Behind the scenes: Skyfall's Komodo dragon

Cinesite’s Jon Neill tells Mark Ramshaw about the creation of the first all-digital creature to feature in a James Bond film

Casino Royale and A Quantum of Solace were both lauded for wiping the slate clean and thereby reinvigorating and revitalising James Bond, but it is Skyfall’s canny ability to draw on classic iconography while still presenting 007 as a thoroughly modern spy that has given the franchise its biggest commercial and critical hit so far. The film ticks all the boxes – a larger-than-life villain, a femme fatale, Q, Moneypenny, and a return for the legendary Aston Martin DB5 – and even finds time to resurrect the familiar Bond-versus-lethal-creatures trope. Times have changed, however, as evidenced by the fact that the Komodo dragons in the film, while based on real lizards from London Zoo, were entirely computer-generated.

“Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins was reviewing CG creature reels and stopped it when he saw CG close-ups of bees and flies from a documentary we’d worked on previously,” says Jon Neill, VFX supervisor at Cinesite. “This opened the door for us, but they were still worried that a CG creature might not be up to the realistic quality that was required.” Neill says that while a Komodo dragon was the ideal animal, a crocodile was also under consideration as an alternative as, unlike the dragon, a real one could be shot on the set for some live coverage. Cinesite’s first task, therefore, was to establish whether a convincing CG dragon was actually possible.

“This meant going through the whole process of modelling, texturing, animation and look development before the sequence was actually awarded,” says Neill. “I knew that the sequence in the movie was going to be in candlelight, so we decided to do the test with broad daylight – which is even more challenging. They liked what they saw and we were given the go ahead.” Reference for building the dragon came both from the internet and creatures in captivity at London Zoo. From the web, Neill and his team were able to infer just how varied the dragons could be, with a wide variety of shapes, and sizes affecting general bulk, wrinkles around the neck and so on. More directly, the creatures at the zoo yielded invaluable texture and animation reference.

“We were able to get access to a side enclosure where we painted the walls white and put white drapes on the ceiling,” recalls Neill. “Once we had set up our lights, we could get in and shoot handheld and get in really close to take extremely highly detailed textures. For the animation we also set up three HD cameras at different angles to show what was happening as it walked along.”

Look lively now

Neill admits that the creatures posed something of a challenge for the animation team. “Most of the time Komodo dragons don’t move and when they do it’s very slow, unless feeding or fighting,” he explains. “And it’s difficult to make a mainly static creature look alive. So we focused in on the subtle movements like eye blinks and breathing and how they looked at their environment.”

In contrast to the more fanciful creature threats of old-school Bond, director Sam Mendes wanted the Komodo dragons sequence in Skyfall to be relatively low key, with the creatures lurking in the background, waiting to pounce. Cinesite performed a full HDRI capture of the scene before live shooting began, in case time restrictions didn’t allow for any later on, although in the event they managed to get fresh captures for every single shot.

“The lighting was generated by four banks of flickering candles and an overhead paper lantern,” explains Neill. “The aim was for the sequence to have a dark, dramatic and sinister atmosphere, with the Komodo dragons silhouetted, rim lit and looming out of the shadows.”

When it came to modelling the dragons – with all the details of their ribs, wrinkles and folds in the skin – the basic shapes were initially modelled in Maya and then the finer details were enhanced in Mudbox. “We ended up modelling the shape based on the more rugged wild Komodo dragons online, and used the textures from our zoo shoot to get the resolution required,” says Neill.

“Simply desaturating the colour map would not give us the proper displacement shapes due to the amount of different tones, and because it would just push out from the surface, ignoring the underside and concave parts of the creature. Instead each scale and nodule needed to be hand-sculpted. We made a much higher resolution model for this, and this dense mesh was taken into Mudbox along with colour map as a guide.”

The artists then manually pulled out each individual lump on the creature’s body, upping the resolution from 2,000 polygons to 10 million. “The mesh was so dense we couldn’t bring the whole model into one scene,” admits Neill. “We had to break it up and work on one limb at a time. Once we had sculpted each part of the body, we extracted a displacement and stitched them together in Photoshop.”

While believability was essential, Neill says that they were encouraged to make the dragons appear as dangerous, menacing and malevolent as possible; this was for a Bond movie, after all. “We wanted to exaggerate their aggressiveness so we added scars to their head and bodies. The clients also wanted them to have eye glints, like cats’ eyes in the headlights – again to make them even more evil-looking and also so that the audience could pick them out in the dark. But we still had to make sure they stayed on the sinister side and not become too fantastical.”

Title: Skyfall
Released: 18 February (UK), 12 February (USA)
Formats: Blu-ray/DVD
Distributor: MGM
Watch out for... the Komodo dragons, and Bond’s close shave with one of the them in a Chinese nightclub