Meet the Vancouver VFX team that brought Game of Thrones’ dragons to life

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Game of Thrones’ Vancouver designers
WATCH: Game of Thrones' Vancouver designers – Apr 22, 2019

It’s the biggest show on television right now: a massive pop culture phenomenon with a $15 million budget per episode, and 31 million people tuning in to watch each installment in eighth and final season.

And it turns out that one of Game of Thrones‘ most iconic features — its massive, fire-breathing dragons — are created in Vancouver.

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Local visual effects company Image Engine has been involved in the show since its fifth season, and about 100 people with the company have worked on bringing it to life.

“We had a different type of work, initially. In Season 6 we did a lot of gore and death stuff,” said VFX supervisor Tyler Weiss.

“As the visual effects needs of HBO grew, we were presented with, ‘Hey why don’t you try some dragon work?'”

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It’s an opportunity Image Engine’s crew say they were lucky to have — and one they’re serious about making the most of.

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“You spend hours and hours and days and days working on the final details of something that might be on the screen for five seconds,” animation supervisor Jason Snyman told Global News.

“You just want to have as much detail in the creature as you can. Every kind of little nuance in an eye or a blink or how wings load up just shows that the creature is alive.”

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Snyman said the team has modeled the show’s iconic dragons on everything from bats to eagles to even elephants in an effort to make their movements as realistic as possible.

“Your subconscious picks up on the little references,” he said.

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But getting it right hasn’t been easy.

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“There are two things involved with Game of Thrones which make it fairly unique as a television show,” explained VFX supervisor Thomas Schelesny.

“One, it looks like a movie, so it’s got a very, very high level of quality. And two is the amount of work we have to do in the schedule allowed, which separates it from a film … we have to just nail it and be done much faster.”

All of that work also has to get done under HBO’s famously strict policy of secrecy and security to prevent leaks and spoilers from getting out — creating a “Manhattan Project-like” environment, Schelesny said.

He said the team takes pride in keeping that secret — both for the company’s reputation of being careful with intellectual property, and so as not to ruin surprises for the fans.

But he said he’ll be happy once the veil of secrecy has lifted.

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“I can’t wait for the season to be on air so I can release the information from my head,” he said. “You’re going to love it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever worked on.”

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Visual effects have grown to become an increasingly key part of Game of Thrones as the show has progressed.

The upcoming Season 8, Episode 3 Battle for Winterfell is the longest battle sequence ever filmed according to Entertainment Weekly, and the so-called “loot train” battle in Season 7 set a record for the most people set on fire by an entertainment production according to the same outlet.

Image Engines’ dragon set a lot of those fires, and Schenlesny, Weiss and Snyman all agree it was their favourite scene to have worked on.

The trio are also effusive about what bringing the series to Vancouver means for the province and its film industry.

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“It’s a sense of pride to have this show be in B.C.,” said Weiss.

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“Vancouver is the central hub for all visual effects right now … all the talent out of Los Angeles has all left, they’re all up here now,” added Schenlesny.

It’s not potential. It is here. Everybody, every studio working on every major film is being done out of Vancouver.”

— With files from Catherine Urquhart

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