Game of Thrones visual effects team on darkness and bringing dragons to life
'If you believe the fire, you'll believe the dragon': Steve Kullback and Joe Bauer say of their approach
Game of Thrones is well into its final season, and with the much-talked about episode "The Long Night" — which reportedly included the longest battle sequence ever filmed — airing last week, fans have been wondering how the show is going to top it.
Two guys who know the answers to that are Joe Baur, the visual effects supervisor for the show, and Steve Kullback, the visual effects producer, who oversee a team that started off small and "intimate" but has grown in size relative to Daenerys Targaryen's dragons.
In fact, the amount of post-production work required since season one has more than doubled, going from taking 17 weeks in the first season to 42 weeks for this final one.
So what's the biggest challenge for the special effects team this season?
"Volume," says Baur. "The amount of work that went into the ['The Long Night'] episode alone, that was bigger than some whole seasons that we've had."
Given the amount of work on their plate, it comes as no surprise that Bauer and Kullback speak in very specific numbers, saying that the final season of Game Of Thrones is made up of 3,150 shots, and more than 1,300 of those went into "The Long Night" episode alone. Of those shots, the special effects team worked on all but 10.
"All the different kinds of effects that we've done over the seasons, they were all called for in that one episode," says Bauer. "The dragons, the giant, the White Walkers, the wights, even the weather, including the storm, the shots have just grown more and more complicated."
Affecting all of that was, of course, the overall darkness of the episode, which many people noted on social media, and which cinematographer Fabien Wagner has already addressed.
"Everything we wanted people to see is there," he told Wired UK.
"That was a guideline from Miguel [Sapochnik], the director," says Kullback. "At one point there was the thought to put nothing at all around the Winterfell castle and just let it drop to black. If not done right, or done too much, it can feel either cheap or can feel frustrating because your eye does want to see something, so we kept the 'seeing nothing but blackness' to a minimum, at least in shot production."
The work between the special effects team and CGI is what makes a show like this happen.- Rowley Irlam, Game of Thrones stunt coordinator
Bauer adds that the sheer blackness was an aesthetic choice. "It was a classic monster movie and what better way to heighten the tension on what's coming out of the dark than to not be able to see it?"
Bringing dragons to life
Live dragons were introduced to Game of the Thrones at the end of season one, when Daenerys' three dragon eggs hatched, but as they grew big enough to breathe fire and, eventually, be ridden, it created a whole new challenge: how to make a fictional animal look realistic.
"We used to say 'If you believe the fire, you'll believe the dragon,'" says Bauer of their early insistence to use real fire, as opposed to CGI.
"Not only the dragon fire, but the impact of the fire on the ground, the strafes, that's a different scale practical effect," says Bauer of the practice of performing the special effect in real life — in some cases with a flamethrower mounted to a moving camera boom — and then adding them to the scenes after.
"The work between the special effects team and CGI is what makes a show like this happen," stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam recently told q's Tom Power.
Baur says that when you're looking at a big action scene, if your eyes are seeing things that are photographed and look real, then that validates everything else in the frame. "About 90 per cent of the time we'll end up with elements that we shot," he says. "But beyond that, that's where the CGI kicks in."
That includes any scene where a character is seen riding a dragon. To pull that off, the special effects team built a section of the back of the dragon that's fabricated out of fiberglass, painted green and mounted on a 12-axis motion rig, explains Kullback. "All the movements are as authentic as they can be, and sometimes they need to be adjusted for severity so that we're not whipping a performer around beyond their capability."
The difference between making a scene that looks believable and one that comes off as cheap, adds Kullback, comes down to lighting. "Seeing that lighting on her matches the lighting on the dragon matches the lighting in the scene, that is what helps set it apart in a realistic way."
For the dragon animation, they rely on Vancouver's Image Engine, who started working on the final season in 2017.
"There is a completely different echelon of television work now," Shawn Walsh, general manager and visual effects executive producer at Image Engine, told CBC News.
For an example of how the scale has grown for the final season, the cost per episode has ballooned from around $6 million in season one to $15 million this season. And as the dragons physically grew, so did the complexity (and cost), which is all relative to the camera's proximity to the dragon's surface, adds Bauer.
"When they're small, you tend to shoot the whole thing, nose to tail, in the frame," he says. "And as they get bigger, you get closer, and pretty soon you're only seeing a nostril or an eye or tooth, so those dragon models get very complex."
There is also an upcoming dragon scene where the special effects team was able to use a new tool to do something audiences haven't seen yet, but Bauer says they can't reveal any details — other than to mention that "it's a very high-end piece of equipment, and we're happy to use it when we can."
Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, alluded to something big coming up when she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, saying that episode five is even bigger than last week's "The Long Night."
"Find the biggest TV you can," she said.