July 9, 2014

Think 'Game of Thrones' is Epic? Wait Until You See How They Pull Off the Visual Effects

Of the multitude of tremendously cinematic shows that dominate our airwaves today, Game of Thrones is likely the most ambitious, and it's almost certainly the one with the highest production value. From the absolutely massive (and excellent) ensemble cast -- all fitted with highly stylized wardrobe items -- to the dynamic digital cinematography that showcases some brilliant production design, the show looks like nothing else on television today. However, perhaps the most stunning aspect of Game of Thrones is the unmatched aesthetic and sheer magnitude of some of the locations and visual effects. Like many of the period and fantasy pieces shot today, the effects are comprised of a unique blend of traditional photography and heavy compositing, although it can sometimes be difficult to tell which is which, unless there happen to be VFX breakdowns and BTS featurettes. For Game of Thrones, these things exist in abundance.

Several different VFX studios collaborate on the effects of Game of Thrones, much in the way that the show relies on multiple cinematographers. This breakdown from the show's fourth season, which just came to its conclusion last month, comes to us courtesy of Mackevision, a multinational VFX company based out of Germany:

Of course, the effects of Game of Thrones go well beyond the creation of visually stunning, yet perfectly life-like environments. The second season in particular featured some tremendously creepy creature effects and in addition to all of the location and animal-based compositing. Here's a breakdown of the effects from the second season. Just as a heads up, there are a few spoilers in here:

As fun as these VFX breakdowns are to watch, they don't necessarily give the viewer any sense of just how complex the VFX process is. Here's a pair of excellent in-depth featurettes from the second and third seasons that provide a closer look at the entirety of the visual effects process, from pre-vis to the finished product. Like before, there are a few mild spoilers:

Ultimately, the visual effects in Game of Thrones are a unique combination of traditional processes and cutting-edge technologies. However, the point of the effects is not to be overtly flashy, which runs contrary to the ethos of many modern Hollywood blockbusters. Instead, the effects in Game of Thrones are used to engage the audience's imagination and fully envelop them  in the one-of-a-kind world that is Westeros.

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Your Comment

34 Comments

On some shots, they have no choice but to go VFX. On others, small scale 3-D printed objects, properly lit, shot and then superimposed onto the "real life" footage in post would have served them better.

July 9, 2014 at 7:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

I love it when people with an obvious lack in understanding in a given subject matter give their two cents to something they don't truly understand. Seriously, I work in VFX down London and what you just said is quite ridiculous."would have served them better", yeah because you know all about the technical details of the production. "small scale 3-D printed objects", I mean seriously, of what? if it's a castle for instance, a small scale miniature would be the size of a house roughly. miniatures in the business aren't really miniature you know? They just call them that, a lot these miniatures models are actually quite large and then made to look even larger. Take the Ice fortress in Inception. Also nobody in the business refers to something being comped in as "Superimposed".

July 9, 2014 at 7:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Shaun Fontaine

LOL

July 9, 2014 at 8:22PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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moebius22

I second that LOL.

July 10, 2014 at 12:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ryan

+1

July 10, 2014 at 2:50AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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nate

Finally, someone has commented on this nonsense attitude! Thanks!

July 10, 2014 at 7:05AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Fontaine doesn't know what he's talking about. I work on thrones and we use 1" miniatures all day.

July 10, 2014 at 1:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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bob

Is this your first time meeting DLDo?

July 10, 2014 at 4:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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TruthNuggets

Teh Owned.

July 10, 2014 at 7:39PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Cj

Let me rephrase it - doing a mock-up could have made it look less fake. That's JJ Abrams is doing for his Star Wars episode. If you don't think this is within the GoT budget, say so. If you feel like nitpicking on lingo, you're welcome to do so as well.
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And you're right. I am not a VFX maven. I am looking at it as a mere fan of some VFX films. The original "Death Star" is four feet wide and yet somehow it came off as more real than a castle created entirely on a computer. I don't think a 4-foot mockup is prohibitively expensive.and so far you haven't convinced me otherwise.

July 9, 2014 at 8:18PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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DLD

What looks fake? Everything is rendered with physically based renderers using image based lighting from on-set light probes. There's no way you could get anywhere near that quality or match in lighting using miniatures unless you give up comping into live action footage. We're at a point where everything is actually mathematically correct and no significant short cuts are taken because CPU power is cheap enough to brute force render physically accurate images.

July 9, 2014 at 9:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Gabe

It's not in the budget. To do anything with real models requires a film crew which costs more than 3D artist.

Think through the complexity of integrating a real model castle in the background of a live action shot. I'll give you one quickly incase you haven't done this stuff before.

If the camera moves then the castle element has to move with the correct perspective and stay looked to the ground plain where it is supposed to be, any slight deviation ruins the shot. So this shot with has to be static or the camera matched moved and I mean a real physical camera matched moved on a motion control rig. Both the live action needs a match move rig and the model team need one as well, the cameras need to be lensed to have the same field of view (ie. focal length) and depth of field but at a different scale because one is full size and the other is 1/20.

Ignoring the cost of the motion control rig which is thousands of dollars a day, your spending lots of hours to days setting up a shot at a cost of time on location, set up crew and cast because they'll have to to do more takes because the wind might have effected the camera rig. Let say the match move camera rig only takes 3 hours to set up per shot (I think its normally more than that) how many shots with effects do you think you can cover in a day? With CG dealing with the problem the crew (lets say 10-30 people paid per hour) can work as fast as they can with the rest fixed in post.

If a CG artists says "why did they do that it'll take me a day to paint out?" the answer normally is it would take an hour on set to fix and we're spending $10,000 an hour on set and you cost $1000 day (lets say they're ball park figures but the 10% cost ratio seems right).

Thats why things like the edelkrone slider with action module is amazing (I haven't used on to know if it works 100%) because you can do cheap match moves!

I am constantly amazed how VFX were done in the days before 3D design, 3D camera tracking and modern compositing programs like FLAME, Shake and NUKE. The complexity is astronomical! 2001 is unbelievable some shots I have no idea how they did them especially the zero G pen.

July 9, 2014 at 9:53PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Andy

Andy, your comment is fascinating, and I agree completely. That said, the zero G pen in 2001 is actually a funny counterexample to your point. Believe it or not, that was one of the simplest effects they did. The pen is stuck to a large piece of glass using double-sided transparent tape (seriously). Two crew members held the glass and turned it slowly, while the camera shot the scene through the glass, and that's how the pen appeared to float in midair. It was just stuck to the glass the whole time.Then, when the stewardness picked up the pen and put it in the character's pocket (what was his name?), all she did was firmly grip the pen and pull it off the glass (watch it again carefully and you can see the moment she pries it off). I actually love the fact that this stunning shot was so simple. It's sheer brilliance.

Anyway, to add to the main conversation: I think VFX work like this is stunning. I'm not a VFX artist, so I don't know what's groundbreaking and what isn't. But if this kind of work is run-of-the-mill, isn't that an even more impressive fact? That compositors, VFX artists, and VFX software developers have reached such an incredibly high level of quality in their work? I rarely get annoyed by little VFX flaws in Game of Thrones (though I do notice some). Mostly I experience GoT as a seamless, beautiful world and I don't even think about how they're doing it.

I know people complain about CG--but we only complain when we notice it, which means it's bad CG. ;) And ultimately, cheap and simple VFX won't destroy filmmaking. It'll make it better.

Here's the comparison I like to think about: imagine a world where a novelist would have to spend vast sums of money if she wanted to set a novel in medieval times, or in a fantasy/sci-fi setting, or have non-human speaking characters. Absurd, right? In the real world, a novelist can simply write anything they want to write, in any context, no matter how fanciful, with any kind of characters. Does that ability ruin fiction writing? Do all novelists just compete to see who can write the craziest, flashiest settings and the most over-the-top action scenes? Well, some do, but most don't. So why should we fear a world where (in a few decades or probably much less) filmmakers will have nearly the same flexibility that fiction writers have always had?

July 10, 2014 at 1:54PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Ben

Thanks Ben! I've been wondering about that one for ages!

July 15, 2014 at 8:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Andy

Zzzzzz.... How can anyone be impressed by this? I was mildly amused by watching BTS of Gladiator in the year 2000, at a stage in time when most of the effects seen in the video above was already fairly well developed and in general use in cinema sfx. Sure, they were not common in mainstream television, but you'd have to be pretty much out of the loop for a quite a while to think that multi-layer composites of mostly static plates are anything but mundane today. The sheer amount of composites in Game of Thrones may still impress some, but any uniqueness is preeeetty much none-existent.

July 9, 2014 at 8:47PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Amund Lie

Well that right there is the definition of taking something for granted.

July 9, 2014 at 9:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Gabe

..."multi-layer composites of mostly static plates" Otherwise known as 2.5D? And yes, I think people can appreciate these. Painting is still appreciated why not this? It's not meant I think to be a "wow" factor demonstration but an a striptease of GOT. I do like seeing these even if the technique is not new.

July 10, 2014 at 2:15AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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JPS

The techniques used might not be new but the quality of the work is impressive non the less. They may not be breaking any new ground in VFX techniques but that's just because we've reached a plateau, there's not much else can be done with current technology, and to be honest, the whole point is to create interesting stories as economically as possible without sacrificing image quality. Workflow doesn't matter, only the end result. When that becomes obsolete, naturally new technology and new techniques will occur. Most of the shots may be static but the show is a fantasy drama after all, they do what the shots call for. Nobody is saying what they do is special, it's just a breakdown video, some people find them interesting even if it is the same old same old.It's very arrogant of you to say "Zzzzzz…. How can anyone be impressed by this?", like you know better, you sound like a child when you write that.

I work at Framestore as a junior compositor, I just finished work on a multi million dollar feature film doing simple paint and roto, I still get a buzz from it and I still think it's amazing being able to do it, I guess I'm out of the loop for being impressed with that we can achieve these days, even if it has been done before.

At the end of the day, the art is impressive that goes into the look and general aesthetic are top quality.

July 10, 2014 at 6:01AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Shaun Fontaine

You tell 'em Shaun! I was just talking to a colleague about this. It's seeing breakdowns like these that puts it all into perspective. People take for granted that we can literally bring a dream to life. Like you can actually DREAM something and then create it for others to enjoy. How can people not be excited about that possibilty? Anyway - these vids are great so thanks for sharing dudes. Aside from the badass artwork that goes into GOT, the compositing is incredible and inspiring (especially when you consider this is TV).

July 10, 2014 at 8:58AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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I totally agree, it's nice to know some people can appreciate this very nice work.

July 10, 2014 at 2:09PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Shaun Fontaine

Well said. I grew up watching my father paint theatre and TV sets before working in SFX for many years, and always loved watching the artistry then, and equally do so now in the VFX breakdown videos like these.

I can't even imagine how special it would be to watch van goh paint starry night. But these days people would probably just bitch that they'd seen plenty of other people paint before.

July 10, 2014 at 11:07AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Lliam

Your father sounds like an amazing person, I bet he loved every minute of it. I know, it's a shame people can't appreciate things just because they've been done before.

July 10, 2014 at 2:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Shaun Fontaine

Indeed. But what does the audience care? The amount of work put into any particular scene is not equidistant to what the viewer may possibly experience as complex visual effort, since most sfx pass them by. Nothing new there, vfx is something that just is. If you think this is special for our decade (or century for that matter), go read some old-style printed books, like about ILM or Harryhausen, analogue, hand-made. They may enlighten thine digital reality.

July 9, 2014 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Amund Lie

The ratings seem so to say yes.

July 9, 2014 at 10:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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moebius22

And thus we arrive at the compositors curse. You know you have done a good job if the audience doesn't notice. Put it this way - you say that the audience doesn't care? They would if it was shit.

July 10, 2014 at 9:02AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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HAHAHA! I would hate to look at the world through your eyes dude! - Get a grip.

July 12, 2014 at 6:13AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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That was for @Amund Lie

July 12, 2014 at 6:13AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Haha, look at all these camera losers complaining!

July 10, 2014 at 5:42AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Terppa Teuvonen

Reading some comments, I guess some readers have miss the point here. It is not about having the most 'high-end & top-of-notch' VFX used. Nope. The idea is how these VFX are able to serve to story, and give production value to shots, so that the viewer is even more immersed into the shown environment. I'm not a VFX expert, and really I don't care if VFX are 'mathematically correct', but my non-expert-VFX eyes can however tell me if I like what I'm seeing when I'm watching the show. And IMHO, GOT VFX team have done a pretty good job here.

Let me take a parallel : I live in France, country of wine, though I'm not a wine expert either. When tasting a wine, should I have to know all the secular techniques the vine grower masters, or even if he used some of the latest technology to improve his wine? No, I'm just tasting it, and whether I like it and enjoy, or not. ;-)

July 10, 2014 at 6:57AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Sometimes I literally was caught of guard with the breakdowns.

July 12, 2014 at 5:17AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tyler

Are any cgi effects rendered at 4K, or is it all HD ?

July 10, 2014 at 7:58PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Saied

I could be wrong here, but I know they shoot Game of Thrones on an Alexa and I don't think there's a 4k Alexa available at the moment.

July 12, 2014 at 5:48PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Jack Marchetti

I also think that a production house would want to work in the delivery format as to not waste time. Render 4K is no easy feat. Especially for TV delivery.

July 13, 2014 at 1:00AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tyler

Yes, all very impressive. Shame the same consistency isn't invested in the writing. That's what's really important.

July 11, 2014 at 2:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Neil Randall