NOTE: This Q+A reveals easter eggs hidden in both the TV title and the Facebook 360 video.
As creators and keepers of Game of Thrones’ iconic main title, a52 were thrilled when the Facebook 360 video project presented itself. Recognizing the perfect opportunity to give fans what they wanted by expanding on the detail of the gear-works world, the VR treatment proved as technically fitting as it was "creatively satisfying."
Kirk Shintani, a52’s Head of 3D and GoT-title veteran, discusses the origins of the intricate HBO intro, walks us through the recent 360 video (Facebook's most-watched to date!), and gifts us with a few easter eggs that even GoT die-hards may not yet have discovered.
First, we need to know: Are you a hardcore 'Game of Thrones' fan? I watch it when I can. My wife is addicted so she keeps me up to date when I miss it. It’s kind of ironic when she’s beside me in bed watching it on her iPad, and I hear the title music going as I’m trying to sleep.
You’ve heard that theme, what – a thousand times by now? (Laughs) Yeah, and it really gets stuck in your head, too. All it takes is to play it one time in the office and everyone starts humming away. Actually, I was just talking to Angus Wall [of Elastic] about the first time we heard the theme after working on the title for so long. Hearing it finally dropped on top of the visuals completely changed the viewing experience. We got goosebumps. It’s a powerful piece of music.
"To be perfectly honest, I've had a ton of dreams about gears and globes over the past six seasons."
And does hearing the theme before bed make you dream of gears and things? To be perfectly honest, I've had a ton of dreams about gears and globes over the past six seasons. We invested so much of our time, energy and of ourselves that it's hard not to be consumed by it. It's really been an unusual and amazing experience and I'll admit, it's surreal to dream about it then come in and work on it.
How long did it take to come up with the title? Game of Thrones came with a long gestation period because we had a lot of things we needed to convey. It was a unique experience for us because they brought us in really early. From the initial idea, it was probably 8 or 9 months before we got to production.
"[All the elements are] built in a way that they could be 3D-printed and actually work."
Where did the gear-works concept come from? That came from wanting to ground the map. Angus Wall (Director) and Rob Feng (Art Director), wanted the elements to feel tangible – and they’re built in a way that they could be 3D-printed and actually work. Their movement creates a journey. It feels like the GoT monks built these miniatures and are controlling them from high above the GoT universe.
Were there unique ways in which you used Maya? There was some scripting that went into some of the animations but for the most part, it was a pretty straight forward execution with V-Ray. We’ve used it right from Season One and it has sped things along quite a bit for us. Proxies and things like that made it so much easier for us to get all this stuff through. Everything is built – every tree, every mountain and all the locations with the little gears and cogs. It’s gotten a bit heavy over the seasons but it’s actually pretty easy to manage between Maya and V-Ray.
Dorne from HBO's Game of Thrones' Opening Credits Facebook 360 Video courtesy a52
How is the Facebook 360 video you recently completed different from the HBO title? The biggest difference is the amount of detail in the locations. The VR version allows the user to pause it and have a look around, so a lot of the stuff that you only glimpse really quickly in the TV version, here, you can actually stop and take it all in.
Is that what excited you most – the ability to flesh out the GoT world? Oh yeah. With the traditional title, we’re dictating what the viewer sees but with VR, the viewer chooses what they want to explore. There are a lot of bits and pieces that aren’t in the TV titles, so eagle-eyed viewers will enjoy those. It was clear that our initial concept of the inverted globe was begging to be done in 360 and VR.
"I don’t think anyone's picked up on... [the] backstory to the astrolabe in some of the mosaics..."
What are some of ‘bits and pieces’ you added to the 360? Will you share? Let’s see... The dragons are all present. There are some Direwolves, some White Walkers, and a raven if you look really closely. There are other things to look for but I don’t want to give it all away. People have found most of them but not everything. Actually, there are even details in the TV titles that I don’t think anyone's picked up on yet.
Will you share any of those? The astrolabe has a history of the GoT universe that precedes the Season One timeline, so there’s a backstory to the astrolabe in some of the mosaics there.
The Wall from HBO's Game of Thrones' Opening Credits Facebook 360 Video courtesy a52
With the show being so loved, you must feel a certain responsibility to fans. For sure. GoT’s fan base is hardcore and they’re adamant that the series remains true to the books. We don’t want to let them down because their opinions matter most. We want them to have moments and things they can enjoy. That’s our biggest focus.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered with the 360 video? The length of it and the number of frames we had to spit out. It was 4K, single camera move and everything was pre-rendered and pre-comped. Normally, 360 stuff is done with a game engine so there’s no pre-rendering or pre-comping, and duration isn’t much of an issue because you’re not worried about all that. Our mandate however, was that everything should look like it was in the same world as the main titles, so that meant that we pre-rendered all of it.
With 12M views of the 360 video so far, it's clear it was a success. It's been fun to see the great reaction. The creative we came up with for the main title just fits so perfectly within the 360 medium. This was about enhancing the title and expanding on it rather than simply doing the video for the sake of doing it in VR. VR has to serve the creative and make it better.
"...when you give [the fans] something they can get inside... they lose their minds a little bit."
King's Landing from HBO's Game of Thrones' Opening Credits Facebook 360 Video courtesy a52
Mereen from HBO's Game of Thrones' Opening Credits Facebook 360 Video courtesy a52
How was the creative made better in this case? A lot of people didn’t realize that we built it as an inverted globe, so when they see it in 360, it clicks. The fans have been constrained by the TV titles for so long, that when you give them something they can get inside and tumble around in with a 360 view, they lose their minds a little bit (laughs). This project was so fun and creatively satisfying to do. I can’t think of another one that sits so well with a piece of tech.
So with the title, its iterations, and now the 360 video under your belts, what makes a52 the most proud of its work on GoT? We’re proud that the our creative has had the legs to hold up and evolve over six seasons and still feel fresh. We’re proud that it worked so well with VR without having known that there'd be a 360 video one day. Now that this has happened, we feel like there’s so much more potential, and more places that this world could go. We’re excited for what the next thing will be.
You must also be proud to contribute to a show that's so insanely popular. Absolutely. The biggest thrill for me was to see the title spoofed in an intro for The Simpsons. It’s a great feeling to have worked on something that has affected popular culture and to know that people are influenced by it. It’s really an honor.
Like a well-oiled, shiny machine, a52 have churned out an impressive number of engaging TV titles including, 'Making a Murderer,' 'Daredevil,' 'The Night Manager,' 'True Detective' and of course, the Emmy winning, Maya-powered, 'Game of Thrones.'