How 'Planet of the Apes' Inspired Visual Effects for 'Pete's Dragon'

Pete's Dragon - Still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

At first glance, Elliot, the titular dragon in the new Disney film Pete's Dragon, which opens today, wouldn't seem to have much in common with Caesar, the evolved chimpanzee in Fox's 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Both characters were created by Peter Jackson's VFX house Weta Digital, which has created acclaimed CG characters from King Kong to Smaug. But, actually, the kinship between Caesar and Elliot goes deeper than that.

“With Caesar you really felt his pain and happiness, and with Elliot it’s the same,” says Weta’s Eric Saindon, VFX supervisor on the David Lowery-directed Pete’s Dragon, which tells the story of a friendship between a boy and a dragon. “The big challenge was getting the emotion out of Elliot. The connection between the dragon and Pete is such a big part of the film. If by the third act you are not feeling for the dragon, then the movie isn’t a success, and I think it was quite a success. People were crying at the premiere.”

Still, the work itself was very different from Planet of the Apes reboots. Caesar was famously based on performance capture from actor Andy Serkis. But since Pete’s Dragon was a reboot of Disney’s 1977 live action/animated classic, the creative term opted for traditional, key-frame hand animation rather than performance capture. 

To get a greater level of interaction and emotion between the dragon and Pete, played by Oakes Fegley, Saindon says he played the dragon alongside Fegley during filming. “We had a green wire mesh head, that I would lift over my head. That made the performance better,” he says. “I tried to move the head as best I thought it would work for the shot, and then we’d track the head with our [CG] Elliot.”

Saindon himself is no stranger to dragons. Just prior to Pete’s Dragon, he worked on Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, which featured another prominent CG dragon, Smaug. But while Smaug was a threatening presence who appeared in big action sequences, for Pete's Dragon Lowery wanted to create “a child’s interpretation of a big furry, fluffy dragon,” as well as subtly reference other classic Disney characters. And so Elliot's chin bears a resemblance to that of The Lion King’s Scar and his loveable nature contains echoes of The Jungle Book’s Baloo.

“Eliot’s a furry dragon, so we were not going to make it look like a ‘real’ thing but wanted to incorporate as much reality as possible. We referenced dogs, cats — every kind of animal you can thing of,” Saindon says, adding as an example that his walk took some inspiration from deer. “Also David shot reference of his cat turning before going to sleep, and we had Elliott walk in a circle and go to sleep in that certain way.”

On the technical side, fur is always tricky to get right, but Weta has been steadily making advances in this area. Citing Peter Jackson’s King Kong, whose VFX won an Oscar in 2006, Saindon says, “King Kong had 1 million hairs on him, and probably one-quarter of those hairs were simulated and we interpolated the rest. On Elliot we had 20 million and we individually simulated each hair, so when Pete is petting or interacting with him, we get the interaction with the hair.”

Of course, this also means longer rendering time. “It took close to two days per frame,” Saindon reveals, adding that the film has roughly 450 shots of Elliot.