We may have to wait a while for winter – Game of Thrones season 8 does not air until 2019 – but for now, we like to quench our thirst for the Iron Throne by binge-watching old episodes.
One of the best instalments of season 7 was The Spoils of War, in which Daenerys decimates the Lannisters’ loot train with the help of her fiercest dragon, Drogon.
The scene is spectacular, not least because it is our first view of the fearsome power and sheer size of an adult Drogon. But how is such a creature even created? And is that real fire?
To get under the skin of the fire-breathing beast, Daily Hive spoke to VFX Supervisor Thomas Schelesny and VFX Producer Tyler Weiss at Image Engine in Vancouver.
Schelesny explains the immediate challenge of the scene is for the filmmakers themselves, trying to film the actors when the main VFX character isn’t there.
“You’re standing out in an open field somewhere, and … they go, ‘There’s a dragon flying by and it’s the size of a 747,” said Schelesny. “Everybody gets a blank stare.”
The solution is to do much of the visual effects work before shooting even begins and that’s where Schelesny, Weiss, and their team come in.
“What we have to do is find the appropriate speed, the appropriate distances and real-world scale [for Drogon],” said Schelesny.
“So that when they go shoot these backgrounds they know how fast the camera needs to pan for something that’s moving 200 mph.”
The team began with an HBO-approved version of Drogon from a partner VFX company, and the look development department used this as a basis to add the organic details needed to create a realistic, relatable dragon.
Schelesny says the team looked at the way bats and eagles fly, and observed wind moving through the sails of ships to help them design Drogon’s wing membranes.
Under the dragon’s skin, the team put in a muscle system, so when Drogon’s arms move up and down, his shoulders and biceps flex the right amount at the right time.
“If Drogon lands on the ground in the battlefield, his arms and wing membranes all bounce and flutter appropriately,” said Schelesny.
The team then adds textures and colours to Drogon’s skin, adding detail and refinements ready for closeup shots.
“You have to see pores, you have to see veins, you have to see imperfections, little dots and age spots,” said Schelesny.
This final model of Drogon is passed to the riggers, who figure out how he is going to move around, adding bone-like controllers and testing how the skin wrinkles when he moves.
Once the shoot has happened, animators have to fly the CG character of Drogon through the filmed background and ensure the dragon is always a little bit ahead of the camera.
“You have to imagine, what would happen if a dragon was really doing this there?” said Schelesny. “The dragon would fly past and the camera operator would say, ‘Oh he’s flying left, I’d better follow him…’ We have to reverse engineer that.”
Lighting artists then match the lighting of Drogon with the light on set, and finally compositors integrate everything together.
“That’s when we will do the final adjustments of the dragon to fit into that background, add atmosphere, add haze, some smoke, some cloud effects,” said Schelesny.
But what about that fire? Daenerys and Drogon certainly don’t hold back in the sequence, burning through hundreds of the Lannisters’ troops with scorching streams of flames.
Schelesny explains that is real fire, those are real stunt men, and if the HBO producers can film something in real-life, they will.
“There are many occasions in the loot train sequence where you will see 30, 40, 50 people catching on fire,” said Schelesny. “In almost all those cases, it’s always people actually on fire. They just light a whole bunch of stuntmen on fire. All at once. I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
As for Drogon’s fiery breath, that was filmed using a giant flame thrower attached to an overhead rig that would fly in all directions.
Schelesny explains that HBO took the animated shot of Drogon created by Image Engine, and programmed the rig to match the dragon’s movement.
“If Drogon’s head moves left and right, the flame thrower turns left and right as well, and even moves through the stage,” said Schelesny.
The filmed flames are then integrated into the final shot by a VFX compositor.
Weiss, who liaised with HBO’s producer on the budget and schedule for the shots, said the biggest challenge of the sequence was the tight timing of the pre-visualization phase.
“They have to nail that, because they’ve booked these actors on a motion control rig for that timeframe,” said Weiss. “If our shots aren’t up to par and they’re not working well then we’ve got a problem – but it’s a serious financial problem on their side as well.”
Schelesny says this means there’s much less time for planning and “you have to rely on the artist’s first instincts being correct.”
“It is incredibly pressure-packed, and some people can view it as a wonderful experience, or incredibly difficult,” said Schelesny. “For me it’s a real challenge, as an artist and as a supervisor, possibly one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done in the industry.”
Overall, Schelesny, Weiss, and their team which peaked at 65 artists, completed 95 shots for Game of Thrones in season 7.
Weiss said this is the tightest run project he’s ever worked on, but he’s incredibly happy with how it went.
“It’s pretty hard not to be proud of the entire thing. I’m proud that we did it,” Weiss said.
Schelesny says ultimately, it’s not about the computers or the software, it’s about the people who choose this career as an artist and the camaraderie they build.
“We all did it together, we’ve a bond on our team now, because we all went through this battle, literally together,” he said.
“That kind of memory lasts forever, and that goes for every show you work on. It’s about the people that you shared that battle with.”