VFX supervisor Angus Bickerton tells IndieWire about what happens when virtual dragons meet real wind, smoke, and rain in an LED volume.
“House of the Dragon” lived up to its name with the season-ending fight at Storm’s End, in which the legendary Vhagar (ridden by Ewan Mitchell’s Aemond) devoured newbie Arrax and his young rider, Lucerys (Elliot Grihault) like a snack. This dance of dragons in the storm is noteworthy not just because it kicks off a civil war — it’s also an impressive use of the V Stage, the new virtual production volume at Warner Bros. Studios Leavesden. Co-showrunner and director Miguel Sapochnik was impressed with what ILM has been able to achieve with its innovative LED-wall system, StageCraft, and lobbied to bring similar technology to Westeros. V Stage offers a 7,100 square foot wraparound virtual production environment with more than 2,600 LED panels along with an additional set of ceiling units with eight sections that work independently by lifting and tilting.
It was decided that five key sequences would be filmed in the volume, including Lucerys’ fateful meeting in the castle of Storm’s End. “But also Miguel wanted to try to use the volume for the flying sequences as well,” production VFX supervisor Angus Bickerton told IndieWire. “Which means that any time we have one of our actors on a motion base, the difficulties are always how to do the interactive lighting. By using the volume, we could travel a disk of light across, and wrap it around our 270-degree oval screen. The hope was that we would use the volume to give us better, more interactive, realistic lighting.”
Pixomondo, a vet from “Game of Thrones” that already has its own volume system in Toronto, was not only put in charge of animating the different breeds, sizes and colors of dragons described in George R.R. Martin’s “Fire & Blood” novel, but also creating the final assets in Unreal to play in V Stage. “We shot all our dragon riding sequences in the volume, first creating rough backgrounds with The Third Floor doing previs shot blocking with its Cyclops virtual camera system,” added Bickerton.
Courtesy of HBO
The sequence consists of Lucerys flying through the thunderstorm on the red-tinged Arrax, with the sly, old Vhagar (sporting a thick hide with barnacles like a tortoise) suddenly appearing in giant silhouette to give chase. The cagey Arrax taunts the beast with fire, and then loses it in a narrow ravine, before being overtaken and eaten by the angry Vhagar.
“In this particular sequence, whether you see Luke on Arrax or Aemond on Vhagar, they’re on the motion base, they’re in the volume, and I asked Pixomondo to create a 20-second cycle of lightning storm clouds,” Bickerton said. “We took a 90-degree view and replicated it on the screen and played that around them. We still would augment shots of the rider so you would see a glimpse of CG wing in the background.”
Unlike “The Mandalorian” and other shows that have utilized StageCraft, “House of the Dragon” was shot in large format with the Arri Alexa 65 by cinematographer Pepe Avila del Pino. The added resolution provided several advantages for image quality and avoided certain pitfalls. “For instance, we heard you could get a moire pattern on the screens if the resolution of the camera and LED screens are not in sync,” Bickerton said. “It didn’t happen at all, partly because they shot large format and deliberately shot wide open with short depth of field. The screens were an appropriate distance away from the camera and we didn’t have to throw the screens out of focus. The camera threw the screens out of focus. But you needed to check it all the time.”
Courtesy of HBO
They also daringly got action in the volume that they were warned against, at the request of Avila del Pino and director Greg Yaitanes. “Because Greg and Pepe wanted wind, smoke, and driving rain hitting the actors, the last thing the keepers of the expensive LED-wall set up wanted was to harm the expensive equipment,” Bickerton said. “The smoke needed to be ventilated properly to prevent coating on the screens, so we did extensive testing to prevent smoke build up. And we had separate fans blowing water off camera away from the screens.”
The production was also advised against shooting with multiple cameras, which they ignored to their benefit. They shot with four cameras at all times, two of which were tracked for multiple interactive views. The other two cameras shot outside the viewing area on the static environments. “We got phenomenal coverage,” added Bickerton. “We learned how you need to incorporate the sets, and ultimately did things our own way after following in the footsteps of ‘The Mandalorian.’”