Emmys: How 'Game of Thrones' Created a 1,000-Man Digital Army

11:30 AM 6/9/2016

by Carolyn Giardina

White Walkers and zombies and a computer-generated Navy ship, oh my! Visual effects teams from 'Thrones,' 'Walking Dead,' 'The Expanse' and 'The Last Ship' explain how they helped realize the mythical, the grisly, the nautical and the very far-out on four innovative series.

GAME OF THRONES - White Walkers and zombies-Still 1-H 2016
Courtesy of HBO

  • Game of Thrones

    Crowd replication to create a 1,000-man digital army was a key aspect of this shot from Game of Thrones. According to VFX supervisor Joe Bauer, the actors, costumes and prosthetics were photographed in front of a greenscreen near Magheramorne quarry in Northern Ireland, and the final shot has a background based on Magheramorne. A scan was taken from a drone and used as the basis for a CG model of the location, which was augmented with VFX and joined with volcanic hills that were photographed in Iceland.

    "It's scans of those actors in the makeup and costumes, with variations we used to make a digital army that extends up onto the hills," says Bauer, adding that VFX also involved weather elements. "It's wind, mist, fog and heavy atmosphere that you'd get in a marine layer. The dramatic value is to say something's wrong; it's a mystery what they are facing. The temperature drops, and our characters can see their breath. The weather obscures their vision." Spain-based El Ranchito, one of several VFX vendors on Thrones, completed this shot.


  • The Expanse

    VFX supervisor Bob Munroe says he aimed to give this sci-fi drama a feature film quality. The work involved a lot of real sets as well as plenty of bluescreen work at Pinewood Toronto Studios. "The actors were hooked up to wires and flown into a pure bluescreen set," explains Munroe, noting that all sorts of CG set extensions, as well as CG environments, were needed.

    "They had to blend seamlessly with the sets. Sometimes we'd have a catwalk, and we had to create the corresponding digital work. Thankfully we had [cinematographer] Jeremy Benning, who lit the actors, and we would [use that as the blueprint] for the light and quality of light [in the environments]. For fully CG crafts in space, we wanted to stay true to Jeremy's vision." Munroe praises the eight VFX vendors, including Spin and Rocket Science, who did the bulk of the CG environments, saying, "They came together as a community."

  • The Walking Dead

    This shot came from a sequence of fast cuts and violent kills depicted in the popular zombie series. It started with a live-action actor wearing a face prosthetic. To complete the shot — the face is sliced by a katana sword — the VFX team replaced the "portion of the head that's impacted with CG," says VFX supervisor Victor Scalise. "These shots were tricky. We played a lot with the blood and blood color so that it didn't feel over the top and cartoony. [Also,] the cuts happen so quickly. We went though multiple passes of animation and timing until we felt it was balanced and readable." This shot was completed by VFX house Fido, one of eight VFX vendors on the episode.


  • The Last Ship

    "We average a little over 100 shots per episode, and we try to do as many 'invisible' effects as possible," says VFX supervisor Marc Kolbe. That meant creating a CG vessel (the wire-frame model is pictured at top). "Sometimes we're cutting from [live-action] to the CG ship, so we have to match the look, quality, feel and lighting," says Kolbe, adding that to start, the VFX team went out and scanned an actual ship as the basis for the CG model.

    "CG water is mixed with a practical plate shot on the water," he says of the finished product (bottom). "[Olcun Tan of Gradient Effects] developed [a proprietary] water simulation for the show. Getting it right took a lot of time, and he did an incredible job. … We used some practical elements in the shot. There's a little lens flare that we got when we shot the ship to make it look as real as possible." Additional vendors included CoSAUPP and Wow Industries.