Majestic vistas, fantastic lands, otherworldly creatures: with anticipation for HBO’s Game of Thrones’ Season 6 finale at fever pitch, Mackevision’s Jörn Grosshans, Emmy-winning VFX Supervisor, talks about the series’ 3ds Max-fueled effects, why he prefers when no-one notices them, and that demanding sequence in Sunday’s episode that – wait, no – he can’t talk about that just yet.
Tell us about your set-up at Mackevision Germany.
We are on a 3ds Max pipeline with Shotgun being used as our main database. All our information, our comments, whenever someone publishes a render layer, all of that is stored in Shotgun and accessible to all of the artists who are working on the shots.
How long have you been attached to Games of Thrones now?
Since Season 2. I started in Berlin during my time at Pixomondo on the Blackwater Bay sequence, moved to London to work on Season 3, also at Pixomondo, then moved back to Germany and started on Season 4 at Mackevision. It was our first international project.
Is all of your work based in Germany?
Absolutely. We’re not involved in any of the shooting, unfortunately, but I can tell you that they are still shooting while we are already working on the first episode, and we are often still working on certain episodes while others are already airing. There is always a lot of stuff running in parallel. It’s quite intense and always exciting.
How have the visual effects evolved from season to season?
The work gets more complex. If you think back to the environments in Season 1 or Season 2, most are 2D matte paintings with a Steadicam. Now, there is more work in 3D which means lots of rendering. The number of shots per sequence and the overall shot counts have increased: We completed 73 shots for Season 4, 66 in Season 5, and 60 shots for the current season. Game of Thrones constantly raises the bar for itself and for TV shows in general. We’re often asked, like when we worked on Shannara Chronicles for example, ‘Please do the same on our project that you do for Game of Thrones.’ It truly is a benchmark.
"Game of Thrones constantly raises the bar for itself and for TV shows in general. We’re often asked, ‘Please do the same on our project that you do for Game of Thrones.’ It truly is a benchmark."
What's the most complicated VFX shot you've done and why was it so challenging?
I'd say that it’s one we worked on for the final episode for Season 6 but I can’t talk about that (laughs). You’re going to have to wait to see it on the 26th. Besides that, I would say that Braavos shot in Season 4 was probably the most complex environment shot. It was a close-up on a ship, then the camera moved higher and higher to establish Braavos City. We had to render the titan, the cliffs, the trees, and rocks. It was quite complicated.
GoT looks of feature-film quality but how is it different behind the scenes?
The timing is the biggest difference, definitely. You have 8-12 weeks for very complex shots which gets tight when near feature-film quality is expected. It becomes all about the approach. We’re constantly looking to keep things simple, even if they’re incredibly complex, in order to get it all done.
TV is more 'cinematic' than ever before. Do you agree that it's becoming "the new film?"
I think there is truth in that, yes. HBO doesn’t see Game of Thrones as a string of TV episodes, they see it as a series of short films. With the rise of Netflix and other platforms like it, the audience consumes media much differently, via subscriptions, binge-watching, et cetera. More and more, the audience demands serious, high-quality programming because they’re investing so much of their time and in response, the script, the acting, and the visual effects are all of an increasingly higher standard.
"When someone in the industry tells us that they thought something was done practically when in fact it's visual effects, we know we’ve done a good job."
With the tight turnaround and complicated work, what keeps you inspired and passionate?
The feedback. Everyone just loves the show so we get a lot of good feedback from both viewers and the visual effects community. When someone in the industry tells us that they thought something was done practically when in fact it's visual effects, we know we’ve done a good job. It’s the best compliment when no-one is able to spot our work.
Why do you love working in visual effects?
That’s a good question (laughs). Of course, I love television and films but it’s the teamwork that I like even more. You get to work with so many talented people. I enjoy the mixture of technical approaches with creativity. It’s a very satisfying balance.
"...software is so much more advanced, it’s leaving us more time and space for creativity. 3ds Max is our main tool and we rely on it a great deal. It’s amazing what we can achieve..."
When are you in your ‘happy place’ as a VFX Supervisor?
When I review stuff with my guys and I see that we’ve made progress on something we’ve been working really hard on, it’s a very good feeling.
What industry trend has you excited for the future?
Even up until a few years ago, it was very hard to get anything done without having your own R+D department. Nowadays, software is so much more advanced, it’s leaving us more time and space for creativity. 3ds Max is our main tool and we rely on it a great deal. It’s amazing what we can achieve with software these days.
Tell us your favorite "Game of Thrones" story.
Once, when we hadn’t enough extras for the background to populate an army and some castles, one of our guys brought in some costumes from home to do green screen shoots with his colleagues and some friends. It was mostly for pixel height but technically, they got themselves in the series…I think that’s pretty cool. Myself, I stay behind the camera. I’m too shy for any of that stuff.
You’ve earned many awards for your work on the show. Which has meant the most?
It has to be my first Emmy. I was very excited because it was the first time I had attended such an event. I’ll never forget how that felt.
What philosophy do you apply to your work that our community may find inspiring or helpful?
If there is an easy way to do it without losing quality, do it that way and don’t give it a second thought.
Jörn Grosshans has earned one Emmy Award and one VES Award as a VFX supervisor in 2013 for his work on the third season of HBO's “Game of Thrones” and a second Emmy Award for his work for Mackevision on “Game of Thrones” Season 4. He's also brought home two HpA's, an OFTA and a Baden-Württemberg Film Prize.