?

Glen: Samir and his team filmed a lot of practical elements. There was a lot of rigid body simulations that were done on the computer, lots of debris that was filmed on blue screen that was composited into the shots to better put Saphira into her environment. And it meant also working quite a bit on the lighting of Saphira and her scales meaning that when she's in a forest environment, that the reflectivity of the green is gonna give a green look to her scales. Or conversely when she's in sunset or sunrise, she may look purple or orange.

And so it's how do you make a blue dragon still look blue and yet fit into these various lighting environments and then combine that with atmospheric haze and all of the debris and dust that she would swirl up as she would come in for a landing. So there's a lot of layers and layers of detail that were put into the shots just to sort of make it feel as real as possible. So much so that you're even adding things like camera shake.

And you're doing that because if you're trying to make it feel as real as possible and if a two ton animal landed 10 feet away from the camera, that's what the camera would do. So you're assigning attributes to the camera itself, all in the effort to make her feel more like a real animal.

Manuel: It looks fantastic. Are there any fun stories about the production of the film?

Glen: Just that there's a lot of work done. We found that her neck initially was too long to get the kind of compositions that we were looking for, or that her back legs would be too long. And essentially, what we could do is raise her in order to get a four-legged walk with her front legs, the length that they are, and the back legs, the length that they were. I told Stefen that we could definitely give her the posture and walk of a hadrosaur, which is sort of a duck-billed dinosaur.

But it had its butt way up in the air. And Stefen said, "no, that is the exact opposite of the regalness that I'm after". And I said, "well, the only way that we're gonna be able to get the lion walk that you want is we have to go back in and adjust the design of the creature because design influences the animation but not necessarily the other way around". So there was a back and forth there to make her animation the way that they wanted; influenced her design.

Because once we have a locked character, then that's the model that we have to use. So at that point changing it would have been problematic. So we had to make sure that it would fit all of the mannerisms and movements that we had in mind before we started.

Manuel: So you would have to do minor fixes during production.

Glen: Exactly.

We did not want to have to go back in and realize that her anatomy or the length of her neck or her tail or the length of her legs was gonna ultimately cause more problems. What lens would we have to use if her face was way too close to camera? And so that meant shortening her neck so that we didn't have these big fisheye lenses and using all of those things to our advantage to try and find more appealing composition.

Manuel: I can't wait to see the movie. Do you have somthing else lined up or taking a vacation?

Glen: I'm going on Christmas vacation tomorrow, but I'm currently working on Transformers.

Manuel: Oh, wow!

Glen: So that's a really fun project, and I think it's gonna be a fantastic movie. And it's nice to do something that is completely different from a blue dragon; big, giant robots fighting.

Manuel: Yeah, and going from organic to a mechanical creature!

Glen: Absolutely.

Yeah, it's a completely different type of model; and a completely different type of movement and character.

Manuel: Yeah, that sounds exciting.

Glen: Yeah, yeah.

Manuel: Well, I'm hoping to see the movie tomorrow.

Glen: - We're gonna see the movie soon as well. And hopefully our shots were good.

Manuel: Looking at the shots from the trailers it does look fantastic.

Glen: Well, fingers crossed. I know that we've done our best to try and make her feel as real as possible, so I hope that our work holds up. And I hope you enjoy it.

Manuel: I guess I won't hold you anymore.

Glen: Yeah. Thank you. Well, thank you very much for talking to me. I appreciate it and for your interest, and I hope you like the movie.

Manuel: Well, thank you very much, Glen.

Glen: No problem. Have a great night.


Many thanks to Megan Corbet for all the help conducting this interview and to Glen McIntosh for his valuable time.

All Eragon images © 20th Century Fox. Courtesy of ILM.