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Inside Job

Meet the VFX Team Behind the ‘Game of Thrones’ Dragons

Meet the VFX Team Behind the ‘Game of Thrones’ Dragons
Photo Source: Courtesy HBO

Throughout the entirety of “Game of Thrones,” many of the characters have stared in awe at Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons. Though the creatures were added in postproduction, the scaly, fire-breathing dragons marveled at by viewers come courtesy of Pixomondo, an international creative design and visual effects company. David Garber, executive producer of themed entertainment, talks about the evolution of Dany’s winged children. 

How did working on the dragons in Season 7 of “Game of Thrones” differ from earlier seasons?
This year was quite a challenge because of the incredible, extensive increase in the size of the dragons. [The teams] were forced to deal with much more detail in building out the look and the fabric and the textures and the coloring of the dragons. It became much more challenging now that the scale was being increased. The camera pushes in and sees much more detail.

How much does Pixomondo interact with actors?
We send digital effects supervisors to set and we work with the actors extensively. Everything is done against green screen, everything the actors will interact with is marked with little dots, and [with] computer settings, the marks are recorded in the camera. When we get that material back in the postproduction process, we know exactly where their hand movements are, where their face motion is. It’s become very sophisticated in terms of being able to track the motions of the actor and the dragon that we’re putting into the scenes to interact with them. The visual effects supervisors have been working with them extensively. You develop a language with the actors and they begin to understand a little more about what’s going on behind the scenes and how things are going to work out in postproduction. 

How much do you collaborate with the directors and people on set?
If it’s a live-action shoot like “Game of Thrones,” basically everything is worked out in the production meeting. Everybody sits at a big table with the producers and the directors and the production manager and the designers and wardrobe. Everyone goes through the script and people know what’s going to happen. All of the visual effects scenes are broken out and shot even before that meeting. If it’s an extremely complicated scene, we’ll do a little bit of what we call previs [previsualization]. The production manager works with the director, and you work out what scenes are going to be shot first. [On] “Game of Thrones,” usually the visual effects shots are pushed toward the end of the show because the directors don’t want to deal with them up front. They want to get through the acting and the battle scenes first.

We just opened this attraction in New York for National Geographic that’s a totally different approach. That falls into my division, which is themed entertainment. We do massive large-format media attractions. For the National Geographic piece, there were nine different environments there. Each one has its own story, screen size, film rate, and resolution. In that particular case, we have myself and art directors that will sit down with those clients and work out the architectural logistics and how those various immersive scenes are going to play out. The first room you step into, you feel as though you’re stepping into an underwater world, and the camera is moving forward and the imagery on the floor and the wall around you [moves]. As you move, you disturb the floor and manta rays are moving around.

What do you see as the future for special effects in film and television?
I personally don’t think that VR is going to be as all-consuming as some folks think. I think that putting on the VR headset is somewhat limiting to making it a personal experience. Many people have expressed to us the feeling of going into a space with their families and being able to walk through as a group and being able to comment on it and experience it as opposed to putting on a VR headset and having this isolated experience. We’re seeing more and more reliance upon visual effects in feature films and TV work. On the other hand, I think people are feeling a little oversaturated with them. A lot of people want to get back to seeing dramatic pieces again. You have things like “Westworld” and “Game of Thrones,” where you have effects where you don’t really know they’re effects. In “Game of Thrones,” there are obviously things that you can see and some you can’t. We create multilevel matte paintings to create some of the visions and places within the “Game of Thrones” landscape—some of the castles and the mountains, the overall look. All of those are created artificially with matte paintings, and people are placed into them and battle scenes are placed into them. You don’t think it’s a visual effect, which is good. 

What else is Pixomondo doing in the film world?
We have developed a deep previs team. Right now we’re probably the only company that is pushing to previs an entire TV show or an entire film. TV shows don’t always get to do it because the schedule is so tight. Previs is a grayscaled, very rough animation of what the scenes are going to look like with the actors and the visual effects. At the moment, we’re reaching a point where we’re allowing the director to have the ability to see his entire film before he goes on location. When he gets to the location, he knows exactly what he wants and he saves a tremendous amount of time.

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