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July 09
2017

ISSUE

Summer 2017

GAME OF THRONES: VFX ROYALTY

By IAN FAILES

VFX Producer Steve Kullback: “The biggest challenge on the show is how many steps of production are going on at once, where we’re setting up for the battle that hasn’t been shot yet while we’re shooting another battle, while we’re starting post on the other third. It’s been quite a wild ride.” (photo courtesy of HBO)

The HBO television series Game of Thrones is nothing short of a visual effects phenomenon. Not only has the show dominated the landscape in recent VFX Emmy and VES Awards history, it has also changed the game in how visual effects are produced for TV.

Each episode in the series’ six seasons so far – the seventh begins in July – is laden with effects challenges, from detailed city environments, to major battles and, of course, complex flying and fire-breathing dragons.

The results are sequences and shots with a cinematic feel that might normally be the domain of blockbuster films. The show has proved dominant in the television visual effects awards space, winning five of the last Primetime Emmys for visual effects, the main episodic VES Award, for the past six years, and an additional four VES Awards in different categories at this year’s ceremony alone.

So, what is the secret behind Game of Thrones’ success? It is due primarily to the show’s visual effects team, Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Bauer and Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback. The duo shepherd a global team of effects artists across many time zones. They give us a small sneak peek at what to expect from the upcoming season.

AN EVOLUTION OF EFFECTS

Ever since producers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss first adapted A Song of Ice and Fire novels by George R. R. Martin to create Game of Thrones in 2011 for HBO, visual effects have been, and continue to be, a crucial part in the storytelling process. Bauer, who came on in season three (2013), says the volume of VFX shots has tripled since his first season.

Another evolution has been technological, notes Bauer. “Each season we bring in new technology to facilitate not just the cooler shots, but getting the shots done in the time frame. That makes shooting photographic elements even more important, as opposed to things that you would otherwise do in CG.”

TOP: Over the series, several companies have delved into CG dragon work, including Rhythm & Hues, Pixomondo and BlueBolt. Says VFX Supervisor Joe Bauer on the upcoming season: “I don’t know if I’ll ever again get to work on a show that spends as much time just shooting visual effects as this series this year.” BOTTOM: Scale tricks and intricate compositing have helped bring the giant Wun Wun to life in a number of episodes. (photos courtesy of HBO)

An example of this change in the way the visual effects have been approached is dragon fire. It is an effect that would most commonly be achieved with digital simulations, since it makes for easier control and light interaction. But, says Bauer, “the time to get it dialed in properly exceeds the time we have,” so in more recent seasons the VFX team has been utilizing, as much as possible, real flamethrower elements shot practically.

“In season five we shot the dragon fire on a motion-control Technocrane,” relates Bauer. “Then season six we were on a Titan Technocrane and, for season seven, because the dragons had doubled in size again, we enlisted Spidercam and convinced them to put our flamethrower on their rig. So we were flying the fire source all over the stage, and, in addition, flying the camera all over the stage, too.”

“Each season we bring in new technology to facilitate not just the cooler shots, but getting the shots done in the time frame. That makes shooting photographic elements even  more important, as opposed to things that you would otherwise do in  CG.”

— Joe Bauer, Visual Effects  Supervisor

VFX Producer Steve Kullback, who has been with the show since season two, adds that the evolution in the approach to VFX has been integrated at the planning stage. “When I started, the producers had not really used concept artists before,” he says. “And they were a little hesitant at first because they were concerned that the vision could become someone else’s vision and less their own, until they gained the confidence that we were on the same page and working exclusively in the service of the story. And then we started working with previs, and they were a little hesitant about that until they came to understand that it could be a tool that worked in their favor and they got to see exactly what they were asking for.”

Drogon enters the arena to save Daenerys in “Dance of the Dragons.”

Each series, the dragons grow larger, often requiring completely new models to be built.

BIRTH OF THE BATTLE OF THE BASTARDS

Perhaps no clearer example of the scale of the visual effects that Game of Thrones has become known for appeared in the penultimate episode of season six, called “Battle of the Bastards.” The pivotal sequence in that episode sees Jon Snow confronting Lord Ramsay Bolton’s army in a brutal fight, where practical photography, CG horses, and crowds were brought together by visual effects studio Iloura.

To make the Jon Snow battle a reality, Bauer and his team led the show’s producers through storyboards and then previs of the sequence. “Our method for doing that,” says Bauer, “was plugging in either LIDARs (light detection and ranging) or set builds that reflected what our real shooting situation was right at the very beginning.”

“It’s funny,” adds Bauer. “Our editor has taken the cut sequence, the finished sequence from eight months later and put it next to the very first previs, and it’s shocking how closely they follow.”

The main unit filmed the battle over 19 days with main players and extras filmed on private land in Northern Ireland. Iloura then took the reins on generating soldiers, riders on horseback, arrows, blood and gore – including for a monumental ‘oner’ shot which had Jon Snow wreaking havoc on his attackers.

“Approaching something like ‘Battle of the Bastards’ was really all about defining what the pieces are and where the handoffs are between the departments,” comments Bauer. “In VFX, we could be placing tracking markers on the set or running a giant stuffie head on a pole up and down the field. And then later on we are quite substantially in it to finish the shots.”

TOP: On set, the dragons are represented in a number of ways – from cardboard cut-outs on sticks, to green “stuffies,” or poles for eye lines. MIDDLE: Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) sizes up one of the dragons. BOTTOM: The Battle of Meereen saw fire, water and CG animation combine in full glory.

BIG VFX FOR TV

The mammoth size of the production on Game of Thrones is well known, with several units shooting simultaneously at different locations. The visual effects production schedule is equally intense.

“We have about seven or eight weeks of prep before we start shooting,” explains Kullback. “One of the things we have found as the seasons have progressed is that there has not been adequate time to get out in front of the sequences and prepare them for concepts and previs and design as much as we’d like to and have the luxury of Joe being on set supervising it. So, progressively, Joe has spent more time focusing on the design and execution of those sequences as they’re coming about and we have additional supervisors who are on set with us – people like Eric Carney from The Third Floor, and then additional VFX Supervisors Ted Rae and  Stefen Fangmeier.

“There were times during season seven when we had four and five units working simultaneously. We had two motion-control units, and two main units working, and it was not uncommon to have a splinter unit or two. Sometimes we would be in multiple countries at once!”

— Steve Kullback

Interestingly, while certainly produced as a television show, the series is consumed in many different ways – on 4K TVs, computer screens, tablets, smart phones and occasionally on cinema screens. “We treat it like a film on every level at every stage,” states Kullback. “It does play on the smaller screen until it doesn’t. We have had occasions almost every season where there is some kind of theatrical projection, and at first we were very concerned about that because we produce it using a 50-inch monitor in front of us. But I think it was in season four or five where they actually did an IMAX theatrical projection.”

“It held up pretty well,” says Bauer, sounding relieved. From the sound of things, season seven’s visual effects should hold up in a big way, too.



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