Essays · TV

How ‘Game of Thrones’ Built Its Dragons

They are fire made flesh, but how does that flesh come to life on our screens? The answer is myth, anatomy, and imagination.
Thrones Dragons
By  · Published on March 25th, 2019

From the tiny hatchlings born at the end of Season 1 to the magnificent and terrifying beasts dominating the skies in Season 7, the dragons of Game of Thrones have evolved into truly remarkable examples of digitally created characters in television. Despite being fire-breathing killing machines, they also manage to evoke sympathy, whether it’s Tyrion freeing them from their chains, Jon touching his first dragon, or the death of Viserion at the hands of the Night King. But how exactly are they made to look so realistic?

In Season 1, there was only a brief glimpse of the dragons. Pixomondo (a visual effects company based in Germany) was brought in for Season 2 to develop and improve their appearance. According to a feature from Entertainment Weekly, they made some immediate changes, while others have developed over subsequent seasons. Apparently, they would sit down each year to discuss the changes in the dragons’ stories for the season in order to mirror their character development in their growth. First, they made the dragons more “spiky” and darker-colored, adding a shimmer to their skin. Later, they added lizard-like gills to their necks and tails to make them more expressive. In order to make them look as realistic as possible, they started by building digital skeletons for them, then layering muscles and skin over top. Inspiration was taken from real animals (mostly birds, bats, and lizards) in order to make them look as believable as possible.

Game of Thrones has given us three of the most well-known dragons in pop culture history (though they probably cede first place to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smaug). But the history of dragons goes back much further than people might expect. Dragons are considered a “monomyth” because they seem to have arisen independently in unconnected mythologies across the world. There has been a lot of research into why this might be true. Are they monsters of the id, an amalgamation of ancient memories or deep fears of very real predators that were faced by our ancestors? Were they invented by early discovery of fossils, or did those simply “confirm” existing myths? Regardless of how they came to be, dragons are a modern staple of high fantasy.

Technically, Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal are wyverns rather than dragons. Throughout history, dragons have looked different based off where each myth originated. Western dragons generally had four legs and wings, while Eastern dragons were often wingless, four-legged, and serpentine. In many cultures, there was no distinction between dragons and wyverns, but in the 16th century, they became a defining feature of English and Irish heraldry. At this time, they became distinguished from dragons by having only two legs, rather than four. The question of whether his dragons are in fact wyverns was posed to George R.R. Martin on his website in 2013. His response:

“According to the rules of heraldry, dragons have four legs and wyverns two, yes. But have you ever seen a heraldic ‘seahorse?’ Heralds didn’t know crap about biology. Now, there are no actual dragons, to be sure. But there are bats, and there are birds, and once upon a time there were pterodactyls. Those are the models to use when designing a dragon. No beast in nature has four legs AND wings. Besides, the best dragon ever shown on film, Vermithrax Perjorative [sic], has two legs and two wings. My dragons have two legs.”

He has a point, and not just in his (misspelled) reference to the antagonistic dragon from Dragonslayer. Imagine the joint in the skeleton of Dragonheart‘s Draco where his front legs and wings would meet. How would that even work? The amount of musculature and ligaments required to make that functional would be absurd.

Draco Cropped

We still love you, Draco, even if your anatomy is confusing.

Sound Effects

The original Godzilla (1954) team tried to make Gojira’s roar with animal sounds but did not succeed. In the end, they coated a leather glove in resin and rubbed it against the string of a double bass to make the monster’s famous shriek. Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield succeeded where they did not; the dragon cries in the show are composites entirely made of sounds from real animals. Fairfield started with a blend of 10 distinct creatures but has continued adding more complexity as the dragons have grown.

Fairfield considers each dragon to be a distinct character, so the cries used for each one are different. Drogon is given a more sensual and affectionate tone towards Daenerys since she is closest to him, and he was named after her late husband, Drogo. This includes sounds from giant tortoises mating. Seriously. Fairfield uses other animal sounds to create sound effects for the dragons moving, such as the flutter of a dragonfly’s wings for the movement of their tail spikes.

Visual Effects

For years, Emilia Clarke was the only actor who physically interacted with the dragons, usually in the form of green balls. Their screen time has increased drastically over recent seasons. All of Season 6 had only 11 shots with Clarke riding the dragon, but the Loot Train Battle in Season 7 had more than 80. Two filming technologies were used in that battle for aerial shots; some are from Dany/Drogon’s perspective while others are looking up at or down upon the dragon. These technologies are the SpiderCam, a camera rigged on a cable and run between two cranes which can reach speeds of 70 mph, and the FlyCam, a small heli-drone with a camera used to fly over the action and film from above.

The look of the dragon’s flight has also developed over the years; earlier seasons struggled in making the weight of the dragons look right as they moved through the air. Rather than a smooth path through the air, they needed to move in a sinusoidal fashion as they power themselves up with each thrust of the wings, and glide from the top of that arc. It has taken some time to perfect this technique so that it looks natural to the audience.

In later seasons, other actors also have to interact with the dragons. In the battle beyond the Wall in Season 7, multiple characters escaped on dragonback. This was the first time this had happened, and changes had to be made to the structure of Drogon to accommodate more people. This season also features Jon meeting his first dragon up close… possibly a little closer than he had hoped.

In the behind-the-scenes coverage of Season 7, Episode 4, Clarke discusses acting with the dragons:

“So, being on this roller coaster ride, which is kind of what it is, then looking like you are controlling it when there is so much going on. You’ve just got to harness every single bit of imagination that you have”

It requires an impressive imagination from the actors to make their interaction seem real and two-sided. Furthermore, the attention to detail from the visual effects side has had to get more intense every season as more actors had to interact closely with the dragons. In the clip below, you can see the skin on Drogon’s nose move when Jon touches him.

What to Expect in Season 8

With each season, Game of Thrones has done more complex scenes with the dragons. So what is to come in the final season?

Season 8 is sure to be the first time that dragons duel in the skies, now that the Night King has claimed Viserion as his undead mount. There is a short glimpse of this in Season 4 when Viserion and Rhaegal squabble over a dead lamb, but they were not trying to truly harm each other.

Here is a bit of in-universe history of dragon battles:

The Targaryens ruled almost unopposed for the first 130 years after Aegon’s Conquest of Westeros, largely due to the unopposed power of their dragons. No one else in the world had them, and it is difficult for men to kill a dragon. However, it is not so difficult for one dragon to kill another. In 129 AC, a civil war began in Westeros between two half-siblings, an older daughter and the younger son of the deceased king. It was called the Dance of the Dragons because it was the only time in Westerosi history that dragons fought on both sides of the battles. Of the 20 dragons alive at the beginning of the Dance, only four survived the war, causing it to earn a less flowery title in Martin’s recently published Targaryen history, Fire and Blood, Part 1: the Dying of the Dragons. That’s not a good sign for Drogon, Rhaegal, Daenerys, and (presumably on dragonback) Jon in the wars to come.

As the myth of dragons may be a composite of our deepest fears, they are made real on-screen through the combination of sounds, anatomy, and movements of real animals. Actors must draw deep from their imaginations to humanize these creatures and make us feel a bond with them. Over the past seven seasons, Game of Thrones has presented us with some of the most impressive dragons in film and television history. They are sure to provide more in the upcoming battles of their final season; the first episode of Season 8 airs on April 14th.

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A politer reciter, a Canadian writer. Hiking with my puppy is my happy place.