Game of Thrones: Here There Be Dragons

Our concepts of dragons have undergone a lot of changes over time and through different cultures. Historically speaking, the European dragon was pictured as something closer to a winged dog than the giant serpents we know today, and Asian dragons were long and snake-like, with heads that resembled lions. The modern fantasy dragon design, however, first began with the premiere master of stop-motion animation.

Harryhausen with his dragon and cyclops from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad

The dragons of Ray Harryhausen started the modern dragon design. They were more lizard than dragon, as they didn’t have wings. That was probably more a design for practicality than anything else. Wherever possible, Harryhausen based the models he used in his stop-motion animation on real-life creatures, and lizards were an easy study. “Giant fire-breathing lizard” was about as far as Harryhausen took the dragon concept, and his most famous one is probably the unnamed dragon that fights the rather unique cyclops in the 1958 film “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad”. The model used for the dragon was three feet long, and animating the cyclops battle scene took him eight weeks to complete, and the lizard-like basis for all subsequent fantasy dragon designs was set.

Vermithrax spreads her wings wide as she rears up to unleash a fiery blast on the hero.

Vermithrax Pejorative (Dragonslayer – 1981) I was a young child when this movie came out, and I was absolutely enthralled and immediately obsessed with this dragon. The movie builds up to the reveal, building the legend of Vermithrax before we ever see the beast. The first visual we have is a profile of a long, sleek ancient serpent with enormous leathery wings and trailing a bony-bladed tail tracing across a darkened sky. The shadowy figure wheels and swoops across a barren landscape and with a few heavy beats of its voluminous wings, carefully perches atop a rocky peak, surveying the valley below. If ever a dragon personified terrifying majesty, it’s the female Vermithrax, the one creature that turned fantasy dragons upside down.

A model of Vermithrax looking menacing at ground level

The creature’s movements are smooth and natural in an age well before CGI would make it look realistic, thanks to a puppetry style called GoMotion, developed by creature co-creator Phil Tippett of Industrial Light and Magic. The GoMotion animation method made Vermithrax’s designer think seriously about the anatomy of the great beast, and how it would function both on land and in the air. Vermithrax is a two-legged dragon, and its forelimbs are integrated into the wings, making the wings both powerful enough to lift it into the air and ambulatory enough to fold its wings up and act as legs on the ground, much as bats can do.

As much as I gush about Vermithrax as my personal favourite, the importance of this dragon cannot be overstated, influencing many other creators, as we’ll see below. Guillermo del Toro has stated that Vermithrax is a pinnacle of dragon design, saying that “One of the best and one of the strongest landmarks that almost nobody can overcome is ‘Dragonslayer.’ The design of the Vermithrax Pejorative is perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made.”  Del Toro made this comment as he was asked about the designs for Smaug in the second film of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy.

“Crimson Dawn” by Larry Elmore

The Elmore Dragons – Fantasy artist Larry Elmore refined the long-necked, long-snouted, toothy, pointy-beaked, horny-mantled, whip-tailed dragon. Elmore’s dragons had a much cleaner and leaner look, hugely popularized in Dungeons and Dragons illustrations and covers. The icons of the Dragonlance Saga modules of the role-playing game, Elmore’s designs became another standard of fantasy dragon design, and the inspiration for fantasy designers everywhere. Obviously powerful, majestic and fierce, the Elmore dragon is as much defined by its huge, powerful wings to take its massive body aloft than by its bony carapace. The Elmore dragon has four legs, and its wings are used solely for flying. …and for looking really cool and/or menacing when needed. D&D geeks will argue that Elmore’s dragons are REAL dragons, as noted by the four legs. The Vermithrax-style of dragon with only back legs are wyverns, while dragons with no legs or only front legs (essentially winged serpents) are wyrms. Seriously, they will argue this. …all day long, if you let them.

Draco (Dragonheart) The face was made more snub-nosed, so that animators could make the face more closely match most people’s visualization of the distinctive voice of Sean Connery. Had they chosen another actor for the voice of Draco, this might not have been as much of a concern. Draco was an Elmore-style dragon, with four legs and massive wings. Draco was a heartwarming rendition of the dragon, but a little too human to have staying power.

The Sean Connery-inspired Draco

When the long-awaited Dungeons and Dragons movie was released in 2000, it was a huge disappointment. Among the many things that fans disliked, was the appearance of the dragons. The movie’s climactic scene included a massive swarm of dragons (What IS the collective pronoun for dragons, anyway?) in an aerial battle to the death. Unfortunately, this battle royale was mostly a backdrop for a rather contrived swordfight between one of the movie’s heroes and villains. The fanboys wanted to see Elmore’s dragons come to life, but the CGI was so cheaply done, and the scenes so heavily edited with rapid-fire chop-cuts and plenty of motion-blur, what should have been the visual centrepiece of the movie was instead a poorly-rendered special effect for B-roll footage. I couldn’t even grab a decent screen cap to use in this post.

Falcor, the wingless, flying furry dragon of Never Ending Story

Speaking of failed dragon designs, Falcor, the dragon from Never Ending Story – that white furry thing that more closely resembled a poodle than anything else, was one of the most spectacular departures from the modern dragon design. It was a long, furry four-legged thing that seemed to fly by willpower alone, as it had no wings. The general reaction to this dragon design was a resounding “wtf?”.

Male dragon from Reign of Fire

The dragons of Reign of Fire (2002). This movie is largely forgettable, if not for the fantastic visual effects of a large group of dragons doing what dragons do. Visually, the dragons are almost direct lifts and updates of Vermithrax, and the film is worth noting if for no other reason than giving us a hint of what a computer-generated Vermithrax might look like.

Smaug (The Hobbit – 2013) In the Hobbit, Tolkien gave his star dragon a brief genealogy, descended from a short line of Fire-drakes – giant fire-breathing wingless serpents. Canadian artist John Howe is a long-time Tolkien fan-favourite and one of the reasons for that is his lush paintings, often featured in the official calendars licensed by the Tolkien estate. Howe’s Smaug is an Elmore type dragon, four legged, sleek and pointy. Howe’s version of Smaug graced the cover of printings of The Hobbit in the early 90’s and is the version many readers are familiar with. The John Howe designs for many Middle Earth characters were straight-up adopted by WETA for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the now 2/3 completed Hobbit trilogy, but not Smaug. WETA applied the same live-action animation principles that they used for Gollum, and they did a biological and anatomical study on what a dragon like Smaug would really look like. At the end of the process, they ended up returning to the Vermithrax style dragon for Smaug.

Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion – Game of Thrones (2011 – ). By the time we get to Game of Thrones, the modern dragon design is very familiar and comfortable to us. We like the dragons, because to us, they are how dragons should be. They don’t talk, they aren’t fluffy, but they are obviously intelligent and you can sense the great power they will soon wield.

Of course, it helps that their adopted mom is a good-looking blonde, too.

These dragons are very well thought out in the Vermithrax mold, biologically speaking. Two strong hind legs provide the terrestrial locomotion, and the forelimbs are part of the wings, structured for walking, grappling and flying, much like those of a bat. The dragons’ centre of gravity is positioned between the rear legs and the wings, allowing the dragons to be very sleek and agile both in the air and on the ground. The fact that we get to watch them grow up before our eyes, from the fiery spectacle of their hatching through playful toddler-hood and adolescence just adds to the awesomeness of these dragons.

“Vermithrax? Is that you??”
one of the skulls now kept in the Red Keep cellars 

Their anatomy and mannerisms are almost identical to Vermithrax, which may be why I like them so much. There may be a very good reason for the dragons’ close resemblance to Vermithrax. In his list of his favourite fantasy movies for, George R.R. Martin said, “Vermithrax Pejorative is the best dragon ever put on film (the dragons in Reign of Fire are a close second) and has the coolest dragon name as well.”. Taking it a step further, the show’s producers have worked Vermithrax into the show. In the epsiode “Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things”, the name Vermithrax is included in a list of dragons once bred by House Targaryen, and her skull is one of the many skulls that once decorated the Red Keep and now languish in the cellars of the Keep in King’s Landing.

A youthful Drogon plays with his food, trying to toast a morsel of meat

Drogon, the black/red and most aggressive dragon, was so named by Daenerys after her late husband Drogo. Drogon is the one we see most commonly perched on Daenerys’s shoulder while still an infant. Viserion is what most would call a white dragon, although the actual coloration is cream/pearl and gold, and named after Daenerys’ brother. The third dragon is Rhaegal, also named for a brother, and is coloured green and bronze.

In the trailers for season four, we see that the dragons are out of adolescence and into their young adult stage. Gone is the awkwardness and curiosity, replaced with a fierce gracefulness and imposing menace.

The Game of Thrones dragons give us a lot of what we want in a dragon. And to close off, here’s a scene of Rhaegal doing his thing…

13 thoughts on “Game of Thrones: Here There Be Dragons

  1. That scene from Game of Thrones is absolutely wonderful. x-)
    Dragons have long been my favorite fantasy creature. I loved Dragonslayer when it first came out although I am ashamed to say I had long forgotten her name.
    My favorite dragons are the Dragons of Pern (fantasy series by Anne McCaffrey). I was in fangirl Nirvana when I once met Anne McCaffrey and she not only signed my hardback books but she took the time to flip through one book and make some grammar corrections because she said those mistakes had always bothered her.

  2. Girly? Giant flying breathing dragons. Alien spores devouring every living thing. Human riders driven wild with lust from mating dragons. Invading armies. Duels to the death. Time travel. Centuries old riddles. Ancient computers.

    Yep, you're right. Definitely a girly series.

  3. You know, I actually considered adding Godzilla to the list. Just because Gojira doesn't have wings doesn't mean it isn't in the dragon family. I mean, Harryhausen's dragons didn't have wings. It hits all the other hallmarks, though – the prototypical ancient fire-breathing lizard.

    I also considered adding Maleficent the dragon from Disney's Sleeping Beauty, but I felt if I started adding cartoon dragons, I'd have to get into Pete's Dragon and then the How to Train Your Dragon dragons, and then the list would just be getting silly.

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