Anyone who watched the Battle of the Blackwater or that dragon-filled final shot of Season 6 knows that Game of Thrones has created new expectations for genre television. The HBO series' Emmy Award-winning visual effects fully realize the show's epic quality in ways that, previous to Thrones, were reserved for big-budget blockbuster films. How complex do they get? Let's take a look at the most impressive visual effects in the series so far.
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The first two seasons of Game of Thrones treated audiences to exotic landscapes and detailed CG dragons, but the show's visual effects were still in their infancy. The penultimate episode took a giant leap forward when Stannis Baratheon's fleet attacked in Blackwater Bay in a spectacular battle sequence directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent). Stannis' ships were met with a surprise wildfire attack, an effect by studio PIXOMONDO which made use of significant computer-generated fire simulations -- tinged a signature green -- that referenced historical film of napalm explosions.
A few different visual-effects studios are responsible for creating Daenerys' dragons throughout Game of Thrones, but as the beasts reached their "teenage years," PIXOMONDO was responsible for the bulk of the work. The studio took filmed scenes of actress Emilia Clarke interacting with stand-ins -- sometimes tennis balls or a green 'stuffie' -- then composited in a CG dragon. To make the dragons fly, PIXOMONDO looked to eagle and bat references and also developed photorealistic skin and scales.
Death of Joffrey (season 4)
Joffrey’s demise during the Purple Wedding episode in Season 4 shocked audiences thanks to some of the series' more subtle visual effects. On set, artists applied makeup effects to actor Jack Gleeson, whose face was then slightly augmented with digital techniques to add running blood and a deterioration look to reveal the effects of him being poisoned.
Attack on the Night's Watch (Season 4)
A Game of Thrones stunt rarely resorts to 100% computer-generated images. The approach was on show in the second-to-last episode of Season 4, in which the wildlings storm The Wall. The sequence involved large armies, a giant, a mammoth, and even an enormous scythe that cuts down the wildlings as they attempt to scale the wall. Studio MPC would take real photography shot near Belfast or in a studio and build digital environments and creatures, or use rescaling techniques to add in the giant and mammoth.
Bran & Co. fight the wights (Season 4)
In the final episode of Season 4, Bran and his Three-Eyed Raven-seeking merry men arrive at the heart tree only to encounter several skeleton-like wights. A nail-biting sword and axe battle ensues, brought to life with actual performers dressed in partial prosthetic makeup and wearing green-screen suits. Visual-effects studio Scanline first had them burst out of the ground before taking the stunt performances even further by removing the green from their clothing and generating further bone and flesh to bring the wights to life.
By Season 5, the show's visual-effects set pieces and creature work had expanded, culminating in a major sequence in Daznak's Pit where Drogon rescues Daenerys after the Sons of the Harpy stage a surprise attack. Both a digital arena and a CG dragon (you thought it was real?) were the centerpieces here, constructed by Rhythm & Hues. But not all of the effects were CG; Drogon's fire-breathing was partially created by setting off a pantomiming flamethrower. Animators painted in Drogon over the device and footage of flaming stuntmen.
The moment Jon Snow confronts Ramsay Bolton's army, and a multitude of horses, is a lengthy shot that doesn't seem to cut away (what Game of Thrones visual-effects supervisor Joe Bauer affectionately calls a "oner"). The sequence was made possible by studio Iloura, which added digital horses, army men, swords, and arrows into the live action photography for one seamless -- and now Emmy-nominated -- sequence.
Wildfire returns in the last episode of Season 6, as Cersei Lannister ignites the concoction beneath the Great Sept in King's Landing and one-ups the Battle of the Blackwater. Rising Sun Pictures delivered this catastrophic farewell by building digital King's Landing environments and destroying them with specialized CG tools that realistically simulate the destruction of hard surfaces. The company even created digital humans with all their internal organs so every detail could appear to be destroyed. The mark of the green-hued wildfire perhaps makes the impact all the more devastating -- and impressive.
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Ian Failes writes about visual effects, animation, and dragons whenever he can. Follow him to the Iron Throne: @vfxblog.