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Masters of Dragons: Pixomondo On Three VFX Creature Creations In “Game Of Thrones”

BY: Marjorie Galas

The Pixomondo staff have mastered growth spurts. Since its creation in 2001, the “solutions oriented design company” has provided visual effects for films including “Hugo”, “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “The Hunger Games” as well as numerous series and commercials. Most recently, Pixomondo VFX Supervisor Sven Martin and VFX Producer Viktorija Ogureckaja have overseen a new level of maturity as their team took their Emmy winning “Game of Thrones” dragons into new heights for the fifth season of the HBO hit (premiering Sunday, April 12th.)

“They are growing with every season, and in season five they are quite big,” said Martin. “We are getting super close to the face, and the dragons are filling the whole frame. The textures are getting ten times much more complex, so this was the most challenging thing overall.”

HBO VFX  Producer Steve Kullback was confident in Pixomondo’s ability to oversee dragon development from the show’s onset. A former Pixomondo employee, he was familiar with the company’s quality of work and exceptional talent.  At that early stage, no one could foresee the affect the dragons would have on the storyline or the millions of global “Game of Thrones” fans.  What was most important to Martin from phase one was to ground the three fire-breathing, winged beasts in some form of reality.

“Dragons are not too easy. We didn’t want to go cartoony,” said Martin.  “When I see the final images on the screen and used in advertisements and posters, then I feel it’s been worth every hour we have spent on the dragons.”

Working off designs presented by creature designer Dan Katcher, Martin began by loosely conceptualizing a fully mature dragon and working backwards. Although story development will dictate each dragon’s final physical appearance, the concept allowed the animators to create bodies that would lend themselves to realistic growth patterns. While a number of lizards and birds influenced the dragon’s design, Martin wanted his team to have some “hands on” inspiration. He brought a supermarket chicken – the most accessible carcass – to his team during the early design phase, enabling them to physically experiment and become familiar with the unity of bones, muscles and skin, particularly around the bird’s wings.

Pixomondo’s Los Angeles and Germany based offices collaborated through skype and cineSync during the initial dragon designs. Since season three, the German team spearheads all aspects of the creature creation. Members of each stage of development: modeling, rigging, texture, colors, lighting and simulation, sit closely together, collaborating throughout each phase. Working from plates and detailed information provided by production, the Pixomondo team will virtually rebuild lighting,  geography, or an entire set to ensure the dragons reflect every aspect of their physical placement in each environment accurately. The close collaboration between production and VFX has resulted in less time correcting errors, efficiently maintaining their schedule and budget.

“We’re dealing with our portion of the shots in about 22-24 weeks,” said Ogureckaja. “We’ve developed a kind of pipeline with the production VFX Supervisor Joe Bauer and Producer for the season. They know what our needs are and we also know what we need to provide to them so we can get timely feedback. It’s been really great communication.”

Moving from season to season, Martin and his team assess the growth spurts of the dragons and make adjustments to size and physicality that aid believability. In season three, as the dragon’s wing span increased, Martin and his team adjusted the body’s original architecture by redefining the chest and bone structure, making it less top-heavy and more streamlined for flight.  New physical attributes appropriate to maturing mental and physical growth are also introduced.  As the dragons became more protective of their guardian, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the team took a cue directly from nature and added frills around the neck. When threatened, lizards will activate similar frills to appear larger and more fearsome to predators.  These attributes enable the team to infuse distinctive personalities to each creature through stance and physicality,  rather than expressive facial gestures or unrealistic humanizing attributes.

Moving into season five, the Pixomondo team not only increased the size of the dragons, they increased the surface appearance from head to tail. Viewers can expect to see much more detail around the face and horns. The scales covering the chest and back are drier, darker and large – becoming more like a coat of armor. The skin under the arms and around the wings has more translucencies, allowing for greater flexibility in flight. Each individual scale has been modeled, painted, and attached to the skin – a process that greatly increased the effects rendering time. With tighter shots on the dragons’ surfaces, the Pixomondo team added a bevy of new textures to the creatures: last season’s dragon surface presented roughly 70 textures. In season five, 740 textures have been introduced.

While the workload continues to increase each year, Ogureckaja and Martin feel their seasoned team, along with the professional crew working in every aspect of production on “Game of Thrones”, enable them to continually put together the best results possible. Their efforts have resulted in numerous award nominations and wins including a Visual Effects Society Award and Emmy Award for the dragons in season four’s “The Children.” What makes them most proud is the global reception of their “children.”

“We call them dragon babies,” said Ogureckaja. “We are so proud; it is challenging to find the balance between time frames and the amount of work. We are happy that the dragons have been received so well around the world.”

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