Elastic opens Game of Thrones

HBO’s Game of Thrones series, based on the epic fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, features some enthralling opening titles depicting the show’s setting in the mystical Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. We speak to Creative Director Angus Wall from Elastic about designing and executing the opening pieces.

Watch Elastic’s opening titles for Game of Thrones

fxg: Can you tell me about the brief for the show openings? What did the title sequences need to represent and what story did it need to tell about the show?

Wall: It started about two years ago. Carolyn Strauss, who we’ve done several titles with at HBO, called us about the show and we started talking to the show’s creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss. We talked about the fact that, when you read a fantasy book, there’s generally a map on the first or last page that orients you to the world. They felt the need to create the animated equivalent. So the brief was: Show the audience where we are–we’re going to be cutting from place to place and they need to be able to refer to something.

Concept art for Godswood

fxg: How did you plan that out?

Wall: We started with a published map of Westeros and a Xerox of a hand-drawn map George R. R. Martin had made of Essos (the territory east of Westeros). We immediately took these two maps into Photoshop and lined them up. Based on that, we created previs shots for the pilot that took us from place to place. So if the show went from King’s Landing to the Wall or Winterfell, we actually made map shots that started at King’s Landing and took you to Winterfell. These shots were cut into the pilot. They were very effective in communicating to the viewer where things were, but they were somewhat disruptive to the flow of the narrative. So the idea became to create title sequences that serve as the legend for each episode. We made four different title sequences that were all variations of one another. The main thing in designing these was not to fall into the usual tropes you’d see on a fantasy show. And we wanted it to look like you had an unlimited budget and countless amazing craftsmen.

fxg: There’s almost a sense of clockwork movement in the titles – what informed your designs?

Wall: One thing was that it needed to feel appropriate to world of the show. The show is not contemporary, but there is a timelessness to it. Rob Feng (our art director) suggested Leonardo daVinci’s machines. They’re centuries old but there’s a timelessness to them that seemed right. They feel hand-made, not high-tech. They’re complex structures, but they’re made from wood and steel and glass and leather and cloth.

King's Landing concept work

fxg: What other kinds of design entered into the creation of the map?

Wall: There were pragmatic considerations. You have two obvious forms to choose from when you create a map – a sphere or a flat surface, and both of them limit your ability to display information. You can’t tilt up very far on a flat map because you’re going to see a horizon. With a sphere, the horizon issue is even worse and the information is always curving away from you, so you get even less information than with a flat map. I pictured in my mind that this map is actually a bowl. It’s sitting in a place being watched over by monks who are watching history unfold–like a giant Risk board that you would peer over and look into.But a bowl didn’t get rid of the horizon line, so it became a sphere…but with the world on the inside. The question then became, how does light get into the world? And the answer to that was to put a sun in the middle of the sphere, so that’s where the sun and the astrolabe came from. It’s a design for an insular world.

fxg: How far could you take any boards or previs – did that end up evolving into the final shots?

Wall: The process of designing the sequence was pretty organic. We didn’t do boards. Instead there was an extended period of previs, in which we worked with different moves and focal lengths in order to keep everything feeling photographic. One of my goals was to make sure we didn’t have any impossible camera moves, so we stuck to what you could physically shoot. After blocking out the bigger shots, we worked our way into the details of the sequence. This process went on until we were ready to render everything out.

Detail of castle concept art

fxg: Can you talk about how the buildings and surroundings were modeled?

Wall: We thought a lot about the different materials that would go into each place. The land masses are all wood and there’s a structure underneath the surface of what we see. There’s a mechanical space underneath which you can see through the gaps between the model and the surface. The topography is built from flat pieces of wood that are aged. For each location we generated a lot of conceptual drawings which were, in turn, modeled in Maya. We used ZBrush and Photoshop for the textures. The models are incredibly intricate – there are amazingly beautiful areas that aren’t even in the sequence, unfortunately. The modelers really outdid themselves. There are not a lot of cheats. You can fly almost anywhere in this world and find something interesting to see.

fxg: What about the animation, I really like the way the buildings and trees grow.

Wall: The modelers and animators made this action incredibly intricate as well. The tree, for example, telescopes. The buildings reveal themselves in mechanical ways. Some of the minarets are spiral cogs, literally part of the mechanics of the model. The idea was to create real working models with interlocking gears and lots of moving parts.

A final King's Landing view

fxg: How did you approach the compositing for the sequence?

Wall: We used After Effects to pre-comp everything. There were a lot of layers! We did final comps and color in Smoke. There is a depth-pass that we used extensively to simulate focus and diffusion based on distance, so objects in the background have lifted gamma and greater depth of field. We had two compositors working in After Effects for six weeks. One of the things we did at the end was spend a lot of time making sure the color palette of each zone of the map was different. For instance, King’s Landing is warm and, as we move towards Winterfell, it gets cooler and greener. There’s a lot of atmosphere in different parts of the map – at the Wall there is a lot of haze to simulate an area where cold and warm air collide. And there are dust motes flying around, catching the light as you pass by them.

fxg: And there are so many other details too, like lens flares and also the flipping of the magnifying piece?

Wall: The idea with that was to simulate a bolex camera with a turret lens – where you change lenses by turning a plate on the front of the camera. It seemed an appropriate technology for this world. With changing lenses, the size of your field of view changes and you can move from place to place more quickly. We played around with cutting from one focal length to the next, but it felt a little jarring. So by using this turret lens technique, we maintained the mechanical/optical feel and could move from place to place a little quicker.

Final Winterfell shot

fxg: What approach did you take to the actual titles and the astrolabe?

Wall: Well, again it had to feel like the show. There’s an early version of the main title called ‘Monk on Meth’ which has a great Ralph Steadman feel about it – it looked like red and gold paint had been flicked on the whole thing, which became the departure point for where we ended up. Again, when we made the astrolabe, we thought that should tell the tale of the history of this place.There’s a back story for these two continents and that story is told in the relief sculptures on a band of the astrolabe. We wanted to make sure and satisfy the existing fans of the book. And the titles themselves were, in a way, one of the easiest things to do.

fxg: I think one of the most interesting things about the titles is that they feel hand made and not really CG at all – was that always something you wanted to do?

Wall: Actually, we would often joke about rapid prototyping of these things – taking the CG model and actually making it for real. I remembering being a kid and inheriting my brother’s English castle set complete with hand-painted metal knights, and that really stayed with me.


Production Company: Elastic
Director: Angus Wall

Design Studio: Elastic
Art Director: Rob Feng
Lead Designer: Chris Sanchez
Designer(s): Henry De Leon, Leanne Dare
Concept Artists: George Fuentes, Rustam Hasanov
Storyboard & Concept Artist: Lance Leblanc
Production Artist: Patrick Raines
Producer: Hameed Shaukat
Executive Producer: Jennifer Sofio Hall

VFX Studio: a52
CG Supervisor: Kirk Shintani
CG Artist(s): Paulo de Almada, John Tumlin, Christian Sanchez, Erin Clark, Tom Nemeth, Joe Paniagua
2D Animation Artist(s): Tony Kandalaft, Brock Boyts
Compositors: Sarah Blank, Eric Demeusy
Smoke & Colorist: Paul Yacono

Editorial Company: Rock Paper Scissors
Editor: Angus Wall
Assistant Editor: Anton Capaldo-Smith, Austyn Daines
Executive Producer: Carol Lynn Weaver, Linda Carlson
Sound Design: ANDY KENNEDY

1 thought on “Elastic opens Game of Thrones”

  1. nicecrispybacon

    Great article, great show.
    I love the look and feel, the perspective play, the music… really a beautiful piece.

    The Art of Title website has an extensive article on it as well, with some beautiful concept drawings and wips.
    You can find it here. http://www.artofthetitle.com/2011/05/12/game-of-thrones/
    (If cross-posting isn’t allowed, feel free to remove comment.)

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