‘D&D: Honor Among Thieves’ Spells: ILM’s Fresh Takes on Old Favorites

Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow talks about how difficult it is to live up to fan expectations and create something new for the first official D&D film.

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves took on a major challenge when the first official D&D story took place in real cinemas instead of tabletops and the “Theatre of Mind”. How the film looks – from the mud and owl bears to the turrets of Castle Never to the magical missiles hurled by wizards – had to draw on the fun of the game and work as a live-action fantasy with realistic visual logic. This was a particular challenge given the many, many spells available to mages in the Forgotten Realms. The spells have a long history of what they were meant to look like, but there was no guarantee these beloved designs would work in the film.

VFX Supervisor Ben Snow was reasonably familiar with the game mechanics and history of the D&D graphics, but he wasn’t immersed in the game’s lore. He and the ILM team were constantly trying to find physical references and logic for how the magic of the Forgotten Realms would work, and let that guide the look of the film’s spells and beasts. But they still ended up with a reference book that anyone who has read the Player’s Handbook would recognize.

“At one point I made a huge table of spells, like Google Slides with spells,” Snow told IndieWire. “We always had the little card from the Dungeon Master’s Guide that describes how the spell was supposed to work and be used, and we tried to stick to that as much as possible. So we put all that information in, and then I put together what I thought was a real physical reference that felt like it had hit the mood – a chemical reaction or something else.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES, (aka DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES), from left: Justice Smith, Rege-Jean Page, Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Pine, 2023. ©Paramount Pictures/Courtsey Everett Collection

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

©Paramount/Courtesy of the Everett Collection

Snow’s own prepared spell list was then compared to the film’s proverbial Dungeon Masters. “Wizards of the Coast has a story group that’s a bit like Lucasfilm, where they take care of the canon and make sure you stay in the world they’re creating, and they do it in a similar way,” Snow said. “They still gave the filmmakers flexibility, but they would also push you a bit. I remember her [asked]’OK, what does Simon’s mean [Justice Smith] look magical compared to Sofinas [Daisy Head] look magical?’ He is a sorcerer and she is a sorceress and they should deal with it differently.”

Having a team well versed in D&D stories allowed Snow and the VFX team to use the Forgotten Realms rules as a guide and inspiration to build their own visual flair. Sofina’s necromancy is extractive, drawing life force from her surroundings, while Simon’s magic is more generative and spontaneous, streaking out of his hands like lightning if (and only if) he has the confidence to pull it off.

If anything created by ILM can be considered “homebrew,” one of Snow’s favorite visual adjustments to existing spells occurs as part of the final fight against Sofina. Snow and his team extrapolated from the script that Sofina likely used the Arcane Hand spell, while Simon opted for an Earth Grip. But the final look and mechanics of how these spells work was directly related to the dueling wizards, not whether the spells were transmutation or evocation.

DUNGEONS & DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES, (aka DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS: HONOR AMONG THIEVES), from left: Michelle Rodriguez, Justice Smith, Chris Pine, Sophia Lillis, 2023. Ph: Aidan Monaghan / © Paramount Pictures /courtesy Everett Collection

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

©Paramount/Courtesy of the Everett Collection

“We did all this exploration [Sofina’s spell] because it’s usually that bright blue hand. We actually had a really big challenge developing that because we gave the directors this floating blue hand and they said, ‘This is too cartoony.’ So we tried to make it transparent. We did all this exploration of glass hands, and then it was how do we make the stump of it work? We tried to have steam [trailing off the stump of the hand], and then it evolved and evolved and we realized we had to be more terrible,” Snow said. He knew they got the right look when Sofina’s bloody, veined version of the spell looked and felt like a natural extension of her magic.

“Originally [Simon’s spell] would tear up the floor and all that kind of thing, but we knew there was so much action that had to happen after it came through that we couldn’t let that happen,” Snow said. “But the art director helped prepare the ground [in that battle sequence] made of these little pebble things and cobblestones, and so we were like, ‘Okay, maybe [the spell can look] like one of those pin blocks where you push your hand into the block and it catches an imprint of your hand,” and we could do that in three dimensions. The directors loved that idea and it ended up working out pretty well.”

Snow said that the key to all of the film’s visual effects was more or less having a basis in D&D lore and history and then letting go of that and tying each effect to something physical, either a natural logic or a extension of the characters. This was also the case with the film’s titular dragons. The film sticks fairly faithfully to its portrayal of a black dragon, sleek and terrifying, spitting acid across an ancient battlefield, but Daly, Goldstein, Snow and the entire VFX team wanted to give the legendary dragon Themberchaud a special twist.

The dragon Themberchaud on a large pile of gnome skulls in the Underdark "Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves"

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Paramount Pictures

“It was a touch-and-go because we were concerned that the studio or Wizards of the Coast would veto it at any time. We had done some initial sketches and ended up making a rapid prototype model and the pre viz company Day For Night actually built a kite so we could start showing it off and getting people familiar with this idea [Themberchaud] it was going to be huge, it was going to be fat,” Snow said.

The design challenge with a fat dragon is balancing the physical comedy in the script with the threat of a huge, fire-breathing creature. So Snow and his team designed the dragon’s breath weapon to flicker like an old cigarette lighter, visually conveying that he can’t breathe fire like he used to, but is always just a spark away. Likewise, the VFX team balanced how Themberchaud cuts off escape routes with erratic fumbling that shows just how bad the dragon is.

In a way, the Themberchaud sequence is a microcosm of the film’s overall tone, blending the chaotic, the comic, and the adventurous. “We kept worrying that they would make us go back to a more normal red dragon, but once we started putting out the animations they saw both how menacing it could still be and how fun it was did,” Snow said. “There is a moment when [the dragon] Kinda rears up and then he does this penguin jumping after our heroes and it’s just so much fun that he’s lying down like that. I think that’s when they started saying, ‘Okay. That’s it.”

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https://www.indiewire.com/2023/04/5e-spells-dungeons-and-dragons-movie-1234825124/ ‘D&D: Honor Among Thieves’ Spells: ILM’s Fresh Takes on Old Favorites

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