THE SPECIAL EFFECTS BEHIND GAME OF THRONES
On 14 April, the eighth season of Games of Thrones begins, firing the pistol on a run of six episodes that will finish off the cultural juggernaut that has dominated the TV landscape since it began in 2011.
The final season of GoT should answer most of the questions that have abounded about the show since its inception and intensified during its final seasons. Who will finish up on the Iron Throne? Will the UK’s John Snow not be confused with the story’s Jon Snow?
There are a lot of Games of Thrones fans in the Staramba office, so the advent of season eight has been a cause of excitement for some time. This excitement goes beyond our office—over 30 million people in the US watched the last season’s opening episode, while it was seen in pirated version by other 90 million people around the world1.
Season eight has the distinction of not being directly adapted from the novels of George RR Martin. This has happened because production of the show has outpaced the author’s speed of writing. Apparently, showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss were privy to some of Martin’s thoughts and plans for the next, and final, two novels in the series (The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring12) but it is debatable as to how close they will stick to that or go in their own direction.
WORKING ON GAME OF THRONES
Perhaps the most onerous task in producing Game of Thrones is the amount of visual effects work (also known as computer-generated imagery, or CGI) done in post production that is needed to create the battle scenes, dragons, and other imagery. The burden of this work led, according to Nielsen, to more and more expensive budgets per episode—$10m per episode by season six, up from $6m for earlier seasons. This coming season sees, according to Variety, an average episode cost of $15m3.
The visual effects team have said that while they had to work on 600-800 shots with effects for the whole of seasons two and three, they were looking at multiples of that per episode by seasons six and seven. They estimated that by the time season seven had finished, they had worked on over 10,000 shots requiring manipulation with visual effects4.
The workload for Game of Thrones’s special effects is so high that, for season seven, it was split between at least eight companies: Weta Digital and Zoic Studios in New Zealand and the US, Imagine Engine and Rodeo FX in Canada, El Ranchito in Spain, Iloura in Australia, and the global companies Pixomondo and Mackevision. And while the number of episodes in season eight is fewer, there is no suggestion in a letup per episode in the amount of visual effects work.
CREATING THE WORLD OF GAME OF THRONES
Creating a visual world with consistent themes and motifs is hard, and more so when those visual effects are built on top of an existing world. In one video talking about the battleship scene in ‘Stormborn’, the second episode of season seven, the creatives behind it said that the biggest challenge was making it look fluid and real, a true battle on the high seas, despite it being shot in a car park in Belfast in Northern Ireland5.
Likewise, scenes that are filmed in the Irish countryside or the Icelandic wilderness have to be seamlessly buttressed with computer-generated imagery. And while these are the showy, big scenes that capture the imagination, the bulk of visual effects work is in the stuff that is not supposed to be seen, the extension of backgrounds inside buildings or creating a cityscape behind gates6.
Using real locations for filming, and then buttressing them with visual effects, has long been a trick used by the series’ makers. Along with filming in Ireland and Iceland, the production of Games of Thrones has also travelled to Spain, which doubled for the mythical land of Dorne; Malta, for Pentos and the King’s Landing; Dubrovnik, also King’s Landing; and Morocco, which represented Astapor and Yunkai.
Filming locations video
The show also uses a lot of animation, be it Emilia Clarke riding in on a dragon or the zombie polar bear that attacked a group of the main characters out in the wilderness. According to David Benioff, the latter was something that they had tried to place in every season, but had always been turned down.
At Staramba, as we create the virtual reality world of MATERIA.ONE, we face many of the same challenges that the producers of Game of Thrones have had to deal with. However, our world—the world of MATERIA.ONE—is being created completely from scratch. We do not have the luxury—or challenge—of adding to an existing world. Instead, we are generating our own.
This means that everything within MATERIA.ONE has to be animated, from the surface beneath your ‘feet’ to everything that can be seen. That’s a lot of work and is why we have five animation staff—a lead animator, two animators, a senior character rigger, and a mocap supervisor.
WORKING AT STARAMBA
We also anticipate that we are going to get much bigger and busier once we COME OUT OF BETA and open the MATERIA.One world fully. That’s the reason why we are also looking to employ even more people. Our jobs page is here. If there’s any role on there that you think you would be be suitable for and which sounds interesting, why not drop us a line and apply?
However, no matter how much work we put into the creation of MATERIA.ONE, it would be empty without its users, a computer-generated version of Berlin’s Spreepark, that village in Arizona modelled after The Flintstones cartoon, or the creepy Wizard of Oz-themed abandoned amusement park in North Carolina.
The real life within MATERIA.ONE will come from its users, the experiences they undergo, and the interactions that they have between them. This is what we know as ‘Social VR’. That’s a subject that I’ve written on before, but the TLDR version is that it is when you put on a VR headset and meet your friends in an AI-powered space.
With MATERIA.ONE, we are imagining the world as it could be. And one of the most-important aspects of that is making sure that the world we create remains relative to the world outside the Oculus Rift (or whatever headset gets used). If our world was too fantastical and too far-fetched, we would cause our customers to switch off.
So, maybe, in making our world an addition to its real counterpart, we have more in common with Game of Thrones than we first realised.
- ‘Game Of Thrones Season 7: More People Watch Premiere Illegally In UK and US Than Legally’, The Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/game-of-thrones-season-7-torrents-downloads-streams-first-episode-illegal-watching-figures-a7852691.html)
- ‘George R.R. Martin revealed 3 huge shocks to Game of Thrones producers’, Entertainment Weekly (https://ew.com/article/2016/05/24/george-rr-martin-3-twists-game-thrones/)
- ‘TV Series Budgets Hit the Breaking Point as Costs Skyrocket in Peak TV Era’, Variety (https://variety.com/2017/tv/news/tv-series-budgets-costs-rising-peak-tv-1202570158/)
- ‘Inside Game of Thrones: A Story in Visual Effects’, YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxWq-cr1c2Q)
- ‘Game of Thrones – Visual Effects in Season 7’, YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_twjQ43HXHA&t=414s)
- ‘Amazing Before & After VFX: Game of Thrones – Season 6’, YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1sZbeO41Wc)