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ERAGON

Saphira
ERAGON's distinguished cast is impressive, but the filmmakers acknowledge the picture's "biggest” – and most expensive – star is the dragon Saphira. Christopher Paolini has said that he wanted Saphira to be "the best friend anyone could have.” In order to pull off such a character, the filmmakers realized they needed someone to completely "own” Saphira, both creatively and technically, and to serve as the point person between themselves and the facilities.

Visual Effects Supervisor Michael McAlister became that person and served, among other things, as the arbiter of the dragon. "Bringing Saphira to life was a huge undertaking that required my full attention and energies – much as a live action character requires the full attention of an actor,” says McAlister. "There were thousands and thousands of specific decisions to be made in terms of how she would look, how she would act, how she would feel, and how she would fly. I did not invent her nor decide what her character would be, but I was responsible for understanding her – inside and out – and deciding specifically how we would achieve her.”

Constant communication between the filmmakers and visual effects facilities was the key, and McAlister likened himself to the skinny part of an hourglass. "With a hopper of desire above me and an army of eager and talented artists below, I took the broad desires of the filmmakers and focused them into instructions the others could act on. A major part of my job was to make specific decisions regarding Saphira, and keep those decisions clear to all parties so that the efforts of the hundreds of artists were in constant alignment with the desires of the filmmakers.”

Under McAlister's supervision, the artists and technicians at the renowned visual effects houses Industrial Light & Magic and WETA Digital, have created nothing less than the most dynamic, expressive dragon in motion picture history.

Samir Hoon was the ILM visual effects supervisor and Glen McIntosh was ILM's animation director. McIntosh, who helped create the performances for Yoda and General Grievous in "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” coordinated the team of ILM animators. "The tricky part in creating the performance was that Saphira was never meant to be a monster or creature,” notes McIntosh. "She is a character and one of the stars of the movie. She delivers a nuanced, layered performance.”

WETA Digital animation supervisior David Clayton, working with WETA visual effects supervisors George Murphy and Guy Williams, made additional character refinements, especially for the climactic battle scene in which Saphira becomes like a sleek and powerful jet fighter.

Saphira's complexity of character and design stemmed from an "evolutionary” process – from the stylized artwork that adorned the book's cover to the first movie character sketches to the final imagery we see on film. "The big question we faced,” says ILM's Samir Hoon, "was, ‘How do we make a dragon that the audience has never before seen and still be consistent with Christopher Paolini's vision of the character?'

Saphira's design evolved as we discovered the character through the color of her wings, the size of her head, and the length of her neck. We see her emerge from the egg as being ten-inches tall. By the end of the film, she stands fifteen feet, with a wing span of 20-30 feet, length of 32 feet – and weighing about four tons.”

After many renderings and tests, the visual effects artists gave Saphira a slim, graceful look, adhering to the character's feminine and regal qualities. "She moves and walks like a lion, with front legs almost equal in length to her back legs,” says McIntosh, who notes that he and the ILM animators spent time studying lion movement.

The design of Saphira's wings evolved into that resembling eagle wi

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