Five Years Dragons

“Isn’t Game of Thrones a great series?”

When posed with this question, many people respond immediately with a bright and excited expression on their face. While there are some non-believers, no one is able to deny the simple truth that Game of Thrones is HBO’s most successful HBO television series. There are numerous theories about the show’s success, and statistics about almost everything can be found on the world wide web.


It is without question that none of this would be possible without the outstanding writing delivered by showrunners D. B. Weiss and David Benioff. Their determination to achieve something different and spectacular seems to be contagious to all disciplines and departments involved, from acting to set design and to visual effects.


Joe Bauer, HBO VFX Supervisor since season 3 and Steve Kullback, VFX Producer, who started to work on the series with season 2, fearlessly create breathtaking visual effects, each season aiming for more, better, undone and unseen effects to let Weiss and Benioff’s visions come to life.


No one is able to deny the simple truth that Game of Thrones is HBO’s most successful HBO television series.


No one would have predicted such a tremendous success when Sven Martin, VFX Supervisor at PIXOMONDO Frankfurt, and his team began work on the dragons of Game of Thrones five years ago.


Sven remembers when Rainer Gombos, HBO VFX Supervisor for Season 2, called him and told him about this project.


He told me about this new project he was working on and wanted me on-board with. Everything VFX people dream of: giant wolves, White Walkers and of course dragons.” But Sven’s passion for dragons is not the only driving factor in this long-term working relationship.


Never missing an opportunity to state that visual effects are always a team effort, which is undoubtedly true, the multiple Primetime Emmy Award-winner is known for his unbending aim for perfection within his team.


No detail is small enough


“90% is easy,” he states. “It is always the last 10% that is the hard part.” This might be the reason that one of the first presents he received from his team shortly after he joined PIXOMONDO in 2008, was a stamp saying “Voll Echt” (which translates more or less to “truly realistic”), and which everyone has to struggle hard to receive since then.


But how do you create real dragons, something which seems to be an contradiction per se?


“Nature is always the best reference, even for creatures that do not exist in realty,” Sven explains.


Following this principle, Sven and his crew referenced pre-historic birds for skeletal reference.They studied all kinds of snakes, lizards and crocodiles for inspiration and ideas regarding the texture of the dragons’ skin. They even bought a chicken from the supermarket in order to study the natural restrictions in stretching and moving wings.


“It took some time to persuade the rigging artists to actually touch the chicken and move the wings around. In the end they understood the advantage of feeling how far you can bend a wing before going to the computer and adapting this to our rig.”


Watching the final result, not many viewers will ever notice all these little details and efforts that every part of the team has put into “their” dragons. According to Sven, that is exactly what he his aiming for. “We try to be as close to nature as possible, because you can find there this enormous beauty. The more the viewer is able to subconsciously recognize features that are familiar to them – like how the wings flap, the way sunlight is reflected on the skin, how the horns and teeth look – the more its likely that the viewer can believe what they are seeing.”


This is the key to the quality of our work. Does it help to tell the story – in which case we did good – or does it distract the viewer, which indicates bad VFX.”


This rule of course also applies to the animation of the dragons – the part in which they don´t just look alive but actually come to life.


This is the key to the quality of our work


“The very special part of creating the dragons, apart from look and feel of the creature, is that we are actually creating three of the main characters of the season: Viserion, Rhaegal and Drogon. Watching them grow, developing the characters from cute babies to grown fierce and scary dragons has been amazing.”


Indeed, it has come a long way from the baby dragons thats we witnessed crawling onto Danerys, trying to eat for the first time, puffing little smoke clouds instead of fire. As teenage dragons they would show off while flying around, demonstrating their power but still affectionate when it came to the mother of dragons, and they have become wild and scary creatures, accepting Danerys but not obeying anyone.


To convey these character developments the animators have to understand and feel the dragon and yet resist the temptation of humanizing them.


This seems to be a risk everyone is very willing to take.


“For animation, the briefing we receive is closer to what a director might say to his actors on set than to common visual effects briefings. It leaves room for and needs the animators interpretation. This is why animation dailies can be a lot of fun, when possible movements are actually played by the animator and supervisor but there can also be sensitive situations when it comes to critical feedback. Animation is personal.”


This seems to be a risk everyone is very willing to take. Looking back at those countless hours with the dragons for the past 5 years, we are now entering the sixth year with season 7. You can sense a slight melancholy from Sven, who is often referred to as “father of dragons” by the press, as he knows the time is approaching to let go of the dragons – unless HBO decides continue beyond the last rumored season.


“It has been a such a marvelous experience being part of this for such a long time. We are very proud and honored!” Especially as “long term relationships” like this are very rare and nearly impossible to achieve in today’s VFX industry. Due to regional rebate systems that can quickly change not only VFX artists are faced with a pressure to become “VFX Nomads,” following the job which goes where the money is. It is complicated for clients as well, since they need to find a team both capable of doing the work and situated in the right place, so the project can also profit from the rebates needed to stay in budget.


“Frankfurt offers no rebate at all, so we really appreciate the great effort it must have been for Steve and Joe to keep us in the team, year after year.”


Thank you Steve, Joe and HBO!