Warning: Possible Game of Thrones Spoilers ahead
If recent viewership ratings are anything to go by, the latest season of Game of Thrones (henceforth GOT) has not been going down well:
Source: Reddit, user: u/dozzinale. Original data from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/game-of-thrones
But if there’s one thing that the series has done right, it’s the visual effects (VFX). From terrifyingly realistic dragons to walking wights, the VFX teams for the GOT series have done a spectacular job at creating breathtaking cinematic magic.
Pictured: Breathtaking Cinematic Magic!
But jokes aside – what exactly is VFX? Why should you care about flying reptiles, gouts of flame and explosions? Read on to find out!
What is VFX?
Simply put, VFX involves the integration of live action (i.e shot with a camera) with computer-generated images to create a realistic environment. This is especially useful if the required environment is either too dangerous, expensive or flat out impossible to film.
We’re not going all the way to Antarctica to film a creature that doesn’t exist
But the GOT series perhaps exists on one extreme of the VFX spectrum – specifically, the horrendously expensive end of the spectrum. Not all special effect budgets have to be the approximate GDP of a small country. For instance, visual effects can be as simple as this:
Special Effects for “Till We Meet Again” – http://https//tv.toggle.sg/en/tv/shows/till-we-meet-again-the-prequel-tif/info, CraveFX 2018
As the terribly compressed arrow suggests, that’s a wire, we removed it and it’s one of the less glamorous mainstays of VFX work.
But wait, where are all the funny green suits and the funny green screens? Isn’t VFX all about doing things on green?
CraveFX has decided to use a still here in place of a GIF. Decency sometimes trumps consistency.
Source: MadTV “Dragon Hunter 2” Sketch
Green screen shoots are normally used in situation where the entire background has to be replaced with CGI. This specific scene with the Night King and his White Walkers preparing for battle is an excellent example of that.
Source: “Game of Thrones Season 4 Making Of” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GxWq-cr1c2Q
In the aftermath of a green screen shoot, all the characters standing against the screen are “keyed” out – that’s when we tell the computer to identify all parts of the scene that aren’t green in colour. This results in the selection of all the characters/the elements in front of the green. These elements are then lifted off from the green screen as one entire layer – and placed against the background of choice. The characters and background are then carefully lit from the right directions to ensure things look natural. Additional work may have to be carried out to ensure that no residual green remains on the clothes of the characters.
The astute reader might ask at this point – why green? Why not orange? Or red? Simply put, the green used in a green screen is a specific shade that’s furthest away from a healthy person’s natural skin tone. This lowers the chances that we might end up taking someone’s body parts away by accident.
And as for the green suits? That’s what happens when clothing has to be replaced completely. But in most cases, it might be easier by far to just get the required clothing custom-made and worn by the actor. This brings me to the next point.
Repeat after me, “VFX is the nuclear option.” Don’t make this decision lightly. It might sound a little strange that we are actively turning customers away, but we’ve got reasons.
Oftentimes, the costliest and least impressive VFX projects are the ones that are commissioned as an afterthought. For instance, we once had a client ask for our help in removing an actor’s ear studs from the footage for their own purposes. Unfortunately for them, they had about 5 minutes worth of such footage for us to treat.
If you do the math, that’s about 300s. At a rate of 25 frames per second, that’s a total of 7500 frames. Even at a highly unrealistic rate of 10 bucks per frame, the tally comes up to about $75,000. So if you can only take one thing away from this article – know this: Something that could have been fixed for free during the shoot is most definitely going to cost you if you fix it in post.
Like removing a Starbucks cup from a table in Westeros, for example.
Mother of Caffeine
The best visual effects are never an afterthought – they’re the result of weeks and sometimes even months of careful planning.
At this point, it should be quite apparent that “VFX” is a catch-all term that runs across a pretty broad complexity spectrum. How do you determine what’s difficult to do and what isn’t?
More importantly, are you paying too much for something? Beyond the facetious “a dragon is clearly harder to do than a tree” (and I daresay this isn’t always the case), I’ve prepared some additional rules of thumb below.
1) Is the camera moving?
As you can see from the footage above, the camera is slowly panning from left to right. As a rule, a moving camera adds complexity to any VFX treatment. The movement means that the elements added, in this case, the dragon, has to be rotated carefully to mimic the movement of the camera. This is known as tracking.
When tracking isn’t done right, you wind up with bad VFX.
For instance, here we have Bran’s three-eyed raven – in this case, the realism of this ocularly-gifted bird was very much dependent on the success of the tracking – the eye had to look as if it was plastered exactly on the raven’s face throughout the entire shot.
If this hadn’t been done carefully, we could have wound up with an eye that hovered around its original position, or worse, a disembodied eye suspended in mid-air.
2) Is the subject moving?
In an ideal world, the camera and the subject would be immobile, strapped into a chair. Unfortunately, this is very rarely the case. The movement of the subject complicates any VFX workflow.
In the GIF above, the energy particles have to track the movement of our protagonist’s hands. That’s a lot harder than having energy beams coming out of a stationary point in the air.
At least now you know why every animation loves to have a cinematic standoff scene with two protagonists firing energy beams at each other while straining and grunting (The worst culprits? Find out next time, on Dragon Ball Z!)
3) Does the effect happen in 3D or 2D?
The million dollar question. What form does the VFX take? A 3D effect is a lot more difficult to pull off than a 2D effect. Think of a 2D effect as a flat overlay to be placed on top of footage. This is quite common in many videos which require a futuristic looking heads-up display or holographic text.
Special Effects for “Glitch!” – https://tv.toggle.sg/en/tv/shows/glitch-tif/episodes, CraveFX 2018
Conversely, a 3D effect would require a bit more work – not only does the effect eventually have to be composited into the scene, it must first be modelled through the use of 3D software, rigged and then animated.
Pictured: 4 hours of sleep a night, for a month or so
So there you have it – camera movement, subject movement and element complexity. If an effect checks all the boxes, be prepared to shell out a bit more than if you wanted to say, remove a wire or three. There are a lot more factors affecting the complexity of a VFX project, but this should be a pretty good starting point to help you figure out what’s difficult and what’s not – and by extension – how much you should be paying.
For the sake of explanation, let’s say a studio’s charging you top dollar for 2 shots of object removal; your alarm bells should be gently swaying in the wind. We’re not saying you should come right out and accuse them of greed but if your footage is otherwise unproblematic, it’s probably a good idea to ask what’s driving costs up.
Is it because you wanted a snake? Snakes love driving costs up.
So there you have it – the Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to VFX Ft. Game of Thrones (and a few other bonus clips from us). We hope this article has been helpful…almost as much as we hope that the season finale of GOT Season 8 doesn’t disappoint.