Also, a special celebration of banthas.
When The Mandalorian animation supervisor Hal Hickel first saw concept art by Lucasfilm design supervisor Doug Chiang and his team for the Krayt dragon—to be featured on Tatooine in the first episode of season 2—the art showed the whole creature above ground.
“The creature had something like 50 legs,” recalls Hickel, who worked on the production side as animation supe. “Maybe not that many, but a ton of legs, more legs than you’ve ever seen on a dragon. It was like a centipede dragon. It was really cool.”
Of course, if you’ve seen the episode, you’ll be aware that the Krayt dragon’s whole body is largely hidden under the sand as it ‘swims’ under the surface, or remains in its hidey-hole cave.
The Krayt was a call-back to a brief glimpse of a skeleton seen in A New Hope, and so was the first opportunity audiences would have to witness a living-breathing incarnation of the beast. ILM built the dragon in CG with all those legs, and then proceeded to produce tests of it moving in a serpentine fashion above the ground.
“It was darn cool, but Jon Favreau’s instinct—and I think it was the right instinct—was to keep it underground,” observes Hickel. “Some people might look at that and go, ‘Well, shoot. We went to all the trouble to build all those legs and everything…’ But Jon’s instinct was that none of that really mattered. It was more like, ‘I think if we keep it swimming like a shark in Jaws, and we just see it pushing through the sand, that’s going to have more impact. He was right.”
Visualizing and shooting scenes
The Krayt dragon sequence went from concepts to early previs via The Third Floor. Visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer worked closely with that studio to design key shots. A maquette sculpt of the neck and head of the dragon was also built, which could be utilized for lighting reference and also CG modeling down the track.
During the shoot, which took place at a Los Angeles studio’s backlot, The Third Floor’s iPad simulcam tool came in handy to reconcile the size of the dragon with built environments on the set and environments that would ultimately be fully synthetic.
“We prepared four or five chunks of animation that covered the whole sequence, but were continuous within each chunk, rather than individual shots,” advises Hickel.
“Those could be played back on the iPad, with the overlay of the camera view, so that we could frame properly and be lens’ed properly for the height of the dragon and the size of the cave. We’d move these physical markers that were on set—orange cones—or a big sign that said, ‘Cave entrance’ that was stuck over on one side of the lot.”
Working out how a Krayt dragon moves (and swims)
Alongside the backlot shoot, ILM generated movement tests for the dragon with a lightweight model, although, says Hickel, “it was a pretty complicated creature with all those legs.” ILM animator Jakub Pistecky crafted the tests.
“Jakub had some tiny digital double characters with mocap running out in front of the dragon, just scattering in front to it,” describes Hickel. “He positioned some cameras around, down low, in front of the people running at us, with this huge dragon behind it, and some up high, and side views in the set.
The swimming aspect of the creature was always something imagined for the scene, via some kind of liquefaction of the sand, but it was open in the early days of planning whether the Krayt dragon may fully emerge and beach itself.
“I remember one of the sort of a-ha moments with Jon Favreau was actually showing him those locomotion tests,” says Hickel, “and then him expressing, ‘Well, I don’t think we want to get the whole body out of it, so let’s talk about what we do want to do.’ He started talking about the way elephant seals will be down horizontal, and then when they come up, they can just literally lift the whole front half of themselves nearly vertical.”
The swimming motion would be perfected later, alongside the necessary sand simulations, as full-scale production on the creature and its integration in the sequence continued at ILM’s Singapore studio.
Building and animating a Krayt dragon
ILM’s Singapore team started by building a direct CG version of the maquette, as visual effects supervisor Jeff Capogreco explains. “It was basically a digital version that matched the maquette, and then myself and visual effects supervisors John Knoll and Enrico Damm in San Francisco would look at it. I kept wanting to push detail into it. It felt like something photographed at a very small scale that we needed to make work for a very large scale. So we took that as our blueprint and then we stamped detail onto it to make it higher-res. Myself, CG supervisor Nihal Friedel, model supervisor Michal Kriukow, and texture painter Ying Tong Woo poured our lives into making that sequence as exciting as we could and Hal was an invaluable partner for us on the animation side.”
In approaching the animation of the Krayt dragon, lead animator Zaini Bin Mohammed Jalani liaised with Hickel and ILM’s San Francisco animation supervisor Paul Kavanagh, on nailing down the appropriate reference for a creature of this size, including for when it had to swim in the sand.
“There were a bunch of critters, snakes or lizards, that we referenced, but it proved to look absolutely wrong in every way,” admits Capogreco. “They moved too fast for the size and scale. The other thing it did was it ruined our simulations. Things that large, would just make sand fly everywhere. It made it unwatchable.”
“So we ended up relying more on a crocodile or an alligator feel, where they are perched above the water, stalking prey and using their tail to swim through the sand in a very elegant way. That proved to behave well with the simulations.”
An early challenge ILM’s Singapore team had was how to show so much sand being displaced as the Krayt dragon moved underneath it. Selling the right scale, especially in aerial shots, proved tricky, as was simulating the actual liquefaction look of the sand itself.
“FX lead/supe Huai Yuan Teh and I would lock ourselves in meetings and discuss how to run a bunch of settings and wedges of viscosity and just weird things that you wouldn’t equate sand to be doing to give the kind of control we needed,” outlines Capogreco. “Another FX artist, Don Wong, came onto the show, too. So Huai Yuan and I did the beta version that we showed Jon Favreau, and then Don came along and polished it because we had the task of not only coming up this cool look but we had the task of doing hundreds of shots in a very limited time, so we needed to make a very robust setup.”
The studio developed a workflow that allowed animators to create a Krayt dragon performance, following which a basic sim pass would be realized and then fed back to the animators. “From there,” says Capogreco, “we also identified key components that had to go into the simulations. What else would a Krayt dragon be doing? Things like cascading sand, getting all the little, fine sand and particulate pouring off this immense character, and of course dust.”
A proprietary solver in Houdini had previously been developed at ILM for the water sequences in The Rise of Skywalker, which was expanded upon for the sand liquefaction. “The team adapted it to essentially do all these bizarro things that don’t seem natural but allowed us to get the effects we were after,” states Capogreco. “For dust, we have a separate in-house atmospheric solver that was also utilized.”
One of the Krayt dragon’s methods of attack—apart from just swallowing things whole—is to launch a spray of acid from its mouth. In working out how the acid-spewing would occur, Hickel pushed for a moment of ‘preparation’ before the dragon carries it out.
“It was kind of like you had with Vermithrax in Dragonslayer, where it would have that long intake, and then a pause, and then fire would come out. In our dragon you’ll see it engorging a little bit under its chin. We were talking about some quite elaborate stuff, where that might really swell up like a bullfrog and other things like it, but it was fun to talk through and figure out.”
The impact of the acid is intense, burning away at people and objects. “We went through the process of looking at slow-motion footage, throwing things in front of Jon,” details Capogreco. “We eventually got to this almost beer-frothy, green-yellow fluid. The idea we came up with was that as it hits the surface of the characters, we’d engulf it with acid; white-hot smoke to essentially help obscure the gore but at the same time be a cool component to the actual effects itself. As well, we actually layered in heat distortion as it’s singeing the guys. Lots of neat details there.”
Banthas are back
First seen in A New Hope on Tatooine, the beloved bantha creatures and their sand people riders return in this first episode of season 2 of The Mandalorian. Unfortunately, they get used as bait for the Krayt dragon.
A practical bantha build from Legacy Effects on a motion base was relied upon on set (earlier, a ‘viz’ version of a bantha model and animation cycle had also been developed). “They could use this practical bantha to get a lot of in-camera close-ups,” says Capogreco. “Then we would bolt on legs and a tail, and we also had the task of matching the practical build with a fully CG one.”
“Our model team led by Mischa and Elvin Siew, who was our groom artist on that, spent countless hours on this,” continues Capogreco. “We got the photo reference from on set where they walked around the bantha and they shot it in every possible angle, and we meticulously did our best to match it digitally. From there, we actually made three variants of the bantha. We actually named them, internally, some funny names. One of them had a little more of a gray coat, it was like an older, wiser bantha, we told ourselves. One of them was a little younger one, a more reddish kind of colour. Then the more standard one that matched the one the Legacy guys built. It was more of a brown hue.”
ILM’s crew also devised variation in the fur for the bantha coats and their front ‘moustache’, with interchangeable horns to provide further variations. “Zhen Yang Lee, our creature supe and the team did a great job of setting up all the hair and the hair simulation,” discusses Capogreco. “In addition to that, we also had to factor in ground and sand so the fur, when it grazed along the sand, would interact and drag. There was a separate setup by Huai Yuan in FX that would actually drag the fur and leave a mark from the hair dragging. It’s very subtle, but it’s there.”
Bringing it altogether
By its very nature, the encounter with the Krayt dragon was an incredibly complex set of shots—a raft of creature work, FX, environments and digi-doubles. Plus, this all had to match to a host of live-action plates and elements. Compositing for the sequence was overseen by compositing supervisor Nicolas Caillier and lead compositor Simon Rafin.
An earlier photogrammetry done shoot overseen by Enrico Damm that took place in Chile’s ‘Valley of Death’ informed the Tatooine mountain/valley/desert environment, and also aided in set-dressing the outdoor backlot. The challenge here was converting a relatively small set space into an expansive setting.
“The amount of data that Enrico and the team in San Francisco captured in Chile gave us the ability and the flexibility that we could literally shoot in any direction,” notes Capogreco. “The cave itself where the Krayt dragon lived was fabricated, it wasn’t ever on the location on the day, and so our team made what we called the ‘red carpet area’. Generally, the plate and the area around the dragon was rendered through our main line pipeline. Lighting TD’s under the direction of lighting lead Ben Tillman would render the dragon and everything it would interact with including the FX to gain shading complexity and realism.The backgrounds became digital projections between our generalist, our environment team, led by Yateen Mahambrey, and they would basically build giant domes that would have photography projected on them.”
An interesting aspect of the shots, identifies Capogreco, was working out what kind of color palette Tatoonie should have and ensuring that the Chile environment felt like the Tatoonie audiences knew so well. Capogreco turned to John Knoll, ILM VFX Supervisor on The Mandalorian and a visual effects supervisor on the prequels which had featured that planet significantly.
“When Jon (Favreau) saw what we were doing, one of the things that he requested was to actually haze it up more. He really wanted it to feel bigger. When we originally started with the photography, it was so crisp and contrasted, so we did do a little bit of atmospheric lifting, just to make the world feel much bigger.”
A cinematic scene
Eagled-eyed viewers of this episode may have noticed that as the Krayt dragon emerges from its cave that the aspect ratio opens up to 16:9. This was at the urging of Jon Favreau, says Hal Hickel.
“It was actually something he wanted to do in season 1, when the reptavians attack the campfire. But we were already well on the way to working on that sequence when it came up, and it didn’t make a lot of sense in that sequence, because it was in the dark, so you’re not going to notice when your black bars go away if it’s already sort of black everywhere in the wide shots.
“So, for a couple different reasons, Jon said, ‘Alright, I’m going to shelve that idea for now, but I think there’s something there’.
“That was good fun!”Need After Effects and other VFX plugins? Find them at Toolfarm.