The Dragon maker of Game of Thrones
All images copyright and used with permission from HBO.
Ever wanted to make dragons for a living? How about creating the most famous set of dragon models to ever grace the small screen.
Dan Katcher has that honor as the Lead Modeler of the dragons for the HBO hit drama series Game of Thrones. His story shows what can be accomplished with a passion for your work, mixed in with a thick dose of ambition and talent.
Katcher began his journey while he was living in New York, sculpting figures since he was five years old. At 16, he went to the Art Students League studying Figurative Art. He remembers loving the Dragons Lair stories and anything with dragons in it. Katcher flags that first time he saw Disney’s Fantasia, and the Night on Bald Mountain sequence. Becoming obsessed with the imagery, he would be sculpting figures like that all the time. He moved on to the School of Visual Arts to study animation, where he idolised Ray Harryhausen, like everyone else. But he wanted to move into something creative and took up a job in the toy industry for about ten years making dragon models for McFarlane Toys as one of their Head Figure Designers.
When a job was offered to him in California working at Gentle Giant, he took it right away as a ticket to move from the toy industry, into the cinematic arts, closer to special effects. “What I really wanted to do was work with Legacy Effects and Stan Winston,” explains Katcher. “But when I began to ask around, everyone was saying that everything was going digital and there was a lack of practical model work available.”
An industry friend, Stefano Dubay promised to teach Katcher the technical aspects of ZBrush if Dan taught him some of his artistic disciplines. Together, over the course of about six weekends, they taught each other everything they knew about the different crafts. “Other than that, it was from living online, watching demonstration videos and tutorials. Two years later, I picked up the job at Pixomondo,” he adds.
Katcher was working at Pixomondo, and working as the lead designer on Terra Nova, the 2011 Steven Spielberg series project, and Rainer Gombos came in. “He was talking about needing a dragon for a show I’d never even heard of, Game of Thrones,” Katcher continues. “I didn’t know the scope of the show, only that they needed a tiny baby dragon. HBO had a dragon that had existed from Season One. Rainer was looking for someone to do it and he’d seen my work and he suggested that I ‘just do it’.”
Katcher could see where he’d make changes to the physiology of the dragon. “Pixomondo was fine with me doing this little side project, so I just went for it,” he said. He was creating a new dinosaur every week for Terra Nova and modifying the dinosaurs made previously by Neville Page. That was daunting enough for anyone. He created Velociraptors, an Emperisaur, a giant version of a Spinosaurus. “But it was basically prehistoric fun for me,” quips Katcher. Every design was being seen by Jack Horner, the famous paleontologist. Katcher and he would generate these figures in about five weeks for each one.
Everything is in ZBrush. Katcher doesn’t touch clay or plastics anymore. While he misses the physical attributes of bumping these forms out of practical mediums, the cost, time and the mess involved in creating the form makes working digitally that much more attractive. Of course, you can’t show a model internationally as easily as with ZBrush.
“We all thought Terra Nova was going to be my big thing and Game of Thrones was, ‘OK, it’s a little dragon, no problem, I’ll make it in a couple of weeks.’ Next thing you know it is everywhere and the show is huge.”
“I keep making them bigger, scalier and nastier,” says Katcher.
Dan is finding he works with the Dynamesh feature in ZBrush the most. He creates the creatures from the inside-out, slapping down the many muscle layers on top of each other and he enjoys delving into the physiology of the beast before he puts down the skin. He’s followed the dynamics of historical paleontology for many years. Katcher comes from a heavy science background. His father is a molecular biologist and his mother is a science teacher and professional artist as well. “I go the Museum of Natural History in New York City just about every week with my family,” he adds. “I’ve studied dinosaurs and lizards for years and years.”
The forms Katcher creates need to appear to actually work. “It’s all about proportions and flight and mechanisms. Making these elements correctly is the first step in creating a beast that looks like it is real,” he says. “The form has to follow its function, to an extent. It always has to look cool, right? And there’s nothing like having a crocodile smile, and there is always an ample breastplate. There is also a need for huge pectorals as well to support the mass of the dragon as they fly.”
As the Game of Thrones seasons kept going, the dragons became vast living mountains. “Nothing like this can ever fly on this planet,” says Katcher. “But there are some interesting theories about how they might be able to fly, even if they became as large as they will be in this coming series.”
Walking the line
From the moment when these dragons become ‘just too big’, the design and creation stages become ever so challenging. “Last season [of Game of Thrones], there wasn’t too much back-and-forth between me and the team of riggers in Germany,” he explains, “but this year there is, because the size has changed and they want to try different ideas as well.” There will always be a tussle between the riggers and animator’s mechanical requirements and the modeler’s organic view of the creature. “There is a place between the two, where the base model can be organic and able to be rigged, at the same time. But there’s no point of reference,” he adds. “There’s no animal in existence I can point to and say that’s where this comes from. It’s a feisty mix of several species of bat, and three kinds of dinosaur, stuck in a blender.”
Dan Katcher does receive requests for features on the dragons from producers and these sometimes include changing the design of the head or the tail or the feet sometimes, in order for the creature to do things like pick up food, to match the script. During the work on season three, Joe Bauer really wanted the dragon to have a frill on his head. There are two frills that ran down the dragon’s neck. Usually, he begins concepts and generating the base of the model over a week and then hands off the complete dragon to Germany after four to five weeks.
As far as textures go, all the texture painting happens in Germany as well, so after Katcher hands off the 3D design for rigging, it is on to the next dragon. The base mesh is the same for each dragon but scales are all redone, completely redesigned, almost a complete build from scratch.
Katcher is particularly impressed with the Mesh Insert in ZBrush, especially when he has to attach the thousands of scales on the dragons. “Part of the scales on the body are part of the meshes themselves,” he says, “but others ride on top of the body, and they all have very specific shapes. There is no other program other than ZBrush that with Mesh Insert will allow me to draw the scales on there, and then to push and to pull them and get them to look natural. It has saved me a ton of time.”
DRAGON SCIENCE: In prehistory, there was only one creature that was super large, working well both on the ground and in the air. This was a huge pterodactyl called the Quetzalcoatlus. No one has any idea how this creature moved around.
Katcher took the risk and put his career on the line to move across from the Big Apple, knowing at least in his heart, that there would be great jobs at the Pacific edge. But in truth he didn’t know for sure, and just found a new challenge, not the first or last. Dan speaks about the ambition of desperation, quoting a passage from The Way of the Samurai, which says their power lies in their insanity and desperateness. “I’m always desperate, always hungry for inspiration and I thrive on that,” he says. “It makes life fun and worth living, living on the edge, and it’s paid off for me, so far.”