A visual journey into DNEG’s dragon, unicorn and Tree of Life in ‘Fury of the Gods’

Go behind the scenes of these specific elements in the film.

Amongst the many creatures, characters and environments in David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods are some stand-out visual effects elements in the dragon, unicorn, and the Tree of Life and its extended roots growth.

These were handled by DNEG. In this special befores & afters visual breakdown, members of the DNEG team—animation supervisor Ricardo Miguel Roldao Silva and Build creature supervisor Lucas Cuenca—break down the build, animation and FX approaches to that work.

Making a complex dragon

Lucas Cuenca: The creation of the dragon asset ‘Ladon’ was a big task due to its large size and complexity. Our first step was to evaluate the client’s design idea and move it into our proof-of-concept stage. During this stage, we analyzed all available information on the dragon and redesigned it to ensure that it would look and perform its best in the shots. We paid close attention to the creature’s anatomy, ensuring that everything was functional regardless of what material he was made of and also making sure the design allowed the desired facial performance of the dragon.

Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.
Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Once we had completed the proof-of-concept stage, we moved on to the prototyping stage. We integrated all the changes and updates made to the design into the pipeline, creating a work-in-progress version of the dragon that all departments could test and provide feedback on. This phase allowed us to identify any potential issues early on, saving time and resources down the line.

Finally, with all the information from the previous testing stages, we began the production work. We had a clear understanding of how everything should be done and how to achieve the desired result. The most significant challenge we faced during the creation of Ladon was not the hundreds of spikes or plates on his spine but figuring out how to make a wooden creature come to life and feel real.

Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Moving a menacing creature

Ricardo Miguel Roldao Silva: From the very first concepts of the dragon we knew we would need to reference multiple creatures. A lion, a lizard (the Komodo dragon) and a bat were used for most of the development. We spent some time exploring ideas. Our initial test animations leaned more on the lion. He looked very proud with a higher head posture and chest out. It was cool but missed that menacing feel that David (director) wanted so we started using more of the lizard, which has a lower posture and slithers more. The tail trashes around and his paws are further apart from the centre of the body.

Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.
Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Getting the weight right was also very important. Not just in the animation itself but in the way he affects the environment. Seeing the ground crack every time he makes a step really helps sell that sense that we are looking at a powerful creature.

Unicorns are real

Lucas Cuenca: To achieve the unicorn’s realistic and believable performance, we developed a highly accurate muscle system using Ziva. This system allowed us to create incredibly realistic muscle simulations that accurately portrayed muscle tension, jiggling, and skin sliding during the unicorn’s movements.

Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

By implementing this system, we were able to add a level of detail to the unicorn’s performance that would have been impossible to achieve otherwise. The muscle system allowed us to create a sense of weight and movement that made the unicorn feel alive and tangible.

Unicorn from on-set to final

Ricardo Miguel Roldao Silva: We replaced 100% of the on-set puppets. Puppets are great because the actors can see something real and react to it – and that really helps us lock in a performance that makes sense and feels real. We look at the timing of their actions, the movement of the camera, their eyelines and build around that.

The shots of the superheroes riding the unicorn were quite tricky . There were many moving parts and overlaps between live action elements and CGI that made it very challenging to line up. On occasion, we had to replace the actors’ and actresses’ bodies (or parts of them) to be able to position them better for the CG elements.

Giving life to the Tree of Life

Ricardo Miguel Roldao Silva: For the animators , it was the same rig as Venom: Let There Be Carnage. It’s a spline rig with an OTL (Operator Type Library) module. So basically, it’s talking to Houdini while working in Maya. It can generate procedural geometry through a set of predetermined attributes. We did some modifications to speed it up by removing some of the more complex functionalities that were unnecessary for the root effect but we also added a way for the artists to see the ground surface cracking when the root is travelling underground.

Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.
Image courtesy of DNEG © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All rights reserved.

Everything was laid out and timed in the animation pass – the volume, the number of roots, the timing etc. It’s a great tool because we almost work in real time. We don’t need to wait for a complex FX simulation that would take hours to render to get an approval from the director.

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