Maybe this doesn’t get said out loud much because it feels obvious or viewers just subconsciously realize it while watching, but Game of Thrones represents the best visual effects work ever to appear on TV. While not a perfect metric, Emmys indicate what TV industry people admire and want to recognize at a given point in time—experts figuratively looking at other experts and nodding gently in respect, that’ll do acknowledgement. Across the show’s seven seasons thus far, Game of Thrones has won the Emmy for “Outstanding Visual Effects—Series” six times (somehow, it lost in S1 to Boardwalk Empire). Star Trek, across all series since the 1960s, only has eight versions of this award. That series brought the idea of beaming down to the mainstream and kinda-sorta predicted the iPad.
With the much-hyped Battle of Winterfell finally coming to fruition, the smart money now likely sits on Game of Thrones’ VFX team making it seven out of eight Emmy wins. Dragons flew in whiteout conditions, hundreds of Dothraki took off with flaming swords, and characters like Samwell Tarly or Melisandre really saw every tiny undead detail of a White Walker face-to-face. One side in this battle quite literally built a bridge out of flaming bodies.
Like everything involving Game of Thrones’ final season behind the scenes, unfortunately VFX pros that worked on the action currently unfolding have been embargoed from discussing it—not just Winterfell, any of S8 really—until after the series’ final sequences air. But given the world sat in awe of what viewers witnessed this week, perhaps looking to the show’s past can speak to what makes the effects work around Westeros so special.
Yes, it involves dragons and White Walkers.
The best technical VFX around
Discussing past standout moments in Game of Thrones gets tough without nudging the folks at Image Engine. The Vancouver-based VFX house has quietly been doing yeoman’s effect work behind some of the most visually stunning films of the last decade, creating everything from the raptors of Jurassic World to the Graphorns of Fantastic Beasts to the, well, human/mutants in Logan. And as Game of Thrones started getting more and more technically demanding in its later seasons (as, you know, White Walkers and Dragons started appearing more frequently), HBO enlisted Image Engine’s services beginning with season 5.
Since then, the company has had a big hand in everything from building out the ice walls around Castle Black to the vast libraries of the Citadel, as well as designing iconic characters like The Night King or Drogon. Image Engine also delivered iconic death scenes ranging from Jon Snow beheading a certain someone to the end of Ramsay Bolton. Image Engine’s work on S7 alone involved roughly 100 employees. (And the show itself works with multiple VFX vendors—Australian-based film VFX house Illoura did enhancement work on crowds and individuals during parts of S7, for instance.) The challenges GoT presents and the corresponding on-screen outcomes delivered have definitely left an impression on these VFX pros.
“Game of Thrones represents a tectonic shift in how we think of TV—prior to Game of Thrones, I was a VFX supervisor working exclusively on feature films, and to work on TV would’ve been considered a demotion,” says Image Engine’s Thrones VFX Supervisor Thomas Schelesny. “So when I was asked to start work on Game of Thrones, I’ll be honest—I was kind of unaware. I didn’t have HBO, no one told me about the show, and I didn’t have my pulse on what was happening on cable TV. I didn’t know what I was getting into. But high-end TV work has gone from something feature filmmakers wouldn’t want to do to the kind of work we all want to get involved with. It’s fast, dynamic, the turnarounds are quick, and the quality has to be really high. So it’s really become a playing field for really experienced artists to get involved with. I think this is the challenge that attracts all of us.”
Game of Thrones has peaked at precisely the right time in this light; the amount of budget and time allowed for today’s top TV productions is finally right for a level of VFX quality previously only available on the big screen. Thrones isn’t alone in this regard—in December, Vulture went deep on how lions for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events virtually match what Disney has shown in teasers for its live-action Lion King—but HBO gives this show more schedule leniency and financial support than virtually anything else currently on TV. The show cost a reported $15M per episode in S8, and these episodes come almost two years after S7 ended. Maybe a big film production still stretches longer, but high-end TV is getting close. “It’s difficult to determine exactly how much faster we work on TV shows versus film,” Schelesny says. “But as a rough guess, I’d say high-end TV projects turn around their work in 70 to 80% of the time that one would spend on a feature film.”
In this environment, one of the biggest tasks facing Schelesny and Image Engine’s Thrones Animation Supervisor Jason Snyman in S7 involved those beloved dragons. Schelesny estimates HBO has pushed VFX collaborators for 15 to 20 percent more complexity and volume with each corresponding season. HBO’s official numbers seem to bear this out. In its behind-the-scenes documentary on S7’s “Loot Train” battle, for instance, Game of Thrones VFX supervisor Joe Bauer notes that in S6, 11 shots featured Daenerys riding the dragon. In the Loot Train sequences alone, the show had over 80.
So not only does a shop like Image Engine then have simply more work, but the shots appear to grow infinitely more complex, too. Compared to their debuts as cute baby things, the dragons in S7 are now matured and larger (the size of a Boeing 747 according to that behind-the-scenes doc). That means there’s a greater need for detail and more varieties of action that can take place. Combine that with the astounding number of visual perspectives in a sequence like the Loot Train, and it becomes easy to understand how the shot count started pushing 100—and it’s easy to imagine what it must have been for parts of S8.
Through just three episodes, Daenerys has already basically taken Jon Snow on a Phantom Menace pod race-style ride using her mythical reptiles and viewers finally got the Thrones version of the Darth v. Luke light saber battle (it involves fire and ice dragon breath against the moonlight). The Battle of Winterfell alone had several stunning visual sequences: Bran engaging three-eyed raven mode to go sight the Night King; Lyanna Mormont heroically stabbing an undead giant in the eye; Arya engaging in Thief-mode stealth maneuvers to assassinate a few White Walkers and escape her own close calls. Any one of those moments could likely fill its own behind-the-scenes documentary (or story just like this).
Again, the Image Engine team can’t comment on S8, but Schelesny and Snyman don’t deny the trend of increased complexity continues. “I want to say it’s the hardest animation I’ve done in my whole life,” Snyman notes. “I can say that.” And those technical challenges come against pressure like no other project the team has worked on.
“With something like The Avengers, you have a fanbase, but with Game of Thrones it’s like everyone is the fan base,” Snyman tells Ars. “So it’s terrifying. You know your work will be scrutinized and your peers will comment on it, so going in you just want to make something as awesome as possible.
“[With the dragons,] we’re pushing ourselves to inject as much into this character that hasn’t been thought of—the whole muscle flexing and breathing wasn’t in previous dragons,” he adds. “We’re always looking back to see what we can improve on, so now I have this creature that can have a muscular train that drives the wings, and you can feel power being portrayed in how it flies. You’re making the character alive and seeing all those tiny elements come through in the final render—you have a dragon flying over a meadow with daylight—it looks super impressive.”