Emmys: Giants, Dragons & Wildlings – Unveiling the Visual Effects of HBO’s Game of Thrones

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Already weeks into shooting the beloved show’s fourth season, GOT’s visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer stepped in from the sun-filled skies of Reykjavik, Iceland to talk Valar Dohaeris – the premiere episode of season three which gave GOT their third VFX Emmy nomination in a row.

On set with Joe Bauer

Joe matted his taste for visual effects in the early 90’s working on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager before venturing off into film – working on projects like Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Elf and Get Smart. It was long-time friend Steve Kullback (lead visual effects producer) who tapped Joe about joining season three. “I don’t watch too much television so I actually wasn’t aware of the show,” says Bauer. “After Steve suggested I come on, I realized how large the scope of the show was and how popular it is – I couldn’t help but to say yes.”

Season two was lead by VFX supervisor Rainer Gombos who laid groundwork alongside a few VFX houses (Pixomondo, Entity FX, Baked FX) for Joe to use and develop further. “Valar Dohaeris was the first episode I worked on,” mentions Bauer. “The world was established in season one and became more realistic in season two. With Rainer, I was able to inherit a lot of their remarkable efforts. My job is to carry forward what’s established and to expand new worlds and characters.

”Those newer efforts included imagineering Daenerys Targaryen’s larger dragons and army, Giants, building the ‘Ice Wall’, amassing large Wildlings camps, creating a creepy ass scorpion and tons of various effects for sailing ships, castle walls, White Walkers and the fire that breathes around Melisandre.

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Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke)

For most of the production days, teams will be divided in different splinter units (Dragon & Wolf) for the bulk of the shooting. “In season three at one point, we were shooting on three different continents simultaneously,” says Bauer. To help map out the show’s busy days, Adam Chazen (visual effects coordinator) will coordinate the visual effects efforts and Steve will decide where to place a second visual effects supervisor when one is needed. “You just can’t be there all the time,” says Bauer. “Thankfully, we have a very strong team that knows what they’re doing and supports each other.”

Working with director Daniel Minahan on Valar Doaheris, Joe broke down the script to locate the visual effects elements and referenced storyboards for guidance. “We’ll have four or five scripts in front of us on this show,” says Bauer. “Sometimes we’ll have the director on board early on, and they’re getting a jump on the script and storyboards. Other times, the pre-visuals are happening at the same time as the storyboards or the pre-visuals are getting done even before the storyboards. As long as you do it early enough so all the departments can react to it and producers/directors can sign off on it – we make those decisions depending on our timeline. With TV, the creative aspect is guided by the budgetary aspect.”

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Meet the Wildlings’ Giant

When it came to constructing the Giant at the Wildlings’ camp, a combination of motion control was used with prosthetics and actor Ian Whyte to play the larger than life character that bestowed a bewildered John Snow (Kit Harington). “We used a manually operated camera on the set in Iceland. Then we matched in the human performance from Ian that was shot in Los Angeles,” says Bauer. “We 3D tracked the location plate. Casey Schatz, at The Third Floor, a great pre-vis house, did the 3D track and outputted us the motion control movement. This way, all we had to do was play it back and we would have the two pieces of media to put together to complete the shot.”

For the massive establishing shot of the Wildlings’ campsite, a matte painting of about 8,000 Wildlings was created with 8 to 12 different clones of the practical set that was designed. “Practical sets are always the backbone on Game of Thrones,” says Bauer. “We shot all the exterior work in Iceland – where you see  Jon Snow getting stoned as Ygritte (Rose Leslie) leads him towards Mance’s (Ciarán Hinds) tent. Then the interior tent scene was shot in Belfast. Jonathan Freeman (cinematographer) did an amazing job to blend it all together.”

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Wildlings’ camp

Joe explains the key to the VFX team’s success is knowing the pieces that are needed before going on set. “This show is a class operation,” says Bauer. “The show creators, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, consistently render great material from George R.R. Martin’s popular books, and the production team is amazing at finding stunning practical locations to shoot, from Moroccan deserts to European forests to Iceland’s frozen glaciers. It’s material you can work with and photograph well.”

One of those remarkable canvases is King’s Landing. Backdropped in Dubrovnik, Croatia, this centuries-old walled city helps paint the picture of Lannister envy. The VFX team will brush in towers under construction, expand city walls, or position a distant sailing ship. But the ground Tyrion (Peter Dinklage), Cersei (Lena Headey), Bronn (Jerome Flynn) or any other of your favorite characters walk on is practical.

As for everyone’s favorite dragons who tether to the fiery Khaleesi, Joe and the team grew them three times the size from season two, referencing material and designs that adhere closely to features found in large reptiles and bats. “We’re big believers in cueing off of nature footage and photo reference, right down to the eye blinks and nostril flares,” adds Bauer.gt3_mof-raising_dragons_v007_swo_1080-prores_2

gt3_mof-raising_dragons_v007_swo_1080-prores_3gt3_mof-raising_dragons_v007_swo_1080-prores_4_2gt3_mof-raising_dragons_v007_swo_1080-prores_4gt3_0301_0119-0162The post production schedule is busy for everyone on GOT. “We didn’t finish season three until a few weeks before we started season four,” says Bauer. “We put in a lot of hours a week and sometimes need to get a little tunnel vision to deliver our part of the show. When you do get the chance to sit back and enjoy an episode and see the emotional impact of its entirety – the music, the sound, the cinematography – it’s a work that you can easily be proud of.”

Game of Thrones can be seen on HBO. The VFX department is made from many hands to pull off the work we see on TV. The Emmy nominated team below represents just a portion of those who have worked on GOT:

Game Of Thrones • Valar Dohaeris • HBO • Bighead, Littlehead, Television 360, Startling Television and Generator Productions in association with HBO Entertainment
Joe Bauer, Lead Visual Effects Supervisor
Jörn Grosshans, Visual Effects Supervisor
Doug Campbell, Visual Effects Supervisor
Steve Kullback, Lead Visual Effects Producer
Stuart Brisdon, Special Effects Supervisor
Sven Martin, Lead Animation Supervisor
Jabbar Raisani, Visual Effects Plate Supervisor
Tobias Mannewitz, Visual Effects Concept Designer
Adam Chazen, Visual Effects Coordinator

Photos provided by Pixomondo Studios & HBO.

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