“It all starts with opening a script and reading, ‘There are giants riding mammoths’ or ‘Dany climbs on Drogon and they roar off to safety,’” says Game of Thrones visual-effects producer Steve Kullback. “You close the script and go, ‘Holy hell, how are we going to do that?’”
Along with VFX supervisor Joe Bauer, Kullback has to find a way to raise hairs on viewers’ arms whenever Rhaegal breathes fire, or send shivers down our spines every time the Night King levels an icy gaze. And yet the duo are undeterred by the high expectations. As Bauer puts it: “We read the script and we get to work.”
Both Kullback and Bauer credit having the means to physically create as much as possible on set for their ability to make even the most jaw-dropping moments on the HBO fantasy seem realistic. “The bible for our methodology is to work with as much photography as we can,” Kullback says. “Then any CG added in has to be dialed in to look like the photography. It makes the visual effects not bump against the rest of production.”
Okay, but surely when it comes to, for example, setting a man on fire, some things have to be faked? That reminds Kullback of one of his favorite stories from the fighting pit in Meereen in the season 5 episode “The Dance of Dragons.”
“We needed to have a dragon blasting fire at 20 Harpies and light them all up at once,” he recalls. “We were kicking around ideas, and Joe says, ‘Well, it’s clear that we need to do it for real.’” Bauer says with a laugh, “And I didn’t get fired for saying that!” Not only did he keep his job, the guys made it happen by attaching a flamethrower to a motion-controlled camera crane. “We animated the crane to match the movement of the dragon, then set fire to the stunt guys,” says Kullback. “Twenty-two was the new record for people ignited all at one time. Thank God no one has gotten hurt.”
“You have the best people working on those fire stunts, but it’s still nerve-racking,” Bauer says. “But all of the departments are so top-notch that if anybody was in my position and said, ‘We’ll just do it all CG,’ they’d be making a huge mistake.”
From ice to fire, and all that’s in between, perhaps Bauer and Kullback’s work is so effective because, between them and their creative teams, they’ve done their research to keep things as realistic as possible, including meticulously studying the degrees of decay on a dead body. But the matter of those enormous beasts that fly around and breathe fire is admittedly harder to bluff.
Early on, showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff requested a chart of the increasing scale of the dragons from seasons 3 to 7. “Up until season 7 they doubled in size every year, but they would’ve become Godzilla if they’d doubled again for 8, so we decided that was enough,” Bauer says. “We have to think about what these creatures would need in battle just as much as how to make them beautiful.”
In terms of performance, Dany’s dragons have gone from bratty kids picking on one another to flying killing machines, and yet they still have to appear endearing to the audience. “When Viserion gets the spear through him and crashes and dies, it was really gratifying how shocked and sad people were,” says Bauer. “It’s rare for CG characters to register on an emotional level without spectacle and gore.”
While bringing the dragons to life can leave behind a warm glow, killing off characters often leaves Bauer and Kullback as distraught as the viewers. “It’s the worst part of the job,” says Bauer, who remembers analyzing photos of the effects of poison on the human body before shooting Joffrey’s death scene. “There’s all kinds of juicy photo references we can dig into.” And the hardest stuff yet? “Researching for ‘Battle of the Bastards,’” Bauer says. “We needed horses to really get damaged, broken legs, etc. — so inevitably you have to watch horse races where the horse goes down and over, head first. Some of the research is so graphic that we have to put a warning on it.”
As for a warning when it comes to season 8, all Bauer will tease is that everything we’ve seen so far will be doubled. Adds Kullback: “A good way to characterize this season is, everything goes to sh—.”
Game of Thrones returns for its eighth and final season April 14 on HBO.
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