Dragons, fire, and giants: Behind the visual effects of Game of Thrones season 8

battle of winterfell dothraki
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After eight seasons of high drama, shocking twists, and memorable moments, HBO’s Game of Thrones ended its award-winning run with one of the series’ most exciting (and let’s face it, polarizing) story arcs.

Over the course of the final six episodes of Game of Thrones, audiences were treated to two massive battles and more than a few surprises — usually involving the death of high-profile characters. Tasked with bringing those moments to the screen and making them look as real as possible were multiple visual effects studios, including the Emmy- and Oscar-winning team at Weta Digital.

Digital Trends spoke to Weta visual effects supervisor Martin Hill, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his work on 2012’s Prometheus, about the challenge of crafting some of season 8’s most visually stunning scenes. (For anyone who hasn’t yet seen season 8, there are tons of spoilers ahead.)

Digital Trends: There was a lot of buzz going into season 8 suggesting that every episode was going to be like a feature-length film. Did season 8 of Game of Thrones feel like a series of big-screen productions?

Martin Hill: Really, with all the TV work that we do at Weta Digital, we try to treat it exactly the same way. But a lot of the production values — such as the kind of cameras they used — on Game of Thrones are the same that they use in quite a lot of features that we work on. So, really, the work’s done in a very similar way.

A lot of your work was in the Battle of Winterfell episode. What were some of the challenging elements in that episode?

From the start, our jaws just dropped at how big they wanted the episode to be, and how sustained the action was through it. The work was so vast that it was split between a bunch of different vendors, but one of the big challenges for us was the Dothraki charge at the beginning of the episode. Corralling that many horses on set and setting people’s swords on fire doesn’t tend to go down too well, so really we had a small amount of the Dothraki and maybe one or two swords on fire. We created fire and added it to the swords, and then added in CG horses and riders for the rest of the army. There are quite a few shots in there that are fully CG.

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We needed to tell the story of the Dothraki just getting annihilated by what was — at that stage — a completely unseen enemy. There was a series of shots where you’re looking over the shoulders of Jamie and Brienne and Grey Worm, out into the darkness, and you just see these little pinpricks of light go out, one by one. To keep the realism and the tension, even though we only see the light from the swords, we actually simulated the animation of the horses and riders riding to battle out there. It ended up being one of my favorite shots.

You got to work on one of the series’ only dragon-on-dragon fights in that episode, too. What did your work on the midair dragon battle involve?

One thing we did was to design all of the extra, atrophied damage to Viserion. The wights deteriorate over time, so the big spear-hole in Viserion has opened up since you last saw it, and he’s got all these other wounds. During the fight, Rhaegal clamps down on Viserion’s face and rips half of it off, and we designed a lot of what you see there along with [animation and visual effects studio] Image Engine.

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It was a huge story point, because Viserion is pretty diminished at that point. He’s leaking fire all over the place, and lands on the courtyard buildings, smashing them all up. At that point, Viserion was blind in one eye and fire is coming out of all of these holes in him, so it was all about striking a balance with him in those shots, having him blind and furiously trying to find Jon, but at the same time keeping in mind this is the same dragon that took down the wall in the previous season. He could obliterate Winterfell if he wasn’t so cut up, and although he’s not quite what he was, he’s far more than a match for Jon. So we needed to maintain the hopelessness of Jon’s situation.

Staying on the dragon theme, Rhaegal’s death was such a big moment in the season, just one episode after the Battle of Winterfell. What went into creating that scene?

Rhaegal has just sort of learned to fly again at that point, because he was all cut up [after the last episode’s events]. We had to design all these tears and abrasions within its wing membranes to reflect its condition after the battle with Viserion. So Rhaegal and Drogon are having this sort of playful flight around Dragonstone, and it was really just about getting the timing right so it happens at the most unexpected point. Music really helped with that, too.

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Originally there were three impact shots where he gets hit by each of the different arrows, but we combined those into one shot that is a sort of graceful, orbiting shot that starts with a normal perspective — slightly under them and looking up — and then we orbit around to end up with a kind of [point of view] for Daenerys. She sees Rhaegal’s wings fold up and he just drops.

Drogon gets hit in season 7 and doesn’t die, so when the first arrow hits Rhaegal in the chest, there’s still hope — but the next arrow clips his wing, and then the third one is the killing blow. After all of that, there’s this camera move that passes around his face, and you get this final scream from him.

It really hits home when he exhales all of that blood at the camera and drops like a brick …

Yeah, exactly. What we wanted to do there was to make that his dying breath. The first arrow punctured his lung, so we had him just cough up all of this blood right into camera as we go past. It’s another one of my favorite shots we worked on.

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Having him plunge into the water and doing all those simulations of the dragon impacting the water with waves coming up, that was a lot of fun.

Does that carry some extra weight on your end, knowing that you’re working on a particularly important death scene?

You know, it’s kind of amazing just to get to work on Game of Thrones and be involved in the death scenes of these really iconic characters. There have been some pretty big characters that we managed to knock off, though. Viserion, Lyanna [Mormont], Rhaegal … We all love these characters and want to give them a proper dramatic send off.

You mentioned Lyanna, and I thought it was interesting to see that you also worked on her final scene with the giant wight during the Battle of Winterfell. What went into creating that scene?

It’s kind of gruesome […] but it’s quite fitting for the series to give her a sort of gruesome ending.

Lyanna was really interesting because she does this sort of bold last stand, very much in character. The elements we initially shot used a green-screen hand, with [actress Bella Ramsey] on a rig that was lifting her up. [The giant wight] would lift her up and be squeezing her, but her armor was a bit wider than it should have been due to the harness she was wearing. And because the giant hand was a prosthetic piece, you just didn’t really get the tension between the giant’s hand and her body.

So what we did was to digitally replace Lyanna’s body, with the idea that he’ll squeeze her armor like a Coke can. Once we started doing that, it was like, “Well, if we’re going to do that, we should just animate the hand as well.” So we had his thumb really press into the armor and just crush her. It’s kind of gruesome, and that’s a really fine line there, because you’re dealing with a minor, but it’s quite fitting for the series to give her a sort of gruesome ending. In the end, she gets her comeuppance by stabbing him in the eye.

The final episode of Game of Thrones aired May 19 on HBO.

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