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December 2014
Issue: January 1, 2007

DIRECTOR'S CHAIR - STEFAN FANGMEIER: 'ERAGON'

By: Iain Blair
SAN FRANCISCO — When veteran visual effects maestro Stefan Fangmeier took on the daunting task of making his directorial debut with the sword-and-sorcery epic Eragon, based on the bestseller by Christopher Paolini, at least he knew what he was getting into. “After doing films like Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, A Perfect Storm and Twister, it just seemed like a natural move for me, rather than starting with a small drama,” he explains. Even so, pulling the massive project together and dealing with the hundreds of visual effects needed to create a living, breathing dragon turned out to be “incredibly difficult,” he admits. Here, in an exclusive interview, Fangmeier, who at press time was still frantically working on the film, explains how he did it. And, in our sidebar, ILM’s Samir Hoon explains how Saphira the dragon was created.

POST: Was it the chance to do so many visual effects that first attracted you to
Eragon?

STEFAN FANGMEIER: “Yes and no. I got excited because the story is so strong, and to be honest, I feel that so many big effects movies have been totally overwhelmed by all the effects and spectacle in recent years, and I didn’t want that. So I set out to shoot as much of it on location and with real sets as possible, instead of doing it all on bluescreen. I wanted it to look very natural — more like Gladiator than Star Wars — and we shot for 76 days, mainly in Hungary, then 10 days in Slovakia, and a bit in Vancouver. Of course we also had 2nd unit and VFX crews. Then we came back to LA to do my director’s cut with [editor] Chris Lebenzon. But he was only available for those eight weeks since he had to start Déjà Vu with Tony Scott, and he recommended Roger Barton, who then came on board. We did all the editing on the Fox lot [on an Avid supplied by Pivotal Post], although we’d originally planned to set it all up in San Francisco so we could be next to ILM for all the effects. But I think Fox wanted to be more involved.”

POST: What were the biggest post production challenges?

FANGMEIER: “Dealing with the dragon and all the flying sequences. Creating the right dragon and its character was crucial, and if you define the dragon spectrum as being Dragonheart at one end, where it’s comical and very personable, and then Reign of Fire at the other end, where they’re just very nasty, reptilian creatures, then I wanted something in between. So we did a lot of work on that first, and it was complicated by the fact that we needed three dragons in terms of design: there’s the hatchling, then the teenager, and then the mature adult. And there had to be continuity between all three. Then there were the demands of making it fly realistically. We’d done tons of animatics already, and we were still doing them at the start of ’06 when we got back to LA. I wanted to create something new and unique, and the tricky thing was that we had to use a motion rig to get Eragon sitting on the dragon. 

"We used the same rig they used for Harry Potter in London, and there was a lot of preparation because we had to take an approved animatic, animate the dragon flying, then feed that animation data into the rig so it could be programmed to actually represent that movement. But it got a lot more complicated as the rig could only roll about 15 degrees [to] each side, and we needed a lot more movement for our very dynamic flying scenes. So to compensate, we had to program more movement into a motion control camera, so when the dragon was supposed to roll away from the camera much more drastically, the camera would have to counter-animate. And there was all the pressure of deadlines. We were still waiting for the studio to approve all the flying scenes in an animatic form, and we had all these teams of artists working on them next door to my editing room, and meanwhile ILM were saying, ‘We need to get all this data locked down so we can actually start shooting this stuff.’ And it’s hard explaining to studio executives that they need to make final decisions a month before the motion control shoot even began.”

POST: There were reports that the film has 3,000 effects shots, which sounds ridiculous. How many effects shots were there in the end?

FANGMEIER: “All those reports are crazy! I don’t know where they got that figure. The truth is, there are about 525, of which about 350 are dragon shots. ILM did most of them, but of course things kept changing and we kept adding things, so scheduling-wise they suggested bringing Weta in to do all the battle scenes. We also used a few other houses like Café FX in Santa Monica, Digital Dream and Furious FX in LA and some freelance digital artists for some of the simpler shots like locations and exteriors we didn’t build, and the 2D digimatte shots.

“Obviously the dragon was the main effect, but there’s also one more huge creature. We ended up making a change from the original book, where the final confrontation, between Eragon and Durza the villain, is hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield. The studio felt — and I agreed — that it’d be much more dramatic for a dragon-rider to have the fight in the air. And out of respect for the author and what happens in the sequel, I didn’t want to use another dragon, so instead I came up with the idea of a magical beast made up of black smoke that Durza creates and then rides. And Weta did all that as they were doing the big battle scenes, and they relied heavily on smoke particle systems, which is why I came up with the idea of a smoky beast, since I knew what was possible with all the technology. So I was very clear with the concept artists on exactly how it should look. That’s probably the biggest departure from the book.”

POST: How long was the post process?

FANGMEIER: “Almost 11 months, which is a long time, but then it was originally scheduled for a summer release. But after the huge success of other fantasy films like Lord of the Rings and Narnia, it made more sense to come out at the end of the year like them. So we’ve had more time, but the downside is that that also gives everyone time to change their minds, and elements like the dragon’s wing design have been refined and changed right up till the last minute. Traditionally, dragons have never been big box office. But I hope we’re going to change all that now.”