We had the opportunity to speak with Ed Bruce, Visual Effects Supervisor for Dublin-based post-production company Screen Scene, concerning the extensive work Screen Scene did on the VFX-side of the production. Of roughly 686 VFX shots for the first season of Game of Thrones, Screen Scene produced just over half of them, with 350 effects shots. Although BlueBolt were the lead VFX vendor on the project, and BlueBolt’s co-founder Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor was in the role of VFX producer for the show, it’s clear that Screen Scene (in collaboration with series VFX Supervisor Adam McInnes) made a major impact on the high quality of the visual effects for this season.
In the follow interview, Ed discusses some of the effects for the show in-depth, the benefits of having so much post-production capability under one roof, and explains why some things may be harder to realize than fans may expect.
Could you tell us a bit about Screen Scene, and what it means to be a post-production facility?
As well as doing VFX for films and TV we also do all of the other stuff that’s required after the shoot, including picture and sound editing , grading, sound mixing, finishing, in fact all of the other creative disciplines associated with post production. We don’t know of many places which offer picture, sound and VFX under one roof, When you are bumping into each other in the kitchen its easier to get the creative juices flowing across the three disciplines and it also works practically because the sound team can run down stairs to us and have a look at where we are going with something…..Game Of Thrones was a very very tight schedule and everything under one roof certainly played a part in the successful turn around of the episodes.
Screen Scene offers a very full suite of post-production services. Where does VFX fit into that?
VFX is an integral part of post-production. It is something the we at Screen Scene are very proud of.
Our VFX dept is in the heart of the facility enabling us to be fully connected with our other departments. It is very important to us that this is the case. Again we are able to walk from one of our VFX rooms onto a Sound Stage and then down into one of the Di colourists easily and this gives an advantageous element to our pipeline/workflow.
About 686 VFX shots, and Screen Scene produced 350 or so of them—very impressive! What was the work flow like, and was there a lot of time pressure?
Game Of Thrones was a big number, especially in terms of amount of shots to be done in a quick turnaround. Thankfully we were prepared. It’s always been important that each head of department here sits down before a big project to evolve the best pipeline to suit. One particularly efficient procedure we introduced to this project was how we interacted with our Di colourist’s suit. We set up a system whereby editorial placeholders for each VFX shot were integrated within the Di system allowing us to update VFX shots automatically.
Another great feature of our pipeline was the 3d software we used and how it connected with our 2D NukeX compositors. Working with 3d Studio Max, rendering EXR in Vray and then importing all the many passes, and 3D meshes into Nuke meant a far quicker result than many bigger vendors pipelines can deliver.
We were also very fortunate with the main VFX Supervisor, Adam McInnes and his VFX team. On a show of this scale good coordination is vital. Peter Hartless, VFX Coordinator and Keith Mason, VFX Editor working closely with Adam were able to ensure the machine kept running smoothly and efficiently at the standard that HBO demand.
Completing the quantity of shots that we did, I’m delighted that the high standard met was one which both we and HBO are delighted with.
From your show reel, Screen Scene produced some very memorable bits of VFX for some of the action sequences—Gregor Clegane killing his horse, Jaime Lannister’s dagger shoved into an eye, and so on. What’s the main challenge of effects of this kind, especially as in these shots we don’t see much evidence of tracking dots and the like—was there a lot of “eyeballing” involved?
Yes were very fortunate that we were given the task of looking after a few key story telling moments; the introduction of the white walkers and their attacks, Will’s beheading, the 3 eyed ravens, the jousting scene; killing the horse, Jaime’s eye stab, Bronn stabbing Vardis, the golden crown scene, the Lannister encampments, after battle scenes and probably the seasons biggest moment – Neds beheading.
There can be many challenges with some of these effects shots, tracking normally can play a big role. Moving cameras with moving people requiring CG elements to lock to them. Whether it be eyes or sword extensions and gore additions. Obviously pre-planned VFX shots can be covered properly on set and were. Tracking markers put in the right place etc. But many times VFX shots come about after editorial, when the client sees things are missing or need adding for continuity; snow, blood etc. This then means we can have a trickier time of adding the CG. We had a lot of fun with blood spurts and gore. Often adding to practical that was lost in camera movement.
The planned VFX was covered on set exceptionally well by Adam and his team. He had two on-set visual effects coordinators, Niall McEvoy and Colin McCusker who helped collect all the relevant data, camera info, set dimensions, grey & silver balls and machbeth colour chart, HDR photography and much more. It certainly makes post VFX work far more efficient. I certainly enjoyed working with the team when I was on set supervising and in post-production.
How many people at Screen Scene worked on those 350 VFX shots?
Our VFX team consisted of 19 members for this project. This was made up of Compositors, 3D artists, Match-movers and Rotoscoping artists working a six day week for 6 months.
Obviously there was many more staff across the full spectrum of post production working on Game Of Thrones within Screen Scene.
What was the most challenging shot that you had to work on, and what made it difficult?
We had many challenging shots for many reasons during this project. The Bran’s climbing sequence at the end of episode 1 had it’s difficulties mainly due to the complex rig removal of the support wire and harness that Bran wore whilst climbing. Many times the equipment passed over his face and body making removal extremely challenging. One shot in particular we had to fully replace Bran’s torso in 3D matching his movement by animation. Also these shots required fully created environments consisting of 3D trees. Something that is always a challenge in CG.
One of the most complex yet rewarding shots was the Lannister encampment. This was a big shot for us. It had a array of elements to cater for. From the offset I knew, from supervising on set, that this shot could be epic. This due to the fact that it was a moving camera shot, I knew 2D DMP, and to a certain degree 2.5 was not going to be enough. Also knowing that there wasn’t enough time to shoot all the extras needed I knew we had to go down the route of CG crowd duplication. The 3D team then began building all the assets; A variety of soldiers, with different armor and equipment, textured in multiple ways. Then animated doing various activities from walking, talking, riding horses and sitting at tables eating etc. Tents, flags and other furniture built. Atmospherics and smokes created. All lit, rendered, tracked and handed over to the compositors to stitch it all together. These shots also had a massive amount of rotoscoping which took many people many days to complete.
It was so rewarding watching these shots develop. I knew what I wanted to achieve from the beginning, and my team certainly delivered.
You mention crowd duplication and models to cover for extras. One of the areas where fans were a little disappointed with the otherwise-stellar VFX is that duplication and the use of 3D, to depict large crowd scenes (such as the Dothraki khalasar) and battle scenes, seemed very limited for the show. Could you discuss why such things were prohibitive in some cases and perhaps not others?
Crowd duplication is a massive undertaking. Pardon the pun. Large studios would use software like ‘Massive’ to create and simulate large numbers of characters interacting. Generally this is seen as an expensive addition of VFX. On Game of Thrones, the overall VFX budget was tight. The ambition was extremely high. The role of the VFX producer is to balance ambition with budget and what’s achievable.
I certainly would have loved to have the opportunity to create the vast Dothraki Khalasar and especially a large battle scene for the end of the series. Something I know we could have done impressively.
When it came to the Lannister encampment scenes, I realized that the only way to fill and populate the shot was by CG extras. This wasn’t originally planned for nor even had a budget. But myself and the lead visual effects supervisor, Adam McInnes, knew would enhance the shots and I and my team wanted to go the extra mile to give it the biggest bang for the show and its fans.
I think a lot of casual fans of VFX may not grasp just how much more complex it becomes to render complex scenes with multiple, interacting animated character models, thinking that a package such as WETA’s Massive system solves all the problems. Could you discuss why that’s not the case?
Sadly in VFX there is no voila one click buttons that create vast crowd scenes. We didn’t use the Massive software on Game Of Thrones. What we did was a little more brute force, which can mean a much faster turnaround than using crowd simulation specific software but can be limiting.
The simplest breakdown of what we did was; On set we took plenty of photographs of the solider extras front on and from the sides. This gave us modeling and texture reference. Artists then modeled and textured a few generic soldiers. Armour, props and subtle texture changes meant we could re-use the characters to create over a thousand. Once built they were rigged and ready for animation. An animator then created multiple animations. Walking fast and slow, carrying things, riding a cg horse, standing talking/interacting, sitting down at tables etc. Once we had this library of animations we were then able to multiply the characters over the pathways and non tent areas. We had specific areas where we wanted to place certain actions, and then using scripting methods spread the others across the scene without any of them walking through each other or floating. Then they were lit and rendered with multiple passes, diffuse, reflection and highlights, shadow etc and handed to the compositors who were able to balance them with the foreground live action people and the rest of the scene. As you can see it is not as one click straight forward as many may think.
We had a great team and pipeline on this, and would have loved to have had the opportunity to bring that to more and bigger shots. Hopefully we can do that maybe on future seasons.
Was there any episode in particular that received a larger-than-normal percentage of the total effects shots you did?
Because Game Of Thrones was episodic, delivery of VFX was staggered. Rule of thumb meant we had more time for the latter episodes than for episode 1 and 2. Episode 1 for SSVFX had over a hundred VFX shots. Some simple continuity effects shots like adding snow fall and smoke. Others far more complex like really long tracking shots of set extensions in the crypt or the rig removal in Bran’s climbing scene. The deadline was tight, so we had to work very hard for long hours to make the deadline. Some episodes we had less shots but more were complex. The payoff to the whole challenge of completing a large number of shots is the overwhelming complementary reaction of the faithful Game Of Thrones fans.
Is Screen Scene set to work on the second season of Game of Thrones, and what else is in the pipeline for SSVFX?
As of yet no decision has been made and we are waiting to hear what our involvement will be, Obviously Screen Scene would be delighted to work again with HBO on Game Of Thrones having thoroughly enjoyed contributing towards season 1’s success.
Since Game Of Thrones we have completed VFX on Albert Nobbs, a Rodrigo Garcia film starring Glenn Close. We are working on other projects currently, and looking forward to many more exciting work coming our way.
Thanks for taking the time, Ed! Screen Scene did great work for the first season, and we hope you’re involved for many seasons to come. Any parting thoughts?
I’ll take the opportunity to say that myself, Sarah Mooney (SSVFX Producer), and Nicholas Murphy (VFX PA) would like to thank and acknowledge the fantastic work that our team of talented artists completed on Game Of Thrones. And all of us would like to thank HBO, in particular Holly, Greg & Jon, for allowing SSVFX the opportunity to add our stamp on Season 1.
Below is the VFX breakdown video from SS, and a link to Ed’s own site where he has some additional comments as well as animated images that nicely illustrate the work that he and the VFX wizards at Screen Scene have done: