Montreal-based Rodeo FX released a VFX breakdown reel that highlights the company’s work on Game of Thrones season 5, for which it has been nominated for an Emmy award for outstanding special visual effects, after winning an Emmy last year for its work on season 4. The VFX studio used its expertise in animation, digital matte painting and crowd simulation to create key sequences, including the destruction of the Harpy statue atop the Meereen temple, the eerie Smoking Sea of Valyria and the ancient city of Volantis.
The first episode of season 5 shows the destruction of the Harpy atop the pyramid that Rodeo FX created last season for the fictional world of Meereen. A group of the Unsullied has tied ropes to the golden statue and pulls it down. The Harpy topples, sliding down the massive structure, smashing bricks and throwing up sand in its wake, before it lands on its side on the ground. The scale is massive, with huge objects colliding, throwing up chunks of brick and dust.
“This was a huge CG build and complex work for TV,” said Matthew Rouleau, VFX supervisor on the show for Rodeo FX. “It is challenging because we’re aiming for feature film quality, but the schedule is not the same as on features.”
Rodeo FX worked from previs for the whole sequence that VFX supervisor Joe Bauer delivered. The artists added elements to make the CG scene look more alive and complex. The studio used matte paintings for the background.
“We built on last year’s work,” Rouleau said. “Needing close ups of the pyramid meant we had to build it up brick by brick. Every brick was modeled and textured independently.”
With a bound and beaten Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) recovering in the hull of his small open sailboat, Jorah (Iain Glen) steers toward the ruins of Old Valyria on their way to Meereen and Queen Daenerys. The mood of the scene in episode 5, “Kill the Boy,” is heightened by the Smoking Sea, mist off the water and the collapsing ruins of once-great buildings. All of this closes in on them as they approach an aqueduct topped with what appear to be stone statues.
In fact, almost all of this environment – except for some trees, the actors and their boat – is digital matte paintings, projected on simple geometry. This mysterious environment was created by Rodeo FX in its L.A. and Montreal studios under the direction of Deak Ferrand, senior matte painter at Rodeo FX, who worked closely with Bauer.
“Deak and Rodeo FX worked on top-of-frame grabs of the cut sequence and really laid out Old Valyria from scratch, using our simple guideline to make it into a super-advanced Angkor Wat,” said Bauer, referring to the large temple complex in Cambodia. “We’d done internal design work on the aqueduct ruin where the encounter with the Stone Men happens – and a rough look at the distant ruins far beyond – but very much of what you saw in the episode was in Deak’s and Rodeo’s hands.”
“We started with the live plates, which were simply the boat on the river with some trees and a partial set of the aqueduct,” explained Ferrand. “We conceptualized all the shots on stills, including a big aqueduct concept. From there, we moved quickly to digital matte painting.”
Ferrand and his team added trees, changed the entire sky and did water extensions in CG. The overhead shot at the beginning of the scene, as Tyrion regains consciousness, is a complete CG replacement. Rodeo FX reframed some of the plates to give the scope of the sequence, at times resizing them because they were too big in the frame. They also added mist enhancement coming off the river, which adds to the spooky feel.
“Once we’d designed this ruined city, the main challenge of this sequence was the progression as the boat travels toward the aqueduct,” explained Ferrand. “It’s one thing to create shots that are not already put together. But here, what is in the background in the first shot becomes the foreground of the tenth shot.”
The company also built the city of Volantis, a new environment in Season 5, developing the whole city in CG, including the crowds. Working from a live plate using a Roman bridge in Córdoba, Spain as a stand-in, Rodeo FX created the buildings and market on the bridge, as well as the background matte painting. The team modeled everything in the scenes, including gutters, roof tiles and windows.
“We had to respect the parallax of the live-action plates,” Rouleau explained. “It was a challenge because the flyover shot was taken from a drone and the movement was crazy.”
For crowd simulation, the team used new software, a plug-in for Maya called Miarmy, which Rouleau found well-built and artist-friendly, helping them to create realistic-looking results. They also did MoCap, using a system that is new to them, Perception Neuron by Noitom.
“We wanted the long bridge of Volantis to be bustling with activity,” Rouleau said. “People milling about in the busy marketplace and the movement in the four-story buildings along the bridge are what make this scene come alive.”