By IAN FAILES
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
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By IAN FAILES
If you haven’t yet watched the final episode of season 7 of Game of Thrones, first, a spoiler warning, and second, you missed the arrival of the Night King riding a re-animated Viserion, who brings down The Wall with a blast of its now blue-tinged fiery breath.
This season has already seen some major dragon visual effects, with Daenerys riding the dragon Drogon into fire-filled battles, and saving Jon Snow and his band of men from certain death at the hand of the Wights.
In our July cover article, VFX Voice previewed this current season, looking back at the rise and peaks of visual effects in the show. In this new interview, we talk to Game of Thrones’ core VFX team, Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Bauer and Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback, about how they pulled off all that key dragon action.
“We’re doing Dungeons & Dragons-style things with dragons and dungeons!”
—Joe Bauer, Visual Effects Supervisor
VFX Voice: Is it true you were asked about three years ago to do concepts for what the dragons would actually look like now?
Joe Bauer: Yes, early on the showrunners, Daniel Weiss and David Benioff, were trying to work out the outline and just get their heads around various things. We did a concept of a season 7 dragon carrying someone in its claw and next to various objects and then a size chart. It really was just sizing up one dragon, for the most part, and getting a general scale, but we hadn’t worked out the proportion adjustments season to season. We put the dragons from various seasons next to one of our boats, just to check the scale.
It was really to guide the way they would approach battle scenes and decide when it’s big enough and when does it become too big. If it gets beyond a certain point, it becomes a bit unrealistic that they could really communicate. Daniel and David decided last year that the end of season 7 was as big as the dragons would get even though there’s another season to follow, just for that reason.
VFX Voice: Once Viserion is reanimated by the Night King, the dragon takes on a different look. What kind of design work did that involve?
Joe Bauer: Well, firstly, it did cause us in season 7 to have to do a lot of R&D on different looking fire. We would be using our photographed elements, but tearing them apart by luminance and saturation and some sims that run with them to give a different quality to the fire, but without going too far into fantasy land. That’s always the line we walk on the show. We’re doing Dungeons & Dragons-style things with dragons and dungeons! We also have walking dead and magic and evil ice monsters, but our task is to present it in a way that feels like it is part and parcel of castles and mud and peasants and warring families.
“Our stage is about 100 x 100 feet, which gave us a realistic field of play of 80 x 80 feet. We had a lot more room to move with the camera, but as you can imagine, when the dragon is flying 100-plus miles an hour, and the camera is moving across 80 feet, there needed to be a lot of consideration for scale. I think having that longer-lens feel gave it a more authentic aerial feeling.”
—Steve Kullback, Visual Effects Producer
With Viserion, once he has turned, we did have an original design, and then very late in the game that design changed a little bit because it started feeling a little bit too fantastical and whimsical. At this point, Viserion becomes a chariot and a war machine for the Night King. Now, I’m not 100% up on the latest scripts for season 8 but one can imagine there will be dog fights, and it can be helpful for no other reason than the good guys need to look different from the bad guys.
VFX Voice: Fire has been a big weapon for the dragons this season, and it looks incredibly real. How did you work out what could be practical and what could be digital with the dragon fire?
Joe Bauer: Well, our approach really hasn’t changed from season 3 when I came on, which was just to shoot real fire. Every year we charge our lead VFX vendors, especially new ones, with doing fire tests and matching things we’ve shot in the past just to find out whether we could put our cameras and our blowtorches away. The tests inevitably look good, and we go, okay, maybe we’ll shoot a little bit less.
But as soon as we try to plug in the digital fire in the actual shots, if it wasn’t exactly developed for the test angle, it kind of fell apart. I know fire is certainly something that a lot of vendors have aced and, indeed, for the current season one of our vendors really nailed fire.
We worked out practical scaled elements with our special effects team; which we shot largely non-motion control. Then other ones were extremely motion control using the same kind of methodology with the animation driving most control – rigs and camera.
This year we also used a company called Spidercam to alternately move the camera around the fire or to move the fire around the camera. We also had times where the camera was on a motion-control sled. Then, in concert with our special effects team led by Sam Conway, there were full-scale fire and explosions and full-scale elements that we shot that we use very heavily.
Steve Kullback: The secret to our success, I think, is that we shoot every element we possibly can shoot. It really lends to the organic nature of it all: whether it’s a dragon diving into the water to go fishing and you drop an anvil into a dumpster full or water painted black at night; or we’re rigging a 50-foot flame thrower to a camera crane on a four-point wire rig on a stage 50 feet off the ground and blasting the floor; or in episode 7 blasting a panel that represents the ice wall.
Joe Bauer: Yeah, that was kind of neat. Even though the nature of the fire in the final episode is a little different for story reasons, in the way it needs to behave, it needs to feel familiar enough that you believe it and don’t write it off as some CG effect. As soon as you do that, then you emotionally disengage from what you’re watching and then it’s no fun anymore. We’re big on that.
“I know fire is certainly something that a lot of vendors have aced and, indeed, for the current season one of our vendors really nailed fire.”
—Joe Bauer, Visual Effects Supervisor
VFX Voice: The other big thing about the dragon shots this season has been the very convincing way Daenerys, and now the Night King, is shown riding the dragons. Can you talk about how that is accomplished?
Joe Bauer: The methodology is very much the same as it was in season 5. It involves pre-animating the dragon and in a second step, a technical step, solving the movement that is needed. Really, it’s a dance between the ‘buck’ or gimbal that the actor/actress is sitting on and what the camera’s doing. The heavy lifting can be shared between the two of them. Frequently, the moves are so extreme and so sudden and sometimes so violent, that the actor on the buck is only doing part of it, and the camera’s taking over part of it as well.
It also falls into stunts because as soon as you’ve got an actor – a non-stunt person – doing an unusual physical thing, like riding a bucking bull, it becomes instantly a safety concern. Then the camera is the other half of this, and that’s also on a motion-control rig. The overall effect is distributed between the two. So you feel that the camera is basically static, and the rig that the actress is sitting on, which becomes the dragon, is doing a lot of sort of amazing stuff.
“[The fire] needs to feel familiar enough that you believe it and don’t write it off as some CG effect. As soon as you do that, then you emotionally disengage from what you’re watching and then it’s no fun anymore. We’re big on that.”
—Joe Bauer, Visual Effects Supervisor
Steve Kullback: One time we approached it in a slightly different way, learning from the benefit of our experience in the marine battle, in that we had a big ole gimbal – a one-and-a-half ton gimbal that we got from Paul Corbould and his team. It had more range of motion to it, but we also had the camera on the Spidercam rig; which gave us a much wider field of view and also could get us further back on longer lenses and give us some more authentic aerial kind of photography than we had in season 6, where we were on a motion base that was half the size. The camera was on a titan crane, which, while it’s the biggest arm we could get that would be motion control, it also had some limitations to it.
Our stage is about 100 x 100 feet, which gave us a realistic field of play of 80 x 80 feet. We had a lot more room to move with the camera, but as you can imagine, when the dragon is flying 100-plus miles an hour, and the camera is moving across 80 feet, there needed to be a lot of consideration for scale. I think having that longer-lens feel gave it a more authentic aerial feeling.
Joe Bauer: The footage that you see air-to-air is almost always a long lens, a zooming lens. When we didn’t have the capability to back the camera up and move it as fast as we could with the cable system, and we had the crane, all that worked great, but it kept us on wide lenses. Ultimately, I think it was fine, but we wanted to be able to cover this as you would if you really were covering the event live and you certainly would be using long lenses. I think that really helped the realistic feel of it.