Masters of dragons: Pixomondo’s VFX supervisor tells about visual effects in Game of Thrones

RENDERU.COM spoke to Sven Martin, the visual effects supervisor at Pixomondo studios. Here, at the studio's Frankfurt office, is where some of the key characters of Game of Thrones were created: dragons. So how did the artists at Pixomondo manage to make the dragons so realistic? In an exclusive interview with RENDERU.COM, Sven Martin explained how animators had to play dragons themselves to get a better sense of their characters, and why they used a supermarket-bought chicken as a reference for those menacing fire-breathing creatures.

RENDERU.COM: How many dragons have you created already, and which ones?

Sven Martin: Pixomondo has been responsible for the creation of the dragons since season two. First, we started defining and building Drogon, as he is the leader and hero dragon with the most screen time. From this asset we varied model and textures for Viserion and Rhaegal. For season six we had to create a fourth model beside the normal ones to present Viserion and Rhaegal as emaciated dragons, starving in the darkness for quite a while. Their bodies were so different that we created them as a separate asset.

RENDERU.COM: You said previously that you played with a chicken in order to understand its physiology whilst designing the dragons. However, chickens do not fly, and dragons do. Therefore, what techniques did you use to help the dragons to fly, and how did you create their facial expressions? Did you copy any other animals?

S.M.: The chicken was only used as a rough reference to feel the restrictions of a real wing anatomy. Chickens can't really fly, but the basic functionality is similar to other birds. As we didn't want to harm real birds, this was the nearest solution. For the actual digital model we used bats and eagles as main references for the inner skeleton and animation guideline. We do not copy their movements exactly, but use it as a start, before adjusting the animation to the actual size and body proportions. The facial animation is always a fine line between readable emotions, while still keeping them animals. We never wanted them to appear too humanised.

RENDERU.COM: What is the most difficult part of creating the dragons?

S.M.: Finding a good and plausible design, and matching references was very important on this show. The dragons are not pure beasts showing up in one action sequence. They accompany the human cast throughout the whole series, and grow and develop over the seasons. We wanted to ground them very much in reality to make them not stick out as fantastical elements within a very believable environment of actors, costumes, and real environments.

Not over-animating them, finding the right balance between animal and character was the most difficult thing, especially in the dungeon sequences. We had to be very precise with the dragon animation. In season six, for example, it was important to show them as exhausted and nearly dying animals, but with still enough power to be a threat to Tyrion. This took us some more animation rounds with production supervisor, Joe Bauer before we were all happy with the right performance. A good example of how we approach the animation is a scene in season four, where Dany is leaving her babies behind, chained in the dark dungeon.

It was important for Joe Bauer to really understand the pain and struggle at the moment that they realise that their mother is leaving. We explored different actions and timing of Viserion and Rhaegal jumping into the chains and screaming in agony. At a certain moment we decided to act it out ourselves, so the animator and myself crawled and jumped, bound by a rope that was held by our VFX producer. This was a great help, because you start to explore even closer what you are doing in this case, and what your body is doing.

Images: Pixomondo

RENDERU.COM: In each season you increase the size of dragons, and more details have been introduced to the surface appearance in season five. Could you tell us more about this process?

S.M.: The complexity is increasing with every new season, both in model and textures. With the pure size nearly doubling, and also different scenarios make need of more detail. Where the whole dragon has filled the screen in season two, just the face is covering the framing in season five. More and more often only small areas of the dragons can fit into the screen if they appear together with the actors. This also resulted in a much more refined and complex animation rig, as we needed to have full control over every little spike or frill.

gt4_Pixomondo_VFX_02C.jpgRENDERU.COM: How many people are involved in this project? How much time does every dragon take to create, and which software(s) do you use?

S.M.: Principally, every dragon shot goes through all departments, so it's around about 7 artist working about 4-6 weeks on a single shot (not including the asset production). For the animation we focus on Maya, and do rendering with Arnold, while 3DsMax is used for environments. Nuke is our main compositing tool.


RENDERU.COM: When I think about dragons, another movie comes to my mind – The Hobbit. How have dragons evolved since then? Do you think there are any current trends in picturing them?

S.M.: I don’t see a specific trend, as every movie requires a different design and behaviour. This is actually the most fun part of every production: designing, and creating the 'right' character or creature for the story. Sometimes they have to talk and to act, sometimes they need to be very realistic beasts, sometimes magical, unrestricted creatures – it all depends on the tone of the movie. A wrong design decision here is the equivalent to the wrong casting, in my opinion.