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By Scott Fegette | Sunday, July 20, 2014

Deconstructing Game of Thrones' Visual Effects

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It’s often said that visual effects only succeed when you don’t notice them. HBO’s “Game of Thrones” received a staggering 19 Emmy nominations in 2014, including Outstanding Special and Visual Effects. It’s no surprise, given the show’s beautifully integrated visual effects are largely responsible for immersing viewers into its fictional world of Westeros. German VFX house Mackevision recently published a video breakdown of its visual effects work on the show’s fourth season, and as stunning as it is, the FX techniques they employed to create the world of “Game of Thrones” aren’t as out of reach to mere mortals as you may think. First, watch the reel.

Let’s take a look at the techniques behind three of the shots.

Shot 1 – Joffrey’s Wedding

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For King Joffrey’s wedding celebration early in season 4, nearly everything in the scene was either constructed or composited in during post-production onto the live action plates. The background of the plate was removed and replaced with the castle works of Kings Landing using 3D models. 2D still and video composites were also placed on offset layers to provide a parallax effect to the scene (where, in motion shots, elements further from the camera move more slowly than those closer). Multiple actors were shot in a variety of positions and composited into the motion-tracked scene to create the virtual crowd at the wedding, each individual element individually keyed to remove the green background.

Shot 2 – Braavos Harbor

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The overseas port city of Braavos is well known for its interconnecting islands and bridges, and the monstrous monolith warrior statue that guards the harbor mouth. To create a flyover establishing shot of this purely fictional location, a combination of 3D computer-generated models and “2.5D” camera mapping tricks with still and motion footage was used. Particle systems were used to create clouds and flocks of birds from scratch to give depth and detail to the shot, and the 3D objects used within were rendered using global illumination to ensure that the lighting was realistic and believable.

Shot 3 – The Bloody Gate

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The stark and forbidding Bloody Gate protects the only route into the Vale of Arryn, and the fortress of The Eyrie. Although the treacherous landscape itself was largely provided in the physical shots, all the seemingly man-made elements in this shot were in fact constructed in post-production. The Bloody Gate itself is a 3D model composited and camera-tracked seamlessly into the live-action plates as a multi-pass render, along with nearly all of the sentries, guards, and background in the shot.

What I find most impressive of all these shots isn’t just the sheer amount of layered work that went into them, but how little of the effects I actually noticed while watching the series each week. Which just goes to prove that old adage: When visual effects are done well, you don’t notice them at all. Well done, Mackevision.

If you find yourself inspired by Mackevision’s work on “Game of Thrones” be sure to check out our 3D+Animation courses to learn about these visual effects techniques, and more.

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