Amid the flight patterns of popular entertainment, fans have an insatiable appetite for dragons — whether they’re scaled or feathered, fire-belching or water-spouting, airborne or terrestrial. This summer, a new Spanish-Chinese co-production will bring Dragonkeeper, the award-winning young adult novels by Aussie scribe Carole Wilkinson, to animated life.
This gorgeous fairy-tale project is helmed by director Salvador Simó (Buñuel in the Labyrinth of the Turtles) and hails from executive producer Larry Levene of Madrid’s Guardián de Dragones AIE in partnership with Song Weiwei at China Film Animation.
The film’s storyline centers on an orphaned slave girl in ancient China named Ping who befriends one of the last imperial dragons, called Long Danzi. Emboldened with the mysterious powers of Qi, Ping orchestrates the aged dragon’s escape from a remote fortress together with a precious stone which must be defended at all costs. The unlikely pair traverses the Empire to save Long Danzi from extinction while pursued by the emperor’s soldiers, dragon hunters and a shadowy evil force.
The Pablos Touch
Animation luminary Sergio Pablos, director of the Oscar-nominated feature Klaus, delivers the movie’s lush visual palette. Dragonkeeper’s talented vocal cast features the work of Bill Nighy, Bill Bailey and Anthony Howell, and introduces newbie Mayalinee Griffiths as Ping.
Staying faithful to the hallowed source material was foremost on the minds of Dragonkeeper’s creative team. Striking a harmonious style and tone required dedication, patience and skill. “We, the producers, read Carole Wilkson’s saga to our children years ago,” Levene tells Animation Magazine.
“From the very first moment we knew that there was a wonderful film to be developed. Our journey of making Dragonkeeper began in 2016. Since it’s a story that takes place in ancient China, we looked first for a Chinese partner. We succeeded and in 2017 Dragonkeeper became an official co-production between Spain and China, with China Film Animation, a subsidiary of China Film Group, as our co-producer. Development and production of the film have taken about six years to finish.”
Production disruptions caused by the ongoing global pandemic took the animating duties to studios all over the globe. The core team located in Spain and led by animation director Abraham Lopez, who directed the Goya Award-winning hybrid short Blue & Malone: Impossible Cases and its Goya-nominated precursor.
“The animation itself was done in Maya. There are no secrets in the tools used, but the artistic approach was more simple and realistic than the classical Disney or Pixar animation, which in this case was perfect for the film,” Levene adds. “Our mantra was ‘less is more.’”
Conceiving the overall look and feel of Dragonkeeper necessitated a subtle artistic approach utilizing slightly stylized textures and shapes, a technique that doesn’t necessarily distract the viewer’s eyes, yet is something audiences intuitively sense as part of the cinematic wizardry.
“The main element is the story and the experience of the audience so we can immerse them in an adventure, a magical and mystical one, in a world where dragons were part of reality and history,” Levene explains. “Nowadays, most family movies play around with the formula of cute characters full of jokes and silly situations. We’re trying to come back to those adventures from the ‘80s where the core was the characters and their journey. E.T., The Goonies, The Princess Bride, Legend, Willow, etc. were used as a strong reference and are not abundant in the market.”
Filmmaker Sergio Pablos and his SPA Studios in Madrid worked diligently with Levene and Simó in the project’s infancy, bringing that same conceptual expertise in fine tuning Dragonkeeper’s aesthetics that he delivered in other projects such as Despicable Me, Smallfoot and Klaus.
“Sergio was very active in the early stages of Dragonkeeper’s development,” says Levene. “In fact, he was the one who, after meticulously reading the Carole Wilkinson books and having very close contact with the producers, made all the designs in the dossier. That was the first and most important tool used to raise co-producers and funding both in China and in Spain. So, those first concept designs of the film’s main characters and story concept and atmosphere of the environments were all made by Sergio’s studio, and we are very proud of that.”
Director Salvador Simó became attached to Dragonkeeper in the summer of 2019 as a commissioned assignment, with most of the script work already completed by not only the Chinese and Spanish producers, but also Ignacio Ferreras (Wrinkles), who was project director at that time.
“My job then was to take that material and give it a shape that could become an entertaining and engaging family film, while trying to keep as much as possible the essence of the main character from Carole Wilkinson’s books,” Simó explains.
The director adds, “We rewrote some sequences and added a few new ones for the narrative. Working with the editor, we gave it the punch and personality we were looking for. It was an intense time and we had to please our co-producers without stopping the film. So, Larry Levene and I had to work on a tight schedule to turn the animatics in the movie we have now and make everyone happy and proud of the amazing movie we have now.”
The lush visual style and period details were developed by the entire animation team led by art director Elisa Castro, CG supervisor Victor Sauco and Simó to try to craft a striking look that could maintain the film’s sensibility and serve viewers with a remarkable transportive flavor.
Aiming for Authenticity
“We used many 2D approaches to solve textures and effects to achieve the unique designs of Chinese art,” says Simó. “Adding to that, we worked with the Chinese team to retain the cultural accuracy and artwork of the Han dynasty where the film occurs.”
Regarding plans for future Dragonkeeper, Levene is optimistic about expanding the fantasy franchise further since Wilkinson’s literary series consists of six volumes plus a prequel.
“The producers have acquired the rights and options for the entire Dragonkeeper saga of books, so we’re thinking of developing at least two more films to complete a trilogy. In this first film our young heroine helps the last imperial dragon egg to hatch, in the second one she raises the little dragon without any help, and in the third one she gives back the young dragon to the wild,” notes Levene. “We hope the audience will want to see it again and hope they enjoy the journey of the characters and the adventure. We are trying to offer an extraordinary experience during this movie.”
Dragonkeeper is one of the films featured at the Cartoon Movie event in France in March. The film is slated to open in theaters in Europe this August and to premiere on Hulu later in the year.