The animatronics and make-up effects behind ‘Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.’
In Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, from directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the hero characters meet many creatures.
The filmmakers looked to try and ensure the actors had as much practical interaction with these creatures on set as possible, and therefore brought Legacy Effects on board to craft a number of principal ones.
Here, Legacy Effects supervisor Shane Mahan tells befores & afters about some of the key practical effects builds handled on the film, from Jarnathan to the dragonborn, and from tabaxis to corpses.
Audience favorite Chancellor Jarnathan, an Aarakocra, is a large bipedal bird-like creature played on set by actor Clayton Grover in a Legacy Effects suit and animatronic head. “Clayton was great in the suit,” says Mahan. “He’s also a stuntman, and he really, really embraced the mechanisms that he had to wear.”
Those mechanisms included wings that could fully unfold to about 13 feet in width. They were artificial feathers connected to a mechanical device that existed underneath Jarnathan’s cloak. Grover also wore taloned feet stilts to add approximately a foot-and-a-half to his height, plus articulated taloned gloves.
The Jarnatha face was a radio controlled animatronic which sat above Grover’s head–he would be looking at the feathers in the suit’s neck area. “When he was in that costume, he’s nearly eight feet tall,” notes Mahan. “He was a really successful creation in terms of just having Clayton inside, keeping it alive and not losing his balance.”
Meanwhile, Dragonborn Chancellor Norixius (played by Bryan Larkin) was a creature effect made up of a complex facial head-piece, articulated claws and feet, a tail and a costume.
Since Norixius needed to deliver a significant amount of dialogue, Legacy Effects orchestrated a facial drive motion capture system to articulate the face and appear to make the character speak.
Using motion-capture, our puppeteer (in the background) mouths the dialogue which is translated to the facial movements of our Dragonborn.@LegacyEffects #DungeonsAndDragonsMovie pic.twitter.com/73TVXidzjZ
— John Francis Daley (@JohnFDaley) April 2, 2023
“This was a Faceware system, a facial recognition program, where David Covarrubias would wear this device,” explains Mahan. “It had a camera pointing back at Dave’s face, and it would project his face into an avatar in the computer.”
“It would sync up with Bryan,” adds Mahan. “So whatever Dave did in unison with Bryan–the eyes, the brows, the mouth, the jaw–it would happen real-time translated up to the Dragonborn. He would follow along and he would mimic the vocals of what Bryan was doing and just follow along.”
The baby Tabaxi
At one point, the characters encounter a baby cat-like Tabaxi caught in a large fish’s mouth, which is luckily rescued by Xenk (Regé-Jean Page) and returned to its parent. The shot called for the rescue to happen all in one shot, necessitating an animatronic Tabaxi that was un-tethered.
“Brian Poor and other members of our animatronics team made the baby,” advises Mahan. “It’s all a self-contained animatronic within the sculpture of the baby. It was radio controlled and we gave it just enough movement to make it seem alive and moving.”
“Interestingly,” says Mahan, “it took a long time just designing the palate of the fish to fit the baby so it wouldn’t just crush it or toss it down its gullet. But that was really quite fun. That was a very complex setup to get all in one go.”
The hero characters are able to resurrect the dead and ask them about the whereabouts of a magical relic. The skeletal corpses in the graveyard were some of Legacy Effects’ most significant work, as Mahan relates.
“The idea behind them was to cast very tall, thin men. We made costumes that were skeletal costumes that were offset off the body so that they could drop down beyond the bones really deep and make it look really, really deep as a skeletal structure.”
Mahan wanted to move away from what is sometimes done with zombie or skeleton make-up effects where there is make-up on the hands with finger extensions. “It just looks like a man wearing makeup. So what we thought would be great is to make articulated skeleton hands that are puppet hands that are attached at the shoulder. So they’re very, very thin skeletal, bony hands working with facial make-ups. I think that was a great combination.”
“Then,” continues Mahan, “the prosthetic facial make-ups were made with their own look tied into their flashback of who the corpse was when they were alive. We had to take attributes of what hair they might have had left, say if they had a beard, or what was left with their costume. So if you really watch close, they’re all wearing decayed versions of what they’re wearing in the past.”
The mimic in the film is a creature that can disguise its body as an inanimate object, like a chest. While the final full creature was a CG one, Legacy Effects (in particular, Scott Patton) helped design it, and also created a practical tongue that wrapped itself around Holga’s (Michelle Rodriguez) leg.
“It was a tongue that had an interior cable that could be wrapped around her and be able to pull her quite hard,” says Mahan. “Then it had a trip-release so that the sword could come down and cut it. And that was resettable, too.”
Working with other departments, including digital visual effects
Mahan is at pains to recognize the additional contributions made to characters such as the Red Wizards, including Sofina (Daisy Head), by prosthetic hair and make-up supervisor Alessandro Bertolazzi and his team. Another make-up team led by David Malinowski also contributed heavily to the film, crafting character ears and Doric’s (Sophia Lillis) horns. “It was a real community of a lot of really, really great artists working together,” says Mahan.
And, as it has done on numerous productions, Legacy Effects collaborated closely with the visual effects team on Honour Among Thieves, led by visual effects supervisor Ben Snow and visual effects producer Diana Giorgiutti (the principal VFX studios on the film were Industrial Light & Magic and MPC).
“We’ve worked with Ben and ILM and MPC many times,” acknowledges Mahan. “There’s a real shorthand and Ben is happy to have anything at all taken off of his plate because it’s such a big mouthful of stuff he’s got to do. I mean, the extraordinary work that they did, expanding the world with digital vistas and horizons and cityscapes, the Underdark, and the Owlbear, and all the dragons–it just looks incredible.”
Mahan says the design cross-over was another way the two departments worked together, as were times when the digital visual effects teams would take-over or add to practical effects work, such as the corpses.
“For the first part of their shot, they’re meant to be completely still,” notes Mahan. “But unless you’re Laurence Olivier, I defy you to try to do that without looking like you’re breaking. So the VFX team had to freeze frame the corpse before each pops alive. They’d also take out the hollow of the nose to make it look empty. We’d say, ‘Ben, you’ll have to remove that.’ And he’d go, ‘No problem, done.’”
“That enhances our work. We’re all a huge supporter of whatever trick or technique it takes to make the film look good. And CGI is a tool, practical visual effects is a tool, prosthetics are a tool. You just have to put it all together and make it seamless.”