How Game of Thrones Brings a Grown-Up Dragon to Life
Drogon, the biggest and baddest of Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) three dragons, is so much larger in Game of Thrones Season 5 that the Emmy-winning visual effects team–led by producer Steve Kullback and visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer–had to use two new methods to bring him to life. “Drogon is twice the size he was last year. He’s about 40 feet long and 20 percent bigger than the other two dragons,” Bauer says. “He’s also the alpha, so his way goes. He’s still affectionate with Dany, but he’s got his own mind and needs her less, just like any child growing up.”
To create this wily beast, Bauer came up with something that made executive producer David Benioff’s jaw drop. “We had the world’s one and only fire-breathing crane,” Bauer says. “It looked like some kind of weapon from Transformers,” adds Benioff.
The team began with a Technodolly–a motion-controlled crane with a 15-foot-high arm that moves in different directions while its base rolls along a track. The telescopic arm usually holds a camera, but instead the crew mounted a flamethrower that could shoot as far as 50 feet. “Standing 50 feet away from the dragon fire, you could get a nice tan,” executive producer D.B. Weiss says.
The crane was then programmed with Drogon’s movements, repeating the same sequence over and over again. This made it safer for the stunt team and more efficient for production, as both always knew exactly where the “dragon” and his fire would be.
After the segments that used the Technodolly were edited, digital artists sketched in the fine details of Drogon. His physical traits were modeled after real animals: Komodo dragons, iguanas, horned lizards, and crocodiles. His movements were derived from eagles and bats, and his takeoff from pelicans.
The other new method employed was the SimulCam system, where the appearance of the dragon was saved into the camera so that “everyone looking at the monitor could see exactly where he would be, and the scene could be framed properly,” Kullback says.
Clarke, unfortunately, didn’t have that advantage, often filming in front of a green screen. In Season 1, her scene partner was not a dragon but a tennis ball on a stick operated by a puppeteer. In Season 2, she had a stuffed dragon–a “maquette,” in fancy film lingo–on her shoulder so the camera operators could see how the dragon would look and she could have a visual reference while acting. This year, it was soccer balls on two 30-foot poles.
“You have to give this object all your motherly love,” Clarke says. “You think, ‘Oh, God, people are probably laughing at the fact that I’m emoting over this big ball or doll.’ But you get that out of the way and let your imagination take over.”
Good thing, because in Season 5, we’ll see more of Drogon’s emotional range. “Drogon gets to perform more this year than ever and have more complex interactions with Dany,” Bauer says. As long as she doesn’t stand too close.