“Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't "try" to do things. You simply "must" do things.”
- Ray Bradbury

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Flight of Dragons


There are certain images that are indelibly stamped on one's mind from childhood.  For me, the frame of film seen above is certainly one of them.  It's the opening shot from The Flight of Dragons, a 1982 animated film made by Rankin/Bass Productions.  It was offered to me as an ABC Saturday Night Movie  in 1986.  My parents, thankfully, recorded it onto VHS, therefore cementing itself as a staple of our family video library for the remainder of the 1980's.  Viewings of it were frequent and unrelenting.  The video ribbon burned out in time, but the movie played on in my mind for the next fifteen years until an updated VHS release. 

Next to nothing has been written on The Flight of Dragons because next to nobody has heard of it.  Disappointing coverage of it appears in Rick Goldschmidt's delightful book, The Enchanted World of Rankin/Bass, and in various plot summaries and reviews found on the web.  My aim is to expose the genesis of the film's visual and story elements by going right to the source - the original books.

The Flight of Dragons was first published by Peter Dickinson in 1979, but I did not read it until 2016.  Dickinson's narrative is imaginative, and does a fine job at leading the reader to believe that dragons may have walked the earth. It was Wayne Anderson's illustrations, however, that I found most compelling.  Anderson's art is both whimsical and grotesque, and all so beautifully rendered.  Anderson shared with me:

Illustrating the book was a good experience.  I had total freedom to create the pictures. I also worked with a designer who is a close friend of mine which helped. The only problem was that my deadline for completion was shortened due to an earlier publication date being required. This was because of foreign deals being done at a book fair, in particular with the American publishers. The script and some illustrations shown at the book fair were enough to create a massive demand and an urgency to complete.

Some illustrations from The Flight of Dragons (1979)




In my communication with Anderson, he wrote, "The book was a huge success, but this success caused the downfall of the publisher. All concerned lost money as a result of the £ / $ ratio - at that time the money markets went crazy. Sad end for the book and me."  But Anderson's journey was not over as far as The Flight of Dragons was concerned.

Directors Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass welcomed Wayne Anderson to expand on his visions from the book, and assist in translating his style into a film adaptation.  Anderson agreed, and the illustrative style from the book set the standard for the film's visual elements. Anderson wrote, "Rankin Bass were great in terms of allowing creativity and funding."

"I worked alone on the film characters," Anderson continued. "Scripts arrived from New York [to England] and I posted off the development drawings on a weekly basis. I worked a seven day week as the animators could not begin their work until my ideas arrived in front of them."  Concerning his interactions with Bass and Rankin themselves, Anderson said he had "little interaction.  I was left to get my head down and get on with it ASAP."

Anderson's drawings did not just focus on the characters, but the locales and creatures as well.  The following concept drawings have been generously shared at Anderson's WEBSITE, along with many more.  I find the style of Anderson's Loathly Tower and Gormley Keep conceptual art reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, and in many instances I prefer the preliminary work to that of the film.  Anderson shared, "The animators did a great job, as did the background artists."  He ended by saying that he was "very happy with the end result."

As a means of comparing the conceptual drawings to final film elements, I have paired and labeled the art below respectively (Anderson's conceptual art is included below with his written permission).


Gorbash the Dragon

Concept art:

The film:

Smrgol the Dragon

Concept art:

The film:

Bryagh the Dragon

Concept art:

The film:

Carolinus - The Green Wizard

Concept art:

The film:

Ommadon - The Red Wizard

Concept art:

The film:

Ommadon Transformed

Concept art:

The film:

Solarius - The Blue Wizard

Concept art:

The film:

Lo Tao Zhao - The Golden Wizard

Concept art:

The film:

The Ogre of Gormley Keep

Concept art:

The film:

Ommadon's Minion

Concept art:

The film:

The Temple of All Antiquity

Concept art:

The film:

Loathly Tower

Concept art:

The film:

Ommadon's Throne

Concept art:

The film:

Hellsway Inn

Concept art:

The film:

Gormley Keep

Concept art:

The film:

A solid cast of voices was pulled together for The Flight of Dragons, including:  James Earl Jones, John Ritter, and Harry Morgan.  Jones' performance as the red wizard, Ommadon, left me spellbound as a youngster, and has remnants of Darth Vader in the character's inflections (Jones was between The Empire Strikes Back [1980] and Return of the Jedi [1983] during The Flight of Dragons production).  The opening theme song was written and composed by Jules Bass and Maury Laws, and sung by Don McLean (of "American Pie").  The score composed by Maury Laws is strong for an independent animated film of the 80's and holds up against popular film scores of its time.  Emmy-winning film composer, Carl Johnson, arranged a medley of Laws' musical themes in 2013 and it can be listened to HERE.

Peter Dickinson and Wayne Anderson's book, The Flight of Dragons, was certainly responsible for the film's visual elements, but not the primary story.  Dickinson's contribution to the film's story does not extend beyond a dragon's lifestyle and the science behind its flight.  The story itself comes from Gordon R. Dickson's 1976 fantasy novel, The Dragon and the George.  It is this story that includes many of the characters and locales in the movie.  Screenplay writer, Romeo Muller, relies somewhat on the book for the film adaptation, and does a fine job improving upon the story.  The addition of Ommadon as a brother to the good wizard, Carolinus, helps centralize the source of evil.  Muller wasted no time in trimming fat in the form of book characters that brought little to the story.  In a world where magic was dying and technology grew, scenes depicting deforestation and atomic bombs frightened me as a child.  Although there are certainly moments of whimsy, the story's grim theme still resonates today.  The film's story defends knowledge as power, and that it is possible for science and magic to coexist in peace. 

The Flight of Dragons exists now on DVD, and can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube.  The film is certainly inferior to the animated films of Disney, and enjoyed mostly by those coated with a thick layer of 80's nostalgia.  But I, like many, make no apologies.  The film has merit, and could not have existed without the imaginations of Dickinson, Anderson, and Dickson alike.  As a man now in his mid-30's, I unabashedly watch the film to this day, to my wife's amusement.  The Flight of Dragons is like that action figure we occasionally find at the bottom of an old toy box.  It reminds us of where we came from and the importance that imagination played in our childhood.


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