Image courtesy of Pixomondo

My hardest "Game of Thrones" shot ever

By Sven Martin, Pixomondo (Frankfurt)

Sven Martin, VFX Supervisor at the Frankfurt branch of multinational PIXOMONDO, dishes on his most challenging shot encountered in their Emmy Award-winning work on HBO’s Game of Thrones: The starving, emaciated dragons of Season 6.

Finding the right vision

One of the challenges of working in animation is the distance between you and the director. If you think of an actor on set, they’re constantly getting feedback about their performance, working with the director, testing different approaches, and all of this happens in real-time. With us, there’s a much greater distance between the artist and the director, and the back-and-forth typically happens over email, over the course of weeks, and that is its own challenge.

 

"There’s a lot more subtlety involved – a twitch of the eye, a labored breath – in conveying weakness."

 

Hungry, hungry dragons

This gulf became especially noticeable in this past season of Game of Thrones when we were given a new creative challenge: to design starving, emaciated dragons. Because of a narrative change, our once-powerful dragons were now weakened and kept in chains, no longer the monsters of brute force and power from previous seasons. And as it turns out, it’s much harder to convey weakness than strength, design-wise.

There’s a lot more subtlety involved – a twitch of the eye, a labored breath – in conveying weakness. But the dragons still needed to be impressive enough and threatening enough that Tyrion Lannister (and the millions of people in HBO’s audience) would be afraid of getting too close to them.

So really, it was a balancing act, and it took a lot of back-and-forth with Joe, HBO’s supervisor on this, to find that perfect balance.

 


* see 00:12-2:00 in the video for Sven's shot.

"[We] put ropes around our necks…as we acted out what it would be like to be injured dragons."


The lengths we went to

Just to give you an idea of how much we brainstormed for this scene, there was a point that my animator and I put ropes around our necks, and our VFX producer, Sabrina Gerhardt held the reigns, so to speak, as we acted out what it would be like to be injured dragons. We filmed the whole thing, and that helped us nail down the details. It was a lot like motion capturing, without the technical process, in that it helped us to find the subtleties of the performance.



Critical details

Obviously, all of the dragons’ body fat is gone, so they’re physically shrunk down, and their rib cages are visible. We wanted to hint at the internal biology of the dragons, to drive home the idea that these are living, breathing, organic creatures. So we made parts of their skin slightly transparent, and we made an inner layer of veins visible, and even showed blood pulsing through their veins in some parts.

Lighting and shading also played a major role. We normally see the dragons outside, in daylight, so there’s a uniformity to their design. Not this time. The lighting was adjusted on a shot-by-shot basis because these dragons have been kept in captivity; we see them only by torchlight, or maybe by the light of their own fire breaths, and they look like they haven’t seen the sun in a long while.

 

Technical process

All of this required much detail, a lot of subtle design work, so we ultimately landed on a setup with two dragon models: one being the healthy dragon, and the other being the sickly dragon, with zombie-like skin. That way, we could play around with each model, depending on the shot, revealing a bit more of the subdermal skin, say, or changing the shading. And it gave us the freedom to make even last-minute changes without having to back to the rendering process, which can be very time-consuming, especially when you’re dealing with close-up shots of very detailed creatures like dragons.

"Maya both pulls and writes back to Shotgun – and this is very helpful in our work overall."


Our design team ended up with twice the notes they would normally have for a dragon comp. We had seven people working on this for maybe five or six weeks just to get one shot right, and in the end, there were easily 20 animation variants completed. It’s a lot of work, but that’s what it takes to create a creature that captivates an audience.

From skin to shading to simulation, much of this work was done in Maya, out of the box. We have Maya and Shotgun communicate – Maya both pulls and writes back to Shogun – and this is very helpful in our work overall.

 


In addition to Game of Thrones, Sven's VFX work can be seen in Star Trek, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hunger Games.

Thank you, Sven and Pixomondo, for sharing your story with us!


For more from Sven on Game of Thrones: Beyond the Wall: The story of six VFX studios behind the epic "Game of Thrones"

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