Game of Thrones: Features

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Achieving the Epic with Visual Effects

While all our present information from George R.R. Martin indicates that HBO is expected to give a decision somewhere around March on whether they will order a season of Game of Thrones (US, UK), the finishing of filming on November 19th has led to an understandable question: what next? We’ll try to answer, and speculate on, two of the primary tasks before the production now that principal shooting is done: visual effects and post-production. We are by no means experts on these (or, indeed, any) facets of film production, but we’ve collected information from across the internet that will allow the experts to speak for themselves.

Digital Magic

There’s been a revolution in visual effects that has trickled down from film into television over the last two decades or so, thanks to the advent of high-end computer generated graphics. The visual effects process these days for a high-end production is almost entirely digital, with teams of 3D artists and programmers working their arcane sorcery to do all sorts of things from erasing inadvertent anachronisms like a car passing in the distance to creating photorealistic depictions of cities and armies. The creators of a show can now get that much closer to what they envision in their mind, provided they have the talent, the time, and the money to see it realized in strings of 0’s and 1’s.

What sort of things can a modern television production achieve with digital compositing and CGI effects? A recent example is also on of the very best for our purposes, because it was HBO’s award-winning John Adams miniseries which stunned viewers with the remarkable reconstruction of Revolutionary-era Boston, Washington, D.C, and other locales. Thirty years ago, the cost to recreate so many locations, with so many extras in use, would have been well beyond the means of most productions. No longer. One of HBO’s featurettes for the miniseries shows how exactly John Adams achieved what it did:

The featurette shows a tour de force of digital work. Small groups of extras were multipled into thousands, photoreal digital "actors" were inserted into scenes to act as extras, vast stretches of a town were created out of no more than a hundred yards of green screen. This sort of work will be important for Game of Thrones, where we might expect to see sweeping vistas, digital recreations of the great castle of Winterfell, and digital compositing of live action scenes in front of rendered digital mattes to show glimpses of a large castle complex through windows, gates, and doorways. It’s true that John Adams was far more expensive than a regular HBO drama such as Game of Thrones can expect to be; the sheer ambition of what John Adams achieved is almost certainly out of reach of this epic fantasy. However, one of the creators of HBO’s new Martin Scoresese-produced 1920’s gangster drama, Boardwalk Empire, recently cited John Adams as making them realize that their own ambitious recreation of a period Atlantic City was within the grasp of their production. Boardwalk Empire has been touted by many as a major dramatic epic from HBO, on par with Game of Thrones in terms of scope and quality, and what’s good for one may well be good for the other.

Even with a lesser budget, digital effects can go a very long way, as witnessed by this show reel from Stargate Studios. Featuring numerous examples of their work in television on such shows as Monk, Ugly Betty, and Grey’s Anatomy—not the sort of programs one would think of as special effects extravaganzas—the video reveals just how pervasive, and how increasingly realistic, digital effects are

Make it Green

We do know that the green (or sometimes blue) screens ubiquitous to productions planning to digitally composite rendered effects shots into scenes are in use in the production. Julia Frey teasingly shared a photo from the production of herself in front of a large, green screen. At the time when this was posted, it was speculated that this was taken within the massive Paint Hall studio facility in Belfast. Her post two days later emphasizing how cold cavernous buildings can get suggests that’s the case, although it’s entirely possible that it was set up at an exterior location. More recently, she has remarked on one of her tasks during the production being the placement of tracking markers on the green screen.

We also had reports from extras and visitors to Castle Ward, who noted one curiousity: an enclosed wagon covered all over in green material, except for the wheels and a door in its side. It seems that the wagon will be used to represent Queen Cersei’s "wheelhouse" (a very large carriage, described as a monstrous contraption pulled by forty horses) as the royal party arrives at the castle of Winterfell. Whether the cart will be depicted in motion or only used to establish its presence when it’s stopped outside the gates (it being too large too actually fit through them) is unknown. This use of green material to mask out all but a part of a vehicle or object seems like a real attempt to think outside the box. Not only are effects being used to match images from the novels—another sign of the faithfulness of the production—but it seems that effects can do it more cheaply than constructing a fake wheelhouse.

The Big Guns

While we do not know which visual effects houses are involved in Game of Thrones, we do know that Robert Stromberg is the visual effects supervisor and that Julia Frey is the visual effects producer. These two have extensive Hollywood film credits, with Stromberg recently taking on the task of production designer for two major Hollywood events: James Cameron’s Avatar and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Notably, Stromberg was also involved in John Adams as the visual effects designer who developed the approach the miniseries used for its amazing effects. With their impressive credentials, it seems unlikely that the production intends to skimp on the effects work.

Stromberg seems to be particularly knowledgable about matte backdrops—2D depictions of landscapes and buildings that can be used to give a sense of greater depth beyond what’s really in front of the camera, such as these further examples of Stromberg’s matte paintings—which have moved from being purely painted by hand to incorporating 3D models with textures that are a mixture of procedurally generated and created by hand. The creation of digital mattes for the pilot seems very likely. They couldl be used for things such as giving Winterfell something of the sprawling size as is described in the novel to providing sweeping vistas of cities such as King’s Landing and Pentos.

A Curious Coincidence

When Boardwalk Empire‘s pilot episode wrapped at the end of July, it was reported that the visual effects work would take two months. Given everything we’ve heard about the extensive use of visual effects the production was going to use to recreate the Atlantic City, it sounds like two months is what would be expected for an extensive amount of effects work. Is there any sign that the Game of Thrones pilot will be as intense?

Perhaps. We know that Modern VideoFilm will be handling some level of post-production work in February. Generally, final post-production tasks aren’t going to happen until the visual effects are completed. We’ve also had hints that the visual effects team are going to be working on the project into January. Two months of visual effects work seems just about right for a production of this kind and scope.

A Small Caveat

Of course, the comparison to Boardwalk Empire or John Adams goes only so far. Unlike those productions, the pilot for Game of Thrones appears to have made very limited use of large, purpose-built outdoor sets. Fans have eagerly read about the filming of scenes at Doune Castle in Scotland as well as Cairncastle, Castle Ward, and Tollymore Forest Park in Northern Ireland. While the Castle Ward set is said to have had some significant construction done on-site, it was nothing on the scale of what was done for Boardwalk Empire, and the rest of the location shoots appear to have had much less set-building required.

Due to the great deal of historical locations available to the production in the U.K., it seems very possible that the production will shoot as much as possible on location and with as little outdoor set-building as possible. Location shooting is in itself an expensive undertaking, so the budgetary allotment for visual effects (as a percentage of the whole) may well be notably smaller than in those two programs. It doesn’t seem likely, of course, given what we’ve said above. But we have to sound the word of caution, and remind readers that in the end this is merely conjecture and speculation according to our best evidence. If the series is given the go ahead for a first season, whether King’s Landing will be built as a semi-permanent outdoor set (along the line of Deadwood and Rome), as part of the massive Paint Hall building, or simply be dealt with through location shoots will be an interesting indicator of the approach the production will be taking.

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