VFX team talks animating the dragons and more

Our reader Anna (who goes by the name Not Today around here) was kind enough to provide us with a translation of a recent interview with Sven Martin and Boris T. Duepré from Pixomondo, the VFX company, about their work on Season 3. Originally published on Dragon Days Festival website.

Photo by HBOQ: In the second season you took a dead chicken as a source for inspiration to get the movements of the dragons’ wings done properly. Has there been a similar inspirational source for season 3?

Sven Martin: The study of the dead chicken from last year was needed to figure out how to do the ‘rigs’ (which is a term for the digital skeletal and muscular system) of the dragons properly. Thus, the animators got a feeling of how the movements of a flying bird would look in reality. In season 3 we could build on that knowledge but we did studies of bigger birds and edited their anatomy. With regards to the animations we looked particularly closely at different methods of flight and different methods of how to dive into water.

Q: Could you reuse the material for the season 3 dragons from the second season or did you have to start all over again?

Sven Martin: We started with the basic model of season 2 but had to change them in their proportions since the dragons have grown by the start of the third season. Additionally, they have new features which you couldn’t see before but which become visible when they attack. This was done by us beforehand through 3D sculpting and conventional 2D concepts.

Q: What are you given by the production company and what do you have to develop all by yourselves?

Sven Martin: The production company sets the agenda. Usually this happens by means of movie recommendations and conventional dragon models, and then of course through real animals. We try to combine all these single ideas to a coherent overall concept – of course there are also a few ideas which get dropped during this process.

Q: In the third season there is a manticore. How did you research for this mythical creature?

Boris T. Duepré: We used several models for the manticore. The movements are based on a mixture of spiders and scorpions. The looks however are closer to those of scorpions and beetles.

Q: During the course of researching for the third season of Game of Thrones you went to Ireland for a week. What did you do there and why did you feel the need to go there?

Boris T. Duepré: Nothing is more real than reality. So we visited a lot of castles throughout Ireland and at times we even went to shooting locations. We took a lot of pictures to enhance the Game of Thrones landscapes with as much detail and love as possible.

Q: What are the steps necessary for the production of visual effects? For example, what do you need the visualization of skeletal and muscular system for?

Sven Martin: To us, one of our main challenges for the characters in GoT was the biggest possible believability. Every fantastical animal should become as vivid and animalistic as possible; as if they performed next to the actors on set. Since living creatures are obviously very complex objects, the lack of muscles, breathing, realistic wrinkles and skin tightening, saliva or the moisture on the eyes could destroy these illusions quickly.

Q: Is the work on Game of Thrones a job like any other or are you fans of the series or the books as well by now?

Sven Martin: There is indeed a big difference to have a team of fans who do the work since the motivation is a lot bigger this way and what is more is that you can add all the additional knowledge you have from the books. Therefore, there are ideas in our designs or shots which aren’t even in the scripts.

Q: In 2012, you won an Emmy for your work on Game of Thrones. Where did you put the award and what does it mean to you?

Sven Martin: We won an Emmy and VES Award for the second season, which are the biggest two awards we could possibly get for our work. Of course this makes us incredibly proud, especially since behind-the-scenes work most often goes unnoticed.

Boris T. Duepré: The Emmy Award is, in the TV business, the biggest award you can get worldwide. Therefore, we’re very proud of our team to have created all of these stunning pictures and to have won this award. Unfortunately, you don’t get that precious statue for every single member who was a part of the project. The received awards are at the peoples’ places who received them and are brought to the office only on special occasions.


  • Good work, guys!

    Now, if only the direwolves could be done from scratch.

    The enlarging of real wolves seems to not be working that well. (Only a few instances, but noticeably not as good as the dragons.)

  • Remember in early Season 1, when we were all worried the dragons were going to look terrible? :)

  • D’Arcy,

    I think using real wolves has been infinitely better than attempting to create the entire creature digitally. Fur is notoriously difficult to animate with even a modicum of believability, so I think they’ve made the right choice where that is concerned. And honestly, the only time the effect hasn’t worked well for me was in The Rains of Castamere, with Grey Wind leading the army. His feet didn’t seem to be touching the ground, or so it seemed. Other than that, the effect has been pretty seamless, I’d say.

    On-topic: This show has SFX better than most feature films (not to mention the practical effects and locations), and everyone who works so hard to bring this story to life deserves all the credit in the world – especially those people who are behind-the-scenes.

  • D’Arcy,

    I think that’s partly because we already know how actual wolves look, how large they’re supposed to be, etc. so we notice things that are “off” more easily. I’m fine with the direwolves on the show, I’m sure that the SFX team is doing the best they can with them. But my opinion is that they should’ve just used real wolves (that is, not CG’ed wolves but the actual, normal sized animals). The arctic types are large enough.

  • barak,

    They still wouldn’t be able to work on set, and would have to be digitally inserted into the scenes, just without upscaling.

  • The biggest problem I had with the direwolves was in The Rains of Castamere, when one of the wolves was eating the neck of a wildling in Jon’s storyline.

    It just looked really fake.

  • I wonder if they studied animations for GRRM’s Twilight Zone episode “The Sand Kings” when they were designing the manticore — I saw some similarities.

  • Hear Me Roar,

    Yes, but it would be less “off.” At least for me the size of the wolves always throws me off. I look at them and my brain automatically goes “no, wolves shouldn’t be so large!”

    Of course this is different with dragons, since they’re completely fantasy creatures.

  • This reminds me…

    Season 4 will have to start up with the implication that some time has passed for the characters…

    So Dany’s dragons can be shown as having grown and doubled in size.

    I really want them to double in size from season to season. Would be awesome!

  • I’m looking forward to seeing Drogon fully grown as described in ADWD. Since he’s out and about Meereen doing his own thing, we don’t see him for a long time. Then when he finally turns up at Daznak’s Pit all big and everything, I really want that OMFG moment.

    I’m not happy with how all three dragons look like clones of each other. I think their different colours should indicate different breeds as well.

  • Bookill,

    IDK about different breeds but I agree they should perhaps have different traits. Different strengths and weaknesses…

    And about that pit moment… I can not wait to see that stare down! Emilia really has that toughass “Khaleesi” stare down. Can’t wait to see her use it on Drogon…

  • Somebody mentioned this in another thread but I would like to see nymeria/arya develop as a storyline. The direwolves were largely ignored in season 3 except for a few highlight reel scenes. Greywind the alpha male of the direwolves and as ferocious as hell, was not given his swansong scene from the books where he took out several freys and their wolves. I realise that the budget can only go so far but damn it would have been good to see that. So I champion the idea of nymeria/arya roaming through the riverlands with her pack of wolves killing freys where she finds them…

  • barak,

    Huh, they are direwolves ! They are supposed to be larger than normal wolves, so i don’t understand your complain .

  • The lack of direwolf action is my only big complaint about the show. Is there anyway that a kickstarter could be done to raise funds for SFX for the wolves?

  • Nyk Giantsbane,

    I think people are putting way too much trust in Kickstarter than needed imo. Corporations are going to take advantage of that when they see sheep people donating their money for various projects for nothing and they don’t even have to make an effort

  • Michael274,

    Whatever it takes to get more Ghost. I don’t understand why they showed him less this season.

  • I always like hearing from the crew, whether it’s pre, prod or post.

    Nice job with the translation too, it’s much appreciated

  • Nyk Giantsbane,

    In ep 3 they showed him wandering off when they arrived at Crasters. Im sure he’ll be back in an epic way like where he saves Sam. Maybe something to do with Bran? That would be cool

  • Yes more direwolf action is needed I feel too, My friends who arnt book readers don’t even know there names which is ridiculous.

  • Ms. D. Ranged in AZ:

    Hunh?The Freys had wolves?Did I miss something in the books?

    Yes the freys had wolves. And the direwolf killed four of them. And then he ripped off the kennelmaster’s arm. And all this after being shot with many arrows. A ferocious beast indeed.

  • Michael274,

    Yes, but it’s one thing to read about extremely huge wolves and imagine them for yourself, and another thing to actually see them. D&D said they tried making the wolves even larger to be more faithful to the book, but they abandoned the idea because after a certain point suspension of disbelief stopped working. But for me, even the size they decided on is too jarring. It’s not anyone’s fault, really, but my own.

  • less ghost this season. could it be because they use real wolfs and the fat that they were filming in iceland ment they couldnt bring them real wolfs

  • I like the fact that the direwolves are huge. They aren’t normal wolves and are supposed to be larger anyway

  • Winter’s heart,

    It just comes down to money. They can’t afford badass looking Direwolves. If you watch the most recent Red Riding Hood or even the Twilight movies you can see some really great looking huge CGI wolves that still look very lifelike to me.

    A TV fantasy series can not bring us all the fantasy from the books due to budget constraint. It’s sad but true and we just have to deal with that reality.

    If GoT ever gets into a movie series deal, like twilight or the avengers, and turns into a Hollywood big budget movie franchise, we will get some amazing Direwolves and Dragons. For now, we just have to appreciate what we get, which without a doubt is the best CGI and VSF of any TV show ever.

  • I wish they could have used puppets for the dragons in some scenes. I know some people think they are childish, but I find them absolutely life-like if done properly. Look at Dark Crystal or Jabba’s palace and you can see an example of amazing creatures, and tell me you couldn’t have had a wolf simply sitting next to Robb, looking around and looking mean. Or having three dragons lazing about Dany while she was holding court outside Yunkai….or just Drogon alone (her fave). It wouldn’t be too hard to hire a puppet dude, would it? I would think you could cut your CGI budget just enough…..but that may be just wishful thinking.

  • Yoosteen Bose,

    I always wondered why HBO doesn’t just make their own VFX/CGI company. I mean a top notch one that would get contracts from other outside HBO projects for Hollywood movies. Charge them the normal rate for the CGI work but when an HBO series needs VFX/CGI the HBO company would do it for free. Allowing all HBO show budgets to be used for other things and not wasted on CGI since all their shows CGI would now be done “in house” so to speak…

    I don’t understand why HBO doesn’t create their own CGI/VFX company so all they would have to do is pay those workers salary and cut out the “middle man” so to speak. I bet at first to start a company like that would be expensive but over the years it would pay for itself by eliminating HBO show cost needs on CGI/VSX and allowing for HBO producers and show runners to bring their full visions to the TV screen rather then their “budget visions” to the TV screen…

    Okay, rant over…

  • Thanks for this lovely article, a woman truly enjoys the behind-the-scenes articles whenever and wherever they appear!

  • Arthur,

    VFX Companies whether working in house or not still need to be PAID. Passion for a project does not pay the bills. Pixomondo have an obligation to their employees. If HBO did create their own effects company, they still have an obligation to their employees. It would be naive to think otherwise.

  • Bookill,


    It would be naïve to think HBO can create a VFX company and pay their workers salaries throughout the year?

    You do know the company HBO hired to do VFX chargers HBO enough to pay their workers and for the company itself to pocket some money via “profit” for that company itself.

    It would be pretty naïve to not understand if HBO had its own VFX company it would cost them much less, in the long run, for VFX because they would be paying cost only, not cost + extra money for the company itself to profit because HBO would be that company and it would be like charging themselves.

    Just because you don’t understand this general concept doesn’t make someone who does naïve.

    To simplify it for you.

    This is what is happening now.

    HBO pays a VFX company to do VFX for their shows. That VFX company charges HBO an amount that would pay their employees for their work plus that companies CEOs and shareholders. So HBO is covering both the actual cost of the VFX plus paying more so that company can make a profit.

    If HBO had its own in house VFX company of course they would pay their workers but they would be paying their workers at actual cost price, not cost + profit.

    Sorry if you do not understand what I am trying to communicate.

  • Arthur:
    And with this clip I can see why I could never be an actor… These mobs of people would make me so frustrated, I would never be able to be so nice all the time…

    You ,my friend, would have made for a very poor Liberace type celebrity. What
    would Marlena Dietrich advise for an average John Doe as you ? You have to
    walk the walk ,and talk the talk. Pole dance on the red carpet events for the cameras.
    Stage left, then you utter the swearwords (: Never let the public see you sweat,
    just hold up you free $$$$$$ designer gear.

  • Arthur,

    Did I offend you? That was not my intention at all, so my apologies for that.

    If HBO were to set up their own VFX company they would need to generate enough internal work to keep their employees busy (and paid). I haven’t looked into this too intently at all but I don’t think they have enough there to keep them going. They would have to take on other clients to remain viable just as HBO are not Pixomondo’s only client. I don’t think that’s a good business model. A standard annual wage may not be enough to keep talent there. Talented artists like the one’s at Pixomondo are not going to sit around waiting for HBO’s next season of work, they’re going to look elsewhere in the meantime. And anyway, the dragons look absolutely awesome. That kind of awesome doesn’t (and shouldn’t) come cheap. I’m actually trying to break into this industry as an animator.

  • Arthur,

    That’s not how companies work. It’s not just the employees, but you have to have the computing power to render the images, the software licensing for the animators to create with. Add motion capture technology and the budget to keep current with the latest developments and then you can finally start creating visual effects on a scale needed to support all the different shows.

    By that point the VFX group becomes a department with a budget. Whether they are HBO projects or not, they will bid on them at rates to keep the department budget balanced or the execs will start screaming about the departments negative cash flow.

    You own Software X that is the latest and greatest tool for VFX. Small shop comes to you wanting your software to start a company. You see the opportunity for future maintenance fees, so you sell it cheap up front with a couple years of low maintenance to help them get on their feet with a heavy backend deal once they become a success.

    Big guy HBO comes along wanting your software, you know they are rolling in money and don’t cut near the deal you would for a startup company.

    To make a long story short, the VFX department in HBO would compete with other vendors and would have to show the execs they can deliver the same quality for less money. Competing with companies that likely get a better software licensing deal and can pay their employees less than a VFX department under the HBO umbrella can.