If you're ever wondering who the real hero of Game of Thrones is, look no further than the prosthetics team. Often the first on set and the last to leave, these silicone-wielding artists are tasked with designing and implementing some of the most complex practical effects in the entertainment industry.
"Game of Thrones, for a prosthetic artist, is like a bucket list," says Barrie Gower, a prosthetics designer at BGFX, in a new series of videos from BAFTA and Nerdwriter focusing on his team's work. "It's a list of everything you'd like to do in your career. I don't think I've ever worked on a project that's got such a varied amount of prosthetics. It's very rare you'll be on a project where you'll be decapitating somebody one week, then doing a full-body prosthetic the next."
The four videos (below) detail the extensive processes involved in creating some of Game of Thrones' most memorable characters and scenes, including the Night King, giants, and battles such as Loot Train, Hardhome, and the Battle for Winterfell. Gower and his colleague Paul Spateri, Workshop Supervisor at BGFX, give us a tour of their studio and a peek into the ingenuity behind the creatures and gore.
In the Studio
When Gower and his team receive a script for an episode of Game of Thrones, the first order of business is breaking it down in terms of shots that will require either practical or digital effects. Next, the prosthetics designers meet with the GOT producers to discuss individual characters and to decide which elements of these characters should be created in-camera or in post-production.
"Whatever the brief is about the character, we have to be practical about things," says Gower. "The artist has got to be able to wear this stuff day in and day out. It can't be too heavy. They need to be able to breathe."
"Game of Thrones films with a lot of green costumes with sections missing, and in post they remove those areas," adds Spateri. "But it’s good for the actors to have something to look at—something to react to."
The start-to-finish build time for a prosthetic character is about four weeks.
For grisly practical effects, the designers don't have to create a prototype; they can simply jump right in. For creatures and characters, however, the team draws a 2D design, then creates a mini clay cast or 3D sculpture of the character. Next, they'll have the actors come into the studio, where they create a lifecast, or 3D copy of the actor's body, using plaster. This lifecast is then delivered to the sculptors, who built it in full using silicone, airbrushes, and other materials.
"Prosthetics is all about camouflage," says Gower.
"When you’re shooting prosthetics, you can get away with quite a lot if you have good lighting," adds Spateri, who often worries about the details visible in HD. "Sometimes you can see every little brush mark. But many things can get fixed in post."
On average, the start-to-finish build time for a prosthetic character is about four weeks and can involve up to 15 artists and technicians.
The prosthetics team can expect a call time as early as 2AM; they're the first to arrive on set. They immediately get to work gluing prosthetics to the actors, a process which can take up to three hours. On average, it requires five hours of preparation before the actors are ready to set foot on set.
Once filming begins, the prosthetics team must follow the actors around for the 10-hour shooting day, "prodding them and maintaining the makeup," according to Gower. And their work isn't done when the director calls wrap: at the end of the day, the team commences the de-rigging process, which involves peeling the prosthetics off with a brush and mineral oil. "You can't just rip these things off," says Gower. "It would take a layer of the skin with it."
The White Walkers
The prosthetics team was inspired by The Walking Dead to create the White Walkers. "But as much as we want to look at what other people are doing, we also wanted to do something pretty original," says Gower.
The first step of the process is having the actors who play the White Walkers—almost always stuntpeople—come into the prosthetics studio, where they are fitted according to their facial bone structure. The artists add sinews and "fibrous shapes" before they begin to apply texture, which they design based on inspiration from naturally-occurring marble and ice.
"The White Walkers have very wrinkly, almost elderly traits to them, but the last thing you want to do is sculpt old-age makeup," says Gower.
To create the glowing blue eyes endemic to the creatures, the prosthetics team outfits each stuntperson with sclera contact lenses. The glow effect is added in post.
Spateri was inspired to pursue a career in prosthetics after reading CineMagic Magazine as a kid. "It’s a bit like being paid to do your hobby," he said.
But not every day is easy. For example, when shooting the massacre at Hardhome, Spateri and his team "were up in this quarry in Belfast in the rain for four weeks, every day, in complete chaos. It can get a bit miserable, but at the end of the day, I'm happy to do be doing what I'm doing."
For Gower, Hardhome was a career highlight. "At times, it felt like pandemonium," he said, "but then you look at the monitor, and it was so cleverly choreographed, you couldn't believe what you were seeing onscreen was actually what was right next to you. The feeling of achievement was incredible."