Building Pete’s Dragon: How an Indie Director and a New Zealand Studio Helped Redefine Disney

As it turns out, giving the reigns of a big-budget Disney film to a Director who until now has been best known for indie cinema can be just the thing an old underappreciated story needs. That’s exactly what Walt Disney Studios did to breathe new life into Pete’s Dragon, recruiting David Lowery to helm an artful reinterpretation that not only turned out to be one of the studio’s critical highlights of 2016 (and that’s saying a lot, it’s been a strong year for Disney), but subverted the cultural pushback many critics have led against the nostalgia-driven emergence of reboot culture.

Rather than straddle the blurred line between reboot and remake, the relationship between Lowery’s work and Don Chaffey’s original is only found within the name and the general outline of the story. A young boy befriends a large, equally lonely dragon named Elliot; that much is lifted from the decades old plot, but for Lowery this happens shortly after the boy, Pete, gets lost in the woods, flung from an accident which takes the life of his parents. The film that gently progresses from this premise is refreshing in it’s simplicity – especially when contrasted with all the bombast mainstream cinema has thrown at us this year – while also possessing an inquisitive tone which dives deeper into the emotional connection and immutable bond between this orphaned ten-year old, who just suffered an indescribable tragedy, and his fantastical furry friend.

While the finished product is fascinating, so to is how it came together while shot on location in New Zealand and while in post-production. The film owes much of its depth and character not only to Lowery’s vision and the country’s famously idyllic natural surrounds, but also to the efforts of Wellington based digital visual effects company Weta Digital, who are best known for their boundless work on the likes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Peter Jackson is a Weta co-founder after all), Avatar and various Marvel films. In fact, think of all the most impressive computer-generated effects in Hollywood since we hit the 21st century and you can be sure Weta were involved. It seems James Cameron was right on the money when he described the company as the “most powerful engine for imaginative imagery that ever existed”.

This collaboration between Lowery’s vision and Weta’s digital prowess created the film’s most valuable player, the dragon itself. Of course the very grounded, very human performances from the likes of Bryce Dallas Howard (Grace), Robert Redford (Grace’s father), Oona Lawrence (who was a constant scene-stealer opposite Jake Gyllenhal in Southpaw), and Pete himself Oakes Fegley were inseparable contributions. But it was the concept and execution of Elliot that remains the projects greatest achievement, possessing personal and passionate touches from David, his concept artists and the Weta crew.

“I was attracted to Pete’s Dragon because I love great children’s films”, explained Lowery in a recent conversation with The Iris about his experiences on set. “I love great pieces of family entertainment and I’ve always endevoured to make one of my own. I saw this as an opportunity to do that. Disney was very encouraging in their belief that they [didn’t] need this to be a literal remake, they allowed us to take the title and the basic core tenants of the original film and tell an original story, and that’s something that was important to me”.

It’s this generous autonomy that created space for Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks to reshape Elliot into an expressive, dynamic personality; a concept that came from various real world animals, in particular Lowery’s own pet cats.

“The design of Elliot came from a number of places”, explained the Director. “It came from animals, it came from my imagination, it came from the wonderful work done by our concept artists and model builders at Weta. But ultimately, I think it boils down to my cats”.

Elliot’s various references were balanced into a body of bright, highly textured emerald-green fur, and a perfectly designed face with adaptive features. Even though the enchanting dragon could only manage rudimentary sounds such as purrs, sighs and growls, physically his emotional bank was rich enough to play off of the other characters and allow audiences to project their own thoughts and feelings. I daresay it’s one of the finest, most vulnerable and most memorable figures Weta have worked on to date, sitting right next to Gollum and Ceaser.

“I wanted Elliot to feel like the best pet you could ever have,” continued the director. “I think as a child growing up my closest relationships were with my pets, I really bonded with the animals quite closely. I think everyone who has a pet understands that, and I wanted Elliot to tap into that type of connection”.

Of course, this isn’t entirely new. Dragons have been based on pets, especially cats, before. Dragonheart and How to Train Your Dragon spring to mind when thinking about the move away from dragons as fearful reptilian creatures, as does classic adventure The NeverEnding Story (although Falkor was more dog-like). What really works as a distinctive creation here is the dynamic between Elliot and the other characters in the film, particularly Pete.

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There’s one stunning wide-shot early on in the film where Pete is running through a river with Elliot bounding in the background, a scene which when taken in its entirety allows the audience to fully appreciate the adventurous relationship between the two. It was a key moment for some of the Weta crew as well.

“That’s a really iconic scene for us”, agreed Mike Perry and Mark Smith, CG supervisor and lead animator, respectively, at Weta Digital. Chatting to The Iris at Wellington’s famous Park Road Post, they seemed excited when reflecting on the moment. “We saw a rough cut, and watching the previous animation was just inspiring. It was so good. [We] were watching that come together and we were like ‘this is going to work, this is going to look good'”.

What Perry, Smith and the rest of the assigned Weta staff set out to do was help Lowery and his team build Elliot as the ultimate fantasy companion, an enormous pet who would elevate the reverent themes of family and friendship that permeate the story and define the characters. Refining Elliot to play off that bond with Pete was a crucial part of this, and aside from Lowery’s scripts, it required a great deal of research.

“The script was there but some of it just came from the references we were getting”, explained Perry and Smith. “Dogs were good ones for the playful nature, like when he’s sleeping on his back and stretched out…the relationship side is like a boy and his dog”.

“There are [also] scenes in the beginning where Elliot is stoic and noble, and that’s more lion based: proud. We used different things like bears as well, that was to show the movement of how a big animal can move through water. [We used] as many different varieties that made sense. We looked at some elephant stuff as well, like footage of a baby elephant getting up, that was good for a drugged up Elliot, otherwise we didn’t use too much because elephants don’t have the mobility the dragon needed in the end”.

Then there’s the matter of flight, and while Elliot has the appearance of a graceful, majestic creature, he is intentionally clumsy in the air. Albatross and seagulls were apparently to thank for this aspect of the dragon, seeing as neither bird is known for being awfully graceful in flight. The instance of Elliot not being the sure-footed and confident beast that dragons often appear to be in popular culture also goes a long way to ground him in a somewhat more realistic sense, convincingly portraying Elliot as a broken figure who needs Pete as much as the boy needs him.

That vulnerability is an element of the deeper character driven aspects of the film, helped by the huge level of detail which included barely noticeable scars on the creature’s belly, small tears in his wings, and even some broken teeth. With Elliot’s personality and mannerisms down pat, handled by a healthy stock of visual references and imagination, the dragon’s look had to be equally detailed and, as Smith and Perry continued, it sounded like this was more of a challenge.

“This is the largest furry character I think that we’ve done. We’ve done fur before, obviously with King Kong, but trying to figure out how to get 20 million hairs through the pipeline and get it rendering in a reasonable amount of time [was difficult].”

Smith and Perry attribute much of this challenge to different lighting situations. For example, the warehouse scene gave the crew only one light source in a dark environment. As such, it was one of the slowest renders in the process, and also led to small tweaks to the model, such as the aforementioned scars.

“In the warehouse…you’re seeing [Elliot’s] belly and not much else, and we realised there wasn’t much going on there. So we add a scar, we add a bit of detail so it becomes part of the model”.

It may sound like too much scrutiny to some, but Weta are renowned for the incredible layers and thought they put into their work, taking photorealism to a completely new level. Unequivocally, models like Elliot, Ceaser, King Kong and Gollum wouldn’t have been the same without that ever so vigilant eye.

It makes it all the more rewarding to view Weta films such as Pete’s Dragon again and again, to try and spot the small details and give yourself the full scale of the various creatures that have won them countless awards. It’s almost impossible to notice everything on the first watch.

“It’s about not noticing the visual effects rather than noticing them; you’re not making a big spectacle movie. It’s about whatever keeps it realistic,” said Smith and Perry, speaking to the noticeable shift in the scaled back way many films are now approaching CGI. “A lot of effects movies rely too much on the effects, they become the story…you’re like ‘oh another explosion’, you don’t come out of it going ‘I really knew that character’ just ‘I watched a lot of explosions’.

They agree that maybe audiences can relate more to a movie like Pete’s Dragon, which would explain both the necessity for such effort to put into making these effects subtle rather than in-your-face, and for the story to be treated with a deeper sense of character than is afforded to many blockbusters. Again, this is a testament to the faith Disney placed in Lowery, and to his background.

“I think that as an independent filmmaker you learn how much passion is needed to get a movie made”, Lowery replied when asked about how coming from an indie background helped him in interpreting the story. “You really have to care about it, you have to really be willing to sacrifice everything to get it made. So you learn what matters to you very quickly, you learn what’s important to you because you’re not going to spend the time and money and sweat and tears it takes to make an independent film, on something that doesn’t really matter to you…I was able to figure out a way to make it personal far more quickly because I’m used to doing that with independent films. I don’t think the film would have been as unique and special as I think it is if it hadn’t been for that perspective that I was able to bring.”

It’s hard to deny that Disney are in a renaissance period right now. Originals are being treated with live-action interpretations left, right and centre and just this year, in addition to Pete’s Dragon, audiences have been given the likes of The BFG and The Jungle Book (both films which also employ the talents of Weta Digital). All three of these are reboots, all three were well-received by critics, and all three represent a great deal of progress within Disney.

Arguably Pete’s Dragon is the most delicate of the bunch. With the film sitting at 86% on the almighty review aggregator that is Rotten Tomatoes, it’s safe to say Lowery has made a strong case for the studio’s unexpected decision to seek out a little known indie filmmaker and give him the freedom necessary to refresh Pete’s Dragon his way.

And it certainly seems to have sparked new ways of approaching films for Disney. Indie writer/director Alex Ross Perry is set to helm a live-action version of Winnie the Pooh, and just recently it was announced that the studio have employed James Ponsoldt to direct and write Wild City. Even Gareth Edwards had but one studio film – 2014’s Godzilla – under his belt when Disney approached him to direct Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Pete’s Dragon will be available on Digital HD from 4th January 2017, as well as DVD and Blu-Ray from 18th January 2017.

Images supplied by Disney.