The Dragon in the Room
July 23, 2019

The Dragon in the Room

The finale season of Game of Thrones called for a fittingly giant visual scope. From scale of action to visual effects count, the closing six-episode arc brought on – in addition to the Night King’s armies – a host of challenges on the planning and production side.

(For an in-depth look at the visual effects in this final season, see the most recent issue of Computer Graphics World.)

A long-time collaborator on Game of Thrones, The Third Floor provided a team of previs artists, on-set supervisors and virtual production supervisors, who were integrated with the Belfast-based production for almost a year. Working with creatives and across key departments, the team developed shots, produced technical shooting schematics and developed solutions to filming fight, flight and fire elements using virtual prodution and motion control. Season 8 even saw dragon animation represented for the actors, directors and crew across key shots through moving LEDs, simulcam and engine-driven, real-time displays.

The visualization effort grew each season alongside the growing dragons from The Third Floor’s initial work on Season 3. While moments across the series majorly stepped up the bar for virtual planning – Season 5’s Hardhome and Fighting Pit scenes, for example, or the Battle of the Bastards in Season 6 – Season 8 was on a level of its own. Michelle Blok, previs supervisor, and Patrick Gehlen, previs lead, headed up visualization of more than 2,000 shots with creatives and show departments before filming commenced.  The previs, which had been built accurate to environments and sets, was transformed into per-shot technical diagrams and moving schematics that guided filming, with cameras and pyrotechnics in some cases being flown from the techvis or a combination of previs, techvis and pre-animation literally “putting the dragon in the room” for the first time during the shoot.

For Episode 3 “The Long Night,” artists visualized the epic Battle of Winterfell with director Miguel Sapochnik and DP Fabian Wagner to depict the vision of the action, look and mood. The team also created schematics for over 500 shots for an unprecedented element shoot, headed by The Third Floor’s Eric Carney, additional visual effects supervisor. In addition to the main battle, innovative shooting approaches had to be devised for the beat with Lyanna Mormont and Crum, the new giant in town, and for shots of Jon attempting to escape Viserion in the Courtyard.

For all-important action with Jon and Drogon in Episode 6, “The Iron Throne,” the team knew it would be critical to account for the dragon within the context of the interior set and vis-à-vis the actor, Kit Harrington. Using The Third Floor previs and pre-animation from Pixomondo, Casey Schatz, virtual production supervisor at The Third Floor, ran a moving eyeline via an NCAM composite that was followed by the on-set eyeline pole operator, using start and stop marks on the floor, informed by techvis.  

For fire blasts done with the special effects team, Schatz also flowed the motion data to a high-speed robotic camera arm that replicated the dragon’s performance with a practical flamethrower.

Prior to the plate shoot, Episode 6 DP Jonathan Freeman used a new VR tool to thoroughly scout the Throne Room environment, as well as sets like the Red Keep and Stairs. Immersed via a headmount display or using virtual cameras placed by The Third Floor’s senior real-time tech Adam Kiriloff, the cinematographer was able to do virtual frame-ups ahead of time and build out a shot list with photoboards.

Throughout, the visualization and virtual production crew worked closely across departments, regularly collaborating with the art department, stunts, special effects and visual effects, led by Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Bauer and Lead Visual Effects Producer Steve Kullback. The visual work for Season 8, Episode 5,“The Bells ,” stunned audiences, and garnered an 2019 Emmy Award nomination for members of the visual effects team as well.

Blok and team began work on the episode by building virtual environments from actual locations, props and equipment in which to stage the choreography episode director Miguel Sapochink envisioned, including the gate explosion, Dany’s attacks and coverage following Arya and the Hound. 

“We needed to establish the geography of King's Landing and, while the city had been established in previous seasons, the gate and its immediate environment had not been seen before,” Blok noted. “We started by defining the various sections of the city and integrated appropriate parts of Dubrovnik lidar into the city model. We used new art department designs of the huge King’s Landing set that was being newly construction with CG designs to bring the expanded world of action into a single geography. The Lidar-based previs meant anything designed in previs reflected the real world, and that technical diagrams could come out of the previs to precisely inform camera position, actor positions, distances, props, greenscreen placements and hundreds of other shooting details.”

The previs blocking, along with fleshed-out “pre-animation” files from final VFX vendors like Pixomondo and Image Engine, was sent, via techvis and FBX data, to control motion bucks, flamethrowing cranes, suspended cablecams and other equipment to capture real-world elements in sync with CG. The Third Floor’s Kaya Jabar, motion control/virtual production supervisor, supported both motion stage and fire stage shoots, even hand-puppeting the dragon buck for shots when Daenerys hovers midair, deciding what to do next.

In a series of key shots, Euron Greyjoy witnesses the firey destruction of his fleet. Before starting previs, The Third Floor worked with production and the existing Scorpion build to determine how the crossbow weapon, now heavier in size for Season 8, could be mounted to the ships. As Euron is blown from the deck by Drogon in a continous “one’r” shot, the path of the dragon was blocked and then connected to the shooting camera via motion control. To give the actor and stunt performers an accurate eyeline to follow of the dragon’s circling path, The Third Floor developed a solution with the Spydercam team using coded LED strips, triggered by the animation, that hung across the shooting stage.

“Going into the shoot, the camera’s movement was still evolving, but Drogon’s motion had been locked down, allowing Kaya and the virtual production team to complete techvis for the strafe fire,” Blok said. “We wanted to have the camera operator aware of the dragon’s position so the flight path could be framed correctly. Additionally, the actors needed an eyeline so they could track Drogon during the shot. We produced a moving eyeline using LEDs that gave the actors a view of the CG dragon to react to and had a simulcam composite as the crane filmed the shot. Later, in collaboration with Sam Conway and the special effects team, we delivered third-scale fire as one to one elements for plates already shot, piping the dragon performances seamlessly into the pyrotechnic rig.” 

As the attack moves to King’s Landing, action in the air and on the ground was meticulously planned out, with each dragon strafe having a specific purpose, whether setting off wildfire explosions or fire storms. Previs blocking and pre-animated dragon files from the vfx facilities  defined the camera position and path of each strafe along the ground and each strafe required a shooting speed of 48 frames per second or higher to give the correct appearance of size.

The action also follows Arya and the Hound through the crumbling city. The length and complexity of the camera moves for Arya’s journey followed Sapochnik’s vision for the choreography, also encompssing special effects elements into the storytelling and multiple different story beats. 

“To organize the process, Miguel provided a detailed map showing the path of action with each beat marked out,” recalled Patrick Gehlen. “We worked on those as incidental animation beats and then brought into a master previs scene, edited by Chris Baird. These shots traveling with Arya through the apocalypse that is now King’s Landing were among most challenging we visualized on the show.” 

With Jon Snow’s first dragon ride, an aerial dragon fight, wights in Winterfell and Dany and Drogon on a blazing rampage, the creative challenges and new technical approaches in the finale season were many.

“We flew practical flamethrower elements from techvis data via Spydercam, using a Libra head mount to give pan and tilt of the dragon’s throat,” said Eric Carney. “We used simulcam for real-time overlays as Crum attacked Winterfell. We had an NCAM system bringing pre-animation of Drogon live into the Throne Room on a display viewable to the directors and crew. On Game of Thrones the goal was to do as much in camera as possible, and to plan it as collaboratively and as effectively as possible. The team filmed hundreds of shots of Emilia Clarke on the dragon base in motion control and that’s why the imagery looks real -- because it is as real as it gets without actually having dragons and castles!  The need to plan for complex shots with actual locations, sets and actors – while also accounting for characters and effects in CG, led to pushing the possibilities of both the real equipment and the virtual toolsets, and all of the intersections in between.” 

The Third Floor recently earned its fifth Emmy Award nomination with the visual effects team for Game of Thrones.  The company has received four Emmy Awards previously with the Game of Thrones visual effects team, recognizing work in Seasons 4, 5, 6 and 7.