Image Engine

Image Engine brings dragons to life for Games of Thrones' final season

Vancouver’s Image Engine is one of the world’s most respected visual effects studios. The Academy Award-nominated team has built a remarkable reputation for the creation of extraordinary creatures, environments, and effects for a broad range of films and television series – including recent ventures like Game of Thrones, Pokemon Detective Pikachu, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, to name a few.

Image Engine was also the main facility responsible for dragon animation in Game of Thrones‘ epic final season, creating 99% of all dragon performances, alongside several digital environments that built out the world of Westeros.

We spoke to Thomas Schelesny, VFX Supervisor at Image Engine, to learn all about the process of bringing a GoT dragon to life – from initial references to creature anatomy, facial animation, and dragonfire – and to discover how cineSync ties it all together.

“A great many specialist teams are involved in a show like Game of Thrones,” begins Thomas. “It’s critical that we maintain open and clear communication with both clients and our partner vendors. That’s where cineSync comes in.”

Let’s swoop in and learn how cineSync sent dragon assets flying across the globe, all on a tight production schedule, for Game of Thrones‘ grand finale.

Drawing dragons on a deadline

Game of Thrones‘ S8 ran on a tight production schedule, one that required every shot to receive a high level of focus and attention, with little time for revisions. Indeed, submissions often needed to meet the client brief on their first iteration. With that in mind, cineSync was relied on to establish the clearest possible line of communication between Image Engine and HBO.

In the early stages of production, Image Engine received photography from the on-location Game of Thrones set. Artists would exchange drawovers during a cineSync session to indicate where they should position the dragons, to ascertain approximately how large the dragons would appear, and to work out where each dragon should enter and exit the frame.

“The ability to not only see what someone’s drawing over, but to share those annotations directly with the team, creates continuity between myself, the client, and then the rest of the artists,” says Thomas. “If we used word-of-mouth alone, feedback would get distorted as it was passed through the team.

“With cineSync, nothing is left open to interpretation and, in the process, confusion.”

Image Engine also shared the dragon assets it created with partner vendors to inform in-progress shots, thus helping to integrate separate VFX elements into a scene. (For example, several vendors created a multitude of soldiers and clashing armies for one scene shared with Image Engine.) Image Engine would then deliver 3D animation cache files to other vendors for later rendering into their environments – with adjustments made via cineSync – resulting in some of Game of Thrones‘ most iconic battles, including The Long Night and the destruction of King’s Landing.

The dragon is in the detail

cineSync annotations proved invaluable when amending shots later in production, as well. Subtlety can be very hard to express with words alone, but it’s nevertheless essential when delivering a Games of Thrones dragon. Details right down to the dragon’s toes, tail, scales, and wing membranes need to be accurately animated. Feedback is therefore presented visually in cineSync, helping to lock down such nuances.

“Here’s an easy note: ‘Make the dragon twice as big.’ We can all instantly appreciate the intention there,” says Thomas. “However, you might also receive feedback like, ‘Please make the wing membranes fill with air a little more.’ Now, what does that mean? It’s entirely up for interpretation, and we might have to redo that shot several times to get the wings in line with the expectation of the commenter.

“With cineSync, the client can draw directly on the frame, exactly where they want, and visualize those wing membranes filled with air. That way, we don’t fall behind wasting time with guesswork. In some cases, we would have dozens and dozens of annotated images. And that’s where cineSync shines.”

A lot of these nuanced artistic changes boil down to conveyance of personality and emotion, which can be hard to portray in a non-human creature. Indeed, Image Engine rebuilt the entire facial rigging setup for the dragons in season 8, enabling an even higher level of subtle expressions than those seen previously. Again, working in cineSync helped to refine and define these expressions.

“We studied a wide variety of anatomical references and applied these characteristics to the dragons,” says Thomas. “For example, a dragon’s iris will readjust to light when opening his eyes. But we also gained enough control over the dragon faces to convey a look of annoyance or excitement where appropriate – such as when Drogon glares at Jon while he’s kissing Daenerys!”

The anatomy of dragons

The good news for Image Engine is that dragons aren’t real. There are no fossils or skeletons on which the team must base their characteristics, meaning artists can work with some creative license.

“We can generally infer where a dragon’s joints and bones should be using reference from a variety of animals…with a few exceptions,” says Thomas. “The number of joints we put into the dragon tails, for instance, came down to how much control animators needed, rather than a biological reference point. The audience accepts this as a fictional license because there are no real dragons.”

However, audiences do have some reference for flying. Human beings see airplanes in the sky every day, and most have traveled on one. We know how fast they move and the angles they’re able to turn into given their size. Image Engine had to respect these physical limits to ensure the dragons felt real.

“Drogon is the same size as a 747 airliner, so his flight dynamics work similarly,” reveals Thomas. “The audience has an expectation around the movements of something that big, after all, so we have to align with that touchstone in our animations. With this in mind, we gathered many references of airliners performing a variety of maneuvers. We reinterpreted these flight patterns for Rhaegal, who is 20% smaller, so his movements could be a little faster.

“cineSync was a fantastic reality check throughout this process, as we could get lots of people to view the dragon at once – in a real-time session – to make sure the movements felt right.”

Alongside fixed-wing flight dynamics, Image Engine also looked at animal references to inform the dragons’ more organic movements. The flapping of dragon wings is modeled after eagle movements, for instance, imitating the aesthetics and body language of a large bird of prey.

“In episode three, when Rhaegal and Viserion are fighting each other, the battle mimics footage of aerial combat between rival eagles,” says Thomas. “They claw at each other, yet still manage to stay up in the air, just as you’d see in reality.”

Image Engine also studied the downward flap of bat wings in slow-motion footage, which informed how the dragons’ wing membranes would billow and fill with air. Artists also recreated the way in which a bat’s wing membranes fold up and wrinkle when the bat stops flying.

“We would have dozens of annotated images to look at for the wing membranes alone,” recalls Thomas. “Those kind of discussions are where cineSync stands out. It helps us to work towards a suspension of disbelief, through which we can present the dragons in all their living, fire-breathing glory.”

Flying through the pipeline

Creating a dragon sequence is a meticulous process split into several production stages, each as important as the last. cineSync exports became the touchstone for everybody involved throughout each of those stages.

Designing a dragon starts with material sent by the production. Image Engine would receive two pieces of reference from HBO: mood paintings that indicate the visual tone and direction of the sequence and rough previz that outlines editorial requirements and dragon movement.

Image Engine uses these materials to create a first pass that blocks out initial action. The team then moves into a phase called pre-animation, during which they produce a 95% completed dragon animation performance. Image Engine shares this pre-animation with the on-set Game of Thrones production team, who use the data to drive the movement of a camera and motion base upon which an actor performs as if they were riding a dragon. The data physically recreates the performance of Image Engine’s pre-animated dragon, allowing for a more realistic connection between them and the CG dragon in the final shot.

“Here’s another fun fact,” says Thomas. “In almost every scene, the dragonfire is real, not CG. So, at the end of pre-animation, the dragon’s head movement data is also extracted from the 3D file and is used by production to program a motion-control camera and flamethrower rig. The flamethrower is blowing actual fire, shot over a black background, which compositors add into the final scene.”

During this green screen shoot, the crew must consider the practical realities of photography, such as how fast and far the motion base can move, how fast cameras can move, and so on. When Image Engine receives the shoot photography, they’ll work on minor fixes and re-animate where necessary to ensure the CG dragon and actor move in total sync. The animation team then passes the shot onto the compositing and lighting teams, who make sure all elements integrate seamlessly for the final shot.

“There are many technical stages and teams involved, even internally at Image Engine,” explains Thomas. “As a result, each client review will have numerous illustrated annotations saved out of each cineSync session. These annotations give us the clarity and confidence we need to advance our work efficiently.”

Syncing up a new standard of TV production

Games of Thrones’ final season presented Image Engine with some of the most profound technical and creative challenges ever seen in episodic production, raising the bar for high-end television series work.

“It’s such a thrill to have been part of this seminal work,” concludes Thomas. “This is my 28th year working in computer graphics, but Game Of Thrones presented the highest levels of difficulty and excitement to date. It looks more like a movie than a TV show. I’d even say that Game Of Thrones gives productions a new standard to shoot for, and eventually exceed – I certainly hope to be part of that effort in the future.”

And cineSync will play a part in that same effort. As Thomas explains, cineSync has been the go-to review system for feature films since its inception, and there’s no sign of that changing anytime soon.

“Words alone can’t describe a creative or visual element. We need to see actual images to get the full scope of a shot. cineSync is the only industry-wide tool to do so, allowing artists to access videos in real-time.

“That’s why the word ‘cineSync’ remains a verb for VFX artists everywhere.”