‘D&D: Honor Without Thieves’ Spells: ILM’s Fresh Takes on Old Favorites

Visual Effects Supervisor Ben Snow negotiates the tricky line of respecting fan expectations and creating something fresh for the first official D&D movie.

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Without Thieves” made a great challenge to be the first official D&D story to launch the initiative in an actual movie theater, rather than on tables and in the “theatre of the mind.” What the movie looks like – from the leak and owl bears to the towers of Castle Never to the magical rockets thrown by the wizards – to get back to the fun of the game and act as a live-action fantasy with a realistic visual logic. It was a particular challenge when it came to that lots and lots of magic available to practitioners of magic in the Forgotten Realms. Spells have a long history of how they look, but there was no guarantee that these beloved designs would work in the film.

VFX supervisor Ben Snow had some knowledge of the game’s mechanics and D&D artwork history, but was not immersed in the game’s history. He and the ILM team kept trying to find physical references and logic to how the magic of the Forgotten Realms would work and let that guide the look of the magic and beasts in the film. But they ended up creating a guide that anyone who has read the Player’s Handbook will recognize.

“At one point I made a huge magic chart, like a Google Slides magic,” Snow told IndieWire. “We’ve always had the little card from the Dungeon Master’s Guide that describes how the spell should work and be cast, and we’ve tried to stick to that as much as we can. So we loaded all the information, and then I put together a reference that I thought would be a real physical reference, and it felt like it had the feel of it—a chemical reaction or something.”

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 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, a little bit like Lucasfilm, where they look at the canon and make sure it stays in the world they’re creating, and they do it in a similar way,” Snow said. “They still allow the filmmakers flexibility, but they would also put a little pressure on you. I remember (being asked), “Okay, how does Simon’s (Smith Justice) magic look versus Sofina’s (Daisy Head) magic?” He’s a wizard and she’s a wizard and they should handle it differently.

A team well-versed in D&D history allowed Snow and the VFX team to use the Forgotten Realms rules as a guide and inspiration for their own visual sense. Sofina’s necromancy is extractive, extracting life force from her surroundings, while Simon’s magic is more generative and spontaneous, shooting out of her hands like lightning when (and only when) she has the confidence to wield it.

If anything created by ILM can be considered “home beer”, one of Snow’s favorite visual tweaks to existing spells, takes place as part of the final battle against Sofina. Snow and his team extrapolated from the script that Sofina had probably used magic Arcane Handwhile Simon is one Earthen Grasp. But the final look and mechanics of how the spells worked were tied directly to the duelists, rather than the spells being about 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 /© Paramount Everett Court

“Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves”

©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection

“We’ve done all the (Sofina spell) discovery because it’s usually the glowing blue hand. We actually challenged that a lot because we showed this floating blue hand to the directors and they said, “It’s too cartoony.” So we tried to make it transparent. We did all these glass hand discoveries, then it became, how do we make the stump work? We tried the vapor (hand stump) and then it evolved and evolved and we realized we had to be more monstrous,” Snow said. He knew they looked good when Sofina’s bloody, veiny version of the spell looked and felt like a natural extension of the spell.

“Originally (Simon’s spell) was going to tear up the ground and all that, but we knew there was so much action that had to happen once it came through, we couldn’t do that,” Snow said. “But the art director helpfully created the ground (in this battle sequence) out of these little pebbles and cobblestones, and so we thought, ‘Okay, maybe (the magic could look) like one of those pin blocks where you press put the into an array and captures the impression of your hand,” and we can do it in three dimensions. The directors liked the idea and it ended up being pretty good.”

Snow said that the key to all the visual effects in the film was more or less to establish the story and history of D&D, then let go of that and connect each effect back to something physical, or natural logic, or an extension of the characters. This was also the case with the titular dragons of the film. The film sticks fairly faithfully to the depiction of a black dragon, sleek and fearsome and spitting acid on the ancient battlefield, but Daly, Goldstein, Snow and the entire VFX team wanted to put a special spin on the legendary dragon. Thimberchaud.

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 because we were worried that the studio or Wizards of the Coast would veto it at any time. We did some initial designs and ended up doing a quick prototype model, and the Pre-Viz company, Day For Night, actually built a kite so we could start showing it off and get people comfortable with the idea that (Themberchaud) was going to be huge, that fat will be,” Snow said.

The design challenge with a fat dragon is to balance the physical comedy of the script with the menace of a giant, fire-breathing creature. So Snow and his team designed the dragon’s breath weapon to flash like an old lighter, visually signaling that it can’t breathe fire like it used to, but it’s always just a spark away. Likewise, the VFX team balanced the way Themberchaud cuts off escape routes with an unsteady wobble that shows just how much the dragon isn’t playing around.

In some ways, the Themberchaud sequence is a microcosm of the film’s overall tone, mixing the chaotic, comedic, and adventurous. “We kept worrying that they were going to go back to a more normal red dragon, but when we started doing the animations and they saw that it was still menacing, but also how fun it was,” Snow said. “There’s a moment where (the dragon) gets up and then it does this penguin dive after our heroes, and it’s so much fun to go down like that. I think that’s when they started going, “Okay. This is it.”

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