Game of Thrones fans will know that for all of season two, one of the biggest threats to the prosperity of the Seven Kingdoms was that winter was coming (aside from a rash of tribal warring, that is. Oh, and some dragons). But it wasn’t until the season’s final scene that you realized quite what that meant. Not only was unpleasantly inclement weather coming from beyond the Wall, so too were the dreaded White Walkers.
The scene proved to be visual paydirt for loyal fans eager to see more of George. R. R. Martin’s Walkers, a presumed-extinct race of polar-dwellers that reanimate the dead to do their lethal bidding. In it, Sam, the hapless Night’s Watch Ranger, gets separated from his group, and comes face to face with a blue-eyed, shrieking walker. From there, the scene swirls around into a long reverse tracking shot that pulls back to reveal scope of danger heading toward the Wall: a terrifying 1,000-strong army of zombies marching south to presumably wreak some undead havoc. It’s an imposing scene that sets up some nasty altercations for season three. It was also the final moment of the episode that garnered visual effects studio Pixomondo an Emmy Award for its work on season 2 of Game of Thrones.
The Emmy win was the global studio’s biggest since being awarded an Oscar for its work onHugo. It was also a testament to the company’s ongoing commitment to tackling massive projects through inter-office collaboration.
Founded in Frankfurt in 2001 by Thilo Kuther, Pixomondo now boasts 800 employees in 13 global offices, including Berlin, Burbank, Hamburg, Munich, London, Stuttgart, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, Toronto, Detroit, Beijing, Shanghai, and Sao Paulo. While it sounds like the making of a mini empire, Kuther says his company structure, which ensures each self-sustaining office remains small, agile, and locally focused, is by design. The company is able to offer 24/7 production through an established policy of sharing work between offices. For example, when Stuttgart became the lead office for Game of Thrones, it retained 60% of the work, while 40% was divided between other offices in the network. This, says Kuther, allows the company to retain the entire project without relying on outsourced VFX work, and retain staff in the process.
"There is a strict 60/40 rule but it gives you more flexibility. If one shop takes on a show like Game of Thrones, that means they’re completely booked up. They have to hire all these people, then once they’ve done the show they have to find another show for 400 people or let everyone go," says Kuther. "It’s very unlikely to immediately have another show of that size at that location. So with us, it’s more like a swap. If one office only does a portion of a show, then it’s very likely they’re going to have a six to seven shows going on at the same time—you’ll be the main office for one of them and the rest of the work is being sent to you by the other offices. And everyone has a show starting or finishing so they don’t have to let everyone go at the end of a show, no one leaves and the knowledge stays. With a people business I think the main thing is to keep the knowledge and brain pool around."
With over 100 TV shows, 120 commercials, 12 features, 56 industrial productions, and 14 awards, including the Emmy and Oscar to its credit, you’d think that Pixomondo’s a well-oiled collaborative wonder. Hardly, says Kuther, who openly admits that the process is incredibly difficult. "The press release would say that the collaboration is flawless, but in fact this business is about people and there are so many things that make it difficult to deal with people in comparison to machinery," he says.
In expanding his company, Kuther says his biggest challenge is bringing harmony to the offices. "Whenever we open a new office, at first no on likes them. At the beginning, Frankfurt and Stuttgart didn’t like each other; they thought the other team couldn’t produce the work. Then we opened Berlin and even though they didn’t like each other, they hated Berlin more. With L.A., it was the same thing. With each new one I learned there was a social demographic behind it—it didn’t matter if it was a different culture," he says.
"But we have a lot of work going on, so they quickly learn that they have too much work for the people they have and they would need another building to get all the work done. Suddenly, it’s a relief that all this work is being sent out, and they begin to accept that someone in another office isn’t actually stupid just because they’re not on their team."
Such deep-seated rivalry might seem comical, but despite how forthright Kuther is in revealing the social rifts, it gnaws on him. "It’s something that we go between laughing about and being completely devastated by. But we learned the hard way that because this is not a technology business, but a creative people business, it doesn’t matter if you have to deal with someone in your hometown or 5,000 miles away, you have to make communication work. It’s trust, respect, acceptance, and being open to other people."
As the success of Pixomondo’s work on Game of Thrones suggests, the persistence of playing well with others is paying off. The network of offices is currently at work on A Good Day to Die Hard and Tom Cruise’s latest movie, Oblivion. They’ll also be returning to the land of fire and ice for season three of Game of Thrones. But before we find out how the Kings of the Seven Kingdoms will ward off the army of the White Walkers, we asked Pixomondo’s visual effects supervisor Rainer Gombos to walk us through, in his own words, what went into creating the most wretched enemy throng this side of Westeros (check out the highlights in the slide show above).
"This sequence was meant to be shot in Iceland in November. But some of the scenes didn’t quite work out and the executive producers wanted a re-shoot, so they set up this reshoot in London. The producers and creatives were not happy with the White Walker costumes from season one; they wanted to redesign the look and it took a bit longer than expected.
"I was doing some pre-viz for them—the director Alan Taylor was already working on Thor: The Dark World so was unavailable for the reshoot—so I was asked to direct it because it was so effects-heavy. We offered some alternate shots for the executive producers, but of course they went with the most complex one. I agreed that the option with the long camera move would be the most impressive but it was also very difficult to achieve with the budget and time that we had. With larger budgets we might have chosen techniques that had fewer demands on the artistry and would have had a better solid setup like you would have had on a feature film.
"It was challenging because we only had 50 extras, which required crowd replications. They wanted about 1,000 zombies or wights, as they called them, with about 10 to 30 White Walkers mixed in, and we only had one White Walker costume that had to double for all these white walkers. At the same time, we didn’t have a very natural or organic looking environment in which to shoot this. We were going to shoot it on the sound stage and there’s only so much we can do to recreate Iceland, with all its beauty and complexity. That’s why the pre-viz was so important because we could then split up this long shot and I could suggest certain camera setups that would allow us to stitch these different shots together and make it seem like one continuous shot.
"So we ended up setting up four cameras for this. In the beginning, we started up close on the White Walker on his horse. The camera turns around the White Walker, on a green screen stage, and it moves backwards as we see left and right, zombies coming into frame. And then, eventually, the camera runs out of space. For this entire shot we really needed about 200 meters with the camera to have it travel over this whole crowd of zombies. But the camera on this stage could only travel around 15 to 20 meters. So, by the end of the camera move that was meant to be continuous, the camera had to slow down, so it wouldn’t crash into the back door. We didn’t have the money to bring on a motion control that would just recreate the camera move.
"Once we got the first set up, with the camera being slowed down at the back, we then did the same thing for the next part, which only had zombies. Then we did a third set up and then the fourth, where the camera starts in the crowd of zombies and it pushes backwards and then goes as far up as we could go on a sound stage—which was actually not that high.
"It was difficult to stitch these camera moves together. We had to take out these slowing down and speeding up cameras to make it seem like it was one continuous camera move. Stitching the plates together was almost impossible. It was unbelievably difficult. It required a re-projection of the plates on 3-D geometry.
"And another complexity is that all of the zombies are moving away from the camera. They were supposed to be walking forward. Now of course the zombies that were closest to the far wall were walking into the wall. So they would just be walking on the spot at some point because the shot had to be 45 seconds long and in theory you’d want to see the zombies at the end of the shot that you saw at the beginning still walking. So the first zombie would have to walk for at least 30 seconds. They’d only be walking forward for the first 10 seconds and then they’d hit the wall and walk on the spot on this fake snow and uneven ground that was meant to make it look like they were walking over little hills and things.
"We wanted these zombies to walk in a misty ground fog later, which required us to rotoscope all of the feet out. So we had to rotoscope four plates with 50 zombies each. And on some plates, you’d have to extend it left and right, and then you would run out of zombies. So these had to be extended with digital zombies and zombies that were shot individually that were then spread out throughout the landscape. And we had to take out some of the extras that the executive producers didn’t like—they didn’t like the walking of some of them.
"On top of that we had to add the zombie makeup to the horse, and our actor had a bit of a belly, so we had to reduce his belly a bit, and we added some cold emitting from his body, so there’s a particle system coming from him. Of course we had to create his blue eyes, and a snow particle pattern on top of everything. We also replaced the green screen with a full CG environment and matte paintings and a dramatic sky and, of course, an atmosphere. The atmosphere was meant to make the shot look more beautiful and fit in with this idea that the White Walkers are bringing the cold with them. At the same time it was meant to hide from all the imperfections that we would get from all of these plates.
"If I’d had the funds I would have shot this with motion control, had a bigger studio to shoot in and I would have had more extras—it would have made our lives so much easier in the end, but overall I’m very happy with how it turned out."
See Pixomondo’s work, in progress, in the slide show above.