Wights, the Wall and wildlings: bringing more character to Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is now the most-watched HBO series in history – and it’s little wonder why. Audiences flock to show because of its engaging characters and immersive worlds – many of which are realized with the help of a talented visual effects team. In this article, fxguide talks to VFX supervisor Joe Bauer and VFX producer Steve Kullback about bringing to life dragons, attacking wildlings, mammoths and wights in episodes 9 and 10 of season 4 of the show.

– Watch a breakdown of the VFX in the episodes in this video produced with our media partners WIRED.

When wildlings attack

In episode 9 (‘The Watchers on the Wall’, directed by Neil Marshall) wildlings launch their attack by both climbing the Wall and invading Castle Black. Signalling their intentions with a vast forest fire, the wildlings’ invasion is aided by several giants and a wooly mammoth, but ultimately held back by the Night’s Watch, who also manage to deploy a swinging scythe against the Wall climbers.

Mood painting created for the wildling attack - showing the vast fire.
Mood painting created for the wildling attack – showing the vast fire.

The primary visual effects vendor for this episode was MPC, which handled the giants and mammoth shots as well as environment work on the facade of the Wall and the set extension and digital doubles. Rodeo FX also contributed environments, including a sweeping overview crane shot that tied various areas seen in the battle together, with Look Effects aiding in several gore enhancements. The Third Floor contributed previs.

“The first thing we did was review the screenplay,” says visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer, “and then have one of our concept artists generate mood paintings which informed the production of what the thing needed to feel like. They included the wildlings in front of the tree line, the mammoth, the giants of course, the Wall and the vast fire.”

This mood painting shows the mammoth and giant characters.
This mood painting shows the mammoth and giant characters.

The Third Floor, led by Eric Carney, then embarked on previs for the battle. “We worked our way through the script with Eric and for anything that visual effects would be touching heavily, we set cameras and choreographed all of these things in each of the beats of the fight,” explains Bauer. “We cut those together as a sequence with sound and music and presented that first to (producers) Dan Weiss and David Benioff and the production, and then of course Neil Marshall.”

It was at this stage that technical requirements for the shoot were also considered. “One thing we discovered by looking at the shot with the biggest sweep,” says Bauer, “was how big the greenscreen needed to be – 30 feet high and 400 feet long. It was an L-shape butted up against a section of forest edge on a farmer’s field near Shane’s Castle, about an hour outside of Belfast.”

Production then outfitted the filming location, dusting up the existing tree line with fake snow. “Everything was shot in two configurations, either toward the tree line or 90 degrees into one of the greenscreen walls so that we could put a tree line as far away as we needed to, or an ice wall in the distance,” states Bauer.

An MPC mammoth.
An MPC mammoth.

During the shoot, the effects team acquired ’t-poses’ of wildling performers for later use in digital crowd duplication. A significant effort was also undertaken to survey the location, conduct LIDAR scans and acquire reference photography, HDRs and gray and mirror ball imagery. “We’re following the cameras and getting all the possible information we can get manually, measuring up heights, distances, lens and taking that information into a very extensive database,” explains visual effects producer Steve Kullback.

“We also have been working with Alexa to index the lenses. They have a scheme where you can store the information from your lenses – even if they’re not smart lenses – in a portion of their menu called the lens data archive. Basically you introduce the lens to the camera and you can record that information on a card and upload it to the LDA on all of the cameras. That will record lens, focus, aperture on the meta data of the material that’s being recorded to the Codex.”

How to make giants (and make one ride a mammoth)

Several giants and a mammoth assist the wildlings with their attack on the Wall. To help show the appropriate size and scale of the giants, performers were for several shots filmed separately on greenscreen and composited into scenes shot at the outside location, where only stand-ins for the real giants were present. “We had lots of fellas dressed in unflattering tight-green costumes and they ran around on location with poles with LEDs on them for visibility,” says Bauer.

MPC incorporated greenscreen footage of the giants into their shots.
MPC incorporated greenscreen footage of the giants into their shots.

Also standing in for the mammoths during the shoot were large aluminium frames built by special effects supervisor Stuart Brisdon. “That was covered in LEDs and an additional pole for a giant when he’s riding on top of the mammoth,” adds Bauer. “We had six guys carrying that and what that did for us, aside from allowing the camera operators to frame the shots taking those elements into account, is that it also kept people running through where the giants or mammoths would ultimately occupy the shot. The dailies are a bit silly looking with wildlings and then these space aliens running around, but it was invaluable.”

MPC then post-tracked the shots that had giants and mammoths in them. “For the shots that involved the giants,” explains Bauer, “if they were not entirely in-camera on a miniature stage, they were played back on a motion control on a scaled greenscreen stage and they either just performed in a playback situation derived from the location photography or they interacted with half scale set pieces like the main gate that the main giant punches through and the other giant lifts. All that was a fairly simple comp after that.”

Watch a mammoth and giants breakdown.

MPC’s mammoth animation drew on the studio’s considerable experience their well-established Furtility tool, and with CG elephants and mammoths themselves. “They had at their disposal a lot of library of elephant movement which we were able to tap into,” says Bauer. “That was important because we had to establish the walk cycles of the mammoth – any shot of the giant riding the mammoth we had to establish the walk cycle, turn it into a motion control move and play it back on the motion base that the giant actor was sitting on – and we had to have all that prep’d before the shoot.”

The secret weapon

The Night’s Watch deploy a massive scythe to quickly dispatch climbing wildlings on the Wall in what would be a sequence a long time in the planning. “When we were scouting last year, Dan and David told us over lunch how important that particular gag was to them,” recalls Bauer. “They wanted a secret weapon, but we had to plug it into real physics as much as they could. They also didn’t want to reveal it until it was needed in the story, so it was pretty easy to ice it over.”


Scythe previs by The Third Floor.
Scythe previs by The Third Floor.
Live action shoot.
Live action shoot.

Shots of the wildlings climbing the wall seen in season 3 were referenced for the shoot this time around. “We worked backwards from that library of footage,” says Bauer, “and then we previs’d the sequence pretty heavily. When everyone saw the previs it was pretty clear it was going to be a crowd-pleasing moment.”

Watch the final shot.

MPC crafted the final effect. “We established a size and weight for it,” notes Bauer. “It’s all pounded out of iron and ran simulations of it breaking through the ice, dropping, it’s own weight catching on the chain, and the moment of impact with the ice wall as it starts shearing the front of it off.”

Un-chained dragons become chained

Episode 10 (‘The Children’, directed by Alex Graves) sees Daenerys locking up two of her dragons in the catacombs of Meereen after she learns of the devastation wrought by her third dragon. The scene features visual effects by Pixomondo, which had carried out extensive dragon animation in season 3.

VFX producer Steve Kullback and VFX supervisor Joe Bauer hold the dragon heads.
VFX producer Steve Kullback and VFX supervisor Joe Bauer hold the dragon heads.

Previous dragon shots had made use of stuffies for actress Emilia Clarke and other performers to interact with. “The dragons were much larger this year and we couldn’t create stuffies that were full-size,” notes Kullback. “So what we did was create a representation for each head of the dragons. We had a full-sized head molded out of plastic on a t-stand that we could play in the scene and puppeteer. When Emilia’s walking down the stairs, we had puppeteers walking with her with the heads performing the action. The puppeteers were actually Joe and myself, and I like to think that the emotional impact of the performance comes from the stuffie puppeteering!”

Pixomondo animated the dragons.
Pixomondo animated the dragons.

For shots of Daenerys collaring and chaining the dragons up, Clarke performed the action against a green shape with tracking markers – dubbed the pickle. “Alex Graves had the good idea of wiring a sandbag to the dragon collar and chain prop so that Emilia really had to struggle to lift the thing,” says Bauer. “I was holding the pole with the pickle and I had to be a distance back so when she clamped that thing onto the pickle I had to fight really hard from it hitting the floor. That all translated to the dragon’s performance.”

“And that’s where the Game of Thrones workout regimen happens,” jokes Kullback. “We have to have strong upper bodies to be able to manipulate our puppet requirements.”

Watch part of the final sequence.

Pixomondo’s animation drew on key poses that Bauer considered would show the panic and agony of these ‘teenage’ dragons being separated from their mother. “We had a pose of one dragon’s head low roaring up at the other dragon who’s roaring down at the other,” describes Bauer. “They’re the frames that you instantly grab and print, because they’re so expressive and so well composed.”

Wight fight

Meanwhile, Bran and his party arrive at the Heart Tree he had pre-visioned but soon encounter a group of wights – deceased bodies that are reanimated by the White Walkers. In a sequence reminiscent of Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion skeleton animation, the wights are mostly fended off until a child of the forest saves the party.

Wight reference and Scanline's VFX.
Wight reference and Scanline’s VFX.

The visual effects team worked in close collaboration on the attack with the costume, special effects and stunt departments. “My first thought was that production should be able to shoot the fight as they would shoot any fight with a stunt team,” says Bauer. “The only thing we did different was that we asked the stunt team to cast the thinest stunt people they could come up with. Then we put them in these green suits but we designed prosthetic costume additions to those suits.”

Designs for the wights began as concept art that led to prosthetic development and costume integration. “We had to do a lot of photo research of dried dead corpses, mummies and a lot of gory stuff to get the look we wanted,” notes Bauer. “Then we cyberscanned stunt people in their costumes on the first day. The shoot lasted four or five days out in the weather near Belfast.”

Shooting the scene. This pass included the stunt performer but a clean pass was also acquired.
Shooting the scene. This pass included the stunt performer but a clean pass was also acquired.

Stunt action was then filmed with the greenscreen’d performers for one take, and a further take was captured without them. “The non-green plate had to be good enough to play as the hero take,” says Bauer. “At the least, we got material to replace the green area and sometimes we used the clean plate rather than the hero plate with the green suit. In any case we roto-mated the performer and so both takes were usable.”

Scanline handled visual effects duties for the sequence. “They received our cyberscans and then made digital models eliminating the bulk of the greenscreen actor even though they were thin so they wouldn’t occlude too much of the background or other actors,” explains Bauer. “They would roto-mate the stunt performers and use dynamics on all the loose bits of the costumes. The only other adjustment we made was, because the wights are long dead creatures, they shouldn’t behave like healthy stunt people. We bent them over and stiffened them up a bit – just tried to show rigor mortis. It’s really the fine detail that Scanline got into the models that allowed us to use the digital versions up close.”

Watch a before and after clip for the wight fight.

Scanline also added digital snow interaction and falling snow. The initial ‘break throughs’ of the wights through the snow were actually captured on location as a practical effect. “The art department dug these spider holes in the ground,” says Bauer. “The stunt actors would climb into those and would be covered over in fake snow – actually pulverized paper. Then in the photography they would jump out. We had a certain amount of snow interactivity from that, but really Scanline has a great particles system and the majority of what you saw coming from the wights was digital.”

Once saved by the child of the forest, Bran’s remaining party are taken to the three-eyed raven. Here, Buf augmented the child actress’ face to exaggerate her eyes and also shrink the nose, mouth and chin area.

Ultimately, these final episodes of season 4 evidence a ‘step up’ to the incredible visual effects work already established in the series. For the show’s VFX team, creating so many shots on a demanding television schedule is always a challenge, but one they openly welcome. “Having worked in feature films and episodic TV on a schedule that needed to deliver much faster than this, I find that Game of Thrones is truly a hybrid,” states Kullback. “It is television and is produced for broadcast, but it is also very much a feature mentality both in how it’s approached from a production perspective and how it’s approached from a creative perspective.”

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