Fire and Ice
Chris Bunish
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 5: (Sep/Oct 2017)

Fire and Ice

Just as location shooting for Game of Thrones spans continents, so does the series’ pool of visual effects vendors. With seven seasons on HBO now behind it, Game of Thrones maintains a roster of VFX studios that’s as big as ever. It 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.”

That said, 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 – which gives vendors something to be involved in very early on. This show has to be married to the photographic image.”

Upping the Ante

Season 7 featured more use of Spydercam, the suspended camera and specialty rigging system, for both production and element shoots. Aerial work overall has grown through the years, according to Kullback. “Spydercam, drones, helicopters. We plotted out one drone move for the Volantis Bridge sequence in Season 3, and now we have our own drone air force!”

Storyboards from production drive the VFX effort; The Third Floor in Los Angeles fills previs and techvis requirements.  

VFX needs change season to season as determined by the story line, 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 had done on Jurassic World, and their work for Season 7 was top-notch.”

In terms of sheer numbers, “Season 3 had around 800 shots. Season 7 had around 2,200, all done in the same amount of time,” says Bauer. Kullback points out that Season 7’s Episode 6 contained “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 dragon and now spans nearly 200 feet.

Dragon shots numbered fewer than 70 in Season 6 and climbed to more than 200 for Season 7, including 80 or so of queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) riding Drogon – up from about a dozen last year.

“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, which has been with Game of Thrones for four seasons. Rodeo FX won three VES (Visual Effects Society) Awards for its work on the spectacular “Battle of the Bastards” sequence in Season 6. “This year we did around 300 shots, which is in line with previous seasons, but there was a lot more simulation work, more details, more complexity in general,” he says.

Game of Thrones ups the ante for all of the show’s VFX vendors each season. “It begins with the delivery of outlines and scripts,” says Kullback. “Episodes are always significantly more complex and beyond the scope of what can be shot in-camera. Our mission is to use VFX to serve the story and fulfill their vision.”

Dragon-size Effects

The battle on the frozen lake in Episode 6 of Season 7, “Beyond the Wall,” epitomizes the complexity of VFX sequences this year. Certainly “Iceland did its bit,” as Bauer puts it, setting the scene with its unique frigid landscapes. But the battle was packed with VFX shots: El Ranchito extended and enhanced the bleak environment and re-animated the dragon Viserion, Pixomondo and El Ranchito crafted the wights’ (reanimated corpses’) crumbling-skeleton demise, and Rhythm & Hues “went all in” with the flying dragons’ animation, he adds.

“More acrobatics were required for the dragons, which are moving fast” and spitting real fire elements shot with the show’s signature flamethrower using a motion-control crane technique, Bauer explains. “Rhythm & Hues had to change the dragons’ performances to work with the best-looking fire photography. That gave more nuance to the performance and the awesome scaled fire – one of the secrets of the success of that particular sequence.”

Los Angeles-based Rhythm & Hues netted 2015 and 2016 Emmy Awards for its work on the series. In crafting Drogon for Season 5’s “Dance of the Dragons” episode, the company created the performance for a mythic beast that was at once vicious and vulnerable. Rhythm & Hues animated Drogon using a model built by Pixomondo, which featured aspects of lizards, bats, and birds to make Drogon – as well as Rhaegal and Viserion – believable. When Drogon grew in size for Season 6, a larger-scale dragon model was developed with the show’s dragon designer, Dan Katcher, and Pixomondo. 

Complex and dynamic camera moves were used to put Daenerys atop Drogon to burn the slave masters’ ships in the Meereenese harbor last year. “Learning how to pre-animate the dragon for motion-control playback has been a new process for us,” notes Derek Spears, VFX supervisor for Rhythm & Hues through Season 7. “We hadn’t really explored before how animation drives what happens on the set.”

That experience informed this season’s dragon work, which was still bigger in scope. The frozen lake sequence had a number of people riding Drogon, “so we had multiple passes of people positioned on different parts of his back. And that required more precise animation across the back of the dragon,” Spears explains. “We tried to stick close to the greenscreen elements and not alter things and reposition people if we didn’t have to.”

The death of Viserion as the dragon is speared and crashes into the lake was a challenge VFX had not faced before. “It was a rare moment where the whole emotional content of the scene concentrated on VFX,” says Kullback.  

Rhythm & Hues animated and lit the crash; El Ranchito did the water sims. “We were given plane crash reference as a model for Viserion’s crash. There is usually a physical analog that can put you on the right path, even for a fantasy tale,” says Spears.

Still, it took many iterations to successfully create Viserion’s crash and parts of its body sliding into the water. “We had an inherent sense of what it should look like, and it was obvious when we got it wrong,” Spears says.

The shot combines photogrammetry of the Icelandic location, the CG dragon, and special effects fire as the camera pulls back to watch Viserion sink into the water. “Everything was carefully plotted out,” says Bauer. “You could play the previs next to the final VFX shot and they could run in tandem,” notes Kullback. “That’s the value of preparation.”

El Ranchito stepped in when Viserion was pulled out of the lake and re-animated as the ice dragon by the living-dead White Walkers. “Given all the dragon work we had, we were stretched for dragon vendors,” says Bauer. “So El Ranchito got its first dragon. The shot where the White Walker Night King puts his hand on Viserion’s head was their version one – they nailed it right out of the gate.”

Up in Flames

Weta created the “zombie polar bear,” a fearsome creature that the VFX team had long – and jokingly – lobbied for. “The Revenant had just come out, so that was the benchmark to beat,” laughs Bauer. “We talked to ILM [which crafted the bear for the film], but they were pulled onto another job, so we met with Weta and it was right up their alley, really.”

Fire and Ice Fire and Ice

Data was collected from location shots with stunt performers: One wore a bear’s head armature, while “victims” on wire rigs were tossed around like rag dolls. This information was given to the Weta team, which then “dug into the model, deciding how far to take down the bear before it stopped looking like a polar bear and became a burnt dog,” says Bauer. Animators also had to determine “how much to muck up the bear’s run cycle. We Frankensteined it at first, with stiff legs, but that inhibited the performance too much so we backed away from it.”

Weta also had to create CG fire for the zombie polar bear, the first instance where the show set out to make synthetic fire a visual effect. “We love to shoot organic elements and do so for fire all the time,” says Kullback. “But with the bear, we had no choice, and Weta pulled it off very credibly. They did CG fire on the Planet of the Apes movies, so we felt it would be no problem for them.” Reference footage of the bear-head stunt performer with gas jets spitting fire showed the Weta team what fire would look like in the lighting conditions and environment.

The “Field of Fire” attack on the loot train in Episode 4 of Season 7 cued off concept art by Robert Simon, photo references provided by the director of oil fires and Ground Zero post-September 11, and full previs.  Spydercam footage captured on location in Spain drove the dragon POV coverage.

Image Engine animated Drogon for the attack, which Bauer calls “some of the most beautiful performances we’ve had.” Iloura crafted the epic environment reminiscent of the American West’s Monument Valley. In addition to large-scale pyro and practical smoke, Screen Scene “really stepped up with a huge amount of CG fire and smoke work,” Bauer adds.

Frozen in Time

In a season of can-you-top-this moments, perhaps most spectacular of all was the ice wall sequence in the Season 7 finale. The Night King rides on the back of the ice dragon Viserion, who breathes blue fire on the ice wall, melting and shearing the protective structure. Its destruction and the horror unleashed by its breach foreshadow the next, and final, season of the show.

Parts of the 300-mile-long ice wall had been crafted by various VFX vendors since Season 1, but this year audiences saw the Eastwatch section and how the wall tapered into the sea at “the coldest, most barren, forgotten end of the world possible,” says Bauer. Live-action plates were shot on a volcanic beach in Iceland. Concept Artist Floris Didden, cofounder of Karakter in Berlin, provided amazing art, which was enhanced by Rodeo FX’s Deak Ferrand, who stair-stepped the ice wall down to a man-made jetty.

“A realistic model was developed to show a thousand years of wear and tear from the ocean: ice floes melting and refreezing, the erosion of the waves, ramshackle bits of an ill-maintained man-made structure,” says Bauer.

Fire and Ice Fire and Ice

Rodeo FX built the environment surrounding the ice wall and modeled, shaded, and set dressed the icy barrier; the studio then crafted the collapse of the wall. “We had to cover a lot of distance with the wall, so we separated the wall into three parts – the closer part that is destroyed in high res, the middle part that still stands, also in high res, and the farther part in low res as a base for the digital matte paintings that completed the look of the wall,” says Patrice Poissant, Rodeo FX’s CG supervisor for Game of Thrones Season 7. “It was a big challenge to match the concept art, but we’re happy with the final result.” 

Rodeo FX received “beautiful” location plates of the volcanic beach, but so much was added that the shots became “almost fully CG,” Poissant notes. “The wall and its surroundings were seen from all sides. Among other elements, we added trees, the castle, wooden structures on the wall, snow on the rocks, and birds.”

For the wall’s dramatic collapse, Rodeo FX scored the wall to break it apart in multiple shots. “We received a previs as reference for the timing and the size of the collapse, then layered effects on top of that,” explains Poissant. “Artists added secondary debris, smoke, and interactive fire when the fire hits the wall. For the actual collapse of the wall, we created debris, powdered snow, and water splashes as the ice fell into the sea.” Real fire elements were provided and color-graded to become the ice dragon’s destructive blue breath.

...and more

Earlier in the season, Rodeo FX created the ships, water, fireballs, and destruction of the Greyjoys’ epic sea battle in Episode 2. Having done the massive destruction of ships in the harbor during the Meereen battle scene last year proved extremely helpful for the new VFX sequence. “We’ve been able to train the team so they were all up to speed and able to do a lot more of this quality of work this year,” says Rouleau. 

Rodeo FX also created the fully-CG city of Meereen for last year’s battle sequence, including all buildings and props, which were modeled individually. Matte paintings filled in details such as skies, distant mountains, and cliffs. The studio also created Season 6’s CG Dothraki horde and horses used in two episodes, as well as a 443-frame sequence revealing the fully-CG Volantis bridge.

Although the season finale aired just last month, preparations are getting under way for the show’s eighth and last season. “The machine never stops,” laughs Bauer. “The humans may be recharging, but early previs is happening.”

“We’re already talking to vendors,” adds Kullback. “We have writers’ drafts for most of the season, and the art department is starting to send concepts. So we’re in the earliest stages of our anxiety attack.”

Bauer and Kullback recently were invited to speak to the entire animation building at Walt Disney Studios. “We felt extremely unworthy,” says Bauer. “Toiling in the mines, you forget that the world is watching and appreciating the show. This was a huge ‘attaboy!’ ”

The two men expect an even larger appetite for VFX as the show winds down next season. “We can’t be harder on ourselves without going into a psych ward,” says Bauer. “The work always seems impossible, but we’ll look at Season 8 as a fresh experience that continues the pattern.” 

Building Thrones

VFX vendors for Game of Thrones primarily use Autodesk Maya for animation and The Foundry’s Nuke for compositing. 

“It used to be that big houses used proprietary software that didn’t handshake with anyone,” notes VFX Supervisor Joe 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.

Rhythm & Hues 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 Derek Spears. “We use Maya only for modeling.”

Rodeo FX switched from Softimage to Maya in Season 6. This year the company moved to The Foundry’s Katana for lighting, and “that’s worked out really well” and helped to speed the process, says Matthew Rouleau, VFX supervisor at the studio. 

Rodeo FX has used Side Effects’ Houdini “quite a bit for effects,” including scoring and collapsing the ice wall, and it is now deploying the software for layout, set dressing, and creature effects, Rouleau says. “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 setups,” he says.

The studio has also adopted Golaem, the crowd-simulation tool for Maya,
to populate battle scenes and create floods of people. “For the last shot in the Season 7 finale, after the ice wall collapses and the Army of the Dead comes flooding in, we used actors in the foreground plates, a 16k matte painting projected onto a 3D environment, and all the rest was Golaem,” says Patrice Poissant.

Both Rodeo FX and Rhythm & Hues use Solid Angle’s Arnold for rendering.

Christine Bunish ( is a veteran writer and editor for the film and video industry.