There are very few shows on TV that can get people to watch ice melting. Well, maybe only one.
On March 9, HBO put out the word that it was announcing the premiere date for season 7 of Game of Thrones on Facebook Live and encouraged people to come watch.
Fans flocked to HBO’s Facebook Live page, where they were treated to a video of a giant ice cube. When enough viewers entered the word “fire,” or later “dracarys” (Valerian for “fire”) into the comments, torches would fire, melting the ice a little.
It was a fun and original idea, but the feed crashed several times and overall, it took the ice more than an hour to melt on a Thursday afternoon.
After much waiting and a fair amount of complaining, the date was finally revealed: July 16, 2017. Far too long for some, but much less time than book fans have been waiting for the series’ next installment, Winds of Winter.
Once the ice was melted, however, fans got a surprise: the first teaser-trailer for season seven: a beautifully designed, originally conceived trailer by creative agency Bigstar. And it was definitely more interesting to watch than ice melting.
The trailer, above, featured the larger-than-life sigils of all the major houses of Westeros, the medieval land in which Game of Thrones is set. The put-upon underdogs of the series, House Stark, are represented by the dire wolf, while the erstwhile villains, House Lannister, are represented by the lion. The ancestral rulers of Westeros, House Targaryen, appear as the three-headed dragon. Other houses — Baratheon, Tyrell, Greyjoy — have sigils in the forms of the stag, the rose and the kraken, respectively.
Each sigil looks absolutely real, as if it were carved from the giant slab of granite and mounted in a studio, but the entire piece was digitally created.
“We’ve looked at the sigils for years and rendered them in many different ways — shields, flags, brick walls, encased in ice,” says Josh Norton, executive creative director at Bigstar. “For this, we wanted a bigger, more imaginative version of the sigils and that’s where we got the inspiration to build them in this way. Our inspiration came from places like Mt. Rushmore, where you are carving cultural touch-points in forms that have created an identity for a nation. These things help cultures identify themselves in ways that are larger than life. The sigils do that for everyone in Westeros.”
This wasn’t Bigstar’s first go-round with HBO and Game of Thrones. The agency worked with the premium network on the show’s very first trailer, before there was even footage with which to work.
“We started at zero so I read the first book,” says Norton. “That base of knowledge combined with my own love for fantasy and role-playing games and those aesthetics allowed us to put together a pitch that didn’t overcommit to the storyline.
“[That first trailer] was about seasons changing in Westeros. We used a forest to do that, beginning with the sun rising. You heard voices, saw a crow fly by and then saw a pristine summer forest morph into a dead winter forest. That was the first thing that HBO teased the series with, and it started our relationship with them. We then worked with them for the next five seasons on most of their teases and graphics work.”
It was Bigstar’s ability to create something compelling out of nothing that drew HBO back to the agency when it needed a teaser for the much-anticipated seventh season.
“It’s such a great challenge to interpret the show into a visual language that doesn’t yet exist,” says Norton. “HBO doesn’t come to us to edit together clip-driven sizzles. They come to us when they have very little material and they need to create something from scratch.”
The idea for this tease was actually born out of that early relationship, and was a concept that Bigstar had pitched earlier.
“We got a call from one of our close associates at HBO who said they wanted to bring back this pitch that we had given them a few years ago. We met with them and then got to work creating the newer and different story to the sigil approach.”
The trailer also serves as a sort of mini-tour through the show’s first six seasons, highlighting significant lines from several of the series’ key characters. But the trailer’s central narrative hinges on a quote from Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who proclaims: “Lannister, Targaryen, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell — they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s on top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground.”
“I would say that the spirit of the piece really embodies this exchange of power and this churning of combat and war in Westeros over the generations,” says Norton.
To create the sigils, Bigstar built them in 3D animation, using Pixologic’s ZBrush as the modeling platform.
“ZBrush is perfect for this kind of modeling,” says Norton. “It’s very much like real-world interactivity where you are actually carving with tools, you just happen to be in a 3D space. We really needed these models to feel like they were constructed by hand and that they were all of a scale that they deserved. Every marking, pock mark, texture on antlers, that’s all carved in ZBrush.”
Bigstar also was intentional about the textures of each of the sigils, with all of them except the Tyrell rose crafted to look like metallic rock. “We wanted them to feel large and geologic,” says Norton.
The rose, however, is the only non-animal sigil, and as such it’s rendered to look like it’s made out of bronze.
When the models were approved, Bigstar created the animations in Maxon’s Cinema 4D.
“This is where you see animations without texture or lighting. We are rigging mouths and necks so they can open and close without breaking the models,” says Norton. “As you can see in the piece, it’s not just the cameras that are moving, the sculptures are moving as well, making sure we got the most drama out of every shot.”
When that was all completed, Bigstar brought in high-end graphics servers to do the rendering in Octane, a program within Cinema 4D.
In the end, Bigstar ran the piece through multiple pieces of software, but they got the job done. “I felt like like they were the best tools for the job and I would do it the same way again,” says Norton.
After the Facebook Live stunt aired on March 9, the teaser video quickly went viral, with some 40 million views on Facebook and 5.5 million views on YouTube and counting.
“It’s great motivation to be able to tell all the artists who worked so hard on this that tens of millions of people are viewing this,” says Norton. “It’s a big stage for us as a company and we relish that so many people have seen our work.”
Executive Creative Director: Josh Norton
Executive Producer: Carson Hood
Producer: Virgil Conklin
Storyboard Artist: Kurt Huggins
Designers: Doug Chang, Kevin Sanchez
Modelers: Casey Reuter, Scott Denton
3D Generalists: Kevin Sanchez, Alec Iselin, Casey Reuter
Compositors: Alec Iselin, Josh Clos, Kevin Sanchez, Casey Reuter
Visual Effects Artist: Josh Clos
Editors: Jose Laya, Guido Caretto
Audio: Mike Vitacco @ Heard City
Animation: Cinema 4D
Rendering: Octane in Cinema 4D
Editing: Avid, Premiere
Additional effects: Ray-fire, Phoenix FD, real-flow in 3d studio max
Compositing and effects: Adobe Aftereffects