'Game of Thrones': The Surprising VFX Inspirations for Daenerys' Dragons

A host of animals, as well as commercial aircraft, inspired the teams behind the imposing CGI creatures.
Courtesy of HBO

What do Game of Thrones' dragons have in common with a 747 aircraft? More than you might think, reveals Sven Martin, VFX supervisor at Pixomondo, which has been responsible for the look of the creatures since season two of the HBO series.

As the VFX team — led by overall VFX supervisor Joe Bauer and producer Steve Kullback — is getting ready to begin work on the final season, Martin looks back on the making of the key-frame animated (meaning hand animated without the use of performance capture) CG dragons, whose creation is led by the multinational Pixomondo's Frankfurt facility.

"Bats and eagles are the main reference for the dragons," Martin says, adding though that there have been a range of references as the creatures grew and evolved. "In season two they were babies so it was more birth-like, a chicken or a doe. Then as they became 'teenagers,' we also referenced dogs and wolves.

"This season, it was important to show how big they are, so we referenced a 747 plane to show how majestic their flight is, though the main references are still bats and eagles because the anatomy is the same."

Being the dragon masters has also become increasingly complex, for instance in creating the skin, scales and veins. "It's the sheer amount of detail. In this season, the dragon met Jon Snow. We are so close to the dragon. This amount detail makes the work more complex."

With so much overall work in the series, Game of Thrones' VFX is distributed to multiple VFX houses. In additional to Pixomondo, vendors have included facilities such as Image Engine, Rodeo FX, BlueBolt and Rhythm & Hues.

"We approach Game of Thrones like a feature," says Martin, explaining that at Pixomondo the team uses the same pipeline that it does for features — Dell Precision workstations, along with software packages Maya for CG, Nuke for compositing and Arnold for rendering.

"Game of Thrones never looked like a TV show, but the schedule is as tight as a TV show," he adds. "We try to keep all of the different elements open, so we can make late changes if needed. We have to be flexible without decreasing the quality."

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