House of the Dragon’s epic dragon battle hinged on the details

House of the Dragon’s epic dragon battle hinged on the details

Designing a full-grown dragon hasn’t changed much since the final seasons of Game of Thrones, but pulling off a dance with dragons? A completely different and vastly more complicated story, says the VFX team behind House of the Dragon season 2.

Sunday night’s fourth episode brought the feud between the Blacks and the Greens to Rook’s Rest for one of the franchise’s most ferocious hours. What the episode lacked in the suffocating scale of Hardhome, showrunner Ryan Condal and director Alan Taylor made up for in big flippin’ dragon action. Aegon, riding Sunfyre, arrives at Rook’s Rest to lay waste to a helpless human army. Rhaenys, on Meleys, swoops in to put a stop to the bloodthirsty boy king. Then Aemond and the elder dragon Vhagar enter the fight to wreak havoc. Dragons fall, riders die, and explosions decimate the surroundings. In painting a picture of the scene to VFX supervisor Dadi Einarsson, Condal likened the effect of Aegon’s dragon crash to a napalm drop and the entirety of the encounter to history’s most gut-wrenching moments.

“The subtext of the scene is: It’s a line in the sand,” Einarsson says. “It’s all been hand-to-hand combat, but this is like they’re experiencing nuclear war for the first time.”

Vhagar rips at Meleys mid air above Rook’s Rest in House of the Dragon season 2, episode 4 Image: HBO

Tom Horton, House of the Dragon’s VFX producer, says the dragon brawl at Rook’s Rest — which at a point becomes 12 minutes of nonstop CGI action — “was the most difficult sequence. It was the one that we finished last.” The process began with considering character; the audience was familiar with the look and feel of Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion from Game of Thrones, and designs carried back in time to the era of House of the Dragon. But season 2 demanded even more consideration of personality and rider dynamic. The dragons had to be “characters in the show, and not just monsters or vehicles,” Einarsson says. “And the [battle] scene amplifies and exaggerates the character traits that Ryan had described to us.”

Through performance and often microscopic animation choices, Einarsson and VFX producer Tom Horton set out to breathe life into their pairs of combatants to raise the stakes of the fight. For Rhaenys and Meleys, the team wanted to strike an “immense kind of foreboding sadness as they go off. They kind of go into battle with dignity. […] We tried to reflect a bit the character of Meleys through Rhaenys and their relationship, how they kind of interact with each other. It’s kind of a stoic and quiet regal character.”

Sunfyre presented a different challenge for the reality of Westeros, says Horton. Described by George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood historian narrator as one of the most beautiful dragons ever to exist, the team searched the animal kingdom for reference points for animals that were naturally brightly colored or iridescent without looking “fantasy.” The short of it: They spent months looking at frogs. “But the bigger the [reptiles] get, they [tend to] get kind of matted and brown, and bigger and lumpier. The trick was to get something that could scale to dragon size.”

Aegon approaches Sunfyre chained up in the King’s Landing basement in House of the Dragon season 2, episode 4

Meleys soars over the ocean in House of the Dragon season 2, episode 4 Images: HBO

Then there was Vhagar, the old matriarch, who Condal would say “lived way beyond and shouldn’t be.” Besides her literal wing decaying with age, the team wanted battle-ready Vhagar to feel like a big grump. “The actual physicality of the dragon really does often govern kind of what the dragon ends up doing,” Horton says.

“She’s a cantankerous, angry old thing,” Einarsson adds. “She just wants to go out there and just kill. So when they’re out there and finally she gets to kind of lumber up and fly toward the enormous thing that she is, when Aemond finally tells her ‘dracarys,’ she’s just straight at it and just blows them straight out of the sky. She’s happy to take the life of Meleys.”

To capture scale and impact, Einarsson and the crew were meticulous over every wingbeat. For bigger dragons like Vhagar, viewers should feel the power of a single flap that sends wind blowing across the land as she comes out over the treetops. Smaller dragons like Sunfyre or Jacaerys’ Vermax have snappier movements, allowing them to dart across the sky but make less of an impact on the environment. Horton says that the House of the Dragon team went above and beyond almost any job he’s been a part of in terms of building CG models for the dragons, intricately detailed skeletons and muscles that are “massive to render” and make working with VFX houses around the world, who supply secondary animation on top of the models, a tremendous chore. But it’s worth it: Though lots of physics-based simulation is used to create wing vibrations to create the finished dragon effects, the workflow is set up to allow for an enormous amount of tweaking that no one watching might ever notice.

“I didn’t even think we could tweak that much,” Horton says. “‘This shoulder lifts here, but there’s this bone!’ They’re all talking about how this bone would overlap with the tendons, and they’re getting a little bit too tense too early and… Jesus, the anatomy and the muscularity… We’re really going right down to that level of detail that’s in the model.”

Vhagar snaps the neck of Meleys as Rhaenys watches on Meleys back in House of the Dragon season 2, episode 4 Image: HBO

All the big-picture dragon considerations collided for episode 4’s most gasp-worthy moment: When Aemond and Vhagar surprise a seemingly triumphant Rhaenys and Meleys for one more tussle. The elder beast ultimately shreds Meleys to death, and, with no other option, Rhaenys falls with grace.

Horton says the VFX team worked tirelessly with Condal, Taylor, and editor Katie Weiland to finesse the moment of connection between Meleys and Rhaenys that would let the futility of the battle sink in. Early versions of the scene locked the camera on Meleys being attacked by Vhagar, without a more overt cut to Rhaenys. “We rendered that out and we cut that together, and realized, Hey, are we missing something,” Horton says. “‘We [wanted to] pull the camera back. Then we tried bites at different points and reactions.

“It was really about finding the emotional sweet spot where we see the eye. I think even when we finally nailed it there was one more tweak we had to do. I really wanted the eye to close at that point — we needed that connection. So it was so finely tuned in terms of timing, emotionally, to get the right performance. With actors you do like 12 takes to hit the marks, and we probably did a similar amount but in CGI, backwards and forwards. That’s obviously really complicated because it’s a CGI creature and we’re working with companies in other countries.”

For Einarsson and Horton, the major difference between House of the Dragon seasons 1 and 2 is a leveling up of location shooting. The types of scenes that were previously produced using an LED backdrop on a “volume” stage were more often shot on location in season 2 with constructed sets (and hours spent dragging the crew up mountains). Staging the dragon sequences demanded equal reality — if Sunfyre was going to plummet out of the sky, it absolutely had to feel like a “747-size creature that’s smashed into the ground.”

“From the very beginning, all of the producers and all of the directors, everyone was completely signed on to making an epic season,” Einarsson says. “There was no cutting any corners on that.”