Pixomondo has a lot of cool projects in the works, including its latest, a digital aquarium experience situated underground below Times Square called National Geographic Encounter: Ocean Odyssey. But the company's most famous and impactful creations are, without a doubt, Game of Thrones' dragons. At the company's Los Angeles office, Pixomondo's leads told GameSpot about their newest work, as well as the surprising inspirations behind Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion on Game of Thrones.
"I think from outside, it feels like, 'How hard can it be? It's a dragon, and it looks natural, and it acts like a dragon would act,'" said Pixomondo CEO Thilo Kuther. "But the way to get there is a lot of meetings, discussions, back and forth of versions, until [we] settle on a specific one."
Pixomondo started creating Game of Thrones' visual effects, including the then-tiny dragons, back in Season 2. In subsequent seasons they began focusing exclusively on the dragons, as the beasts became exponentially more complex and demanding to animate.
"That opening discussion [back then] was, coming down to budget about the dragons, that they would not compromise--that they only have a certain amount of money for the dragons, so if it's not possible to do certain things for the money, then they'd rather not show the dragons, and cut back on the dragons if the quality's not right," Kuther said. "With every season it got clearer and clearer how complex that task was."
Daenerys's dragons are some of the most realistic ever to grace the screen. As we watched a highlights reel describing some of the studio's more impressive processes for building them, Pixomondo Executive Producer David Garber said they've accidentally fooled children into believing dragons are real. "A cute story I like to tell is, I showed this to a group of little 9-year-olds, and they said, 'How'd you get the dragon to do that?'" he said, chuckling.
It's not surprising that they look toward real life animals to determine how the dragons would move and act, but the creatures they choose as inspiration are a surprise. First off: chickens.
"When they got bigger in Season 3 and 4, there was a lot of, 'So if a dragon is this big, how can it lift itself up? What is it? Is it a bat? Or is it a bird? Is it an eagle? And the amount of energy that went into these discussions is beyond belief," Kuther said. "That's why they went to a Trader Joe's and bought a chicken, and took it apart, and said, 'So, how does that work?'"
They used that hands-on research to determine everything from how the dragons' muscles move when they're walking around on the ground to how much downward pressure they need to create with their wings to lift their bodies into the air. They even watched YouTube videos of bats and chickens flying. But as the dragons continued to increase in size--and thus in the amount of detail Pixomondo needed to create on the screen--they started going bigger in the real world too.
"If the dragon gets 10 feet size in just the body, then you see every tiny tendon underneath, and that skin starts stretching, and if it breathes in and out, then you see how the skin starts stretching over, and it's rolling over the muscle and the bones, and if you don't do this--just the breathing, if it doesn't breathe--you immediately feel there is something wrong," Kuther explained.
"There was a lot of discussions about even looking at elephants, on how skin rolls over the bones," he continued. "It stretches, it rolls over the bones, so [the animators] went for reference to see how that would look on an animal of this size."
The results of that research are evident in the Season 7 scene in which Jon comes face to face with Drogon and runs his hand along the dragon's face.
"You have an expectation of what that's going to look like," Kuther said. "That's why they looked at elephants, where there is rougher and harsher skin, but then you have, around facial areas, their skin is softer, and when you touch it with your fingers, it would actually give in. So you see the fingers pressing in a little bit. When they shoot it, they usually have a cushion where you can touch it and press your fingers in, so we're taking that information and applying it to the skin."
Pixomondo's latest project deals more directly with real world animals. The National Geographic Ocean Odyssey experience in New York lets the marine-curious walk through around nine different digital underwater environments. These spaces were created in part by Pixomondo's digital artists, and partially with photogrammetry, a process that uses thousands of photographs to create massive 3D environments, then applies those photos to the environments like stickers to create realistic-looking digital, 3D spaces. The Odyssey includes curated but realistic underwater encounters like a day in the life of a "bait ball" composed of thousands of fish, and a playful sea lion that interacts with guests, whose actions and gestures are interpreted by a Microsoft Kinect.
"It's kind of a disruption of that aquarium and zoo world," Kuther said. "You can show day and night within minutes. You can turn all animals to X-ray and show the bone structures of these animals. You can have data overlays that are not possible, and you can create moments where two animals would never survive next to each other."
The Ocean Odyssey encounter is open now in Times Square--and, of course, you'll see more of Pixomondo's work in Game of Thrones Season 8, whenever that happens.