Since the team at Germany’s Mackevision began work on Game of Thrones, they’ve witnessed the series explode to epic proportions regarding both production and popularity. The visual effects have more than doubled in the last few years, meaning the latest season is packed with more breathtaking simulations and destruction than ever before.
A host of new challenges faced the team for Season 7, but they stepped up to deliver some of their most intensive and impressive VFX to hit the small screen. We ask Heiko Burkardsmaier and Christian Zilliken what it was like working on the latest season of the series and how they utilized Shotgun, 3ds Max and for the first time, Maya, to achieve their extraordinary results.
GETTING (SUPER) CLOSE
Heiko: Mackevision had 116 shots in Game of Thrones (GoT) in Season 7, which has evolved considerably from Season Four for example, where we had closer to 50. Our work has more than doubled, and it’s getting more complex each year.
Our focus has typically been on environments and hard surfaces and ships but this time, we also were given the terrific opportunity to work on crowds and some destruction – which was new to us – was made even better knowing that Steve Kullback (Visual Effects Producer) and Joe Bauer (Visual Effects Supervisor) from HBO had such faith in our ability.”
Christian: This season we had the special task of getting as close as 2 meters to a ship where you have almost 360 degrees of camera angle and the wake simulation really close to the camera. We also had a big area shot with many ships and explosions when Euron attacks the fleet of the Unsullied. We had to build and stage hundreds of destroyed ships, fire and smoke.
Christian: We’d made some crowds before for Game of Thrones, but this season they were a more complicated set-up because they were actually attacking instead of just walking around. We used Maya and Golaem for that and we were in contact with the developers who implemented some new features for us. For example, in one shot we needed the arrows to stick to the shields which was not possible, but they created that feature within three days or so for us. That was pretty awesome.
Christian: There were a couple shots that were truly challenging. For the Euron ship’s boat wake, we needed a lot of detail in the simulation to give it realism as we came as close as two metres to the ship when it passed by. We had to come up with some magic to make it work. In previous seasons, we’d had a lot of boat-wake simulations, but never this close-up. It turned out really well though.
Another challenging shot was the battle scene where the Euron fleet destroys the Unsullied fleet at Casterly Rock. There were 500 destructed ships, and our ship models have about 15 million polygons each. So, 500 x 15 million for the destructed ships, plus all the Euron ships at 10 million polys per ship. Add to that the water simulation, CG doubles, smoke and fire simulation – keeping in mind we had to do a layout and animate the shot.
HUMAN AND NOT-SO-HUMAN RESOURCES
Christian: We used 3ds Max, and for the first time, Maya (Golaem), as well as Houdini on GoT this season. We decide from task-to-task which software to use.
Heiko: The team for GoT required about 50 or more people, of which we had 32 on staff. So, of course, we had to upscale. It was a challenge to find people because it was a busy time in Germany, but we managed because for a project this size, we tend to focus on that project alone. We had a couple of other shows in preparation, but it always happens that some things come later, or you need to shift some work, but that’s just day-to-day business.
We used Shotgun for almost everything in the production pipeline. We do our scheduling, version tracking and submissions here. It has different benefits for everyone, but for me, being the head of the department, I really appreciate the scheduling tool. It helps because you always know who’s doing what; which shots are assigned to whom, who’s here and who’s away and so on.
Shotgun’s essential for this kind of episodic work. We used another database for a previous project, and it didn’t work as well for our particular needs. Others parts of our company work with different systems that are appropriate for other tasks, but for visual effects, it’s always good to go back to Shotgun and have all those features ready to utilize.
Christian: When you use Shotgun, even once, there is no way back.
FILM QUALITY, TV TURNAROUND
Heiko: For us, Game of Thrones has been the most challenging show in recent years. With other shows, you either have more time, or it’s less complex. Technically, we had more time with this than most other TV shows, but when you combine the film quality, complexity, and timing, it remains the most challenging show we've worked on.
Christian: From one season to the next, you learn to work faster and optimize workflows and pipeline, but there are always, always more challenges around the corner.
Heiko: It’s a wonderful opportunity to expand our portfolio, though. As we improved our workflow on some tasks Steve Kullback and Joe Bauer gave us new work that we hadn’t done before like the CG armies. It’s super to be part of such an iconic show like GoT and to work with people who trust that you're able to take on new challenges in a relatively short time. We learned to semi-automate our pipeline to change the ships, which meant we could make changes even at the latest stages.
Christian: The V-Ray proxy system has a relatively optimized work-flow; otherwise it wouldn't be possible to render at all because one ship has 15 million polys, and there are hundreds. The most we had in one shot was 800 ships and 800 troops, 15 million polys. It's quite a lot, and it wouldn't work without an optimized workflow. We use a low-res proxy version for staging, then we pass over the positions from the ship and replace with the high-res version on render time.
There was one case where we noticed, in a really late phase, that we made a mistake in the layout. It wasn't a problem to pick it out though because of the work-flow we built around that proxy system.
Heiko: Steve and Joe decide who does what shot and they coordinate the work between the studios. There is definitely sharing of assets. For example, the Euron ship was made by RodeoFX, and they shared the assets with us. Steve and Joe Bauer have an excellent work-flow and communication.
Unlike other studios’ involvement on this project, there’s not much we can re-use because the fleets change. Mostly we have to build new assets.
SPOILERS CAN BE TOUGH
Heiko: We’re all fans of the show so spoilers can sometimes be a downside of working on it. Overall, watching the show is still awesome because it’s quite exciting to see what the other houses contribute. El Ranchito and RodeoFX had fantastic sequences this season, some really epic work. It’s a mix of being excited to work on the show, hoping that there aren’t too many spoilers and actively looking for them, because we’re not always right. It’s fun to try and predict what will happen.
Christian: Yes, spoilers can be tough. The good thing is that it’s not the whole episode that gets spoiled, only the parts that you're working on. And even then, until the episode airs you really can’t be sure because sometimes it turns out differently than you thought it would. We're still guessing like everyone else.
Thank you to Heiko and Christian for sharing your story!
Mackevision's team made Season 7 of "Game of Thrones" with products available in the Media & Entertainment Collection.