Here be dragons ... Framestore CFC found experience with dinosaurs helped when it came to creating fire-breathing reptiles.
The 100-minute programme first aired in Germany in November 2004, and again on Channel 4 on 5 March 2005.
Billed as a “thrilling investigation” into these legendary beasts, The Last Dragon uses a docu-drama approach to bring plausibility to its subject. The programme’s premise is that dragons existed from prehistoric times, co-existing with both the dinosaurs and then later with mankind, becoming extinct only relatively recently, thanks to man’s ruthless hunting.
A 35-strong team from Framestore CFC delivered 167 shots – some 35 minutes of CG – in 25 weeks for The Last Dragon, making it one of the fastest turnarounds the company has ever delivered.
"We were helped enormously by the experience we’ve gained with the Walking With Dinosaurs series and specials over the last few years,” says CGI Supervisor Alec Knox, “From the dragons’ walk/run/flight cycles, to tricks that give the impression that there’s a physical camera move where it’s actually done electronically, there were a hundred little techniques we’d developed on the dinosaur projects to get great results at speed.”
The Last Dragon consists of two threads. The first is the dramatized story of Dr Tanner (Paul Hilton), a rogue palaeontologist whose belief in the existence of dragons is triumphantly vindicated when he is air-lifted in to perform an autopsy upon some mysterious animal and human remains which have been discovered in a remote Romanian ice-cave.
The second thread takes the form of a series of ‘documentary’ flashbacks, interwoven with Dr Tanner’s adventure. These take us back to several illustrative moments during the prehistory and history of the dragon, showing the creature evolving into several different iterations – Prehistoric, Marine, Forest and Mountain. These scenes, which feature hunting, fighting, mating, and nesting
dragons, are authoritatively narrated by Ian Holm.
Shooting took place in three separate week-long segments between March and May 2004. These were in La Palma, in the Canary Islands, for the prehistoric footage, Chamonix, in the French Alps, for the mountain sequences, and at Anduzes, near Nimes, where a small bamboo forest provided the necessary Chinese forest location.
Senior Compositing Artist Sirio Quintavalle supervised the shoot for Framestore CFC. “The ice-cave sequences were interesting,” he recalls. “We were shooting in these extraordinary ice-clad environments, using flame throwers – a unique experience.”
The crew also suffered the headaches and sickness that attend working at high altitudes, and Quintavalle also found himself donning a wet suit to create the necessary water interactions during the Marine dragon shoot.
The Last Dragon bolsters its narrative with some ingenious “scientific” explanations for various aspects of dragon physiology, including their ability to fly and to breath fire. Fire performs multiple functions for the dragons: as a weapon, a signal, a triumphant post-coital roar, a barbecuing aid, and sometimes to warm and form their eggs, which are kept in dragon-built kilns.
“We shot flames on location where appropriate,” says Quintavalle, “And supplemented them with a flame-thrower effects shoot for the flying sequences and the kiln shots where we needed the flames to have a more magical quality.
“We built a model of the kiln in the studio, matched up the camera angles and flame direction to Lead Animator Neil Glasbey’s rough animation, and shot at 75fps. We also added magnesium powder for a bit of extra sparkle.” The task of compositing the shots was later carried out by Quintavalle and others, working – appropriately enough - in Flame and Inferno.