​Izabela Cichońska: We bought a giraffe and a crocodile skull

Strelka graduate’s story of becoming a Dragon castle architect

I’ve always been looking for multidisciplinary environment to work in. That’s where my dream of working for Pentagram Design sprang from. Pentagram is a large international design studio specializing in graphic design, identity, architecture, interiors and products. They have offices in New York, San Francisco, Austin and Berlin with head office in London where I was lucky to work. The studio currently comprises 19 partners, each managing a team of designers. I worked for William Russel doing interiors and architecture for such brands as, for example, Alexander McQueen, Margaret Howell, Tantrum, Drakes and Cass Art. The offbeat tasks at Pentagram inspired me to search for something new and outstanding and that was how I decided to apply to Strelka.

I did my final research at  Another Place studio. In my project entitled Country of Punishment I explored the spatial characteristics of prisons, their social implications, and the patterns of cohabitation formed within and around prisons. At Strelka I’ve learned to cover whatever new for me quickly and sum up all the information required for the following work on design. Studying at Strelka has triggered my personal growth and made me feel like creating again.

Soon after my graduation Timur Bekmambetov (director, screenwriter and producer of Night Watch, Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Ed.) called Strelka KB to find young architects for his new movie Dragon. I happened to be among the architects whose ideas Bekmambetov found interesting, so I was hired.

When I joined  Bazelevs production crew and CG Factory they had some draft script versions but nothing really confirmed and were ready to experiment, which allowed me to influence the interior component of the movie. According to the plot, we had to create two worlds contrasting each other: an 8th-century settlement somewhere in the North and a warm exotic island, somehow reminiscent of Thailand, where the Dragon would live. We paid special attention to the Dragon castle. The director wanted us to combine various styles of architecture with the natural world to create a unique fictional location where the skull of the long gone dragon would become a functional part of the interior to help the viewers fully understand the lead character.

Real animal skulls from the CGF photo gallery Photo: CGF
Photo: CGF
Photo: CGF
Real animal skulls from the CGF photo gallery Photo: CGF

We began with a study of skulls of mammals, reptiles and fish as the final thing had to comprise the features of the dragon’s ancestors. We went through anatomy books and veterinary studies, contacted paleontologists and even autopsists and finally ended up with a huge photo and model gallery including even Xrays and MRI scans. We also bought a few skulls: deer skulls, a giraffe and a crocodile skull. All of them legally!

Then we made photogrammetric scans of those skulls in our office and tried adjusting them so that they would coalesce. We finally created a model looking almost like a real dragon skull. It was indeed a challenge as people are sensitive to everything artificial and unnatural and our goal was to be photorealistic. Dragon team consisted of the most talented concept artists in Moscow: Dmitry Dubinsky, Valery Zrazhevsky, Stas Lebedev, Elena Zemtsova and Olga Antonenko. We were supported by multi-skilled director and storyboard artist Indar Dzhendubaev and creative producer of the picture Igor Tsay. Our job was crucial both on the set, as we helped to create set design as well as to choose shooting locations, rocks in the background and light, and during postproduction.

The movie is 80% visual effects, the remaining 20% is location shooting in Bulgarian caves and studio stages in Moscow where the actors and props were filmed. That is why we needed to create a photorealistic picture which would not distract the viewer from the plot and blur the lines between imaginary world and reality. A vivid example of how we combined footage and CG graphics is the interiors of the Dragon castle. Miroslava’s (the lead character – Ed.) room (built by Grigory Pushkin, the production manager) was filmed in a Moscow's pavilion. 

According to our set design, the dragon tooth the characters jumped from was also a Moscow set-dressing, but the fireplace hall with the tent and the ship was filmed in a cave near Lukovit, Bulgaria. And eventually all these parts were naturally incorporated into a single set of the Dragon’s lair.

Photo: CGF
Photo: CGF
Photo: CGF
Photo: CGF

It was the very first time I worked in the film industry. And I was fascinated. I have not only got acquainted with filming, but also got to know the secrets of postproduction which turned out to be a time-consuming and filigree process with dozens of people involved. I became a Dragon castle architect and fell absolutely in love with filmmaking. Cinema gives me the opportunity of personal and professional fulfillment and I feel like staying here. At the moment I work at CG Factory as an art director on the Air Crew movie remake which is to be released in April, 2016.