Showrunners reveal Game of Thrones’ greatest VFX challenges and what to expect from the biggest battle ever in Season 8

Jon Snow Battle of the Bastards 609 Winterfell

Game of Thrones executive producers and writers David Benioff and Dan Weiss aren’t exactly known for their penchant for interviews, so our ears always perk up whenever they subject themselves to one. This time, on the occasion of being honored with the Visual Effects Society Award for Creative Excellence, the showrunners delved into the challenges of VFX, especially in the early seasons, and the lessons that taught them. Also: a great little tease about the largest battle sequence ever we’ll see in season eight…

Asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the earliest challenges of working with VFX in Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss (it’s not specified who is speaking, so let’s assume it’s an unnatural amalgamation of the two—damn you, science, you’ve gone too far!) admit the very basics were the first hurdle to overcome: “As familiar as we all are with the end products, the VFX process is mysterious to people who haven’t been directly involved in it… Learning to speak enough of the VFX language to communicate effectively with the native speakers was a process…”, they said. However, they have come to enjoy it—but not because they’re comfortable with it: “We love it precisely because we know we’ll never get ‘comfortable’ with it in the way you’re comfortable with something you know inside and out… You’re constantly learning, which is what keeps it fresh.”

“In the first season, the earliest challenges involved learning how to do a lot with a little. The show did not have tremendous resources to burn for VFX back then,” Benioff and Weiss reminisced. “That was a very valuable experience, because it forced us to engage with the details of the process and not take the attitude, ‘Well, these VFX guys are very smart, they’ll figure it out.’ Because no matter how much your resources increase, that way of thinking leads to a tremendous waste of time and money. Which in turn leads to things not looking and feeling the way they should.” I think we can all appreciate these efforts—despite the increasing use of VFX, Game of Thrones still feels grounded and real.

In terms of challenging scenes in to create, it’s no surprise that the ice lake sequence in season seven is a highlight for them. Despite the controversy around the soundness of the wight hunt plan or its uncertain chronology, it was a monster of a sequence for the entire team and director Alan Taylor to build, as it “incorporated a lot of different elements, each of which carries its own unique challenges: dragons, fire, extended and manipulated environments, VFX wights, active and action-driven crowd replication.”

Frozen Lake Beyond the Wall game of thrones

But they haven’t forgotten about Miguel Sapochnik, their most reliable battle helmer who returned for season eight’s largest sequences: “Sapochnik’s ‘Battle of the Bastards’ was also extremely difficult for similar reasons — not to mention horses and a giant. That one also needed to look as realistic as possible. The horses colliding with each other needed to look the same, even though one was real and another was CG. The armies needed to seem real, messy, and of a piece, even when three-quarters of the people in frame were either crowd replications or fully digital. Of course, the things we’re doing for the final season go a good deal beyond either of those,” they teased.

And that’s when they got to the juicy part: season eight! According to the showrunners, filming the final season “was pretty intense. To make the agreed-upon date involved a tremendous amount of scheduling intelligence on the part of [producers] Bernie Caulfield and Chris Newman, and a tremendous amount of ingenuity from [VFX producers] Steve Kullback and Joe Bauer — and Stefen Fangmeier and Jeff Schaper, whom Joe and Steve brought in to help supervise the large quantities of simultaneous VFX work that no one person could possibly supervise on his own.”

As for the more emotional side of ending the show, it seems the reality hasn’t sunk in yet: “We knew this moment was coming, but it’s still impossible to prepare yourself fully for it. We’re dealing with it piecemeal as we finish up the season. We’re also in a tremendous amount of denial. Six months from now, you’ll probably find us both wandering down Sunset Boulevard in our Game of Thrones crew jackets, wearing headphones, muttering notes to an assistant director who isn’t there.”

The interview, which is rather long and you should read in its entirety, ends with an expected yet exciting tease by D&D. I’ll just leave you with their words:

“In terms of sheer scope, there is a lot in this season that outstrips the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ sequence so expertly directed by Miguel Sapochnik. We can say this without feeling bad, since most of it was also expertly directed by Miguel Sapochnik.”

27 responses

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    1. This battle for Winterfell is going to be insane as f”’k ..I expect nothing less and nothing more than that from the Master of the Battles ..Mr Sapochnik

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    2. I’m always fascinated by the VFX stuff and always love to hear and see as much of the process as possible. Thanks.

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    3. This is all well and good. So long as they throw some 💰at a screenwriter to come up with a memorable Sandor & Arya reunion scene.

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    4. I find it funny. I always thought the biggest battle would take place in kings landing. But maybe with so much wildfire there it won’t be necessary to have this grand big epic battle there, so it even makes sense. But there will be definitely something happen in KL, something big. This place is just too important for it, just to have the IT destroyed in the end (if that’s what is happening) and nothing more.

      Nonetheless, I am so looking forward for this season. The trailer needs to drop already.

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    5. Medusa,

      As I was re-watching these episodes, for the 7th time cause i have no life apparently, the scene with Theon annoyed about the Horn Blower and his “frustration”, makes your comment stick out to me. Remember when Maester Luwin tells Theon that their “are ways, hidden passage ways so that the Lords of Winterfell could escape.”
      This sticks in my mind and truly makes me wonder if Winterfell will fall and certain Characters like John or Sansa or Sam will escape from the Walkers and head south to make the transition of fighting Cersei and moving on to the Kings Landing Drama.
      Just a thought. So very excited about this season and where it will take our curiosity.

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    6. Ten Bears:
      It won’t be “the biggest battle ever” unless Nymeria and Ghost are in it.

      You know what… I bet they will be! They have to use them and give them an ending too, right? They better use them at Winterfell because whatever the battle is at King’s Landing and whomever is involved, it seems unlikely the direwolves would go there. Although, if Ghost does survive at Winterfell I suppose he could go south with the survivors. I can see them doing something like having Jon ‘release’ Ghost to go live with Nymeria in the wild. Either that or both Ghost and Nymeria are killed. That would suck!

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    7. I’m not quite sure I can visualize something that “outstrips” BotB… I mean, the very first time I watched that battle I think my mouth was hanging open and I didn’t blink the entire time. I’m usually the type that doesn’t really care for sword & board battles all that much because they’re typically ‘seen that before a thousand times.’ BotB was different (for me) and far exceeded the normal imo. I’m trying to imagine some of the things they do that would be really amazing but even imagination probably can’t prepare me for the visual.

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    8. Clob: They better use them at Winterfell because whatever the battle is at King’s Landing and whomever is involved, it seems unlikely the direwolves would go there.

      Why not Nymeria, though? Just because it’s a big city with walls & stuff? She’s in the Riverlands, which are closer to King’s Landing than to Winterfell. And presumably Ghost goes where Jon goes, though we’ve been deprived of seeing him, mostly.

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    9. Clob,

      Agreed. BotB was intense in a way I don’t remember feelin before. That Sapochnik is at the helm for winterfell has me stoked! We are in for it. And yes, I think we’ll see Ghost doing a bit of dead-shredding, and hopefully another pack of wolves will show up as a calvary… (tho my weak stomach really doesn’t wanna see any wolves die)

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    10. Honestly, as amazing as BOTB was, I think the Loot Train Battle is equally as compelling. So if there’s SEVERAL sequences that top those masterpieces then I’m going to be comatose by the finale.

      I always love hearing stories about the champions behind the camera. They deserve as much glory as the folks on the front lines. It seems like all the crew is extremely satisfied with how this season is shaping up. So once again, my excitement for season 8 is even higher now.

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    11. Amid,

      That the biggest battle will be in Winterfell doesn’t mean that what will happen in KL will be less exciting or thrilling. We can expect the battle at winterfell to be the biggest when it comes to scope and maybe duration of the action itself, one battle into another, and a lot on land.

      What I expect for KL is that there will be a battle or attack but that the focus will be more on closure of the characters. We see a lot of smaller battles, maybe NK will attack Kings Landing and Jon and Dany or somebody will be dealing with him on flying dragon mode. At the same time we can have another battle inside that’s more emotional like, dealing with Cercei where we maybe get the Clegane Bowl with Brienne, Jaime Tyrion in that room.

      Remember Return of the King where the last battle is not as big as the first battle of that movie but still it was important and emotional.

      And remember the earlier seasons, season 1 had no battle still 1×09 everybody was on the front of their seats. Then season 2 came with the big battle of Blackwater, which most found more thrilling than 1×09 because of the battle, but then season 3 came, with 3×09, even when that episode didn’t have that big battle scope it still was receive more thrilling than 2×09.

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    12. To be honest they really aren’t telling us too much here. We know that the largest battle sequence ever shot for television is coming and based upon filming articles from this site it’s likely to take place in Winterfell over episodes 3 & 4. I think safe to assume this battle will include Dragons, humans and White Walkers and is sucking up all the VFX budget.

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    13. Amid:
      I find it funny. I always thought the biggest battle would take place in kings landing. But maybe with so much wildfire there it won’t be necessary to have this grand big epic battle there, so it even makes sense. But there will be definitely something happen in KL, something big. This place is just too important for it, just to have the IT destroyed in the end (if that’s what is happening) and nothing more.

      Nonetheless, I am so looking forward for this season. The trailer needs to drop already.

      I agree I expect the deaths of Dany and Cersei to most likely come in that battle but assuming the White Walkers are defeated in Episodes 3 & 4 then the Kings Landing won’t feature armies at best it’s a still united team Targ vs Cersei and the Golden Company or it’s the humans vs Nights Kings/Mad Dany. The latter will rely upon CGI dragon fighting I suspect.

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    14. I’m a newbie around these parts, but wanted to chime in about the fantastic VFX in Game of Thrones.

      Whenever I see a movie with obvious VFX, I compare it to GoT and laugh at how bad things are compared to what’s seen on GoT.

      So, hat’s off to the men and women on the VFX team of GoT!

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