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Game of Thrones' CGI dragons are breathing real fire — and yes, people get burned

By Benjamin Bullard
Game of Thrones via HBO website 2019

When Game of Thrones returns to close out HBO’s hit series with six high-production episodes that reportedly share more than a passing resemblance to their big-screen counterparts when it comes to spectacle, there’ll be plenty of CGI on show to bring the epic scale of Westeros’ mythology to life. 

But one special effect that’s long been grounded in reality, believe it or not, is the dragons’ breath. Whenever you see one of the show’s fire-breathing reptiles getting their scorch on, chances are you’ve been seeing real fire — and real stunt people taking the brunt of the heat. 

In a recent interview, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said the dragon breath effects are achieved in a decidedly old-school and super-heated way, and the main difference between what you see on the screen and what’s actually happening on the set has more to do with swapping out the green-screen backdrops than in adding in fake CGI flames.

“There's a lot of interaction with [effects supervisor] Sam Comway and his traditional special effects unit as well,” the pair told The Hollywood Reporter via email. “Sam, Joe Bauer [VFX supervisor] and company had to construct a motion controlled flamethrower on a crane to shoot some of the dragons' fire breathing shots. Watching that thing light 20 stuntmen at once on fire was a high point of the Game of Thrones experience.”

Fire-spitting flame throwers, hoisted on cranes to torch willing participants just doing their part to make the danger seem real — well, it sounds as dangerous in real life as it appears on the show. But it’s just one facet of Game of Thrones’ overall approach to visual effects, which the duo says (and we've long been hearing) will be more impressive for Season 8 than ever before.

“In terms of sheer scope, there is a lot in this season that outstrips the [Season 6] ’Battle of the Bastards’ sequence so expertly directed by Miguel Sapochnik,” the creators promised. That epic episode reportedly took nearly a month to film, mixing practical and CGI effects while requiring dozens of horses and hundreds of extras.

If Season 8 really promises to deliver that much more grandeur and VFX spectacle than even the most epic of the show’s previous set pieces, then consider us fired up. We’ll be watching for those dragons — safely on the other side of the action — when Game of Thrones returns to HBO for its final season beginning April 14.