How to make a Game of Thrones dragon
Fire made flesh
Daenerys may be the mother of dragons on Game of Thrones, but the real parents are at Pixomondo, a visual effects company based in Germany. Since season 2, the company has been responsible for the look of Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion. Ahead of the eighth and final season of Thrones, we break down the process with photos as Pixomondo visual effects supervisor Sven Martin takes us through the journey of making the dragons look real (but not, like, too real).
First things first
"We started with a base model, which was established in season 1, but we went for a darker, grittier approach," says Martin. "We did a lot of redesign, made them more spiky, even in the baby state. It was a little bit of a relaunch, but we still kept it believable for the audience. It should still feel like they were the same babies… but they are not."
Pointing the way
"The scales got spiky and sharp," Martin continues. "They were meant to look cute, but in-a-dragon-way cute. It affected not just the color, but the shape."
"We made them darker, the skin got more shimmery," explains Martin. "From there on, they developed. We were sitting down every year and talking about redesign based on the new story, especially at the beginning."
They grow up so fast
"Every year had a speciality, what the dragons should do or how they would evolve character-wise," says Martin.
To create the most realistic looking dragons, "We were looking at a lot of different elements," Martin explains. "Everything was definitely from the animal world because we're not just building mystical fantasy creatures. We wanted to keep them grounded in reality. So we built them from the inside out, starting with the skeleton, and then adding muscles and skin on top."
Keeping it real
"The dragons were always in close contact with the actors," says Martin. "And we were shooting outside on real locations. So everything is real and not meant to be a fantasy. We wanted to transfer that. So to create the skeletons, we looked at bats and birds [for inspiration]."
Beware of dragon
"In season 3, we brought a new feature to the dragons," remembers Martin. "When they got angry, and their main purpose was to be guard dogs, they popped out these gills on their necks. That idea came from the fruit lizard, which does exactly the same thing, just in a different direction."
"We had to change the dragons over the seasons," Martin admits. "With every new season, we discussed the new design with Joe Bauer [the head of visual effects for Thrones]. The season influenced the design. It wasn’t scaling up. We were redoing them from scratch."
Preparing for liftoff
"Because we knew the dragons would have to fly later on, we began to change the porportions," says Martin. "We made the wings a little larger. We changed the breastbone. We had seen that in bird skeletons. They have this larger chest to make enough space for the muscles, which drive the wings. Then we looked at lots of lizards for the texture. This was a constant reference for us because there are tons of different lizards out there. You can’t come up with cooler ideas than from nature. It's all there. You just have to find the right references, which was quite fun to do."
"The first time Dany [Emilia Clarke] began climbing on the back of the dragon, we needed to redesign the spikes," Martin says. "She needed handles she could grab on. That design changed again in season 7 when multiple people were climbing on Drogon’s back. We had to make room for more people."
Watch your step
"The climbing up and down got tricky because the dragon was super-large and we had to figure out a way to bring her up and down safely without getting spiked, but also without making her look like a free-climbing specialist," says Martin. "She's still a queen. That was quite challenging."
Up close and personal
"One of the main points we focused on was the close contact with the actors in the later episodes," says Martin. "We have Dany touching their skin and noses. This is where reality kicks in. We have to find that small balance between transporting emotion with the dragon but not making them look like humans. That was something, making sure that it's clear enough for the audience but not humanizing them. It was a constant thing through the years, keeping them as animals."
"The dragons have been good for business," Martin acknowledges. "I'm super-thankful to be part of it. When I started on season 2, I had no idea what Game of Thrones was. I hadn’t read the books. I had no idea what kind of phenomenon it would become. This is like working on Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. [When I meet people], most people can’t believe they are talking to somebody who was really creating iconic things like the dragons."
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