VFX: <I>Game of Thrones</I>
Issue: July 1, 2017

VFX: Game of Thrones

Just as location shooting for Game of Thrones has spanned continents, so has the series’ pool of visual effects vendors. As the show begins its seventh season on HBO, the roster of VFX studios contributing to the show’s magic is as large as ever, and includes Rodeo FX and Image Engine in Canada, Iloura in Australia, El Ranchito in Spain, Mackevision and Pixomondo in Germany, Screen Scene in Ireland, Weta Digital in New Zealand, and Rhythm & Hues Studios and Lola Visual Effects in the US. 

In addition, HBO maintains a small team of compositors working remotely across the country on greenscreen composites, paint and production fixes. They are Cadence Effects and Clearcut FX on the East Coast and Exceptional Minds, a school and studio for young adults on the autism spectrum, in Los Angeles.

“The sun never sets on Game of Thrones’ VFX vendors. We like to make sure we get emails all hours of the day,” quips Steve Kullback, VFX producer on the series since 2012.

“Many VFX houses return from previous seasons, but we test three or four hopefuls every year and bring on one or two,” notes VFX supervisor Joe Bauer, who has been with the show since Season 3. “The largest new studio is Weta. Peter Jackson is keen on the show, and it all finally worked out [for his schedule]. We also stepped up the work for Screen Scene in Dublin and Lola in Los Angeles, which provided lighter support before.”

Although shots are assigned according to a studio’s strengths, talent pool, capacities and available resources, Kullback admits that, “we’re not immune to the standard business needs of finance. We take seriously the tax advantages available worldwide” in selecting vendors.

Storyboards from production drive the VFX effort; The Third Floor in LA fills previs and techvis requirements.  
VFX needs change season to season as determined by the storyline, and so does the firepower to achieve them. “We have beefed up the dragon effort,” says Bauer, due to the bigger on-screen roles of Drogon and his cohorts. “Dragons used to be all Pixomondo’s German office. In Season 5, we added Rhythm & Hues and in Season 6 we took on Image Engine after we saw what they’d done on Jurassic World, and their work this season has been top notch.”

With approximately 2,200 VFX shots in Season 7, a number of people on Kullback and Bauer’s team help “wrangle the logistics” of shot distribution among the vendors, Kullback says. Bauer and associate producer Adam Chazen review shots and cuts at the LA “command center” where VFX editor Chris Baird and first assistant Tara Fidler cut the show on Avid Media Composer.

“Season 3 had around 800 shots, now we have around 2,200, and they’re all done in the same amount of time,” says Bauer. Kullback notes that Episode 6 of Season 7 contains “almost as many VFX shots as all of Season 2. We like to say that the level of complexity of the seasons has grown in direct proportion with the size of Drogon,” which was introduced in Season 3 as a three-foot creature and now spans nearly 200 feet.

“Every year they send us work that raises the bar of what we can do as a company,” says Matthew Rouleau, VFX supervisor at Montreal-based Rodeo FX (www.rodeofx.com), which is marking its fourth season with Game of Thrones. Rodeo FX recently won three VES (Visual Effects Society) Awards for its work on the spectacular “Battle of the Bastards” sequence. “This year we’ve done around 300 shots, which is in line with previous seasons, but there’s a lot more simulation work, more details, more complexity in general,” Rouleau reports.

VFX vendors primarily use Autodesk Maya for animation and The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing. “Renderers are sometimes different house to house, but we don’t get into the nitty-gritty of software used,” says Kullback.

“It used to be that big houses used proprietary software that didn’t handshake with anyone,” notes Bauer. “But now so many fantastic tools are widely available, and there’s a lot of commonality among the houses,” which facilitates asset sharing when required.

LA-based Rhythm & Hues Studios (www.rhythm.com), which netted 2015 and 2016 Emmy Awards for its work on the series, does use its Academy Award-winning proprietary Voodoo software, however. “It allows us to rig and animate faster, and is very good at efficient animation setups,” says VFX supervisor Derek Spears. “We use Maya only for modeling.”

Rodeo FX switched from Softimage to Maya in Season 6. This season the company moved to The Foundry’s Katana for lighting, and “that’s worked out really well,” says Rouleau. “For a sequence featuring about 150 shots of the same elements seen from multiple camera angles, we were able to set up one scene as a template for lighting. Instead of using eight to 10 lighters, just four were able to knock out the shot faster than we’ve ever done.”

Rodeo FX has used SideFX’s Houdini “quite a bit for effects,” but is now deploying the software for “layout, set dressing and creature effects,” says Rouleau. “That’s been a big step for us. The software is so well built and super open ended; it’s node-based, so we can ramp up recipes into easy-to-use set ups.” The company uses Solid Angle’s Arnold for rendering, as does Rhythm & Hues.

Prior to last season, Rodeo FX had not done a lot of CG ships. But the massive destruction of ships in the harbor during the Meereen battle scene turned out to be an award winner: The flying dragons emitted enormous plumes of fire that shattered the boats and boiled the water underneath them as digital doubles jumped off the doomed vessels. “We’ve been able to train the team so they’re all up to speed and able to do a lot more of this quality of work this year,” says Rouleau. “Our whole team is a lot stronger.”

Rodeo FX also created the fully-CG city of Meereen for the battle sequence, including all buildings and props that were modeled individually. Matte paintings filled in details such as skies, distant mountains and cliffs.

Additionally in Season 6, Rodeo FX created the CG Dothraki Horde and horses used in two episodes, as well as a 443-frame sequence revealing the fully-CG Volantis bridge, originally crafted for Season 5, now seen at dusk, beautifully detailed and seamlessly integrated with practical photography.

Indeed, live-action photography — whether plates shot on location or element shoots — plays a key role in the show’s VFX.

“We’re very photography heavy,” says Bauer. “It serves the aesthetics of the show, which is so mud-and-dirt. We try to stay as real world as we can by using a lot of practical methods of shooting — plates from location shoots, Spydercam, motion control — and giving vendors something to be involved in very early on. This show has to be married to the photographic image.”

Rouleau (pictured) compliments Bauer and Kullback on the live-action elements they’ve sent to Rodeo FX, which also has its own live studio and DP, and can shoot fire, smoke, water tanks and motion capture in-house. “We shoot as much as we can,” Rouleau points out.  

Season 5’s “Dance of Dragons at the Great Games,” staged in the Great Pit of Daznak, was slated to be the biggest dragon sequence to date. Drogon had grown to twice his previous size, and he and his fellows stunned the Great Games with a massive display of fire breathing and the rescue of Daenerys, who climbed atop Drogon as if he were a faithful steed.  

In determining the VFX to be used in that scene Kullback recalls Bauer “asking why couldn’t the fire breathing be done for real.” 

“So we got the super-geniuses who developed a lot of the Avatar software and the inventor of the Technodolly, and set up a 50-foot flamethrower on a motion-control crane in a bull ring in Spain,” says Bauer. “We executed a number of shots — 20 stuntmen were ‘burned’ with fire in one day — and it went like clockwork.”

“That was an excellent example of vendor collaboration,” says Kullback. “The Third Floor provided dragon previs and used Rhythm & Hues’ animation to play back the motion-control crane. Special effects maestros Sam Conway and Lawrence Harvey designed and drove the flame thrower; stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam choreographed a brilliant display.”

“With this approach, we could precisely capture and accurately repeat the fire effects,” Bauer emphasizes. “It was actually the safest way to go about it.”  

Kullback notes that the method was a “natural progression” from Season 3, when they used a small-scale flamethrower and one stunt performer to capture fire elements.

Rhythm & Hues crafted a Drogon for “Dance of the Dragons” that was at once vicious and vulnerable — quite a combination for the mythic beast.  

“We’ve done tigers before [for Life of Pi and The Walking Dead], but you can see them in zoos and in practical photography,” says Spears. “There’s no basis for understanding a dragon. But they are based in a physical reality in the show, so we try to keep them grounded in reality.”

Rhythm & Hues animated Drogon using a model built by Pixomondo for a previous season and featuring aspects of lizards, bats and birds to make Drogon and his cohorts believable. When Drogon grew in size for Season 6, a new asset had to be created. “We couldn’t just scale it up because its proportions changed,” Spears explains. The larger-scale dragon model was developed with the show’s dragon designer, Dan Katcher, and Pixomondo.

For “A Dance of Dragons,” Rhythm & Hues also did extensive environmental and crowd work. They extended to three tiers the actual one-tier high bullring shot in Spain. To fill the stands with spectators, photography from ground level showing crowds cheering and standing was mapped onto cards and placed in the arena as individual photographic elements. Overhead shots of people running through the arena were CG.

More complex and dynamic camera moves were used in Season 6 to put Daenerys atop Drogon to burn the masters’ ships in the Meereenese harbor. “Learning how to pre-animate the dragon for motion-control playback has been a new process for us,” notes Spears. “We hadn’t really explored before how animation drives what happens on the set.”

He cites the “very cooperative engagement” between Rhythm & Hues and Rodeo FX on the “Battle of the Bastards.”

“Matt [Rouleau] and I have developed a close relationship,” says Spears. “I like what they bring to the table. Obviously, there’s an extra level of complexity and a certain amount of labor involved when you share with another studio. But it’s increasingly common in our world to share work.”

Kullback and Bauer aren’t about to divulge any spoilers for Season 7. “The predictable answer is there will be more VFX for Season 7,” says Bauer. “But the dragons have sort of maxed out in size — they’d be Godzilla-Mothra proportions if they got any bigger. And Drogon needs that personal connection in his interaction with Daenerys; it’s important to the story.”

Inevitably, “some of the cast will die,” says Kullback — in unique ways that may include VFX. “Many of the main characters who have died in the show involved VFX in some way,” adds Bauer. “We have a lot of digital blood on our hands.”

The VFX studios that specialize in augmenting human photography have been willing accomplices, of course. The “stock and trade” of Lola Visual Effects is “beauty work or otherwise changing an actor’s appearance,” like their work on the first Captain America, Bauer notes. “When we aged Melisandre last year, we shot the actress, shot an old woman, used some prosthetics and Lola brought all those elements together.”

Season 7 features more use of Spydercam, the suspended camera and specialty rigging system, for both production and element shoots. “I worked with Spydercam on Elf in 2003,” says Bauer. “We increased its use this season; it’s been really vital to us this year.”
Aerial work overall has grown through the years, according to Kullback. “Spydercam, drones, helicopters. We were itching to use drones in Season 2 and plotted out one move for the Volantis Bridge sequence in Season 3. Now we have our own drone air force!”

Rodeo FX promises fans will see “some things we’ve never done before and are super proud of — everything is bigger and more detailed. It’s pretty crazy this year!” says Rouleau.

He’s still amazed how Game of Thrones will “stretch our limits and push us in new directions, then the next season the work is on a much larger scale and way more complex. Season to season, we’re able to pull off a lot more and do it a lot more quickly. Every year is challenging and difficult. But what resounds is the high level of work we’re able to accomplish on TV deadlines.”