Game of Thrones may be over, but debates about the final season of the HBO blockbuster will likely be going on until our own winter comes. One thing that’s not up for debate? Even if the storytelling arguably suffered in the show’s final six episodes, the special effects were better than they’d ever been. Weta Digital was among the F/X houses that worked on the show’s eighth and final year, completing roughly 600 shots across all six episodes, with the bulk of their work appearing in the epic Battle of Winterfell that was fought during the season’s third installment.
Visual-effects supervisor Martin Hill oversaw Weta Digital’s small army of Game of Thrones artists as they choreographed such memorable moments as little Lyanna Mormont bringing down a zombie giant and Daenerys’s middle dragon child, Rhaegal, getting shot out of the sky by Euron Greyjoy’s occasionally expert marksmen. “I’m just blown away by the sheer passion people have about the show,” Hill tells Yahoo Entertainment about being part of a show that’s been the object of so much commentary, both pro and con. “Of course there’s not going to be an ending that satisfies everyone, but they all watched avidly still!” Ending aside, here’s how Weta Digital helped craft five final season scenes that definitely satisfied fans.
You’re a good boy, Ghost
Queenslayer Jon Snow lost the Iron Throne when a furious Drogon melted it into an Iron Puddle, and then lost it again when the heads of the remaining houses exiled him to the Wall in order to appease Grey Worm and the Unsullied. (To be fair, he wasn’t especially eager to sit on that stupid throne in the first place.) But for viewers his royal career was ruined in the fourth episode after he had the audacity to banish his direwolf, Ghost, to live among the Free Folk without so much as a goodbye pat on the head.
Hill’s team did the digital work necessary to transform the white wolf Quigley — the lupine actor that plays Jon’s companion — into Ghost for this rage-inducing farewell. Unlike audiences at home, though, Hill knew that there was a happy reunion for man and wolf in the final episode. “We did all of the Ghost shots [for the season] back in February. So when Episode 4 aired and everyone was like, ‘He didn’t say goodbye to Ghost,’ we knew that these other shots were coming! It was one of those instances where you had to keep very quiet about what we know about the show.”
When Jon finally does give a battle-scarred Ghost an overdue pat in the finale, Hill made sure that moment won him the dog-lover vote. That mainly meant playing with the scale of the shot so that Ghost was direwolf size, not mere wolf size. “We had to integrate Jon’s hand against the filmed dog, Quigley, and it’s all scaled — Jon’s hand would be too large if we didn’t correctly the scale. So we did a lot of fur integration and finessed the effect so it would look correct.” But his team didn’t have to augment Quigley’s reaction to being on the receiving end of some Kit Harington affection. “If you give a dog a cheesy smile, it’s going to look a bit odd,” Hill says, with a chuckle. “The scene already worked quite well; it was mostly about getting the scale right and Jon’s hand interacting with the fur. Quigley gave a terrific performance.”
How to kill your dragon
Game of Thrones has a history of killing well-liked characters in gory ways, whether it’s Catelyn Stark having her throat slit in the aftermath of the Red Wedding or the Mountain gouging out Oberyn Martell’s eyes before crushing his skull. Even with that track record, though, Rhaegal’s exit in the fourth episode at the pointy end of the Iron Fleet’s oversized arrows proved shockingly gruesome. Unless your name is Martin Hill, in which case it’s totally awesome. “It’s my favorite shot,” Hill says of the moment where Drogon’s sole remaining sibling draws his last bloody breath. “And when you see it with the music! You’ve got this soaring music as the dragons are flying, and then it happens just from out of nowhere. I think it has a lot of impact.”
To drive home the impact of Rhaegal’s murder, Hill’s team took a death scene that was supposed to happen in three shots and condensed it into one. “We combined them to make a really graceful orbiting camera move around Rhaegal as he gets hit, and then punctuated that with the visceral impacts of the arrows. The first one hits his body, and you think ‘Well, we’ve seen Drogon get hit there, and it doesn’t kill him.’ The next one clips his wing, and then another one goes through his neck. At that point, I thought to give him a last screaming breath where he just disgorges all this blood into the air.’”
And Hill wasn’t shy about slathering on the sticky red stuff. “In dailies, I kept saying, ‘I think we want to crank the blood up,’” he remembers, laughing. “People were going, ‘Really? You want more?’ I was like, ‘You’ve seen Game of Thrones. Yes—more.’”
Part of the reason for Hill’s bloodlust was to make it clear to the audience that even though Rhaegal survived an equally brutal battle against Viserion in the Battle of Winterfell, he wasn’t coming back from these injuries. “He needed to look like he’s gone. In part of the shot, you can see his wing fold up and his head loll back. And then when he falls in the ocean, we put a lot of work into sculpting the water so that it sprays up in a nice curved way, and then you see him disappear below the waves. In early versions, he had some blood in the water as well, but it tended to reduce the scale of the shot. We just had to plunge him underwater and leave this huge wake in his path.”
The dragonfire next time
Daenerys’s ascension to full-on Mad Queendom by destroying King’s Landing in the fifth episode is a love-it-or-hate-it moment. On the other hand, everyone pretty much loves the scene where she and Drogon avenge Rhaegal by blowing Euron’s Iron Feet to smithereens. While Drogon had done plenty of damage in earlier seasons, his rage had to burn brighter than ever in this particular moment. “It needed to look really aggressive,” Hill explains. “This is him in full fury mode: he’s taking out the ships that killed his brother. But water explosions are hard, and fire is pretty hard so combining them together is a bit of a challenge.”
The Weta Digital team approached the challenge with the help of the Game of Thrones practical effects crew, which uses a motion-control flame-thrower on set to line-up the strafing shots that CGI teams will later enhance in post-production. “We used a combination of real elements and CG dragon fire, sometimes combining them in the same shot. But because we were hitting boats and water, we had to do four or five simulations so we could displace the water and have the spray that flies up. And then the boat destruction as well, breaking them apart and having all the rigging sort of snap as the boat was set on fire. There’s a lot of complicated things going on.”
Drogon’s level of awareness about the events unfolding around him has been a source of fascination throughout this final run of episodes. Many noted his season premiere side-eye at the sight of Jon and Daenerys kissing, and his destruction of the Iron Throne seemed purposeful rather than accidental. Hill’s team didn’t work on either of those shots, but he’s also contemplated how much Drogon understands about who or what he’s attacking, whether it’s the Iron Fleet or the Iron Throne. “When I saw the throne destroying shot, I felt like I saw some sort of thought process go on there,” he muses. “I heard one explanation that he saw that a sword had killed Dany, and then he saw a chair made of swords. So he made the connection that the chair had killed Dany, and that’s why he destroyed it. I thought that was hilarious.”
Lyanna, the zombie giant slayer
Kids aren’t exempt from the Game of Thrones body count. Remember poor Rickon Stark and Tommen Baratheon? But where those two went out like lambs — Rickon skewered by an arrow and Tommen via his window — Lyanna Mormont (Bella Ramsey) faced her death like a lion. The brave head of House Mormont felled a freakin’ wight giant during the Battle of Winterfell even as he crushed the life out of her. And she does it in the most awesomely gory way possible, shoving her dragonglass dagger into her foe’s oversized eye. “On one of our first takes, we had this giant blood spray come out of the eye, because nothing succeeds like excess, right?” Hill says, adding that the giant was referred to as “Crum” internally. “But that took away from the giant’s scale a little bit because of the forced perspective, so we trimmed the blood down so that the physics would with Crum’s size. We also really wanted to see the start of his de-animation.”
Like any other dragonglass-stabbed wight, Crum literally fell to pieces after Lyanna delivered the killing blow, and it fell to Weta Digital to account for how the young warrior would plunge to her own final resting place. “One of the things we did was remodel Lyanna’s whole body in CG, and took Crum’s hand and made it digital. Then we animated this big, visceral crushing of Lyanna and added timed blood elements bursting out of her mouth. We also made a full digital effects model of Crum, which crumbled through all the layers of his skin and hair as the atrophied and pulled apart. Most of the wights de-animated in not a very wet and bloody sort of way, but he’s a lot bigger and doesn’t look nearly as skeletal when we see him. So the hair fall out, and then you get to the fleshier levels and the muscle levels and then the bone levels.”
Luck be a lady of light
Melisandre’s belated arrival at Winterfell brought a ray of light to the Long Night …literally. Summoning her R’hllor gifted red priestess powers, she turned the swords wielded by Dany’s Dothraki army into flaming blades of death. It’s a much more impressive sight than the little LED lights that Hill says were attached to those swords on set. “You can’t have that much fire on a set, particularly around horses,” he notes. “It was a real challenge to make those light up, and we came up with a very elegant solution by using a piece of software that was developed here and that makes it possible to simulate fire in the composite of close-up shots. For the shots that were fully CG, we were able to use more traditional fire simulations. My favorite moment is the wave of flame that runs across all the Dothraki swords as Sansa and Arya are watching from the battlements. It’s really a buoyant shot.”
Hill’s team also choreographed Melisandre’s final moments, as she walks out of Winterfell into the light of the coming dawn, removing the necklace that keeps her young and falling over dead in the snow. The idea that she would die at daybreak came after Carice van Houten had already filmed her final scenes, so the Melisandre that perishes onscreen is an entirely digital creation. “We looked at the aging that had been done in previous seasons, and wanted to take it a lot farther because she’s really diminished after using all of her magic up. So we modeled [Carice’s] costume and body and then also made a very atrophied, skeletal version of her. As she walks out, we slightly blended from one to the other. Then she stumbles and collapses, and all of her hair drifts off beatifically into the wind, along with her crumbling skin.”
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