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Australian animation and VFX studio Iloura delivered exciting, photoreal shots for the recent episode titled ‘Battle of the Bastards’ in HBO’s series ‘Game of Thrones’. Working on the episode’s tremendous battle sequence, Iloura’s team combined 3D visual effects and hand animation to realize the production’s vision.

VFX Supervisor Glenn Melenhorst led the work on the sequences, in which the feud that had been growing between the story’s hero Jon Snow and his army of Wildlings, and the Boltons, led by his arch enemy Ramsay Bolton, breaks out into violence.

The battle required numerous collisions between photoreal horses and riders, 3,000-strong armies and close-up shots of live-action actors and sets composited with CG humans and animals and massive crowd simulations. Hundreds of assets – CG armoury, weapons, flags, saddlery, body parts and environmental assets such as blood, mud, smoke, fire and mist – were also needed to augment the plate photography.

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Iloura was selected to work on the episode after presenting the show’s VFX Producer Steve Kullback and and VFX Supervisor Joe Bauer, with a series of tests presenting photoreal CG horses and riders colliding with other horses, rendered from various points of view. Because the show has a huge, dedicated fan base accustomed to high production values, who pay close attention to the VFX across the series, the producers were looking especially for a strong rigging and muscle pipeline and a robust animation team.

Steve Kullback said, “The camera moves in very close on this battle, with CG horses and collisions right in front of the lens. We constantly needed to review Iloura’s shots side by side with the photography because it was hard to remember, and even harder to see, the difference between what was shot and what was added."

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To find appropriate real life movements as reference for their CG animations, Iloura’s animators researched and reviewed video of horse behaviour in scenarios such as steeple chases, jousting, racing and associated accidents. Witness cam footage of horses, captured on set, were also valuable resources because they show multiple angles of reference for the same actions.

Iloura also keeps a large library of animated clips of people and creatures that they can use to quickly assemble a blocking pass for shots. These became the foundation for animation that ended up on screen. Overall, the animation work consisted of motion capture, rotomation and key framing for the horses and for the soldiers, building up into a project library of custom interactions and motion behaviours. These could be used for both close-up shots of individuals as well as large-scale crowd shots built in Massive crowd simulation software.

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The initial brief was for the critical confrontation between the Wildling and Bolton armies as they launch into battle, and once production began, it became apparent that more complexity and detail was necessary. For example, each army comprised smaller factions with custom armour, weapons, flags, banners, saddles, bridles and so on. Depending on the story, every asset needed a clean, pre-battle version as well as a muddy version, a bloodied version and a very-muddy-very-bloody variant.

To achieve the high-density shots and photoreal quality required, Iloura rebuilt its pipeline to a large degree, re-engineering large sections to give more control and flexibility.  Its systems integrations were updated, improving Iloura’s internal publishing tool, called BOSS, to help manage the number of assets, animation publishes and traffic going through the pipeline.

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Massive was integrated into the render and shading pipeline, and the complete pipeline also moved to the Alembic open CG interchange framework. This outputs complex, animated scenes into non-procedural, application-independent baked geometry, so that rigging, animation and lighting could be achieved in Maya, FX in Houdini and compositing in Nuke, even using deep pixel compositing.

Game of Thrones’ ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode aired in the US on 19 June on HBO.