Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Old and Spiteful, but still the Greatest

Vermithrax, the vicious fire-breathing wyrm from the film Dragonslayer (1981), was the winner of the last poll ("Vote for your favourite movie dragon"). The full name of this dragon was Vermithrax Pejorative, which roughly translates from latin to "The worm of Thrace who make things worse". Indeed, this dragon is the meanest of all the ones in our lineup, rivaled perhaps only by Smaug of Lonely Mountain.

"In fact, if it weren't for sorcerers, there wouldn't be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them. Magnificent horned backs, leathern wings... soaring... and their hot-breathed wind. Oh, I know this creature of yours... Vermithrax Pejorative. Look at these scales, these ridges. When a dragon gets this old, it knows nothing but pain, constant pain. It grows decrepit... crippled... pitiful. Spiteful!" - Sorcerer Ulrich of Cragganmore.

Thus begins the story of Dragonslayer, as a delegation of villagers from Urland seeks the help of the last known sorcerer to rid their village of the reptilian pest. Dragonslayer is notable for being one of the few fantasy films to present a reasonably accurate portrayal of life in the middle ages (with the exception of magic and dragons, of course!). The clothing, weapons, villages and landscapes are gritty and realistic. Carefully intermixed are plot threads that remind us that we are at the heart of Britain as it shifted from paganism to Christianity. This could have actually been a real place, making the threat of the dragon that much more real. With the possible exception of Peter McNicol, who does not quite seem right for the role of the sorcerer's apprentice, the cast is excellent. Both heroes and villains (especially) are multi-dimensional, complex and conflicted. Ralph Richardson is quite convincing as Ulrich, while King Casiodorus Rex (played by Peter Eyre) is exactly the sort of purple-slippered monarch you would expect to be making deals with dragons.

Vermithrax prepares to breath fire

The special effects for Dragonslayer featured a mixture of animation and live action puppetry (on a very large scale). The conceptual design for Vermithrax was done by artist David Bunnett. Industrial Light & Magic's Dennis Muren, Ken Ralston and Phil Tippett oversaw the miniature SFX, while Disney's special effects shop, with Danny Lee and Brian Johnson, produced the life-size dragon props. Dragonslayer is notable for being the first film to utilise go-motion, a variation on stop-motion animation which was developed by ILM. The technique improved upon traditional stop-motion because it enabled the puppet to be filmed in real time, creating blur and making it appear more lifelike.

For those of you who are really into modeling and really into dragons, this might be the model kit for you...

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