Disney’s Pete’s Dragon Soars Into Theaters With Help From Adobe Creative Cloud
For years, forest ranger Grace thought that her father’s stories of a dragon living in the Pacific Northwest were just tall tales. That is until she meets a mysterious 10-year-old orphan named Pete who says he lives in the woods with a giant green dragon named Elliott.
Who is Pete? Where did he come from? And what exactly is Elliott?
Grace and audiences are invited into a magical world to witness a life-changing friendship between a boy and a dragon in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, which opens in U.S. theaters on August 12, 2016.
Known for independent films such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, writer and director David Lowery brought his indie spirit to the table when he reimagined the 1977 Disney classic for a modern audience with an updated take on relationships, childhood, and yes, even dragons. While Elliott in the 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon was a musical 2D cartoon, the 2016 version is literally decades removed. Today, Elliott is a furry CGI creation that looks real enough to touch.
Bringing the story of Pete and Elliott to life for today’s audiences meant realistically combining live-action with CGI, which can be accomplished only with extensive planning and collaboration from everyone working behind the scenes. Adobe Creative Cloud played an important role, with Adobe Photoshop CC, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, and Adobe After Effects CC powering key elements of previsualization and post-visualization, as well as enabling Lowery to quickly create rough cuts of scenes on set to be sure he was getting what he needed during filming.
To understand how Adobe Creative Cloud helped the creative teams realize the vision for Pete’s Dragon, we talked to Lowery; producer Jim Whitaker; Stuart Allen, previsualization supervisor from leading visualization agency Proof; and Gino Acevedo, creative art director for visual effects company Weta Digital.
Adobe: What attracted you to Pete’s Dragon?
Whitaker: At its heart, Pete’s Dragon is the story about the depth and power of friendship—that happens to be between a boy and a dragon. I knew we had a great movie when I started reading the script and was immediately pulled into this beautiful relationship between Pete and Elliott.
Lowery: Films for children can be important because they impact kids at a formative part of their lives. I was really excited about the idea of creating a film that could grow with children. When they first watch it, they respond to the visuals and sense of magic, and also relate to the emotions and experiences of Pete. But as they grow older, they’ll also find other parts of the story that speak to them.
Adobe: How did visualization help you make Pete’s Dragon?
Whitaker: Elliott may be a dragon, but his expression of emotions has to feel just as real as our human characters. You have to believe he’s a living, breathing creature. Previsualization is essential for a movie like this because, after all, Elliott isn’t real, yet the cast and crew have to know what he looks like and how he moves.
Allan: If we can figure out some of the details beforehand, such as how big Elliott is and how he looks and how he acts, we’ll save a lot of time and money while filming. Doing the right work upfront gets everyone on the same page, and teams go into scenes really understanding the look and tone. It makes for a lot less confusion and unnecessary shooting on set, which can play a big role in keeping projects on budget and schedule.
Post-vis is just as critical because it shows the potential of what was captured during shots. We can experiment with pacing, framing, or digital characters to show the director and production team options for creating the story.
Adobe: How were Adobe solutions used during the visualization processes?
Allan: A big part of the pre-vis process is experimentation. We’ll want to explore and share as many options as possible to achieve the director’s vision. We use Premiere Pro CC throughout pre-vis and post-vis. We can quickly make changes to sequences when the director or production team comes up with new ideas. We can also combine visuals from multiple sources—live-action footage, 3D models, Photoshop layers—to create any effect we want.
For Pete’s Dragon, we used Photoshop CC and After Effects CC quite a bit during visualization. Elliott can turn invisible, so the director challenged us to come up with a variety of ways to have Elliott disappear and reappear. We used Photoshop render layers to render multiple looks and then quickly composed them in After Effects.
Once pre-vis is complete, we use Adobe Illustrator CC to create technical diagrams for use on set. These diagrams show where the camera is in relation to the actors, how high it is, where it moves, and all of the other information that crew will need to translate a pre-vis into the real world.
Adobe: Tell us about bringing the dragon to life.
Acevedo: We normally think of dragons as scary, but we needed him to look like a creature who could be a friend to a child. And since he doesn’t talk, he needed to be very expressive as well. We ended up doing a lot of concept designs, playing around with eyes and ears and hair to get just the right look. Adobe Photoshop CC is a big part of my design process. I can add layers and effects to quickly switch between options. And since we were aiming for a realistic look, I incorporated a lot of real-life textures. For example, I knew that we’d see close-ups of Elliott’s feet. So I took several reference images of dog nails, the pads of dogs’ feet, things like that, and I would layer them on top of the renders to show the type of details I was thinking of for the design. Adobe Photoshop is essential in our creative processes because you can take chances and play around with many iterations before committing to a final piece.
Adobe: David, how did you communicate your vision to cast and crew?
Lowery: There are so many different artists that have to come together to create a shot. You want everyone to be aligned and in agreement, and for me, Adobe Creative Cloud software is vital, especially as I’m looking to have everyone understand what I want to accomplish. If I’m envisioning a shot where a truck drives across a bridge, and that image fades into a woodworker chiseling wood, I can comp that up in Photoshop, drag those comps into After Effects, animate them, and give them to the artist at Weta and say, “This is how I want it to look.” There’s a lot less confusion and time spent going back and forth with the artists.
On this particular film, it could be hard to explain the scene to actors when their “co-star” doesn’t really exist. I could throw together a quick comp using After Effects, then open up my laptop to show Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, or one of the other actors how the scene works. It gives them greater confidence in their performance when they know how the other “actor” is going to be interacting with them.
I also use Premiere Pro to edit live. I like to do quick edits as we shoot so I know we’re getting the shots we need. Premiere Pro is the best way for me to do that. It’s easy to use and flexible. I can load the day’s footage onto my laptop, do some quick edits, and immediately see if things are heading in the direction I want.
Adobe: Can you give an example of how Premiere Pro helped during filming?
Lowery: One example was a scene where the two children, Pete and Natalie, fall out of a massive tree. I was nervous because we’ve got two kids in harnesses actually going 75 feet into the air. There was a lot of rigging and prep work involved, and you only have five hours a day with the kids because they still need to go to school. It really cut down on our filming time, so efficiency was the key.
After two days of shooting the sequence, I wasn’t confident that we had everything that we needed. We only had one more day to go, so I fired up Premiere Pro. When I saw the footage cut together, I realized that there were definitely a few problems. The great thing was that I knew exactly what extra shots we needed the next day so we could produce a fantastic scene without spending extra time or money on reshoots.
Adobe: Do you see yourselves working with Adobe Creative Cloud in the future?
Whitaker: Definitely for pre-vis, because it’s so critical to the preparation of a movie. I also discovered through David that there’s a definite use for Premiere Pro in day-to-day filming as well. I’m going to encourage more directors to do what David did and use Premiere Pro to understand how scenes are coming together in real time and get the most out of their filming.
Allan: We use Creative Cloud throughout our visualization processes, and some of the 3D capabilities coming into Photoshop and After Effects will only make it better. We’ll be able to bring textures, cameras, and lighting into a 3D world to make visualizations even more realistic.
Acevedo: I can’t ever see not using Photoshop. It’s such a clever tool, and Adobe constantly advances it all the time with new features and brushes. It’s the most efficient way to do concept work and produce multiple iterations as quickly as possible.
Lowery: I just finished shooting another film that I’m cutting in Premiere Pro. I love how everything is housed in one place within Creative Cloud and that all of the programs work together. It’s also fantastic that updates come so quickly and that the software is always evolving. I’m excited about what I can do with Creative Cloud today and am looking forward to pushing my use of Adobe software even further as I look to bring new stories to life on screen.