Jonathan Symmonds: On dragons and blockchain

Reading Time: 9 minutes

To the initiated, the name Daenerys Targaryen evokes images of a violent, medieval fantasy land brought to life in the smash-hit HBO series Game of Thrones. Filled with political intrigue, tenuous alliances, constant conflict, and plenty of bloodshed, Game of Thrones quickly became a worldwide success.

And of course, there’s the dragons: Drogon, Viserion, and Rhaegal. Daenery’s children, born literally out of the ashes of Daenerys’ deceased husband, Drogo.

She raises the winged creatures as if they were her own, caring for them as one would a group of apt pupils while instilling the necessary skills and abilities to survive in such a dangerous world. Daenerys teaches them to breathe fire for the first time, for example. And crucially, the dragons do Daenerys’ bidding, which comes really handy indeed in terms of leverage in the treacherous world of Game of Thrones.

The dragons are of course CGI-generated animations and Jonathan Symmonds, the man who has worked as a lead animator on the show animating the creatures for 5 years and been nominated for a VES award 3 times for his work on the show, is right here with us today. Jonathan kindly spared a bit of his valuable time to share insights about designing and animating legendary creatures, where the inspiration to do this derived from, and of course, blockchain.

On blockchain

Well I went back to Zimbabwe 3 years ago in August 2017 for a holiday and I met up with Jonathan Fennell, an old friend whom I actually grew up with who is an early investor and fan of the blockchain and cryptocurrencies. He started explaining all the blockchain stuff to me, and I was immediately fascinated about the technology from the get-go.”

“I quickly realized the potential of the blockchain, particularly for Africa. I felt right away that there is a huge opportunity for people to benefit from the use of this technology across the continent, in terms of confidence in voting, distribution of assets, education, etc., as the data is secure and cannot be tampered with. There are a lot of issues in Africa such as election rigging, for example, which blockchain tech could help resolve.”

“So Jonathan Fennell and I recently came up with the idea of setting up Genesis Block Africa (GBA), with the purpose of getting all the blockchain enthusiasts and entrepreneurs to collaborate in the creation of an open-source, distributed data asset. Think of it as an “African brain”, where people who are trying to start a business can ask questions, for example, push their products across Africa, share valuable information and data amongst many other things.”

“One of the most pressing issues across many African countries is that people have completely lost trust in their Government. Blockchain can address that.”

On blockchain, applied to animation

Jonathan Symmonds is an accomplished animator. He’s worked with industry heavyweights such as James Cameron for Avatar, Spike Jonze on Where the Wild Things Are, Trollhunter, and many others.

So the man knows a thing or two about animation, how the industry works, and what’s needed now. But of course, blockchain is not about the now, it’s about the tomorrow. So I wanted to know how he felt about the future use of blockchain technology in the animation industry.

Right now, people, as an audience, do not necessarily have any say in what the next blockbuster is going to be about. People don’t have a choice, they have to watch what is given to them and essentially what they pay to see. Funding for big movies is currently in the hands of two or three large corporations which put up the initial funding and investments into production for a movie, TV series. There’s no input from the public as to what they want to see on the big screen.”

“For example, how many times have you watched a movie or TV show and thought “I wish the ending could be a bit different.” So I think that in five or ten years we’ll have a voting or similar decentralized system for the public to come up with a global solution to create an amazing movie/show/commercial to be remembered by generations to come. It would work in such a way that an idea that gets implemented is rewarded by the network.

On the creation of dragons, and finding the inspiration in Nature

Dragons are large, serpent-like creatures that appear in one form or another across a multitude of folk tales and legends in many cultures.

Some representations give them wings, others do not. But the ‘traditional’ four-legged, fire-breathing, winged dragon first appeared in Europe around the beginning of the 9th century in legends.

Dragons have featured in countless movies, books, and games. From Smaug in the literary classic The Hobbit to movies like Reign of Fire and the role play game Dungeons and Dragons, these creatures have become staples of popular culture.

In more recent times, the massively popular TV series Game of Thrones also features its own triumvirate of dragons. And Jonathan Symmonds is amongst the creative force behind them. He leads his own animation team collaborating together to create the animated performances

Creating animations for such a high-profile entity as Game of Thrones is no mean feat, so I was rather keen on finding out more about this fascinating facet of Jonathan’s resume. And what I heard was quite poignant and interesting.

He said that “this is actually a very interesting subject, as I’m about to do a TED talk about it. The talk will basically outline how I ended up in the position that I’m in now.”

“Anyway, the inspiration for animating creatures has always been infused by childhood experiences growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe. It was an amazing natural environment to be in as a child because I was constantly surrounded by wild animals and many other creatures and insects, as you can imagine.”

“My childhood was tough in some aspects, being adopted at the age of 5 after my mother passed away and trying to adjust to all of that, so I sometimes felt that I needed an outlet to escape from the reality. What I would end up doing was I would watch animals and creatures/ insects and create stories surrounding them. Then, as I grew up, I began to draw everything that I could see, I became very good at drawing and tried to capture these stories but quickly realized that a drawing is just that, a static image that does not move and does not tell a story.”

“Later on in my life, I went to the UK to meet my biological father and whilst in the UK, I found an animation course that I was eligible to join. I realized that this was the perfect medium to get my stories out there. I had found my calling.”

Creating and nurturing the legend: On Drogon’s inception and development

Drogon is, along with its brothers Rhaegal and Viserion, are one of Game of Thrones‘ main attractions. These are huge, menacing, and visually striking entities that strafe, burn and flatten their foes with ease.

But of course, dragons are the product of fantasy, so there’s no real anatomical or behavioral data in Nature to rely on. These creatures must be created and animated from scratch. But for Jonathan Symmonds, the process of doing so was somewhat easier, thanks to his upbringing.

After spending three years at university learning how to animate I was ready to go into the real world. I always knew I wanted to animate creatures. I got some work on “Avatar” ( James Cameron, 2009), doing mechanical effects, then in TrollHunter (Andre Ovredal, 2010). After that, I got a call from a company called Pixomondo (visual effects company based in Germany working for Game of Thrones), to come in and lead their animation team. It was during my time at Pixomondo when everything clicked, and realized that my past had a huge bearing on my work. Not only that, but it was also an advantage, studying all those animals and creatures at the farm growing up, suddenly became very useful. So I used this experience to animate a creature that we had no natural reference of.”

“Because there’s no such thing as dragons in real life, you have to figure out how the creature is going to move, how it is going to behave. You need to figure out all these things. Does it have any intelligence, is it completely untamed, those sort of things. That was the challenge for my team. So we all collaborated to develop Drogon’s personality from his youth, to later on when he got much bigger.”

“What we all agreed upon early on though, was that we wanted to give Drogon a certain level of intelligence, but keep him wild, and unpredictable. It was important that he did not seem too human-like, but mysterious. At this point in my career, I had animated other creatures such as dinosaurs, sharks, birds, elephants, cats, fish amongst others, so I had a solid basis to work on Drogon, building on previous experience. During the five years I spent at Pixomondo, I became very connected with Drogon, it was as if our personalities merged in the end. During this last season whilst animating, my sister passed away from Leukemia. I had to maintain my focus and make sure that whatever i was going through did not translate into my work and affect Drogons performance and personality.”

“My team and I focused heavily on Drogon’s behavioral aspects, in up close shots of his face, how long it takes to blink his eyes for example, how far to push his expressions. That’s what I enjoyed the most. I guess in the end I used my own experiences growing up in Africa, with my ever quenching thirst for understanding how animals behave and see them come to life in a gigantic, mythical, wonderful and beautiful character. It’s one of my greatest achievements.

On the future impact of blockchain on the animation industry

Blockchain is now part of a lot of different sectors, like finance, healthcare, travel, and many others. But to date, there are no blockchain projects dedicated to animation or visual effects. Given Jonathan’s expertise in the field, I wanted to hear his opinion on the possible future impact of blockchain on the animation industry.

Jonathan said “the short answer is yes, I think that the future is going to be built on the blockchain. Once a certain threshold has been passed, in terms of the number of people aware of the potential of blockchain, the future will benefit.”

I think that blockchain itself is quite ingenious, as it’s a distributed way of collaborating together and moving forward in a positive way, with no corruption or possible manipulation of data.”

“I think blockchain will change everything, not only in cinema, or television. If we look at education, for instance, blockchain can offer a course setup without having to pay a lot of money to private institutions. This is a great advantage to young people learning to animate, and once you learn the basic principles of animation, it’s quite easy to repeat them time and time again. Practice makes perfect!”

“So going forward, blockchain can enable funding, and also a decentralized connection between artists, or companies looking to collaborate on different projects, etc. I think that blockchain will revolutionize all that, and the ideas that we can come up with.”

“Blockchain enables an open-source brain, so to speak, to enable everyone to come up with different ideas that can be rewarded. When applied to movies, if someone comes up with a great idea, and the concept goes on to become a movie, the person will be rewarded for that. They can be credited for their work, in other words.”

“In Africa for example, there are so many good stories that just don’t go anywhere, because people have no means to make their ideas heard. Imagine if someone comes up with a great, beautiful story, but the person sadly passes away. The story will remain on the blockchain, and it won’t be corrupted or tampered with. And if you have 30m people on the blockchain, and they all put up one dollar for funding, that’s 30m dollars right there. That story will come to life and will never be forgotten as it exists in an incorruptible timestamp of data.”

“I think that will take the power away from the large corporations that currently control the market. It won’t happen overnight, of course, but once the adoption of blockchain is widespread enough, people will have a collaborative way of deciding what they want to see or watch on the big screen.”

“Take kids’ shows for instance. I often wonder how certain so-called ‘kids’ shows got greenlighted. Often, the information children get from TV is not appropriate, and especially considering that most kids nowadays have their iPads, or tablets, or whatever and sometimes adverts pop up during a game that it’s just not suitable for their age. So I think that blockchain is a crucial step to take unilateral control away from these corporations.”

“It’s important for our kids to grow up in a world that’s controlled by everybody, rather than by a single organization or corporation.

On motivation, and working with Genesis Block Africa (GBA)

What motivates Jonathan Symmonds to become involved in a particular project, I wonder. What is the draw, what is the game changer that attracts Jonathan’s attention?

That’s a really great question. It depends, you see. For example, with my own company (SOPHORIA), we focus on projects that are going to benefit us. What I mean by that is that we wouldn’t become involved in campaigns that promote something negative, weapons, for instance. If the project inspires me, and the customer is willing to listen to our creative input, that inspires me much more than simply being told what to do all the time.”

“You can achieve so much more when two or more people bring their creative ideas together, and you develop a story together, using a team as a collaborative force.”

So if I choose to become involved in a project, it’s always important that there’s room to grow and develop the core idea. Whether it’s a commercial for a phone, or a commercial for a charity organization, etc., creative freedom is key.

And it’s not always about the money, either. Some causes warrant our pro bono help. We did a campaign to promote malaria awareness in collaboration with Richard Gold Media, for example. That appealed to me right away, as I had malaria seven times in my life. So I said I’d do it immediately.”

(See Malaria no more here)

“That particular project, I did it because I wanted to raise awareness for malaria. It’s one of the biggest killers in Africa, indeed the World, but hardly anyone talks about it. So I worked on that campaign because I wanted the public to benefit from it, from that awareness of a potentially deadly disease.”

“This actually intersects with the work I’m doing with Genesis Block Africa (GBA). What we’re trying to achieve there is make everyone aware of the potential to share awareness and contribute and communicate cross-borders through the blockchain. So if a charity organization wishes to help malaria patients using blockchain, the GBA would consult with them and help them right away. GBA enables access to healthcare professionals, scientists, and startup companies that might want to collaborate on finding solutions.”

“That’s why I’m involved with GBA because I see the potential to make Africa great again, bringing the continent back into the First World, where it truly belongs.”

“It’s about taking an idea and making it much better.”