Delivering fire, blood and destruction for Game Of Thrones’ final season

July 10, 2019
Following the finale, we caught up with VFX associate producer Adam Chazen to learn about this season’s unique challenges and the importance of real-time video review when working with so many far-flung vendors.

Game of Thrones has reached its long-awaited finale. Despite spanning just six episodes, the final season featured a massive shot count for the visual effects (VFX) team – who delivered fire-breathing dragons, fiendish wights, and the downfall of iconic cities. With six Emmy wins already under their belt for Outstanding Special Visual Effects, HBO might have saved the best for last in Game of Thrones.

Photo: Helen Sloan – HBO

Immense scale

The VFX team took the same methodical approach as with prior seasons, breaking down scripts and outlines before starting concept and previs work, although this time with more manpower. The previs team meticulously mapped out scenes, developed animatics with feedback from the directors and producers, and completed a technical visualization pass to figure out how to bring those big scenes to life.

Overall, Game of Thrones season eight was less about developing new techniques and more about delivering immense scale. The post production team had more than 3,000 VFX shots to complete, although there was also a massive effort to capture as much as possible on set. In particular, the Winterfell set saw enormous expansion for the final season, while a new King’s Landing set replaced the previous locale of Old Town Dubrovnik.

“Obviously we can’t shoot all of the big battles and destroy cities for real,” says Chazen. “But it’s a humongous testament to the show that we do try to get as much in-camera as possible. A lot of the sets you see are fully built out.”

Photo: Helen Sloan – HBO

Global collaboration

As the scale of Game of Thrones has expanded over several seasons, so has the number of vendors required. “In Season 2, we had basically two vendors working on it,” says Chazen. “Every year, as the show grows, the vendor count grows just to be able to do the work in the timeline.”

A total of 14 different VFX studios contributed to shots for season eight. Weta and El Ranchito handled the massive battle in episode three, The Long Night, while Scanline VFX delivered King’s Landing destruction in episode five. Image Engine tackled the iconic dragons in-flight, while Pixomondo did close-up creature work, such as Drogon’s final scene in the throne room.

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

HBO has relied on Cospective’s interactive video review tool, cineSync, for every Game of Thrones season to date. The software allowed showrunners to remotely collaborate with an expanding number of VFX vendors – sharing shots, annotations, and notes across a wide array of international locales.

“We like to shoot as many elements as possible and temp them ahead of time with our VFX Editor Chris Baird,” says Adam. “cineSync was essential for clarifying this with vendors. For example, the King’s Landing battle went through several iterations. We were able to draw on-screen to highlight the areas we wanted destroyed – where to add fire, smoke, ashes, etcetera.”

To allow for maximum flexibility, a large-scale photogrammetry scan of the King’s Landing set was carried out, producing a 3D model for Scanline VFX to work with. Artists had access to every nook and cranny, ready to deliver deliciously realistic-looking destruction en masse. The VFX team also completed a full aerial photogrammetry scan of Old Town Dubrovnik – where King’s Landing was usually shot – aiming to provide vendors with as much information as possible.

The ability to review footage in real-time – with collaborators anywhere in the world – was also vital when coordinating between studios. For example, Image Engine’s dragon assets would often appear in other vendors’ shots, so multiple artists would be involved with the iteration process.

“We’re a worldwide operation: we have vendors in New Zealand, in Germany, here in the States, in Canada [remember, if in the country, to connect to a travel clinic], in Spain, and in Ireland – all over the place,” he says. “Obviously, we can’t be in all of those places at once, and even vendors that we have here in the States in California, it’s hard for us to get over because we just have so much going on.

“To be able to look at the same thing on the screen at the same time with the vendors, it helps 1,000%,” Chazen continues. “Obviously, we give notes to vendors, but being able to get on a cineSync and point to exactly the issues that we’re seeing, it solves the problem much quicker than verbally.”

Photo: Courtesy of HBO

End of an icon

Bringing Game of Thrones to life has been an enormous challenge for the VFX team and their many global collaborators – but the results have been consistently brilliant, delivering unquestionably one of the greatest television shows ever created.

For Chazen, it’s the end of an era. “It’s very bittersweet. It still hasn’t fully hit me yet,” Chazen admits about the series coming to a close. “When I was watching the finale, it was hitting me hard. I feel very lucky that I’ve gotten to work on it since Season 2, and I’ve met a lot of great people and made lifelong friends. I’ve gotten to work with the best in the business, and we’ve gotten to do work that is critically acclaimed and that people love. It’s really been fun and I feel very, very lucky and fortunate.”

Photo: Helen Sloan – HBO

As always, we can’t wait to see the next visual masterpieces that HBO and team cook up, although Game of Thrones is sure to always remain a high point for the network.

Top Photo: Helen Sloan – HBO

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