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August 30, 2018

Winter Is Here

Game of Thrones VFX artists cue the dragons — and more — to deliver an ambitious episode.

Daron James
  • Emilia Clarke, as Daenerys Targaryen, on the back of the dragon Drogon


In "Beyond the Wall," a seventh-season Game of Thrones episode, Jon Snow (Kit Harington) and a misfit group of badass warriors venture north to capture a wight, a foot soldier in the approaching army of the dead.

The episode finds Westeros at a critical moment: that army is heading south.

The HBO juggernaut has won 38 Emmys, including five for visual effects. VFX producer Steve Kullback and VFX supervisor Joe Bauer have a mantra: "Let's try not to mess this up." Bauer jokes, "That's how we usually begin our conversations. It's an enormous team effort that starts with our director, Alan Taylor, and branches out to all our departments.

This particular episode took a lot of work. In one scene, the warriors were marching in blizzard conditions when a zombie polar bear attacked. Stuntmen on wires simulated being tossed around by a bear. A puppeteer moved a green cage shaped like a bear's head; the rest of the bear was added in post.

Later, the heroes were stranded on a small island, surrounded by the army of the dead. Only water protected them, but that water was turning to ice. An enormous set built at Wolf Hill Quarry in Belfast was blended with exterior locations in Iceland. Production designer Deborah Riley mapped the set with meticulous detail, using concrete and color to layer a three-dimensional icy look. More than 3,000 bags of "snow" covered the area.

To show wights falling through the ice, separate set pieces were filmed using motion control on a soundstage. Rigs let actors fall in a controlled environment, and VFX later replicated their movement to show it on a massive scale.

Cue dragons. While in-camera effects provided a starting point, it was still up to VFX to deliver the living, fire-breathing goods: huge dragons called Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion. Bauer says he looks for "that special innate outstanding special sense of an artist who has an intuition about how things move in relation to scale. Aside from the dramatic needs, just getting the physiognomy right is really elusive."

"Anything that provides a physical interaction for the actors, we'll try to "create," Kullback adds. "When Daenerys [Emilia Clarke] lands on the island to save the day, we ended up laser-cutting a full-scale polystyrene section of Drogon's back derived from the digital model for them to interact with on set." In filming Viserion's death and reanimation, VFX used the same laser-cutting technique to create the eerie final shot.

"We made a full version of the head and neck, which allowed camera to find the exact spot it needed to be when the Night King [Richard Brake] puts his hand on its snout," Kullback says. "Then we created all the finishing touches leading up to its eye opening."

Kullback and Bauer recall doing about a dozen motion-based shots with Clarke riding the dragon for season six. In season seven, they had around 80. The final season has almost twice that.

Get ready for the ride.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 8, 2018

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