February 22-2018
How to train your ‘Drogon’: Image Engine’s rendezvous with Game of Thrones season seven

The seventh season of the cult fantasy drama Game of Thrones is the one set in stone. For it wasn’t just the highest rated from the franchise, but also the most viewed, garnering a preposterous viewership of over 30 million over the course of the season. The culminating episode, The Dragon and the Wolf, alone accounted for 16.1 million views at the time of its broadcast as reported by Nielson data, making it the most watched episode of the series.

Of the many factors behind these absurd numbers, one certainly was the The Loot Train sequence featuring Daenerys’ monstrous dragon that wreaked havoc at the scene of the conflict, setting things aflame left, right and centre. Drogon, as it’s addressed in the show, perhaps became the biggest talking point of the season and also testifies the record-breaking viewership figures the show witnessed.

So whilst it was exhilarating to watch, a lot has gone into making. Vancouver-based VFX studios Image Engine burnt the candle at both ends to pull it all together, and VFX supervisor Thomas Schelesny takes us behind the scenes to unravel the theoretical and technical nitty-grittys  in shooting the same. Including the flames-emitting, deleterious Drogon!

How did you get associated with Game of Thrones?

Image Engine is well known as a creature shop for projects like District 9, Fantastic Beasts and Logan. But, what the studio has also built up over time is a solid track record for sterling compositing and seamless invisible visual effects work, which is what initially drew interest from Game of Thrones. Creating creatures for season seven posited this production directly into our wheelhouse as a studio.

As for myself, I spent 14 years animating and VFX supervising at Tippett Studio, so creature and character work is my genre. After moving to Vancouver in 2012, I supervised the first full-CG White Walkers on episode 10 of season four, The Children, for which I received an Emmy Award. I’d always wanted to be involved with the Dragons and when I heard that Image Engine was going to tackle these characters it turned out to be a perfect fit.

How many VFX shots did you deliver?

We worked on 108 shots, and partnered with Iloura on shots where they added crowds of soldiers fighting in the background.

Daenerys’ dragon was obviously one of the highlights of this season. How did you approach it when you were first narrated about it?

Whether Drogon was on the ground or in the air, it was important he always demonstrated a balance of strength, grace and menace.

The Loot Train is essentially an action sequence in which we needed to demonstrate Drogon’s ability to overwhelm the Lannister army with fire, yet also demonstrate Drogon’s vulnerability to the Lannister’s secret weapon, the Scorpion (giant crossbow). One of the things that makes the sequence so successful is that it pits several hero characters head to head in battle, with all of them experiencing a moment where they might die, including Drogon.

In order to establish Drogon’s appearance of invulnerability, it was paramount that we carefully maintained the correct scale in his movement. He’s the same size as a 747 so this was a common touchstone for the animators and audience alike. Any movements that deviated from these basic rules of flight, would have immediately broken the reality of the moment and the power of the character. It’s a very fine line in terms of animation, but once you cross it, the audience would have noticed.

How did you design the dragon?

The model and base maps came from Pixomondo. We refined the textures and added detail in areas specific to our shots.

Can you tell us about the work for finer aspects of it such as the spikes, the plates, the membranes etc on the skin of the dragon?

Drogon’s body is covered in a variety of materials; from thin membranes on his neck frills, to thicker ones on his wings and thick spikes on his head and chest. Each unique surface had to be assessed and accounted for in the muscle and skin simulation. For example, the wing membranes would flutter in the wind, and fill with air on each wing beat, and sag when the wings were folded. On the other hand, the chest armour had less detailed movement; expanding and contracting with his breaths, and only spreading apart minimally with the wing flaps.

How did you handle the characteristics of the dragon, such as the flights, its motions, the tail movements etc.?

With flying characters, it’s tempting to add all kinds of interesting tail whips and wing flourishes. It’s also a trap. The hard work lies in the subtleties of getting the flight dynamics to look just right. Flap frequency, scale, and wing loading all play their part is selling the idea that Drogon is not only in flight, but also affected by turbulence, updrafts, and clouds alike. Since the basic physics of flight were critical to selling the reality of the character, our priority was to nail the flight dynamics first, and add the performance beats within that context.

What did you do to ensure that everything pans out smoothly, given the enormous scale of the project?

Game of Thrones is one of those rare projects where, going into it, we knew we were part of something particularly special. High expectations and tight production deadlines required that the artists needed to complete their work with very little iteration. This meant that each artist took direct ownership of their shots, often making critical creative calls on their own. It’s certainly requires thoughtful management to ensure we’re all going in the same direction, but the goal was to avoid inefficiencies and get everybody’s best work into the show.

Which was the most challenging sequence to work on?

The Loot Train sequence was our biggest challenge by far. The sequence also had a very specific ebb and flow to the battle and Drogon’s performance needed to support the tone of each portion. We were also collaborating with Iloura VFX on a number of shots, in which they added the background crowd extensions. This involved an additional level of file transfers and version tracking between studios which kept our production team on their toes.

Image Engine also created maester’s Citadel for season six. What were the fine-tunings you did to it for the new season?

Last year, the Citadel shots were straight-forward pan/tilt shots, but this season the camera flew through the entire space. This required significant refinements to the model and lighting. Considering that we had such a tight window to complete the shots, we needed to enlist the help of Edmond Engelbrecht, our season six “Citadel expert”, who rebuilt the entire space so that it would support the camera move. He reworked significant portions of the set to add depth and detail in areas that would be revealed by a moving camera. All the 2D light shafts and dust passes from last year were replaced with volumetric dust and atmospheric techniques that would react correctly as the camera moved through them.

You’ve done creature work before, for Jurassic, Fantastic Beasts etc. But was GoT season 7 the biggest for you in terms of the scale and challenges?

Interesting comparison. There are significant differences between TV and theatrical releases. GoT season seven consisted of seven episodes which added up to seven and a half hours of content, with seven different delivery dates. Although the final shots look like they are from a feature film, the challenges to achieve this goal are quite different. For example, a film may have months to develop a specific performance, technique, or technology; whereas we will do almost all of our R&D work during shot production.

The need to develop a look, yet at the same time drive the process toward completion is a very heavy load on the artists. As a result, we staff the show almost exclusively with senior artists who can pull from their previous experience to solve problems independently on-the-fly.

The seventh season was just tremendous and Image Engine had quite a role behind it. How do you feel about this massive response?

It’s been overwhelming to be part of such an amazing season. This is my twenty-fifth year in visual effects and no other project has generated nearly as much interest as Game of Thrones. It’s an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we’re motivated to not only meet the audience’s expectations, but also for it hold up into the future.

Your best memory of the show?

We had to clear numerous creative and technical hurdles on season seven, and all of these have since coalesced into an overall sense of pride in our team and their work. These types of projects have a way of pulling a team together, building trust, and cementing friendships that will last well beyond the production. Every time I see a team member in the studio, or at an industry event, there’s an unspoken reminder of our collective contribution to the series. So to answer your question, my best memories are of the artists with whom I worked, and the seminal work that they created.

What’s next at Image Engine?

Our upcoming productions will see us complete work that bridges complex creature animation performance with large scale digital environments and effects simulations and as such the latest work represents the kind of complete scope of work that is the future of the studio.