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.”
“We can’t be doing Harry Potter while they’re doing Game of Thrones,” explains Bauer. “We can’t be doing Star Wars or any other fantastical show. We have to blend in and basically tell the amazing part of the story but not bump against the rest of the performances and the rest of the directorial telling. So we have to become the actors, we have to become the directors for those episodes so that our stuff folds in without drawing attention itself.”
“It’s like any other aspect of filmmaking,” adds Kullback. “It’s the costumes, it’s the sets, it’s the music, it all needs to come together in a coherent, sensible way that tells the story.”
That challenge has become more significant, particularly as the show is headed into its final two seasons, which promises to up the spectacle considerably. As Kullback explained, “The level of complexity grows each year almost exponentially.”
“Part of that is because our show’s creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, are more and more enamored with being able to do cooler things that tell the story, but also there becomes less of a real-world environment in which to tell [it]. So, when you are in a room and you have a little baby dragon on the table, it’s fairly contained and you can shoot a lot of that. You have your performers in a room and you know you have a mech head standing in for a little baby dragon for lighting, and then we react to the dragon [when] needs to do something.”
Such moments in Game of Thrones seem almost quaint by comparison, Kullback puts the considerable change into perspective, explaining that “one of our biggest episodes has almost as many [effects] shots in it as all of season two.”
“The dragons grow again from season six,” adds Bauer “So [they’ll] will be twice the size they were last year, and they just get a lot more screen time. There is a lot more flight activity, but also more ground activity and a lot more performance from them. And also, you know, a lot more destruction, which everybody seems to like. They really push the story forward in a pretty big way in the upcoming season. We can’t say how, but you’ll see.”
“When you are in a world [with] a dragon the size of a 747, and the environment below you is a city that doesn’t exist, you need to create a completely virtual world, suddenly you can see how the level of complexity has grown quite dramatically,” Kullback said. “For us, it’s all about how do we increase the scope to tell the story because nobody, including us, [is] interested in eye candy for eye candy’s sake. We’re interested in what will achieve the vision of the filmmaker and how do we do that in a way that is smart and authentic and realistic but more important than anything, tells the story.”
Beyond the dragons’ increased screen time, Bauer says that their biggest challenge — so far — has been making sure that it looks convincing when the characters ride them into battle.
“I think we are approaching it right, [but] it’s always a nail-biter because if elements aren’t lit properly, or if the CG looks too CG, or the flight dynamics [are] wrong. Any one of them can throw you out of the believability. That’s the hardest thing to get right, [but] I feel like we are gonna be pretty successful with it.”
Still, for all their ambitious undertakings, Kullback is confident in his team’s ability to bring it all together, while continuing to wow viewers as the show’s scope continues to expand going into its final two seasons. “We are all a bunch of overachievers and we set out with a script and a game plan and always work very hard to exceed everybody’s expectations and live up to a benchmark that exceeds our own performance,” he said. “It is increasingly a hard thing to do. It’s expensive, it’s time-consuming, it’s very demanding physically, and I am very proud that we do it.”
You can see their work in action when Game of Thrones returns for its seventh season on Sunday, July 16th.