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“A good Matte Painting is full of memories, telling stories about the past.”

                                                             By Digital Paint Book

The American TV series Game of Thrones is currently one of the most popular and highest-quality TV productions that flicker across the screens in over 80 countries. The ratings of the broadcast of the pilot episode had been already so huge that the private TV station HBO, which is specialized in outstanding narrative series (The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire), commissioned a second season just two days later. Game of Thrones was nominated for the Golden Globe Award as the best dramatic television series in 2012 and among other prizes it won an Emmy for outstanding Special Visual Effects in the same year.

Substantially responsible for this award was the visual effects company Pixomondo, which was founded in Germany. Together with Senior Matte Painting Artist Sven Sauer and Environment Supervisor Thilo Ewers, Digital Paint Book had the chance to have a look behind the scenes of the Matte Paintings of Game of Thrones.

A Big Challenge: The Original Book Series and its Fans

Game of Thrones is based on the equally successful book series A Song of Ice and Fire by the American author George RR Martin (Das Lied von Eis und Feuer; German by Jörn Ingwersen). The bombastic fantasy epic begins with the theme Winter is coming!. In the fictional world of Westeros, where the action takes place, winter is another word for change, suffering and death. It's an apparently insuperable form of terror, which no one can escape from. The impending winter promises not only a long-lasting cold and famine, but also harbors a supernatural hazard that humanity had forgotten over the decades-long summer. In this time of change, a fierce power struggle for the Iron Throne begins, which lets the noble families of seven kingdoms compete together and against each other. The setting is based on medieval Europe, fantastically extended by mythical creatures, skinchangers, witches and the undead.

The North: There hasn’t been any shooting location for this scene. The view from the Wall northwards shows the last area of the forest before the bleak landscape begins. The complete shot has been created digitally.

The concept of the series plans to film one volume for every season, so that the story can be given sufficient time to develop their many characters. The first Game of Thrones-season was, as mentioned, a huge hit among the audience. For the second season, not only the number of eagerly waiting followers grew, but also the expectations regarding the visual features. While other VFX companies were engaged for the visuals of the first season, Pixomondo was awarded for the second season. Before, Pixomondo had been involved in the production of Hollywood movies Sucker Punch, Fast 5 and 2012 (just to mention a few); in 2011, it was awarded an Oscar for the best visual effects in the work with director Martin Scorsese and his film Hugo Cabret. The production of the visual effects for Game of Thrones began in November 2011 and involved nine of the world's twelve Pixomondo studios with a total of 305 digital artists. A separate department with a focus on Matte Painting has been created in Stuttgart, where 10 Matte Painting Artists from around the world who had specialized in castles and medieval scenes have come together. Being allowed to participate in developing this epic has been something very special for the team of Sven Sauer and Thilo Ewers. All castles and landscapes that have been created in their Matte Paintings will also be found in the later seasons. Sven Sauer explains: "We had the opportunity to participate in the development of a complex world. That was impressive and also very nerve-wracking, because of the critical eyes of this great fan base watching over us." With a lot of enthusiasm and passion the artists have faced the unique challenge to explore the big wide world of Westeros and to report the spectators from their trip with their Matte Paintings.

Matte Paintings show the Way

Because of the numerous plot threads, there are a lot of relocations in Game of Thrones. The cuts lead from moment to moment in the snowy north of Westeros, to Qarth, the desert city -and then to the Mediterranean-like King’s Landing. Thereby, the Matte Paintings play a particularly important role: they contribute enormously to the establishment of the settings. Most of them are the so-called Establisher or Establishing Shots that allow the viewer to enter the space of action and to pursue an orientation in it. The specific and recognizable landscape images show the respective place, often at the beginning of a scene, usually in a long shot. So they show the audience where and when the story is just playing.

In Search of Shooting Locations and Settings

The processing of the most complex and challenging VFX shots had already started before the beginning of the film shooting. Lead VFX Supervisor Reiner Gombos has been on the road for over six months in order to take hundreds of photos in the most diverse locations, which later made up the raw material for the design of the Matte Paintings.

Qarth: Its shooting location was in Croatia. Only the gate was built on site. The prosperous city has been created digitally around this.

While in the first Game of Thrones-Season the staff had been working with artificial snow, both actors and characters "behind the Wall" (a giant ice line that separates the Seven Kingdoms from the Wild Land) should recover themselves in a real, snowy landscape. The staff therefore traveled to Iceland in order to film the arduous journey to the Fist of the First Men (an ancient ringfort behind the Wall). "The storm, the isolation and the barren landscape which surprised us there, simplified the situation for us to let the discomfort of the journey look real!" - so some of the actors later said about the shooting, which took place locally and not in front of a Green Screen in a warm studio of The Dream Factory in Los Angeles. That’s exactly what the audience feels by looking at the red-cheeked faces hung with icicle beards. The landscapes are real, alive and especially icy cold.

There was an impressive resemblance to the city of Valletta in Malta for the descriptions of the town King’s Landing, so it became another shooting location. Other parallels were evident in the steep slopes of Scotland, in the green hills of Ireland and in the castles of Wales. The results of these researches made up the basis for the design. The subsequent designing was a long, collaborative process, developing further different versions which have been improved, refined and reduced to their essence until lastly the final version emerged. Sven Sauer remembers: "Game of Thrones has given us the chance to create a whole world. But the series leads us to places which had to be built arduously. This process took several months to be completed." Indeed, 67 environments and 518 shots have been edited within almost half a year.

The Matte Painting-Law

Films are always a deal, a kind of agreement between the filmmakers and the audience. Filmmakers create a world, and the audience gets involved in this creation. This pact will only work if it obeys certain laws. Perhaps the most important law is: nothing in our world exists without a past! Our environment is always peppered with details of past events. These details make the world tangible and authentic. "This is exactly what pertains to our pictures. A good Matte Painting is full of memories, telling stories about the past," says Sauer. The credibility of Game of Thrones is critically dependent on a scrupulous compliance with this law, because the plot is based on a complex and above all, on an old world. Similarly to J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Westeros seems to have a vivid past.

The Stories in the Stories

The original book gives the reader just enough insight into the past of its world, that the viewer begins to spin it further autonomously. Shadows of a much more tremendous history reveal their existence by small hints and details. For the construction of the world of Game of Thrones, there are always hints of past times, kingdoms and lost homes in the novel. The Visual Effects Team tried to include all these sub-stories in the paintings. The artists exactly analyzed the descriptions of the castles and landscapes in the books. How did the castle towers of Pyke look like before the weather had stricken them? The walls of the castle of Harrenhall once melted under the fire of dragons. In the book, this was just mentioned in a few lines – but anyway, it had to be considered carefully how a fortress would look like after having been overwhelmed by a huge fireball. Hints in the "real world" could help the digital painters to design those fantasy landscapes: even in the past of Europe there had once been some castles which had possibly suffered a similar fate as the castles in Westeros. So those castles have provided inspiration in order to lend credibility to the buildings and environments of Westeros.

The backdrop of the castle Harrenhall has been built on a parking lot in the solitude of Ireland. Only a small yard was built as basis. The huge castle has later been expanded digitally.

Becoming Part of the Foreign World

In order to keep the world of Westeros in presence while working, the artists listened to the audiobook version of the novel with headphones in an endless loop. So the names of the characters that had seemed quite confusing at the beginning, could be gradually assigned to the figures which almost became family members… and the geographical world of Game of Thrones finally made up an inner map in the artist’s head. That helped to incorporate visions and ideas into the Matte Paintings and in turn, it was how to breathe life into the digital paintings. For Sven Sauer, this sensitization was the key: "In a good film we see ourselves. For a moment we leave the cinema hall or the living room and become part of what happens in the film. The development of the Matte Paintings is similar to that. We dive into this other world while painting. That's something very relaxing."

The Dreaded Deadline

Research, inspiration, experiencing the world of Westeros and not least the work on the many individual shots took a lot of time - which, however, was extremely limited. Producing for an American TV series meant having an absolute deadline every two weeks - and that for ten weeks at a time. VFX Supervisor Juri Stanossek tells of a "dangerous" feeling that arose when they saw the first episode of the season on television while they were still working on episode 7: "Of course there are deadlines for each project. But the pressure has never been palpable in such a strange way ." About 60 to 140 settings have been edited for each of the ten one-hour episodes. If the Matte Painters hadn’t finished the shots in time, there would have been problems regarding the production, but not only - they would also have disappointed the huge fan base that had been waiting eagerly and impatiently for the next episodes.

In the U.S., the second season already started on 04-01-2012, just half a year after Pixomondo had started working on the series. In Germany, the pay-TV channel Sky Atlantic HD began to broadcast the second season in May, 2012. German viewers could immerse themselves in the second part of the Game of Thrones-world on channel TNT Serie. The third season has already been in the production phase and will be broadcasted in the U.S. in March, 2013. If the former TV success continues, the fans will be able to look forward to at least seven years of throne festivals: Martin has already written five books; two more are in the works.

Stuttgart’s Matte Painter: Sven Sauer, Thilo Ewers, Chris Reinfels, Adam Figierski, Marco Wilz, Mikele Danze, Falk Boye, Rene Borst, Sandra Nachname?, Martin Höhnle.


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