That’s a Wrap – “Game of Thrones” Q&A

by Jody Duncan

For the past seven years, visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer has been living a transcontinental life, spending half the year or more in Northern Ireland to oversee the filming of visual effects sequences for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and then returning home to Los Angeles for the remainder of the year, working long hours in postproduction to shepherd the completion of final shots from vendors around the globe.

He is currently just a handful of weeks away from delivering the last of those shots for Game of Thrones’ final season – and so, the time seemed right to talk with Bauer about his seven-year journey through Westeros and environs …

Joe Bauer

You came onto Game of Thrones for the series’ third season, in 2013. From the beginning, the production has been based in Northern Ireland. When did you first arrive there?

I think it was May of 2012 – something like that. That first year, I was there for about six months. I remember that we were back in time for Thanksgiving. And then the next year we were back before Christmas; and the year after that, we stayed until after Christmas. For Season Eight, we stayed in Northern Ireland for a full year, from August 2017 to August 2018.

What accounted for those longer and longer production times?

It wasn’t the number of episodes – those actually diminished. In the beginning there were ten episodes per season, and in later seasons, there were six or seven. But the volume of work for all departments increased, and the length of the episodes increased, as well. Also, the visual effects work compounded dramatically – from 800 shots in Season Three to well over 3,000 shots in Season Eight.

Your first year, what kind of ‘catch up’ did you have to do to take over the visual effects supervision for a show that already had been in production for two seasons?

I hadn’t read the books beforehand, and in fact, I wasn’t even aware of the show. So, the hardest thing was just trying to get some grasp of the story and the characters. Reading the script and making sense of it all was like reading another language. I just focused on the things that seemed most likely to be visual effects, things I knew they wouldn’t be able to shoot.

Do you recall your initial discussions with the show’s creators, David Benioff and D.B Weiss?

I remember one of the things they said right off was that they wanted the show to be cinematic – which was a nice thing to hear. And then we tested that immediately by asking them for some things that were unusual for production, things involving stunts and special effects. There is a horrible knee-jerk tendency out there to go the CG route. But it is so much better if you’ve got something there, even if it is just photography to match to – and I’ve been beating that drum for a long time. The idea was to go into postproduction with elements that would be much harder to create as assets or effects sims, especially in a constricted timeframe. If we shot something, I knew I could plug that in and it would look good. If you can put 70% of the shot together on the Avid, then you’re home free.

Were there any peculiarities to working in Northern Ireland?

The working style was a bit different. They work without stopping for lunch, for example, which definitely has its advantages. And so, you do a ‘walking lunch.’ You also do a 10-hour day, generally, unless everyone agrees to go longer. But that’s rare, especially when you’re shooting outdoors in inclement weather. You’d kill people if you kept them out there longer than 10 hours. Also, the crew was made up of a lot of Irish and British people, and it is the cultural tradition to head for the pub after your work is done. If we worked them too long, and they didn’t get to check that emotional box, we’d have a pretty unhappy crew.

Was it more difficult to get special equipment there?

A bit. Anything that was unusual had to come from London – or sometimes even from L.A. For example, in Season Four, we had a 30X400-foot greenscreen for the wall battle. They built this massive scaffold in a farmer’s field, not too far from the coast. A couple of nights, there was such a storm that it ripped all of the greenscreen that had been fabricated in the U.S. and shipped over. It was ripped into rags. They got more of it made and shipped, and they got some at Shepperton, but that was a big deal. Motion control equipment was brought in from the U.K. and the U.S. – so there were shipping considerations with that, as well.

You must have faced a lot of shooting challenges in your six years on the show – days in which things did not go as planned. Care to share any of those memories?

A lot of them revolve around our outdoor greenscreen needs, which increased with every season. Early on, we’d just rely on stand-by people to put up our greenscreens. We’d throw them up the best we could – but not in a way that anybody with any knowledge would have done it! For example, we did that for a scene with Hodor and Bran at the cave of the three-eyed raven, and then the winds came up and the greenscreen started falling over. We realized at that point that we couldn’t function like that any more. It was just too dangerous. So we hired Paul Hatchman as our visual effects key grip, and once we got him in, everything changed. But our worst day was before we hired Paul, and everything was blowing and falling. Most of the bad experiences I recall – those I can actually recount – were those Man vs. Elements situations, because the elements always win.

How did the workflow evolve from Season Three to Season Eight? What improvements or changes were implemented along the way to improve efficiency and productivity?

The biggest change, I think, was just the number of visual effects facilities we had to bring on. In Season Two they had one facility – I think everything was done by Pixomondo. By Season Six, we had 14 facilities. Another comparison: for Season Three we had three previs people; for Season Eight we had 22 – including several geniuses. We also brought on additional visual effects supervisor starting with Season Four – Stefen Fangmeier, Ted Rae and Eric Carney of The Third Floor.

Watch the trailer for Game of Thrones Season Eight:

You mentioned that Season Eight has 3,000-plus visual effects shots. What were the mechanics of managing that volume of work in postproduction?

After we had determined what the shot load was going to be, we told the producers that we had just barely delivered our 2,400 shots for Season Seven – and this was going to be a lot more than that! We simply couldn’t do it in the time we had. We either had to lose shots or we had to bring on another supervisor; and they opted to bring on another supe, which was Stefen Fangmeier. Stefen did the premier and I did the finale, plus the majority of the remaining shots – because I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess!

Many of the same people – department heads and crew members – have worked together on this show season after season. Tell me how that has impacted the production. I imagine there is a significant benefit to that.

Oh, yeah. Once you have a history, everyone is confident enough to own what they’re doing and not wait to be told. Confidence is the key – and once everybody has that, you can do great things. For example, for this season, The Third Floor came up with the idea of putting programmed LEDs on the walls of the stage to ensure correct moving eyelines. Previously, we’d just had numbers on the wall, and we’d be yelling out: ‘Number 1! Number 5! Number 4!’ The programmed LEDs were a big improvement – and The Third Floor just did it, because they had the confidence to do it.

Visual effects producer Steve Kullback preceded you by one season – but you’ve been working as a team since Season Three. What is that working relationship like?

Anything I want to do, Steve makes it happen. And I’m not overstating that.

That’s a great quality in a visual effects producer.

It is! Whenever I had an idea, I’d first have to sell it to Steve – and he would be the devil’s advocate, to some degree, until I held my breath and threatened to walk in front of a bus if I didn’t get what I wanted. Once I convinced him, he would march it upstairs to Bernadette Caulfield, the executive producer, and I’d hear her jaw hit the floor. But she trusted Steve, and Steve trusted me – so it worked out. He was the Great Facilitator. He put a kind of protective bubble over me and ran interference for me, so I could do what I had to do.

After working on this show and these people for six years, you must have had mixed feelings about its being over. Tell me about your final days working on Game of Thrones as the production side of it came to an end last August.

I remember that the number of effects shots was still growing, and that meant there were more and more elements to shoot. As the schedule worked out, the last elements were being shot as I was in Heathrow Airport, preparing to fly back to L.A. – and so, right there in the airport, I was getting QuickTime movies sent to me on my phone to sign off on. There wasn’t a wasted second. And everybody was on board. We had a couple of the best camera operators in the U.K. working for us, and they stayed to shoot elements! Everybody was invested in this effort, as a whole. Everybody wanted to stay and see it out.

You have another few weeks of postproduction ahead of you, and then your tenure on Game of Thrones will be over. What’s next? Do you plan to take some time off?

I’m not that kind of person – not a lay-by-the-pool kind of guy. Never have been. I’ve got some travel plans for this June, but hopefully by late summer I’ll be plugged into the next thing.

Thanks, Joe.

Cinefex 157 covers "Game of Thrones" Season Seven

The eighth and final season of Game of Thrones airs on HBO, commencing April 14, 2019.