Witness the Creation of the Dragon Skull for “Stormborn” and the Evolution of Dragon VFX from Season 1 to 7

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Who would have thought we’d ever see Balerion the Black Dread in Game of Thrones. Aegon the Conqueror’s mount has been dead for centuries, and a flashback seemed unlikely, so that appeared to be it. Until last week: in “Stormborn,” Cersei tested Qyburn’s new anti-dragon artillery against the skull of Balerion. Of course, it wasn’t like seeing him in his prime, but just seeing the remains of this fearsome, historic creature was awe-inspiring. As it that wasn’t enough, now you’ll be get to see how this impressive sculpture (sorry, it wasn’t an actual dragon skull) was created as well.

Newsweek brings us this wonderful look into the production, with the guidance of the head of the sculpture department, Darren Fitzsimons, who “worked with a team of four sculptors over six weeks” to sculpt this colosal prop, based on an original “concept illustration and a digital model” created “under the direction of production designer Deborah Riley, [which] was approved by [showrunners] Dan [Weiss] and David [Benioff] —they were keen that the skull have the detail of an evolved creature.”

“We set out a grid and drew a front and side elevation of the skull,” Fitzsimons began. “We then calculated that we needed 30 poly blocks that are each 2 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet. These were all glued together. A basic shape was then created using hot wires, followed by an assortment of hand tools to carve the detail on the interior and exterior”, Fitzsimons continued. “It does not have any internal metal armature. The teeth are the supporting structure on which the rest of the sculpt sits.” To give us a better sense of how impressive this is, he said the final skull is “32 feet by 20 feet by 15 feet high.”

The sculpture department sculpts Balerion's skull. Photo: Newsweek

The sculpture department sculpts Balerion’s skull. Photo: Newsweek

Of course, Balerion’s skull wasn’t just a static prop, as Cersei had to shoot a bolt from Qyburn’s scorpion through the skull, so the special effects team had to get involved “to create the cavity needed for the piece that would explode when the bolt hit it.”

One may think he wouldn’t enjoy seeing his creation destroyed, but nothing is further from the truth: “It was not sad for me to see the skull damaged in the action, actually the opposite. I enjoy being a sculptor for film and having my work interactive and play a role in telling the story. The way it is to work on camera has to always be my focus.”

Once finished, the piece was “plastered, painted and cut up for transport from Belfast, Northern Ireland, to Seville, Spain. It was reassembled on site in a day and a half,” the head sculptor recounted, referring to the location chosen to depict the deepest dungeons of the Red Keep where the Targaryen relics reside: Seville’s Royal Shipyards.

Darren Fitzsimons stands next to Balerion's enormous skull

Darren Fitzsimons stands next to the finished skull sculpture. Photo: Newsweek

“It is the most challenging piece that the sculpture department has created. There was a lot of sculpture work in Season 7, and time was a problem. There was no time to sculpt a clay maquette; we worked directly from the digital model, which proved challenging.”

Since the episode aired, the has been much discussion about Balerion’s size compared to Drogon, the largest of Dany’s dragons. The last time we saw Dany next to her dragon, in Battle of the Bastards, Drogon’s head looked decidedly smaller than Balerion’s does next to Cersei. But we haven’t seen the dragons next to any humans this season yet, so how does Drogon currently compare to Balerion at his death? According to Fitzsimons, they “calculated that it would be about the same size as Drogon is in Season 7.”

If that claim is remotely accurate, get ready for a truly enormous Drogon this season, whenever the black creature and its smaller siblings get back into action.

Drogon and Daenerys in battle; notice the Drogon head-to-Daenerys body comparison

Notice the Drogon head-to-Daenerys body comparison in the incoming “The Spoils of War”

Speaking of the Dragon Queen’s three children, Thrillist contacted the special effects artists involved in the creation of the dragons throughout the years, and ran down the evolution of Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion, beginning in season one:

“We were given a sculpted maquette to base our CGI build on,” recalled Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor, the visual effects producer of BlueBolt, the London-based special effects studio in charge of bringing the birth of the dragons to life. “But when we began the build we realized that the spikes on the back of its neck were too long to allow it to turn its head without stabbing itself. We also made alterations to how the wings and legs worked so that we weren’t creating any design problems later on when they would grow up — we knew [the dragons] were going to fly in later seasons.”

Little Drogon tries to breath fire in "The Ghost of Harrenhal"

Little Drogon tries to breath fire in “The Ghost of Harrenhal”

Moving on to season two, the dragons were still pretty much just as small but they were almost completely re-worked, looking much more like younger versions of the dragons we know and love today. The company in charge of the redesign was a German VFX studio, Pixomondo, who were new back then yet have stayed with the show ever since:

“I forced our animators and riggers to play with the wings [of chicken] to understand the natural restrictions and the anatomy of a real wing,” visual effects supervisor Sven Martin told Thrillist. “Peeling off the skin to one side to reveal the muscle layout was very helpful for the rigging artists, even though it was a little disgusting.”

Since then, thanks to Pixomondo, the dragons have felt much more realistic and authentic, because of the evident mix of reptilian, avian, and bat-like features. The dragon-fire had to wait until season three for this leap forward in realism, when Game of Thrones visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer decided to use real fire – that is, flamethrowers: “They’d shoot huge flame bursts against black material to be used as an element or film a flamethrower right in the shot setting a stuntman on fire.” For the Daznak’s Pit sequence in season five, a flamethrower was rigged onto a motion-control crane arm, effectively creating a mechanical dragon on-set.

Drogon spits fire at Daznak's Pit in "Dance of Dragons"

Drogon spits fire at Daznak’s Pit in “The Dance of Dragons”

Another special effect hurdle appeared at that time, as Drogon had become big enough for Daenerys to ride. For these dragonrider scenes in the last three seasons, Pixomondo pre-annimated everything as best they could based on storyboards and pre-visualizations, and that digital information was then emulated by the motion-control construct Emilia Clarke actually rode on-set.

The dragons had an even larger setpiece exactly a season later, when they made an example of an enemy ship to frighten the slaver fleet in season six. As in season five, the dragons themselves were created by LA-based studio Rhythm & Hues, while the Meereenese enviroments were handled by Rodeo FX, a Canadian special effects company. Thrillist reports that the most challenging part wasn’t the CGI but merging it with the many practical effects used for the sequence, such as the dragonfire, the sinking boat, and Daenerys herself. According to the VFX artists, the use of these elements brings an authenticity to the scene.

Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion fight together in "Battle of the Bastards"

Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion fight together in “Battle of the Bastards”

So, what about season seven? We saw Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion in the premiere, flying over the Targaryen fleet and circling the tower of Dragonstone, but they skipped the following episode, so we haven’t really seen much of them yet. Rest assured, we’ll see them a lot more soon, and there is a lot more to see, too; they have become so large that a motion-controlled crane-mounted flamethrower couldn’t go high enough or quickly enough to keep up with their new size. Instead of a Technocrane, this season the special effects department used a Spidercam cable system — essentially a camera hanging from a horizontally-placed cable, flying at high speeds from one end to another.

Man, am I looking forward to see that.

28 responses

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    1. Compare it to the one Arya stands next to in season 1 which looks like a ruddy sabre tooth tiger. God, I hope we see a spin off of the Conquest or the Dance. Then we’d see Balerion and Vhagar in their prime.

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    2. Its just incredible how they made that skull – Also that it was cut up in Belfast for shipping to Seville and reassembled in the old royal ship yard. I’m not surprised it took them a day and a half to put it together again!

      The dragon CGI has certainly improved over the seasons and looking forward to more dragon action in S7 🙂

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    3. Awesome skull!
      I hated that smug-faced Cersei and equally smug-faced Pycelle destroyed a priceless dragon skull like Balerion’s. It reminded me of the destruction of old Buddha statues in Afghanistan by certain factions of people in the real world. Those two came across as the sort of people whose sole purpose in life is to destroy, not build.

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    4. Isn’t it said that the dragons continue to grow as long as they live? Balerion was around 200 years old so I wouldn’t think Drogon would be the same size yet unless he’s a super fast grower…
      It’s going to suck when they kill them all — you know they will eventually in one way or another. 🙁

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    5. he said the final skull is “32 feet by 20 feet by 15 feet high.”

      That is one big weapon of mass destruction. It is hard to imagine Drogon coming close to that in his first decade (when B was 200 Planetos years old when he passed). I wonder what was D, R & V’s diet on the way over from Meereen and now that they are in Westeros? Each day, a village or ranch must be a sacrifice. Yikes! Details, details…

      I like that Balerion died of old age…like Aemon.

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    6. As amazing as the Balerion skull looks, I kind of did prefer the look in Season 1.

      It looked more decrepit, like something truly ancient. The teeth were also considerably larger.

      This year’s skull looks a little too detailed and well preserved. As incredible as the work is, it just didn’t look as “real” (yes, obviously none of it is real, but you know what I mean).

      As for Drogon being Balerion’s size, well we always knew that Drogon was Balerion come again, so ultimately would have the potential to grow to the same size. However, since Balerion was 200 years old, and Drogon is only a few years old, it is slightly ridiculous that Drogon would be anywhere near that size at this point.

      The dragons are meant to keep growint forever as long as they aren’t locked up and have food.

      But even Randyll Tarly was speaking of “full grown dragons” last episode. Seems the show has changed this aspect of the lore for the sake of having Drogon fulfill his potential.

      I was hoping for the dragons to be even larger next year, but given all of this, and the previous remarks from someone in the technical department (I forget who) about the dragons being as big as they’re going to get, it seems that whatever we see of Drogon this year is as epic as the dragons are likely to be.

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    7. I will never get over the beautiful compositing this show does with real world and cgi. I work in graphics and animation for television so these things always fascinate me. And how impressive does that dragon skull sculpture look!

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    8. Luka Nieto:
      Kay,

      That was Qyburn. Pycelle’s busy being dead at the hands of a dozen children.

      Thank The Many-Faced God he is “busy”! …and that lizard Qyburn is soooo welcome to join him asap! 😀

      Enjoyed the article, Luka. As a creative soul, it’s always great to hear about the who and how behind this ground breaking production.

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    9. There has been discussion elsewhere that if that’s Balerion’s skull , it looks too small!
      At least in relation to the page description.
      Any comments on this?

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    10. Markus Stark: But even Randyll Tarly was speaking of “full grown dragons” last episode. Seems the show has changed this aspect of the lore for the sake of having Drogon fulfill his potential.

      Those two guys sitting behind Arya at the Inn were talking about them, too, saying they didn’t believe they were as big as the reports said they were. They felt Cersei was just trying to scare them. They were in a big hurry to get to Kings Landing to make some money. I wonder if they will be shown again, catching sight of the “can’t be that big” Drogon. We’ve been promised by two visions that a dragon flies over Kings Landing. Both Bran and Dany saw a dragon shadow. (at least I think Dany saw it, I know Bran’s vision had it.)

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    11. JerryT: All I know is that I want a full size replica!! I’ll put it in the back yard, lol.

      Wouldn’t that huge skull be great on a big piece of property that people hiked through? That would get their attention.

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    12. Did anyone else watch this scene and go ‘Is that it? Is that your plan? A ballista?’

      It really did feel utterly daft I have to say. It was either meant to show how deluded Cersei is from reality or it was a complete misfire scene. Hoping it’s the former and her smug face turns to some sort of terror when she first sees Drogon.

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    13. Kay:

      I hated that smug-faced Cersei and equally smug-faced [Qyburn] destroyed a priceless dragon skull like Balerion’s. It reminded me of the destruction of old Buddha statues in Afghanistan by certain factions of people in the real world.

      I had the exact same reaction! Massacring people is bad enough, but when the bad guys start destroying their own cultural/historical heritage, they seem beyond hope to me. Some things are supposed to transcend a human lifetime – or an ideology.

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    14. Hal.E.Lujah,

      You realize the show is probably going to go for loads of ballistas. Just how they had Euron build a thousand ships in a couple of months. They’d probably have multiple ballistas ready to go. Plus with the way it is engineered, it is very easy to use. One of the Dragons will getting badly injured or even killed by one of those ballistas.

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    15. Hal.E.Lujah: Did anyone else watch this scene and go ‘Is that it? Is that your plan? A ballista?’

      I’m sure Drogon will pause his strafing run and pose for Cersei or whoever is manning the weapon. 🙂 The only way to sensibly to use a weapon like that is if they lure D, R or V onto the ground and into a tight area.

      Golden hand the sister fooker: the show is probably going to go for loads of ballistas

      Well, that’s just not fair! But yeah, more is better. From design to testing to mass production in weeks! A developer’s dream!

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    16. Golden hand the sister fooker:
      Hal.E.Lujah,

      You realize the show is probably going to go for loads of ballistas. Just how they had Euron build a thousand ships in a couple of months. They’d probably have multiple ballistas ready to go. Plus with the way it is engineered, it is very easy to use. One of the Dragons will getting badly injured or even killed by one of those ballistas.

      As I remember , on the page, ballistas were used against dragons during Aegon’s Conquest ,and I think I remember this right, no dragon was killed in battle.
      George seems to imply that the dragons are very hard to kill tho can be held in captivity in such a way as to kind of ‘breed’ them to death. That wouldn’t work on the show.

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    17. That final image of Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion at Meereen looks as if it could have been painted by J. M. W. Turner.

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    18. Since we are on the topic of dragons, it just occurred to me, the night king had revived the giants would it be possible that one of them is actually wielding a bow and arrow? Like the one on episode 9 (Watcher’s on the wall) of season 4 who shot a guy at the top of the wall with a big-ass arrow. If so, then I think the night king had something for the dragons now, in case Daeny did ended up helping Jon.

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