HBO's medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones is packed with around 700 visual effects shots. Ed Bruce, Visual Effects Supervisor from SSVFX talks about how his team catered for around 350 of those shots, ranging from blood and gore enhancements, snow additions, third eyes on birds, vast set extensions, battlefields, beheading and so much more. All delivered in HD to the high standards that HBO and SSVFX set.
SSVFX is Screen Scene's Visual Effects department located within the heart of the Dublin based post-production house's facility. Visual effects is an integral part of what Screen Scene Post-production offers. SSVFX was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work on Season One of HBO's Game of Thrones.
Game of Thrones is a fantasy, but isn’t really fantastical. It's gritty realism. Everything had to have a look and feel of reality, of believability with real world constraints.
“We were delighted when HBO brought this work to us,” says Ed Bruce. “I always knew if HBO were taking on this book they would do it justice.” Ed Bruce has been working in VFX since the turn of the century and has been with Screen Scene for nine years. He began life as a 3D artist working with 3ds Max working on commercials and films. After a few years he headed the 3D department in Screen Scene and started to do more on set supervision. In early 2010, SSVFX was born as an independent department within Screen Scene to cater for long term episodic and film projects as well as on-set supervision.
Lannister tent encampments
From early concepts and planning it was known that only 20-ish tents could be practically laid out in a field in Northern Ireland to be filmed. This had to look like a thirty thousand strong military presence, so a vast amount of CG was going to be required. The shoot, like most shoots had barely enough time allocated to collect all the elements needed for mass duplication. "We had planned for shooting large numbers of soldiers for 2D placement within our comp, but time ran out. This forced our hand into CG crowd duplication," Bruce says.
"From the reference photographs, my 3D team were able to build and texture multiple soldiers", he goes on. "Once rigged, Vadim Draempaehl our main animator set out to create a library of actions. This ranged from walking, walking urgently, carrying items, talking, riding horses, sitting eating etc. Vadim's experience and talent was integral to the success of these shots."
Once the shot was tracked and a 3D camera was generated, the team was able to place the tents and their props and the army of soldiers within the scene. "We were able to choreograph all the action around where the eye would follow. Our compositors had real fun working on these encampment shots," he says.
Sebastian Schutt, Aled Jones and Alex Jacquet each had different challenges with their shots. Sebastian's, however had the complexity of a moving camera and vast amounts of rotoscoping and clean ups. Ed Bruce's personal favorite clean up was removing a crew member right in the middle of shot. Noone noticed on the day.
"I personally am absolutely delighted with the outcome of these shots. They were the most team involved shots, with Sebastian, Aled and Alex compositing under the watchful eye of our Lead Jaume Arteman, Daniel Rath building the 3D environment models and Vadim on soldier creation and animation. While John O'Connell, the 3D TD created tools for scattering the soldiers and looked after lighting and rendering, match-mover Mike McCarthy tracked and also alongside Colin McCusker rotoscoped endlessly.
Within the Jousting Tournament, SSVFX looked after various types of shots from rig removal, gore additions, sword extensions and crowd duplication. One of the focuses of those scenes was when one of the characters decapitated his horse. This was an extremely violent act where a special effects horse was used [not a real one]. “What we did was add a sword extension and interact it with the horse and copious amounts of blood.”
Of course this wasn't that straight forward as the actor used a bladeless sword, giving him little reference to where he was angling and pointing the full blade. This meant SSVFX had to re-orientate his wrists, hands and sword hilt to ensure the CG sword struck the desired area on the horse. “Our compositor had fun painting a clean plate also without foreground practical blood. It was however a memorable shot and sequence which we all enjoyed working on,” Bruce says.
In VFX you get many little challenges with every project. Sometimes they get solved quickly and simply and then other times things just require far more attention. On Game of Thrones, SSVFX also looked after some set extensions that required 3D trees. There are many difficulties that arise in 3D when creating such complex meshes. “We used OnyxTree to generate our trees and then referenced them into 3ds Max,” explains Bruce. “We also utilized its wind animation function to bring to life a few key areas of the foliage. Because our 3D pipeline was driven around the EXR format, we were able to render multiple channels from V-Ray for our Nuke compositors to have greater control.”
One complex sequence was the Bran's climbing rig removal shots. The rig he was suspended on went through his head, arms and back. The harness also reshaped Bran’s torso. This was the most time consuming shot that SSVFX had. We tried various techniques to remove the rig. The best result was where we had to fully re create Bran’s torso in 3D. We modeled Bran’s body, and animated it to match over the original. As Bran was moving quickly in rotation and position, this match animation and tracking was extremely difficult. In the end there was 222 reviewed versions of the shot.
”Upon arriving on location somewhere in the Northern Ireland countryside, I knew we may have a few issues. It was nearing Christmas and the weather that week had been arctic to say the least. The fields were covered in snow. For many of the wider shots this was acceptable as backgrounds were going to be replaced. But for many other shots we had a problem.
I remember frank conversations with art department over the difficulties which may lie ahead if we had to remove snow in post. It concluded with teams of people burning snow from the field with flame throwers. Personally I've been in awe of Game of Thrones's Art department having created such wonderful in-depth worlds for the series, but I was certainly impressed by their commitment to help VFX. Hats off to Paul & Gemma.”
Equipment and software
SSVFX’s compositing software is NukeX and our 3D software is 3ds Max with V-Ray as a renderer. Within 3ds Max we utilize many different plugins from Onyx tree to Krakatoa. We manage our work-flow using Shotgun, Filemaker Pro and Excel. We also use CineSync for client reviewing and Eyeon's Generation for ram player and shot version collection/reviewing.
Ed Bruce worked closely with the talented three time Emmy nominated, (one win) Lead VFX Supervisor Adam McInnes. "It was a absolute pleasure to work alongside Adam and his team," Ed says. "A large part of the shows success is due to the fact that Adam, Peter and Keith brought their diligence and talent to the project."
The flow of communication and data were exceptional on this project. Obviously on a show of Game of Throne's scale good coordination was vital. Peter Hartless, VFX Coordinator and Keith Mason, VFX Editor working closely with Adam, raised the bar as a VFX production team. It was great to be part of that successful process. SSVFX Producer Sarah Mooney and SSVFX Production Assistant Nick Murphy were an integral part of Game of Throne's VFX success for SSVFX. I very much enjoying being in a team with people who really enjoy what they do.
CGSociety asked Ed Bruce where he thinks the industry has changed. "I think film is finally dead," he says. "Yes, it will still be used by many film makers, but not as much by the mainstream production populace."
As a fan of all things film, Ed Bruce concedes that digital capture has become so good it's harder for him to fight from the film corner. "The new RED and Arriflex Alexa cameras are making such great leaps in digital delivery. Having worked with the Alexa I've been blown away by its quality, especially in low light conditions, producing very low noise beautiful pictures.
With VFX, especially keying, the Arri Alexa camera shines. Even with low lighting you only need a little noise reduction to get some fantastic looking keys round usually difficult areas, like knocking out detail around hair. Tracking also has been aided by the quality of this cameras output. When I ask production companies what they plan shooting on, I'm now always hoping they say Alexa."
Screen Scene VFX
Ed Bruce cites SSVFX as very much a generalist style visual effects house. "However, we do have a speciality in doing 3D set extensions and duplications whether it be crowd or environment, efficiently and cost effectively," he adds. "We are currently in previs on 'DIE HARD 5, the latest instalment directed by the talented John Moore. We are very excited to be working with John on this legendary franchise.
"Our goal is to always tailor our crew and pipeline for each project and we hire the specific individual talent required. I'm always on the lookout for more talented artists to join our team."
Calling all artists. SSVFX is always on the look out for talented individuals to join our team. Please fire off your reel and CV/IMDB to us here firstname.lastname@example.org.