Rhythm & Hues is one of the most storied visual effects firms in Hollywood. In addition to their Emmy-worthy work on Game of Thrones, R&H has most recently been working on AMC's The Walking Dead and Starz' s Black Sails, and was responsible for some of the most challenging and impressive VFX sequences. We had the pleasure of chatting with VFX Supervisor Derek Spears about the studio's unique methods, softwares of choice, and all things Game of Thrones. Check out what he had to say:

What does a typical day at R&H look like? We imagine each department has their own routine, but we'd love an aerial view of what goes on inside the studio on a regular basis!


Sure. I don't think it's very different from a lot of other studios. We get started in the morning, everybody is usually catching up the first part of the day, looking at renders from the night before, kind of getting started that way and then proceeding ahead with notes that were handed out the day before.

In terms of my day, I'll be looking at things that came in from our India office as far as tracking prep and roto, trying to deal with that, making sure that people have the assets they need to get started in the morning. Then, I'll go through client notes. Since we might have clients from different time zones, we'll have collected a bunch of things overnight by email that we look to handle in the morning as we get things prepared for people coming in.

Once we get that sorted out, we go desk to desk and give people individual notes and things that need to be corrected during the day. In the early afternoon we'll do dailies, where we sit down and everyone gets a chance to go through their notes and get renders out, get things to look at...and then we'll go and evaluate those in the screening room. There will be several rounds of that during the day for different shows that are going on and then after that we're back to dealing with people individually. We'll have things that need to be dealt with in depth after that. Our day-to-day changes a lot depending on client needs.

The day is punctuated by a lot of client calls, dealing with issues as they come up. Everything kind of hinges around dealing with artists, their shots, and dealing with notes and dailies. That's kind of the linchpin of the day.


Awesome. What software are you using on a regular basis at the studio, and what features specifically draw you to using these? How often does your team experiment with using different ones?

We...use a lot of the same software that a lot of other people do in various different aspects. Starting backwards, we use NUKE for compositing - that's the premiere node-based compositing package out there that most people us. It has a great feature set, it's fast and interactive, and since most people do use this we can have interchangeable setups with folks. It is customized for our needs but that's kind of standard practice.

We render with Arnold. People have a few choices with rendering, and rendering is at the point where things have gotten very similar in feature sets and performance, so it really is a matter of how you like to interact with the renderer.

We use Houdini for effects. People have choices between Houdini and Maya, and flexibility with Houdini makes for a much more node based and much more flexible setup. We also use it as a renderer occasionally for effects.

We have our own animation software called Voodoo which we've had for a very long time. It provides us what we think is a much richer rigging setup; it allows us to rig characters and work quickly, faster. It gives us a bit of an advantage for moving through animation, which we like. We do a lot of our tracking within that software as well.

We do modeling through Maya. We paint in Mari for our textures. We have our own lighting interface through Arnold which we call CROM. It's a node-based system that allows us to deal with volumes of shots easier. It allows us flexibility for setting up some base set ups and then modifying things on an individual basis easily, while still inheriting the base setup we have. We like that a lot.

How much does the pipeline at R&H vary from project to project? What do the initial stages of your process look like , and how do the deadlines vary?

The pipeline is very similar. The thing that varies the most is client deliverables as far as input and output of media. Quicktime needs for editorial and for review column spaces. The underlying pipeline is the same thing for most every project. We have a very robust pipeline that's been fleshed out over many years that allows us to import and track assets easily, it allows us to have standard naming conventions for things. People know how to find assets, people know when assets get published. It allows us to be very efficient and we don't have to worry about pipeline issues, it also averts issues of getting things out to show to the client and kind of takes a lot of that friction away.

Deadlines can vary extremely. You can have everything from two weeks or six month deadlines depending on the project, the budget, the scale of work...and just massive variation depending on what is needed.


Definitely seems like you run an efficient ship. Do you have any anecdotes of a particular project that was especially challenging for the crew? We'd love to know what has stumped the artists of R&H, and how you collaboratively create workarounds to get the job done effectively.

I think every show has its own particular creative problem. There's a couple that were interesting, I wouldn't say they were the most challenging per se but they're interesting problems. Starz' "Black Sails" was an interesting problem with fully CG environments with water and ships. Not only dealing with ocean simulations and wave simulations, but we were also dealing with sail simulations. It kind of ran the gamut with a lot of different problems that were fun to solve. We did those things in different places. We animated the boat and sails in Voodoo, we did the ocean rendering in Houdini. We actually combined Arnold and Houndini renders together which can always be a challenging, interesting thing. So, that was a fun project because we had a lot of different things that we hadn't done recently. It was kind of a fast R&D startup for that and then a bunch of different interesting problems.

Game of Thrones had some very interesting problems last season. We expanded upon the concepts of how we were going to ride Daenerys atop the dragon. Season 5 saw some very static shots of her sitting atop her dragon, and they weren't very dynamic. They're beautiful shots, and they play in a really big sequence, but once you get her atop the dragon the camera just kind of stays. Expanding a concept that started in season 5 in pre-animation was having motion control play it back. In season 5, that drove these fire elements, which season 6 expanded further. We actually drove a motion camera that Daenerys sat on top of and allowed for some much more interesting camera moves for a dynamic sequence. The challenging part of that was going from pre-animation to the needs of animation. We had to refit that data so we could have animation more involved at the end of the day and have power to re-project that to the shot. That was an interesting challenge as well.

That's so fascinating! And speaking of Game of Thrones, can you walk us through the pipeline for the fire-breathing Dragon in The Fighting Pits Massacre of Meereen? We'd love to hear about how many artists worked on it, the software used, etc.

The software is the same as I described before.

I touched a little bit on the pipeline for doing it...there was a desire in season 5 to use practical fire for the dragon because it had to interact with people on set, and practical fire looks very nice. So there was a desire to shoot that in session with the actors in there. What we did was pre-animate the sequence, and then they would play back the pre-animation on a remote control arm holding a flamethrower, and they would get their fire reaction on set. It worked very nicely. We took that back, tracked that footage, sent our dragon back into that animation so now that dragon is breathing fire that's actually there on set. That was how we dealt with fire.


The actual set itself was the set extension of the first tier, so we built a model loosely based on the previous model but extended up the second and third tiers and complemented that with people depending on the situation. The first half of the sequence people are mostly sitting in their seats, so we shot groups of people over blue screen from four different angles. Then, we placed those on cards and the CG model based on the angle of the camera. Depending on the person, we picked what card was most appropriate. Each person had about six to eight different actions: standing sitting, cheering, going from sitting to standing. Depending on what the needs of the shot were, we would run through those actions, so we would have action of the whole crowd standing up and cheering if there was something going on. All the cards would pull that through and it was staged in a dynamic way. We also had a need for CG crowds for high over shots for the card that would work for later situations and sequences where people were running around in terror, so had a full CG solution for that. We fully animated the crowd.

It's amazing to get a peak inside your process. Are you able to speak on, even if vaguely, any methods or techniques that are specific to R&H?

I wouldn't say techniques. A lot of people have very similar techniques. We have some proprietary rigging solution that I don't think we can get into too deeply but I think one of the more unique things we have is the way we quickly rig characters in Voodoo and how we're able to adapt that to bipeds, quadrupeds, get those rigged and those forms out really quickly. There's a lot of complex rigging architecture that I think is kind of unique to what we do. It allows us to get a lot of control in the animation package. We can be up and running really quickly and provide real real nice control systems.

What would an artist experience working at R&H that they might not experience elsewhere? And, similarly, what do you provide keeps clients coming back for more - how do you continue working the biggest television series of today?

We have a very, very senior staff here, and I think the biggest difference is that responsibility. I think that when you get into organizations where you're 2 and 300 people, you get extremely pipelined and it gets to be a bit inflexible with what people can do. If everyone starts doing their own thing in a large environment, then you can quickly get chaos. We're smaller than we were in the past, and because of that people have had to be slightly more generalist, a lot more senior, and a little more flexible. I think people coming here are seeing this interesting kind of hybrid between large pipeline facilities - which is what we come from - and smaller boutique or specialized shops where everybody's generalist. We live in this interesting middle land. We have extremely senior people who come from a pipeline structured environment, and now we're working a little bit broader sense and something that's cross-discipline. We have people who have those focused skills and disciplines but are looking at cross discipline problems. I think we're seeing a lot more responsibility in the individual artist level than a lot of other places.

I think clients keep coming back because of the seniority of the artists. We have extremely senior, extremely capable staff the work is very good and very timely. We can do hard work in short periods of time and produce things that the client is very very happy with. Everybody here is extremely good at their job -- so going back to Game of Thrones, we did an animation test for them, an animation and rendering test. I don't think we even got as far as the rendering part and they were like "yeah, we get it."


On your end, what are a few attributes that you're looking for when hiring FX artists today? And how has this shifted over the past decade? What presents a red flag when looking at an FX demo reel?

We're definitely looking for people that are very self-started, self-motivated. Someone we can sit down and they can instantly contribute more than just what's being asked of them. Somebody who brings something extra, somebody who can work within an environment of people who work quickly and are very good at their jobs, to be a part of that kind of team. People who are the very best at what they can do and are willing to show that ability to us and their clients.

On the demo reel something that comes up a lot is if somebody shows me a reel with a giant shot from a big feature and doesn't specify what they did on that, it's a little hard to understand what their actual skill set is. If you have a reel that has an amazing, beautiful shot, tell us what you did on it. And even if it's a minor thing, everything is important on a big shot. It's just good to know, and don't try to take credit for something you didn't do. It's an extremely small industry and chances are people here may have worked on that too. I've had this happen before -- people try to claim credit for work that a person reviewing the reel did. It's very important to be very honest about what your work is on your demo reel. Be clear about what it actually is.

That's a great piece of advice. How do you see the evolution of the studio going in the coming years? Do you have any goals in mind that you can mention to our audience?

The entire industry is evolutionary in a way, and our goals are not dissimilar from other studios' goals. We want to continue to produce fantastic work, we want to continue to make our clients happy. We'd like to make money along the way, that makes us able to do both of the above things. I think it's to continue to do the same, which is produce great work in a timely fashion and make very happy clients. An expansion on that: to continue to work and whatever new avenues are coming. We've recently got into the online streaming services, as well as high end content like HBO. I think there's a lot of growth in those areas. I think there's a lot of interesting storytelling happening in those areas. and I think that's something that will continue to grow in the future.


We'd like to thank Derek for taking the time to interview with us and give us an inside look at this VFX powerhouse. We hope this inspires you to create!