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Why the D&D movie directors don’t mind their ‘cursed’ Tabaxi puppet

How practical effects and real sets built atop Game of Thrones’ Westeros defined Honor Among Thieves’ world

A Tabaxi — a grey-and-white-striped anthropomorphic cat-person from Dungeons & Dragons — coos over its infant child after a rescue scene in Honor Among Thieves Image: Paramount Plus

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Over the past couple of months, fans of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves have had a lot of chances to peek behind the scenes, particularly at the practical technology that went into the movie’s characters. For better or worse, it was often obvious in the movie that writer-director team John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein prefered physical, on-set solutions for their non-human creatures. Some of them are more convincing than others — in particular, viewers have had a lot to say about a Tabaxi parent and child seen at a village, who look more like animatronic stuffed animals than real creatures. But Daley says even their jankiness is part of the movie’s charm.

“Some of these creatures are sillier-looking than others,” he tells Polygon in an interview shortly after the movie’s PVOD release. “That Tabaxi in particular — one person online described the Tabaxi baby as ‘cursed.’ But I think even when you have something that is so clearly animatronic, so clearly fake, it is still in many ways more real than it would be if [the actors] were holding a tennis ball embellished with CG.”

Goldstein says that they tried to use physical puppets rather than CG effects whenever possible. “Basically, if we could build it, we would,” he says. “Anything that was humanoid-size and scale, we would try to build and then burnish with visual effects.”

One example was an Aarakocra character seen in the opening scenes, a humanoid bird-man named Jarnathan, who’s become a fan favorite from the film. “Jarnathan’s wings were real, but not in every sequence,” Goldstein says. “When he’s falling from the tower, the wings were added digitally, for the most part. But we always wanted, where we could, to have them be real.”

“I think there is a fondness that people hold in their heart for the practical approach to these creatures,” Daley says, “even if there is something also fundamentally absurd about them on an aesthetic level.”

Another example Goldstein gives is the Dragonborn member of the Absolution Council at the Icewind Dale prison in that opening sequence. “That was a motion-capture headset thing that the operator was wearing off-camera, and making the face movements for the character,” he says. “Things like a dragon, we obviously couldn’t build, because it’s enormous. So we would just have a proxy for the actors to interact with, whether it’s hitting it or jumping on it, that kind of thing.”

The attempt to focus on practical effects extended to the sets. That became obvious in a startling, short 360-degree video clip Daley posted on Twitter, showing the main square of the city of Neverwinter. It was part of an elaborate physical build intended for a number of sequences, including the final faceoff with the movie’s villain.

“I’ve just seen it so often, where you can definitely tell that whatever terrain your characters are navigating is entirely fabricated, or done-up in post,” Daley says. “And I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily lazy — obviously, there’s a lot of thought put into designing that world they’re creating after the fact. But there’s something always more tactile and satisfying about being able to understand that this environment that our characters are going through is there.”

Goldstein says the Neverwinter set was built in Belfast, over the top of the King’s Landing sets used in HBO’s series Game of Thrones. “We took over the Game of Thrones backlot,” he says. “Though it had been largely destroyed in the finale of that series, we were able to refurbish enough of it so that we had streets and alleys and buildings, which we could then extend with CG. But the main plaza was almost entirely our build. And we knew our final battle would take place in that plaza, with the stone dragon coming out of the fountain and all of that. So that dictated the requirements of that space. And we just didn’t want to do that on a blue-screen stage.”

Daley says the city of Neverwinter needed to look familiar to fantasy audiences, but not so familiar that it felt derivative. “We wanted it to be reminiscent of the quasi-medieval cities you’ve seen in this type of genre, but we also knew it had to transcend and differentiate from those things, so it felt fresh and unique,” he says. “And we drew upon the influence of our incredible production designer, Ray Chan, in giving people something that felt familiar and also exotic.

“He drew influences from all over the globe. There are Eastern influences there, certainly Mediterranean, and not your obvious generic, European depiction of what a medieval city could be. It was great just getting into the nitty-gritty details, where you pause on any one tableau and see new details that you didn’t see the last time. That to me is what’s so fun about world-creating, and making a movie like this.”

Building a physical Neverwinter was important to Daley and Goldstein, but they also felt it would be important for their cast. “It helps our actors as well,” Daley says. “There is this lack of disconnect, because they get to see and touch and explore this incredible set. It hearkens back to the films we grew up loving and watching, where you couldn’t rely on fully CG environments. So as much as we possibly could, we went practical with sets. When you get into places like the Underdark, it was wholly impossible to do that — obviously we’re then relying more on CG set extension. But even there, there’s a good half a city block of real Underdark that we built.”

Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves is now available for premium rental or purchase on Amazon, Vudu, and other digital services, and is streaming on Paramount Plus.

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