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Four successful factors in VFX concept art for “Game of Thrones” 2

by Tobias Mannewitz, KARAKTER’s creative director. His work as a VFX concept artist for this show won him an Emmy Award for outstanding visual effects.

It was a great honor for the show’s VFX team, led by Pixomondo’s VFX Supervisor Rainer Gombos and VFX Producer Steve Kullback, to be nominated for the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards earlier this year. The fact that we won it in spite of stiff competition was really the icing on the cake. So, we certainly must have done some things right... right? As far as the conceptual side of the VFX production goes, there are certainly a few things about our attitude and approach for this particular show, which may have made a difference. So let’s take a look:

1: Pick your battles wisely

The tale of the noble houses of Westeros and their struggle for power contains a lot of fighting, from individual attacks via improvised skirmishes to grand battles with thousands of participants. In the world of TV show production, each of these events can be an impressive, but also costly endeavour. Besides all these battles, many more scenes called for VFX input. Even with a VFX budget that’s luxurious by TV show standards, funding is still limited, so it is crucial to get the biggest ‘bang for your buck’.
Many concept artworks had been created during pre-production to give a first impression of how a scene in a script would be translated to the screen. These artworks contained a lot of valuable information that could be tangibly assessed: How big is the visual impact of the idea? How relevant is is for the plot? How much would it cost to achieve this result? Is it worth the investment? Each scene needed to be pitched and approved individually, and concept art provided a way to make a judgement call. In a survival of the fittest type of descisionmaking, time, money and resources were invested only in those scenes of which the production team were certain that they would deliver a premium outcome.
Sketch for a discarded VFX shot.
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2: Supporting Role

Game of Thrones may boast some of the most impressive VFX shots created for a TV show to date, but there is a certain humbleness to the great majority of the shots. The reason for this understatement is that the show’s characters are always at the heart of the experience. It was very important to not overpower the actor or distract from their performance with digital set extensions that would compete for the audience’s attention – unless it’s really appropriate, as in a big establishing shot or other massive turning point where for once the location is the star.
Some VFX shots were intentionally unassuming. Here we decided to very simply extend the corridor, rather than designing an elaborate grandiose backdrop.
Letting the acting take centre stage

3: Enhance Reality

George R. R. Martin’s books on which the series is based, have a very much down-to-earth tone. They feature mundane, gritty action even amongst the rich and powerful, taking their drama from very realistic observations and personalities. The makers of the show went to great lengths to ensure that this realistic patina remained present in the TV adaptation.
Instead of mostly shooting against green screens and relying on VFX do the rest, they went to remote places like the highlands of Northern Ireland, the glaciers of Iceland, and the battlements of Dubrovnik, Croatia, where they found stunning footage fodder. Under these conditions, the role of VFX was not to surpass these backdrops or turn them into entirely new and different locations, but to tweak, enhance and alter them just enough to turn them into a location on Westeros that should feel just as believable as our own world. The same method of enhancement of reality was also applied to the sets.
The role of VFX was not to compete with or surpass the art department’s work, but to take their elements and designs, and carefully extend them, true to the initial artistic direction. Ideally, VFX was able to build a bridge between the studio sets and the real locations. Last but not least, the VFX designs created for the first season formed their own virtual reality, to which the new shots had to stay true. When it turned out that some of the shots planned for the second season made it necessary to redesign the Red Keep, this task was handled with utmost care so as to not break the audience’s belief and immersion.

4: Adapt to the production needs

A TV show with annual installments is a very fast-paced production environment. The designs for the majority of the VFX shots had to be carried out over a period of only 70 man-days. To adapt to this time scale, some shot designs had to remain more suggestive ‘sketches’ rather than beautiful pixel-perfect concept art.
We took this coastal location in Ireland as the basis for the Pyke castle.
How it was translated into the final scene.
The concept ‘sketch’ painting.
In order to produce stunning final shots from these images, VFX supervisor Rainer Gombos and VFX producer Steve Kullback, used our ‘sketches’ in combination with reference imagery from the sets and locations to brief the Pixomondo VFX team. Our concept art provided the vision for the shot, but the reference detail was crucial in bridging the gap between the suggestive mood of the concept art and the details necessary for the frontal shot. Getting the right balance between speed and useful information was critical in achieving the best results.

Conclusion

The four points we’ve highlighted here aren’t limited to this specific project. They are general tips for good practice that we’ve picked up along the way, and we try to apply the core values to all our projects.