Fantastic Fakery: Adam Chazen

Adam Chazen, visual effects coordinator on HBO's Game of Thrones, already has one Emmy under his belt, and his collegues in the post-production realm of Westeros are considered frontrunners to capture another statue this year. Chazen takes us inside the VFX process and discusses the balance between CG and practical effects. 

Credit: Pixomondo/HBOCredit: Pixomondo/HBOWorking in visual effects was not the grand plan. With one Emmy win to his credit and another nomination this year, the happy accident has certainly worked out in his favor. Adam Chazen only set out to get a foot in the door toward a career in film. After gaining some ground level experience as a production assistant and commuting across state lines for a gig he couldn’t pass up, Chazen found himself at VFX house Pixomondo, contributing to projects like Iron Man 2 and The A-Team. Today, he is a visual effects coordinator for the hugely successful HBO series Game of Thrones.

Get In Media: Let’s get into the nuts and bolts of your job first. For those that may not know the details, what exactly can you say that a visual coordinator on a production does?

Adam Chazen: I assist the producer and the visual effects supervisor with all of their needs. I manage pre-production and production. We manage a lot of different departments. We have concept artists who concept out the different locations. This past season, for example, The Twins, King’s Landing … Riverrun was a big one that we conceptualized. The Sept of the Baelor, because we’d never seen the interior of it—anything that needs a vision to it. We also have an artist who pre-visualizes the big scenes, which basically means making animatics out of it so we can direct what we’re going to shoot.

For example, the big previz thing we did this year was the ice wall, so we have a whole animatic of that. We stuck pretty closely to that, so I’m sure the making-of people will probably use it at the end of the day. When you A and B the animatic to what we actually shot, it’s pretty close. We also did it for the sea battle, which was also pretty close to the animatic. I also manage all set needs—things like green screens, making sure people are in the right places. Last year, at the most we had, at most, three units going at the same time. We also have all three units of visual effects, which get the cast torn in a million places, but I just make sure everyone’s in the right place and knows what we’re doing.

The Wall, "Game of Thrones"

Once we get into the post-production aspect of it, the job is managing all the different vendors you have on the show. Last year we had our main vendor, Pixomondo, and then a few other vendors doing simpler, easier stuff. This year we spread out the love and we had a few other vendors. We had Pixomondo, Spin Visual Effects in Toronto, Entity FX in Los Angeles, Gradient FX in Los Angeles, and Look Effects in Los Angeles. I was divvying up the shots to them, managing the review process with our supervisor and to get out notes. We worked with executive producers David Benioff and Dan Weiss to get their feedback, then with HBO to get their feedback. It’s a game of making everyone happy, making sure everyone’s voice is heard, and making sure what goes on screen looks great.

GIM: You started off doing a lot of production assistant work when you broke into the industry. How did you then make that jump to visual effects, and what attracted you about that aspect of filmmaking and production?

AC: I was working literally the day after I graduated school. I was freelancing over at The Onion News Network when it was just the Internet site. I got that job because I had my summer internship during my junior year of college with The Onion, and after that, every time they were doing shoots, they always called me up to freelance. Coincidentally, the day after I graduated they needed a freelancer, so I was already working. After that, a buddy of mine at Rowan who had graduated a year before me was already in Los Angeles working on Transformers 2. He said that they needed some PAs for the Bethlehem unit, in Bethlehem, Pa. Of course I took it, even though it was an hour-and-a-half trek each way. But you don’t say no to that. I did that for about a month and had a lot of fun doing it. I figured I’d give it a shot, maybe move to Los Angeles, see how that went. So I did.

I was looking for any way to get in the door. Visual effects was never in my mind to do at the time. I didn’t go to school specifically for visual effects, but I was looking to get my foot in the door any way possible because then you can start meeting the right people versus being on the outside waiting for that awesome job. I got a gig over at Pixomondo, who was working on Roland Emmerich’s 2012 at the time. I was with the company for about two years when they bumped me up to a coordinator. I worked on a few other films there: Iron Man 2, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The A-Team, and I’ve been in visual effects ever since. It wasn’t my original path, but it’s something that I began to enjoy. I always wanted to produce, and at the end of the day, in my opinion, I’m still producing now. It’s just a different aspect of production. It’s all about production management, whether you’re producing costumes or you’re producing visual effects. In my head, at least, it’s the same people management, managing expectations and making sure things work.

GIM: You mentioned being at Pixomondo and working in the film aspect and now working as visual coordinator on Game of Thrones. How different is the approach to visual effects across the different mediums? They do very similar things, but are working on very different levels.

AC: Game of Thrones is an interesting one in that question because we’re expected to do feature-level effects on a very short timeline. To the credit of all the vendors on the show, they do it, and I think they do it stupendously. Specifically for this show, besides the timeline being a bit shorter and the turnarounds being quicker, the level of the work I don’t see to be different from feature work. I was just reading an article from Vulture the other week that said that our dragon work is “Spielberg level,” which is so flattering. I sent that over to Sven Martin, who is the creature visual effects supervisor over in Frankfurt for Pixomondo, and he does all the dragons. It’s such a compliment. I don’t really see a crazy difference on Game of Thrones because I believe we’re doing feature work.

GIM: Because of that, it’s very unique. You’re putting out a product that does have feature quality to it, but are there any times at all when the budget might limit what you can do? Because you’re not working with hundreds of millions of dollars…

AC: Well obviously budget always comes in, and there are scenes that we would have liked to do but couldn’t because of budget, but you make it work. You think of other ideas. And even on humungous features, they run into that, too. A lot of times they can just throw money at the problem and make it work, but the challenge is what makes the show work really well. It makes you think deeper into it and go, “What can we do to still have this awesome shot, but within the budget?” It’s not like, “Here’s a lot of money, do this awesome, crazy shot.” With this, we have to think a lot more detailed into it. “How can we be cost conscious and make things work?” Our supervisor, Joe Bauer, to his credit, likes to shoot a lot of things practical and then comps those into the shot, and they look fantastic. That helps us save a lot of money at the end of the day because we don’t have to create stuff in CG.

GIM: I wanted to ask you about that, too. Especially when you’re dealing with Hollywood, there’s a reliance at times of using CG effects. It seems that in television, because it has to be more cost effective and cost conscious, that there is more of a shift toward using practical effects, because they’re cheaper overall, and they are able to look better, I think, in the end. Can you talk a little bit about the balance between using CG and practical effects, and what you find to be more effective in delivering a good product?

AC: I think it’s a good marriage. We work heavily with our special effects supervisor, Stuart Brisdon, and we compliment each other. Obviously, if you can get something in-camera, that’s great because that’s more money saved for a bigger scene that we have. For example, in the first episode of this season, where the dragon splashes into the water and brings up the fish, we shot an element of the splash. Stuart made this cool rig, which was basically a weight that dunked into a garbage tank of water. We shot that and that was the effect that we used for the water. That saved money on the CG end of the water, and we were able to make that work. It’s a give and take. We love doing cool work, but if we can get it in-camera, in-camera is always the best, because you can’t say that real is fake.

GIM: Exactly. Is that something that is given a lot of emphasis in the creative process, to try to make these things as seamless as possible, where it’s very difficult to tell what is real and what is fake?

AC: As always, the best visual effect is the one that you can’t tell is a visual effect. When people see our making-of videos, they say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that was a visual effect.” In the first scene of this past season, where Sam is running through the snowstorm, that was all CG. None of the snow was real. You look at the original plates, and they were just running on a nice, cold Iceland day. I show people that, and they’re amazed that none of it was real. I think all these little things, even if you don’t notice it, it adds up to the greater good. It doesn’t take the person out of the viewing process to think, “Oh, look at that castle over there. That’s fake.” It works so well in the picture that people buy into the world and they’re living in it, which is great.

GIM: When you’re dealing with source material like this that is either already established, does it hinder creativity on the effects level because you have to pay tribute to what is already on the page? Or do you still have leeway to create things on your own that are loosely based on this world that’s already been set up?

AC: We have liberty. At the end of the day, we come up with ideas and we present it to the producers and Dan and David. They give us their feedback and we incorporate that. HBO is a fantastic place to work and the shows are fantastic because there’s a lot of creative freedom. They support that, and they want that. They let us do these things that make the show better, and they give everyone creative freedom, which is great in a world where studios say, “This is what we want and this is what’s going to happen.”

At the end of the day, you can run into a problem where people just don’t care at that point and they’re like, “Let’s just get it on the screen and move on.” Since we have the creative freedom, we care more and we want to make it look great. We obviously don’t want to piss off the fanboys and such. It is a show that many people follow. It’s a cult following, so we want to stay as true as possible. Before we do create something we talk to Dan and David, who know the books inside out. We read up about it, and our concept artist, a guy named Tobias Mannewitz, has read all the books as well, and he brings his own ideas to the table, but he also has the ideas that are on the page. He encompasses all of that and figures out what’s the best way we can make them work on screen with our budget and our time.

GIM: When you’re dealing with film, it’s really more of a director’s medium, and they help steer the ship when it comes to production. But with TV, it’s a very different animal because you have directors coming and going with different episodes. So can you talk a little bit about the difference between working with TV and with film as far as the chain of command, and who is really steering the ship when it comes to something like Game of Thrones as opposed to when you were working on something like The A-Team?

AC: Well, it’s exactly as you said. Movies are director’s medium and TV is a producer driven medium. You can tell a different director’s episode because everyone has his or her own technique. Michelle MacLaren just directed the best two episodes that I thought were really great. David Nutter is doing the last two episodes. It’s the director’s set, so they run the set, and you can tell the different ways they work, but at the end of the day it’s Dan and David’s show. Everything goes through them. Yeah. It’s probably different than film. You don’t answer the director, you answer to the producers, which makes sense, because at the end of the day there has to be some kind of continuity throughout the series, and while the directors come and go, the producers stay the same.

GIM: As far as visuals are concerned, having been part of a number of different productions, what would you say is the best thing that you’ve been a part of creating, as far as what goes out on screen? Is it the dragons? Or is there something else that you would say, “That’s the one that I’m most proud of.”

AC: That’s a good question. You’re probably right. It probably is the dragons. Every season that we’ve been doing the dragons now, they just get better and better. This past season, with the dragons in the tent, I thought they were fantastic. And again, in that Vulture article, they wrote, “You don’t just see the dragons move, you know what they’re thinking,” which I totally agree with. They’ve brought these dragons to life, and I think they’re the best dragons I’ve ever seen, on a television screen or even on a film. I think they’re really fantastic and they really have life to them. People want more and more of them but, you know … dragons aren’t cheap. I would have to say the dragons.

GIM: The thing that’s cool about the dragons is that they’re constantly evolving and changing. Every time we see them, we see something different from them. It’s not just one staple that gets recycled in each episode. As they grow, we’re kind of growing with them throughout that process.

AC: Yeah, definitely. You don’t want it to be a one trick pony, because then it wouldn’t be fun, it would just be incidental. You want them to be a major character. It gives them life. They’re not just flying around not doing anything; they’re actually interacting and inflicting fear. That shot in episode seven where the dragons fly in front of Kraznys grabbing the meat? They’re coming at you, and you feel that. It’s really fun to bring them to life and not just have them sit around.

GIM: For someone who is now entering the field, who thinks, “I have a dream to be involved in visual effects,” is there something that they can do to make themselves invaluable, or to plot for a long-term future knowing that the market is dictating based mostly on price over artistic work?

AC: Yeah, I always say the more you know the more valuable you are. If going into the business you want to be a compositor, but you have a good knowledge of 3-D, that would help immensely. A lot of times what we do on this production, for simple work we have an in-house compositor. I would say the more you know, the more you’re able to bring to the table and give to a company, the more valuable you become. That would be huge. As a side note, I’m pretty good on the IT side of things. I’m good at fixing computers and stuff. So I’ve become more valuable to my bosses because they know that as well as being someone coordinating visual effects, they don’t have to bring in a separate IT guy to fix everything every time something goes wrong.

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