Saluting Game Of Thrones’ visual effects

We’ve collected VFX reels showcasing the artistic and technical expertise that’s gone into Game Of Thrones seasons 1 to 4…

Warning: videos contain footage from Game Of Thrones seasons one to four.

When they’re good at their job, actors and directors are given all kinds of rewards: fame, fancy trailers, sizeable pay cheques, folding chairs with their names on and all the kale and coconut water smoothies they can drink…, but outside the VFX industry, what appreciation goes to the artists who turn said actors into evolved chimpanzees and razor-cheekboned evil fairies? Who salutes the banks of creative talent translating directors’ and writers’ visions into the battles and landscapes and creatures so integral to telling fantasy and sci-fi stories?

These are difficult times for VFX houses, but with effects-heavy blockbuster franchises piling onto cinema screens, that seems counter-intuitive. Surely there’s never been a better, busier time to work in film and television VFX? You only need look at the case of Rhythm & Hues, the artistic and technical geniuses behind The Life Of Pi, whose studio went bankrupt not a fortnight after it picked up an Oscar for its work on the film, to see that’s not the case. (See documentary Life After Pi, here, for more on that frustrating, sad story).

With studios chasing subsidies around the world, VFX houses are routinely expected to relocate at a moment’s notice, creating job instability in an industry already beset by small margins and extreme competition. It doesn’t help that popular perception of visual effects artists and animators – arguably not aided by the view that their work is simply “painting digital makeup onto actors’ performances” as expressed by Andy Serkis in a recent interview – remains largely ignorant of the expertise involved in their time-consuming work (public belief that all VFX artists do is press the “make art button” while the whizzy computer does the rest is a common joke in the industry, albeit one often delivered through gritted teeth). The cruel truth stands that the better, more convincing job these artists do, the more invisible their work is.

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What can we do about it? In truth, lacking the legislative power to bring a cup of tea into force, not a great deal. One thing we can do however, is cheerlead. We can shake our Den Of Geek pom-poms and tip our caps (because our Den Of Geek cheerleader outfits have natty caps) in the direction of the extremely talented artists who make our television what it is. And we intend to do so. If you have ideas on how we can best achieve that, let us know.

For starters then, let’s kick off with a hearty cheer for the many VFX studios whose work has gone into making Game Of Thrones the best looking fantasy on television (something that, deservedly, hasn’t gone unnoticed by this year’s Emmy nominations). Pom-poms in the air then, as we shout hooray and try to help make invisible talent visible.

Crowds, weapons and backdrops

First up, here’s a video showcasing Dublin-based studio Screen Scene’s season one work, from set and crowd extensions to conjuring weaponry that stabs, slices and does all manner of grisly, impressive harm (horse lovers beware). Read more about the work on display here.


Motion matching

A word of warning before we start that the nudity in this one makes it not safe for work.

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Next up is camera-tracking work done on the last scene of the season one finale, Fire And Blood, by London-based studio, Peanut. Those little red markers are used to work out the position and movement of the camera in the geometry of the scene and recreate it in 3D space so that the dragons and other CG elements match what’s known as the plate (the live footage background on top of which 3D footage is composited). It ensures that the movements of the live camera and the CG camera match, as does the geometry on Dany’s body, which tracks Emilia Clarke’s movements to make sure that Daenerys’ new-borns move convincingly with her instead of say, sinking into her shoulder when she stands up.


Great heights

The season one tracking data collected above, and more like it, was then passed on to another London-based studio, BlueBolt, who used it to animate the hatchlings, which you can see rigged and textured at the end of this video. As you’ll also see, BlueBolt erected castles, created some of the vertiginous drops from The Wall and The Eyrie’s sky cell, and more.


Dragons and destruction

Season two’s impressive set pieces, from the Battle of the Blackwater to Dany’s sequence in the House Of The Undying via Melisandre’s smoke-monster birth and Renly’s murder, all feature in the video above from studio Pixomondo, one of three breakdown videos from the global VFX house. The pointy stick-based methods used to create the effect of a bound Jaime Lannister being menaced by Grey Wind are also revealed, as is the creation of Dragonstone and countless other backdrops and battles.

Season three’s dragons and manticores feature in this largely Essos-based Pixomondo VFX breakdown, which also shows us just how many of those freed slaves who helped Dany to crowdsurf in the season finale were really there. See more examples of architecture set expansions and the unshakeable image of Emilia Clarke lovingly stroking a green tennis ball on a stick.

Finally from Pixomondo is this creature-focussed breakdown, first released by Wired Magazine, which delves deeper into the impressive work done by the studio’s German branches to create season three’s adolescent dragons. Read more about Pixomondo’s work on season three at It’s Art Mag, here.

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The Great Sept Of Baelor

Over to King’s Landing now for a look at the impressive architectural work of another global studio, Gradient Effects. This breakdown showcases the layers of models, textures, shaders and, crucially, lighting done to create the Sept in which Joffrey and Margaery were married. As Olenna, Cersei, and the betrothed pair walk through the Sept, majestic ceilings, monumental statuery and ornate walls are conjured around them to extend the set. Once outside, see how much of the Great Sept really existed (a clue – not much). From the flickering candles to the decorated ceiling, these scenes are a credit to concept and VFX artists, and do the Seven proud.


Snow and ice

If you want to know what Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie were actually seeing when they looked up at that giant in Mance Rayder’s season three camp, then this is the video for you. From Canadian studio Spin VFX, this one has giants, direwolves, Bran’s three-eyed crow, the Red Wedding and more. Particularly impressive is the Wall climb, snow and ice being notoriously tricky to shade due to them absorbing light rather than simply reflecting it, requiring difficult sub-surface scattering from the artists.


Ships, castles and crowds

Moving on to season four, this video, which did the online rounds recently, comes from visualisation experts Mackevision. The backdrop to The Red Wedding, any number of ships, the Giant of Braavos, the Eyrie’s Bloody Gate… it’s all here, made out of physics, talent and hard work.

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Skeletons and fireballs

Finally, here’s another from season four. This video breaks down what went in to the Wight attack on Bran, Meera, Jojen and Hodor in finale The Children. In addition to the impressive Harryhausen-influenced creatures from Germany, LA and Vancouver-based studio Scanline VFX, what makes the attack feel real are the models’ interaction with the snow and fire, achieved through particle effects and fluid sims.

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