My first novel Dragoncharm – a fantasy adventure published in 1995 by Harper Voyager and with a cast made up exclusively of dragons – has twice been optioned for film or television adaptation. The first time, the rights were bought by a production company in New York. They were considering a serialisation using Muppet-style characters. I’m not aware of any serious work being done on the project during the twelve months they held the rights … and in hindsight I’m rather glad. Foam-rubber dragons were not what I had in mind when I wrote the book.
Second time round it was a UK outfit called Dandelion Distribution. Their concept was to adapt the novel as a thirteen-part series, which would also be condensed into a two-hour theatrical or (more likely) television movie. The director attached to the project was Bob Keen, which immediately made the whole thing an exciting proposition.
Bob Keen made his name in make-up and animatronics. He worked with Stuart Freeborn on both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (he was part of the team behind Yoda and Jabba the Hutt). He’s perhaps better known for creating the effects in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and its sequels. At the time, his company Image Animation operated out of Pinewood Studios and he was just beginning to establish himself as a film director in his own right.
Once we’d agreed the terms of the option, Jane Johnson and Cresta Norris from Harper Voyager accompanied me to Pinewood, where we spent a happy afternoon talking the project over with Bob and his team. The Image Animation studio was a real Aladdin’s cave, complete with a full-size mannequin of Pinhead waiting to greet you at the top of the stairs.
Bob showed us all sorts of goodies – including an animatronic tongue they’d just built for a charming little Spanish film called Killer Tongue – but the thing that sticks in my mind is the Hellraiser folding box. Actually, it was lots of boxes, all of different sizes, each one designed to collapse or spring out in a particular way for various cuts in the movie. The workings looked like random jumbles of bent wires and elastic bands – real low-tech movie magic!
Bob explained that his idea for Dragoncharm was to put animated dragons into live-action environments. The environments would be a combination of real-world footage and model sets. The character close-ups would be achieved using animatronic dragon puppets, while the wider shots – walking and flying scenes – would be done with CG.
Bob’s a big bear of a man, immensely likeable, and his obvious enthusiasm for the project was infectious. He showed us some early concept art and talked about his various concerns about designing dragon characters. For example, they’d need to have relatively short snouts, otherwise mouth articulation for lip-sync would be a nightmare. We talked about ways to distinguish between the two races of dragons in the book: the charmed dragons have colourful metallic scales, while the natural dragons are dull and earthy. We also talked about voice performances, and how we might use regional accents to differentiate some of the characters.
Then Bob showed us the sample footage he’d put together. It was a four-minute trailer – much of it at a level that would now be described as ‘previs’ – featuring the three animatronic heads they’d built, married with digital animation by Rory Fellowes (Harry Potter, The Little Vampire, Captain Scarlet. The dragons themselves were designed by Dave Bonneywell (Event Horizon, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Clash of the Titans) and sculpted by Howard Swindell (Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, The Mummy, Harry Potter, X-Men: First Class).
I could see the potential in the trailer. The animatronic heads looked great, if a bit Muppety round the mouths. The CG was rudimentary, although with a few nice touches (a dragon scratching its back leg in mid-flight, for instance). It represented Image Animation’s first baby steps with what was, for them, new technology. To put it in context, all this was happening back in the mid-nineties. Jurassic Park had only just been released, and it was a huge leap from the mere six minutes of CG in that movie to the scale and level of animation that would have been required for Dragoncharm.
Crucially for me as the author, Bob had a good handle on the story. He’d pitched it towards a younger audience that the one I originally the novel wrote for, but he understood that the story was full of emotion as well as action, and that the characters were the key. And, like me, he was passionate about making the dragons real.
In a later meeting, I visited Bob and his wife Sheila at their home (Sheila was writing the screenplay). We talked more about the story and Bob showed me a load of reference video. He showed me a mood reel of backgrounds and environments that he’d put together, a lot of which was from Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi – all those grand aerial shots of the American West – which was exactly what had been in my head when I’d been writing the book. We were clearly on the same page.
Bob’s touchstone for the digital animation was Jeunet and Caro’s The City of Lost Children, which had just been released. He showed me a sequence with a computer-generated flea which had got him excited not only because it looked great, but because it hadn’t taken a Cray supercomputer to render the damn thing. He was looking at using SoftImage running on high-end PCs – a similar set-up, I believe, to the one Pitof used in City. The bottom line was the kit had suddenly got cheaper both to buy and run, and Bob was confident he could get the work done within a reasonable budget.
So where did it all go wrong? There’s no one reason. The truth is, a lot of books get optioned but very few make it on to the screen. Even if you are lucky enough to get a green light, films under development frequently end up in production hell. I suspect Dragoncharm was just too ambitious. A high-action fantasy adventure featuring a big cast of photo-real dragon characters? Dream on! The technology has matured enough to make it achievable now – given a healthy budget of course. Back then it was probably madness to even contemplate it. But madness of the very best kind.
This article first appeared in slightly different form at graham-edwards.com.