Simulcams, LEDs for eyelines and previs’d flamethrowers: planning Drogon’s revenge attack

gAME OF Thrones' previs and techvis.

Behind the scenes with The Third Floor’s ‘gAME OF Thrones’ previs and techvis.

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There’s a moment in episode 5 of season 8 of Game of Thrones when Euron Greyjoy spots Drogon in the sky fire-blasting other ships and then heading for his, the Silence. In a ‘oner’, Greyjoy instructs others to fire the Scorpion crossbow at Drogon before ultimately jumping ship as a dragon fireball hits.

To make what was a mix of live-action greenscreen photography of the actors, the sea setting, the CG dragon and even live-action fireball elements possible, production looked to The Third Floor to previs and techvis how the one-take would come together. befores & afters asked key members of The Third Floor how it was done.

b&a: Can you give me an overview of TTF’s involvement in that Euron Greyjoy oner?

Michelle Blok (previs supervisor, The Third Floor): The Third Floor’s work on the season 8, episode 5 scene when Drogon appears out of the sky and blasts Euron and his fleet covered everything from previs blocking of the action to ‘tech-ing’ camera and element requirements to producing a precise moving eyeline for the actors with additive motion control and live simulcam views.

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Kaya Jabar (virtual production/motion control supervisor, The Third Floor): We needed to be able to design and trigger a moving eyeline that wrapped all the way around the set – some 200-odd degrees of coverage, to give Pilou Asbæk, the actor playing Euron Greyjoy, something to track with his eyes. We knew early on that his timing was integral to the believability of the dragon action and the choreography of the Scorpion weapon and crew.

While the shot was going to be done via motion control crane, Fabian Wagner, director of photography on the episode, wanted to be able to add on top of the tightly choreographed move by operating the camera head manually, creating chaos in the frame for a more organic feel. To achieve this, we knew we needed to run simulcam for a live comp view and used the Technodolly to stream positional data to us, which, together with the pre-animation scene from Image Engine, allowed us to have a real-time overlay of the dragon path and exploding ships as the LED eyeline was running.

Michelle Blok:  As on prior seasons, The Third Floor worked with the special effects team to shoot real fire in sync with the virtual dragon performance. Virtual production/motion control supervisor Casey Schatz from The Third Floor worked from Belfast to help shot dragon fire blasts using motion control and a flamethrower mounted to a Spydercam suspended camera system.

Third Floor helped previs how it would be attached to the ship
The Scorpion crossbow was bigger than in previous series, so The Third Floor helped previs how it would be attached to the ship.

b&a: How did you approach previs and techvis for this scene?

Michelle Blok: The establishing shots for episode 5 reintroduce an element that was revealed and used to good effect in the Loot Train sequence of season 7. The Scorpion crossbow, which proved effective against Drogon, has been improved and enlarged, doubled in size, and is now not only mounted to the battlements of King’s Landing but also to the bow of the Silence and the rest of Euron’s armada. Before we could begin previs, we needed to determine how the weapon could be mounted to the ships, as its huge size required the shifting of masts and altering of the ship’s structure.

The Euron oner was the first complex shot we visualized. Euron, stationed on the Scorpion platform on the Silence, sees Drogon attacking a number of his ships. After destroying the vessels, Drogon returns to strike the Silence itself, blasting Euron from the platform in the process.

Despite the seeming simplicity of the shot, being able to achieve director Miguel Sapochnik’s vision while working to the physical constraints of the Scorpion set and the camera rig was quite a challenge. The shot was complicated even more by the fact that the dragon’s animation and timing was very specific and at any given point during the shot, we wanted the camera operator to be aware of the dragon’s position in order to correctly frame the move and have an eyeline for the actors so they could track the dragon during the shot and achieve the correct timing.

A previs frame showing Euron observing Drogon
A previs frame showing Euron observing Drogon.

The previs went through several iterations, as Miguel explored the actors staging, while also considering the constraints of how the built set, consisting of the Scorpion, would physically move. The choreography of camera and action was so important. After the previs was approved, we assessed all the Scorpion shots for the entire season and determined the height the Scorpion platforms needed to be built to in order to achieve all the angles we wanted to cover across the board. We also determined their best positioning on the stage along with all the greenscreen setups required.

The previs fed into our techvis passes, where we mapped shooting requirements, key measurements and logistics, as well as the special effects elements that would be needed, including half-scale explosions for the ships as they were blasted in Drogon’s attack.

Kaya Jabar: We created diagrams detailing the crane platform build as well as its position relative to the Scorpion. We paired this up with Quicktimes showing the dragon travel of the LED eyeline along the wall time to the motion control solve and overlay. Once the separate components were approved creatively, we created detailed diagrams de-notating LED placement, which The Third Floor’s team mounted these along the entire stage with help from the greenscreen grips. Spydercam technician Lawrence Fagan then took our text files (which describe the travel along a spline per frame) and created an Arduino-powered box that triggered the different LED strips (a total of 200+ meters).

b&a: How did TTF’s work extend to the motion control shoot? How did the encoded LED eyelines work?

Kaya Jabar: The eyeline would follow the virtual dragon path as the Technodolly move designed for this shot was perfectly timed to the human motion. The custom, addressable LEDs used for the Euron oner were driven straight from Image Engine’s dragon pre-animation, which was informed from The Third Floor’s blocking, maintaining the original visualized Euron action and polishing the dragon animation and ship explosion points.

Third Floor prepared coded LEDs
The Third Floor prepared coded LEDs that hung on the stage walls to replicate the dragon’s path. The Third Floor’s previs and techvis (upper left, lower panels) and pre-animation from Image Engine (upper right) fed the virtual production fire shoot as a practical flamethrower was flown along the dragon path via a suspended camera.

Going into the shoot, the camera move was still evolving but the dragon’s motion had been locked down, which allowed The Third Floor’s virtual production team to complete techvis for all the strafe fire as well as prepare coded LED lights that were hung on the stage walls replicating the dragon’s flight path. The lights were programmed to be triggered at the exact moment the dragon was at that position.

This was essential for the actor and multiple stunt performers to time their reactions over the 30-second move. It would have been impossible to move the Scorpion and the performance around on the small platform in a way that fit with the motion control move had a physical eyeline not been timed to the performance.

Michelle Blok: We worked very closely with stunts to safely execute the tight framing and choreography. The shoot was a great success and highlighted effective use of live simulcam views and problem solving on behalf of the team with the design and implementation of the LED-driven eyelines.

Animated LED strips
Animated LED strips provided the actor and stunt performers with a moving eyeline that accurately matched the motion of the CG dragon through Drogon’s attack run.

b&a: Can you also discuss any motion controlled dragon fire and TTF’s role in that process?

Michelle Blok: The SFX elements for the Euron oner consisted of half-scale explosions that were shot based on the camera’s position relative to the ships at the exact moment they were blasted by Drogon. The previs was used to determine the correct angles the blasts should be shot from.

Kaya Jabar: To support the fire shoot, I stitched a scene together from the simulcam shoot that combined the motion control plate with the static shot of Euron being pulled by wires on the B side. The Third Floor’s Casey Schatz worked with special effects supervisor Sam Conway, the SFX team and the Spydercam team to capture the fire elements, also using a Blackmagic camera with a Libra head-mounted flamethrower to test fire POVs before igniting the flamethrower.

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