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From concept to completion: Dragons in The Watch

Jonathan Rawlinson 15 March 2021

In early 2021, BBC America aired the fantastical new Terry Pratchett adaptation – ‘The Watch’. A fantastical world as rich as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld required some innovative VFX work to bring this adaptation to life, especially the dangerous Noble Dragon that threatens its world and the cute, but fiery, pocket-size dragon Goodboy. 

REALTIME was a key creative partner on the series, creating a range of 2D and 3D VFX, including for the two very different dragons. Uniquely anarchic and thrillingly entertaining, the character-driven drama follows several of Terry Pratchett’s best-loved creations on a riotous and emotional odyssey.

But how did we approach such a task? In part one, we’re going to run through the initial stages as we worked to meet this unique brief. Let’s run through our VFX journey…

A tale of two dragons

This project presented two specific challenges: creating the smaller Goodboy, a dragon who fits in the palm of your hand, and at the other extreme, the colossal Noble Dragon, a creature the size of a jumbo jet, with enough firepower to destroy a city.

From the brief, we had to create something never seen before. With two distinctly different creatures to create, we started with the concept art. It’s at this stage we began to sketch out the look of the dragons, building an idea of how to bring them to life in 3D. In an age of Game of Thrones and other high fantasy, dragons have become part of the zeitgeist. Our goal was to make something brand new that gave the series two unique dragons of its own.

The production team had originally wanted to use a real gecko to ‘act’ the part of Goodboy. The wings and fire breath would just be added in post-production. In practice, this was a very challenging task to accomplish on set, as we saw when we suggested production do a camera test early on. It proved too difficult to work with a real lizard. This meant Goodboy needed to be a full CGI creature, but also work with the budget limitations of the series.

We still wanted to have the feel of a real-life lizard, so drew inspiration from the armadillo lizard. As we would be getting much more up close and personal with this creature, we had to focus on bringing life to it, capturing his personality and character. We visualised a rescue puppy to help us understand the kind of emotional response we wanted Goodboy to elicit from viewers, adding details like his broken wings and scars.

Goodboy might well be the cutest character in the series – just watch him sing – but he also has a dangerous side as a hand-held flamethrower. There’s a lot of personality to Goodboy that had to be brought out through the VFX work. He needed a cheeky personality with an expressive face, but we had to be mindful of budgetary considerations when designing his body and rigging his face. 

In the grand finale of the series, Goodboy takes centre stage to stop the rampage of the Noble Dragon. Without spoiling it for you, it proved a great opportunity to bring some of Goodboy’s personality to the forefront and finish the series with a bit of Pratchett-esque tongue-in-cheek wit. He is quite a young and inexperienced dragon, and we played this up in his attempt to fly. He launches off with a running jump, but his flight is very bumpy as he has to learn as he goes. 

For the Noble Dragon, with its awe-inspiring size, we needed a different approach. To make it feel different to the dragons featured in other popular fantasy series and films, we wanted to give it an ethereal, smoky quality. This meant it would need to go through multiple stages and be highly FX-driven.

When we designed the Noble Dragon, even though its scales wouldn’t be seen by the audience, we still rendered a version with them because we need to know how it looks and operates. 

But we’ll talk about the Noble Dragon in more detail in part 2 when we dive into the pre- and post-vis processes. This is where the two dragons really came to life. Stay tuned for part 2!

REALTIME has a team of highly creative individuals who can elevate your project with fantastic ideas and visuals. If you would like to find out more, get in touch with me at [email protected].