Swan Song Dragons: BlueBolt takes on VFX in Game of Thrones
Adam McIness has worked in visual fantasy tropes compositing on Harry Potter films, among others, as did Angela Barson, who also supervised and composited her way through not only some of the young wizard’s adventures, but also an installment of the Narnia series.
Now this trio of MPC alums is overseeing the other-worldliness of HBO’s adaptation of Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. The entire series, covering dark intrigues in the kingdom of Westeros, consists of four published books with more on the way, and the current series only takes in the first book. It’s a plum early assignment for BlueBolt, the new post house founded by Ainsworth, Barson and Chas Jarrett.
So BlueBolt could be busy for awhile. Below the Line caught up with them to find out what it was like for the new outfit to be working on such a big project – was it more daunting than if it had been a single feature?
“Creatively, a film is lead by the director,” Ainsworth-Taylor replied. “Television is completely led by producers and the executives at HBO. We had a six-week prep before going into a six-month shoot which was challenging.” There was some prep on early script drafts, and episodes shot out of order, along with “at least eight–10 re-writes prior to and during the shooting of each block, often throwing up more unbudgeted VFX requirements. For me in particular, being the VFX producer of the whole show, I had a very locked-in budget and quite often had to step in and advise both directors and producers how they could approach various shots in the early stages. Some of the episodes were far more VFX heavy than others, so although we started with a per episode budget,” she continues, ending with a nearly Zen-like observation, “it was clear in post that some were more and others became less.”
The show’s FX supe, Angela Barson, also parses the differences between features and episodic: “One of the big differences between working on a TV series vs a feature film is the hierarchy of people who need to give approval on shots. On a feature film we would usually get approval from the VFX supervisor and then the director. On this we had about 10 different levels of producers, co-producers, exec-producers, etc. who all had to give approval.” But the extra hoops didn’t affect the quality of the work, since, she adds, “a good thing about working on an HBO TV series is that the standard of VFX work expected is of exactly the same high quality as with feature film work.”
For the show’s other FX supe, Adam McInness, much of the process had to do with finding thru-lines in the work, while dealing with “the differing styles and approaches from each director and their DPs. Some were more open to suggestions and letting us take the reigns with what we need to get from a shot to make it work. I was always conscious of maintaining a dialogue and encouraging directors to make best use of their VFX resources.” Ultimately, McInnes felt the need to try and develop a creative thru-line by “collating, logging and databasing all this info,” since “to accumulate knowledge, ideas and data would mean holding those thoughts for many months, due to shooting out of order, before finally getting the chance to use them in post.”
But use them they did, slowly building a consistent visual world in Westeros, working with the concepts provided by production designer Gemma Jackson, which, Ainsworth-Taylor notes, they expanded in order to “make their geography work when we were inside these castles and kingdoms. The Eyrie was always based on being an impenetrable castle on top of a high rock and originally we were going to use the Zhangjiajie Mountains in China, but due to the base plates being shot in Ireland, it was better for us to use the rock formations from Meteora in Greece.”
“For each environment,” Barson picks up, “we went out and shot the landscape base plates as well as textures to be used for the buildings. By the end our team from BlueBolt had shot plates and textures in Malta, Northern Ireland, Greece, Finland and Scotland.”
“In our worlds,” McIness finishes, “fantasy is very much grounded in reality… avoiding self conscious camera movements for one and using real architectural and natural references as a basis. This was always our producers’ wish since the books are written in POV, and actually play well into this scale of budget. For instance, one can’t afford big sweeping helicopter camera moves over amassed armies and castles even if there was a desire for it.”
Did Martin’s book have any additional influence on the “look” of the effects? Barson notes that “we were only given the scripts, but myself and many members of the team also read the books which gave us an even broader understanding. It could sometimes be useful to know where things were heading in later series as this would influence our designs.”
“I always felt,” McIness adds, “there was a definite leaning to and attention paid to how it was in the book tempered with the practicalities of locations and shooting.”
Of course, from Martin’s writtings, different tools were used by BlueBolt to bring his imaginings to the screen, specifically, as Barson recounts, “Maya and 3Delight for modelling, rigging, animation and rendering; Photoshop and Mari for texture painting and DMP work; with Nuke for compositing and projection work.”
And in retrospect, did all the attention, the wide-ranging locales, and the brimming toolbox pay off?
Ainsworth-Taylor still enjoys recounting some of her favorite scenes from the series: “The opening shot of the riders coming North of the Wall is stunning. The 2.5d environmental build of Winterfell (Castle) on the King’s Arrival still amazes me. The line between real and CG is totally invisible.” And there’s some work still in the proverbial pipeline: “The Dragons are still underway,” she says of the creatures seen toward the end of the story, “but they are going to be our swan song of an ending for VFX on Series One.”
And perhaps something of an entry point for the recently announced Series Two.