More than halfway through Game of Thrones‘ first season, Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) rallies the Lannister troops before the Battle of the Green Fork. “Your dominion over The Vale begins now. Onward, to claim what is yours,” he shouts. Then, as the soldiers begin their charge, Tyrion’s hit by a mallet on a soldier’s belt and knocked unconscious. Later, he wakes up dazed while being wheeled through the post-battle carnage on a cart. Looking about, the field is littered with the dead bodies of knights, soldiers, and sellswords. “Did we win?” he asks Bron (Jerome Flynn), walking along side him. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if we didn’t,” he replies
Such was the nature of Game of Thrones’ battle sequences in the early seasons. They were packed with costumed extras either on the verge of engaging with their enemies, or the immediate aftermath, with the survivors cleaning the blood off their swords, ankle-deep in the arrow-filled bodies of the fallen. Before the first season started catching on, a show set in a fantasy world was somewhat of a risk for HBO, and in the early days, the focus primarily fell on its characters and how they did (and didn’t) navigate the treacherous politics of Westeros.
As the show progressed, that started to change, starting with season two’s penultimate episode “Blackwater,” which spent a full hour focusing on the army of Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) and its ultimately failed siege of King’s Landing. Suddenly, viewers were treated to epic set pieces, and as Tyrion again rallied the Lannister troops, telling them “Those are brave men knocking on our door. Let’s go kill them,” we followed the soldiers into the chaotic battle that awaited them. Since then, the show’s action has grown with every season, accompanied by increasingly complex battle scenes and accomplished special effects.
It was during the second season that visual effects artist Steve Kullback was brought on board to help amp up the show’s maturing look.
Kullback had a history with HBO, having done some effects work on the mini-series John Adams. “It seemed to go well enough that one of the executive producers who had been on that said, ‘Hey we have this visual effects need and we want to get more sophisticated with it,'” Kullback told us.
With experience in rendering effects for a historical, character-driven drama, Kullback came onboard during the show’s first season “to help look at what they were doing and see if I could recommend a way to do things that are cooler.” He ended up joining in the second season, after which, there was a consensus that the show needed a new visual effects supervisor. To fill the role, Kullback brought in his colleague Joe Bauer for the third season.
As the series has progressed, Game of Thrones’ audience as grown alongside its effects budget. “The show’s success is causing the producers to write bigger scenes and causing HBO to pay for them,” Bauer told us. “[It] has definitely given us more budget to work with and caused the producers to feel confident to write bigger scenes that need more visual effects.”
“People seem to be embracing the show in a rather spectacular way,” said Kullback, “and the more attention it gets, the more demand there is for a spectacle. The greater the opportunity, the greater the demand.”
Still, as the effects become more embellished, it’s important to Kullback and Bauer that they compliment, not overshadow, the show’s stories and characters. Moments like The Red Wedding, Jon Snow’s betrayal by The Night’s Watch, and the flashback to the Tower of Joy are powerful moments that rely on both the plot and viewers’ investment in these characters.
“That’s our primary goal really,” said Bauer. “There are two things we have to get right: one is the visual aesthetic. This is such a mud and dirt show as opposed to something fantastical and high tech, we need to look as if our scenes were shot in the course of the regular photography. We need to blend in. And two: dramatically, we have to carry those aspects of the show as well.”