Waking The Dragons: Three VFX Secrets From Game of Thrones

After its glorious penultimate episode ‘The Battle of the Bastards’ this week, Game of Thrones has been spoiling us techie folks with insight into how exactly the world’s largest TV show creates such epic environments and creatures. We heard yesterday about just how the most intense battle scenes were filmed, and we now have some insight into how the show’s most iconic creatures were created.

Warning: Details of Game of Thrones Season 6, Episode 9 follow.

In a recent interview with Creative Bloq, the VFX wizards behind the creation of the show’s three dragons (who clearly demonstrated their fiery fury in the latest episode) spoke about the key steps of bringing fictional beasts to life on screen.

Steve Kullback and Joe Bauer, VFX producer and supervisor respectively outlined three golden rules for ensuring that the dragons look as real as possible.

1. Draw from Nature

First and foremost, they base the dragons on real animals. “When I came on, I suggested features for the dragons, like how the horns, fins, etc would perform based on the emotion of the dragon,” Bauer explained. “So, the rippling of the fins when Drogon is attacking – it looks like he’s riled you know? So we depend on so much real world reference. And the flying too, the flight is patterned after bats, owls and eagles I think. We try to invent from scratch as little as possible truthfully.”

Every season, the dragons roughly double in size, and a lot of work goes into ensuring that their growth appears natural.

The interview reveals that the team took as much from nature of possible when designing the dragons. Dan Catcher, the show’s dedicated dragon designer has the responsibility of scaling up the creatures each year.


Every season, the dragons roughly double in size, and a lot of work goes into ensuring that their growth appears natural.

“You know they started out as newborn infants and now they’re coming into their adulthood,” explains Bauer. “Dan’s got to work out the scale: you can’t just take one model and make it bigger because there is some sense we all have that tells us how big something is by how it’s proportioned and how it moves, how the details on it are laid out so that’s really in his ball park. And he’s really good at it.”

2. Fake Dragons, Real Fire

As anyone who has dabbled in VFX will know, elements such as water and fire are notoriously difficult to create convincingly in post-production. The Game of Thrones team wanted to make their dragons look as authentic as they possible, and although they couldn’t film real dragons, they could film real flames.

“The camera rig would essentially play the part of the dragon, and then fix a flame thrower to the camera head and blast fire 50 feet at stunt people.”

“The dragons have a wingspan of about 40 feet and breathe fire that shoots about 50 feet, so when Drogon comes into an environment and blasts a lot of people with fire you’d assume it’s CG fire and CG people,” says Kullback. “But what Joe proposed, in a fit of insanity (where we all sat around the table, mouth slack-jawed, looking at him going ‘are you crazy?’) was to animate the dragons in advance and take that animation and apply it to a motion control camera rig.”

“The camera rig would essentially play the part of the dragon, and then fix a flame thrower to the camera head and blast fire 50 feet at stunt people and have that be the fire coming out of the dragon’s mouth. So, you essentially have the fire and you have the stunt people getting hit and igniting and you have their performance all caught in camera. Then you are left with having to create the dragon and integrate it and tie it into into the fire.”


It sounds like a crazy suggestion, but as it turned out, it actually saved the production team money, especially as every frame of VFX work is such a massive expense.

“Initially we all looked at him like he was nuts but then we started making phone calls and exploring the feasibility of it all, doing some testing and ultimately that’s exactly how we went about it and it turned out to be the fastest, most cost effective, practical way to do it,” explains Kullback.

3. Create Real Models

At a number of points this season, Daenerys Targaryen needed to interact with her dragons and even fly with them. Interacting with marker points and lifeless green props is no fun for any actor, and so the VFX team tried to make it as easy as possible for Emilia Clarke (who plays Daenerys) to place herself in the scene.

“Our special effects team built a duplicate of that section of the dragon based on our CG model and it was a combination of part hydraulic and part manually operated, so that based on the animation of the dragon we had already done we knew what kind of movement it needed to do in the scene with Emilia on it,” Bauer explained.


“The team were able to capture her in the arena on green screen with fans, etc, shot on camera and the rest of it was putting the dragon in. The whole background was CG too, because there isn’t a real way to shoot a background for travelling along with a flying dragon!”

The incredible visuals created by Kullback, Bauer and their colleagues are one of the key components in bringing the realms of Westeros to life on screen. We can’t wait to see what they bring us in the season finale next week.

To read the interview in full, visit CreativeBloq.