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‘Game of Thrones’: How VFX Achieved the Impossible Mission ‘Beyond the Wall’

HBO's mega franchise aims for its sixth consecutive VFX Emmy with a zombie polar bear, the zombie wights, and more dragon power.

“Game of Thrones” (“Beyond the Wall”)


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“Audacious escalation” could be the mantra for “The Game of Thrones” visual effects team, which has racked up five consecutive Emmys. And they’ve upped their game for “Beyond the Wall” from the penultimate seventh season, with Jon Snow (Kit Harington) taking on an impossible mission to go after the mystical Night King (Vladimir Furdik), massively outnumbered and trapped on a frozen lake. Among the VFX highlights: a zombie polar bear, an army of zombie wights, and dragon power.

“Beyond the Wall” reached a record 2,106 VFX shots (which, of course, will be eclipsed by the Season Eight finale). Although director Alan Taylor wanted to shoot the battle of the frozen lake in Iceland, it wasn’t logistically possible so the VFX team added the Icelandic mountains to the Belfast rock quarry set, and supplied CG snow and dragon fire to everything else that was shot practically in camera.

The Zombie Polar Bear

First, Snow & Co. encounter the menacing zombie polar bear, which showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss have been trying to get into the series for several seasons. For the first time, Weta Digital became involved in “GOT” to work on the bear (snagging its first Emmy nomination with Wayne Stables, the animation supervisor), and will play a much bigger role in Season Eight.

The trick was creating a convincing reanimated polar bear that still retained its basic look and behavior. “In doing photo research on dead polar bears, they lose their fat layer and the fur mats and goes away. They don’t look like polar bears anymore,” said Joe Bauer, the lead visual effects supervisor.

“Game of Thrones” (“Beyond the Wall”)

The first thing they did was a series of turntables with a healthy, decayed, and dead polar bear, and reversed engineered the look with the addition of fur and fat. Then they had to be strategic with what they removed for the final model. “And Wayne had the idea of also sizing up the skeletons, so that there was some explanation for the shape of it,” Bauer added. “And you needed to get enough of the familiar facial features so it didn’t look like a monster.”

The fur was a combination of yellow and tan, but because the bear was in a blizzard, they played up the scare factor by not letting us glimpse the creature until it was a few feet away from the action. “Plus it had dried blood on its face and parts of the pelt had been torn away,” said Bauer. “We also used the density of the snow and the air as a way of separating it from the blizzard. We had to play with it a lot to come up with the sweet spot. It’s all a process of exploration. The little nuance of motion that tells you it weighs a thousand pounds, especially when it’s running on snow, is very hard to pull off.”

“Game of Thrones” (“Beyond the Wall”)

“It also helped visibility quite a bit when he caught fire,” said Steve Kullback, lead visual effects producer. “And Joe had a [good] technique for supporting that by designing a frame of the polar bear that was built by the special effects team with a head on top and was piped for gas. It gave the stunt team something to interact with.”

An Army of Wights

El Ranchito (from Spain) upped its game considerably with the army of wights (re-animated corpses under the control of the humanoid White Walkers). Director Taylor and the stunt team choreographed the fighting and the counteract when Dany (Emilia Clarke) comes to the rescue with her fire-breathing dragons.

In previous seasons, there have been a handful of wights (with a menu and design variety devised by El Ranchito). Here, though, there were two brands of zombies: green screen wights that were 90% CG and 10% costume and prosthetic, and negative space wights (deformed and see through) that were 30% CG and 70% costume and prosthetic.

“Game of Thrones” (“Beyond the Wall”)

“The VFX mainly added volume with thousands of wights on the ice and up into the hill extensions,” said Bauer. “The other addition was when they break through the ice, so we shot plates and 3D tracked them. We built a water tank on stage and used motion control to duplicate camera moves, and shot stunt wights falling through wax pieces on a hydraulic system that lowered them into the tank.”

Dragons to the Rescue

In terms of the dragon attack, there were eight major strafe blasts plotted and correspondingly marked on set with cones for crowd handling. The Third Floor helped with previs, and the animation was shared by Image Engine, Rhythm & Hues, Pixomondo, and El Ranchito.

“Having Drogon land on the island and then take off from a fixed position was one of the challenges,” Bauer said. “It was like a 200-foot-long high jumper. The complexity of getting all those dynamics correct for the leap and flap took a lot of effort.”

“Game of Thrones” (“Beyond the Wall”)

The scene had several photographed elements, with several men climbing on the back of Drogon. “We decided to laser cut the entire back of Drogon in full scale out of polystyrene, and that was divided into three sections,” added Bauer. “When they animated the dragon’s performance, we would play back the portion of it where that piece was situated on Drogon so the surface with the actors was correct to the action.”

The death and resurrection of Vicerion by the Night King are also memorable highlights. “When the wights pull Vicerion out of the frozen lake onto the surface, that was beautiful work,” Bauer said. “And so was that iconic blue eye ball shot [from El Ranchito].”

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