How Big Budget CGI in ‘Game of Thrones’ Changed the Television Landscape
Are a battle of armies or the fiery breath of a flying dragon indicators of a prosperous series?
Warning — spoilers for Game of Thrones season seven ahead.
How do you film a scene involving hundreds of warriors on horseback on one side, infantry on the other, and an airborne dragon raining fire down upon the battlefield? It helps if you’re running the most popular show in the world, have a gigantic budget, and can access some fantastic visual effects.
Game of Thrones, the HBO smash hit fantasy series, may be the only production on air capable of spending the required money to pull such a scene off. And there’s good reason for that. Having just concluded its seventh and penultimate season, the show, which sits in a genre that requires sophisticated visual effects, has reached an unparalleled level of popularity. Over 30 million people watched last season’s premiere in the U.S., and 90 million more watched the episode illegally worldwide.
With that kind of pull, the show’s budget has steadily increased. In its sixth season producers spent $10 million per episode, according to data from Nielsen, which measures television audiences. That was up from an average of $6 million for earlier episodes. The latest season featured more dragons, battles, and undead than ever before, so it’s highly likely that per-episode figures have risen again.
In “Spoils of War,” the fourth episode of the seventh season, Daenerys Targaryen and her dragon Drogon, along with a Dothraki horde, attack a Lannister force, beginning a graphic sequence that sees several major characters narrowly avoid their doom, and a lot of not so lucky extras burned to death. The visually realistic segment, right down to the burning flesh of Drogon’s victims, was generated by Iloura, an Australian-based visual effects company that has been responsible for providing CGI wizardry to some recent Hollywood blockbusters, including Madmax: Fury Road and Ghostbusters. The GoT production team had hired Iloura to design the computer-generated clashes in“Battle of the Bastards” an episode from last season that involved hundreds of characters, including a giant named Wun Wun.
“There were quite a few similar technical challenges to “Battle of the Bastard—large crowds, lots of horses and incidental effects” says Iloura’s supervisor of VFX Josh Simmonds, who also worked on the “Spoils of War” episode. “But there were quite a few differences too — the Dothraki fighting style adds a layer of complexity, especially with their trick riding which required a lot of key-framed animation to match the live stunt performers. The shot count was around 200 compared to 140 on “Battle of the Bastards.”’
For around seven or eight months, Simmonds tells me, he worked with a 100-person crew to construct the sequence, a level of resources similar to what is more normally used on Iloura’s feature-film work. The fruits of their labor can be seen in the video below.
One of the trickier effects was making digital doubles of the Dothraki riders. Conventionally, doubles are used to make an army look bigger, but in this case they’re in the back of the shot, and their differences, however slight, had to be more apparent. “There were a couple of shots where they were front and center, which leaves very little to hide behind,” said Simmonds. “Drogon’s fire-breathing mayhem also required some pyrotechnic talent. “We had some seriously amazing practical explosions from the on-set pyro team which we had to match — one strafing shot in particular had our CGI explosions sitting right next to filmed elements.”
Iloura wasn’t involved in the effects that brought Drogon to life — he’s animated by Image Engine — but along with his fire, the team worked on rendering the beast airborne. And although the dragon didn’t present too many problems for Iloura, Simmonds jokes that he suspects the catering requirements on set for fully grown dragons would perhaps be “much more onerous than for horses.”
Game of Thrones has redefined the scale, budget, and ambition of TV productions, by pushing the boundaries of the format in visual effects as much as any other. But as Simmonds points out, high quality special effects are the exception in television, not the rule. “I think the level of production value across all facets of the show are incredible, and obviously its popularity allows HBO to push things further with every season,” says Simmonds. “I think Joe Bauer and Steve Kullback (GoT’s VFX supervisor and producer, respectively) have been instrumental in defining what’s possible for VFX in the TV realm. Their understanding of the entire production process is evident in the quality of footage, on-set data, and extensive practical elements we receive to work with.”
The visual effects in the show have evolved as each season has gone by. It’s no surprise that the show’s CGI is vastly more sophisticated than the pilot or the first season, but the jump in quality from Season 5 is staggering. Daenerys’ first ride on her dragon is — almost literally — a different beast to those that roam the lands of Season 7. Similarly we’ve seen more of the show’s direwolves. A popular joke among subreddits devoted to Game of Thrones speculates that every time a direwolf is killed off in the show, it’s sacrificed to the ‘Gods of the CGI budget’ inferring the digitally altered creatures were too costly to keep around.
Game of Thrones may ultimately prove to be an outlier — an ultra-popular show with a huge budget and a thirst for visual effects. But the chances of a similar show emulating its scope are increased in light of Game of Thrones’ success. Westworld, also an HBO show, reportedly wielded a $100 million budget for the first season, included a reported $25 million for the pilot alone. If it can keep the cult following that grew around its first season, the Robot/Western thriller may be next TV series to be given the higher production treatment.
Meanwhile, HBO will not abandon the world of Westeros after the final season of Game of Thrones when it airs next year. It remains unclear if the spin-offs or sequels will be given the same budgetary leeway of the original. When a single sequence of a TV show commands resources similar to a feature film, a significant shift in the entertainment industry has clearly been made. But whether that shift survives beyond the show that engendered it remains to be seen. For the average viewer the standard has been set, at least for Game of Thrones, anything less than a Dragon-led Dothraki horde runs the risk of disappointing.
Originally published at theculturetrip.com.