Realistic Fantasy and Fantastical Reality: Computer Generated Bodies in Game of Thrones and Westworld

Since the days of Oz and The Sopranos, HBO has had a reputation for pushing the boundaries of television. Among their most ambitious current series are Game of Thrones and Westworld, both of which visually blur the lines between traditional television and film by featuring lavish sets, real locations, and impressive special effects. Indeed, Game of Thrones set the precedent for Westworld in many ways, so it is no wonder that both shows utilize CGI to construct believable creatures— dragons and robots, respectively— to populate their intricate worlds. Thus, while the use of CGI serves different thematic purposes in Game of Thrones and Westworld, both genre shows align with HBO’s brand identity by melding the production value of blockbuster films with nuanced, cutting-edge storylines.

With serialized stories, superb performances, and high budgets and production quality, television today is more cinematic than ever before (Gorgan). The premium network HBO played a significant role in the paradigm shift in television that has occurred over the past two decades or so and has since garnered a reputation for pushing the boundaries of television. While 24 (2001-2010) and Lost (2004-2010) brought the notion of quality, highly serialized stories on broadcast networks, HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007) jumpstarted this trend and made HBO “a household name for its daring, thrilling television” (“The Evolution…”). Many noteworthy series later, HBO is known for taking creative and visual risks on its shows, investing large sums of money on unique projects (Gorgan). In an article for Vanity Fair, Emma Stefansky noted that HBO’s “prestige TV model has both made and lost the network a lot of money,” with the success of shows like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and Westworld balancing out the failure of Vinyl (2016) and early cancellation of Rome (2005-2007).

One of the best examples of a cutting-edge, distinctly HBO show is Game of Thrones, the network’s current flagship series. Between its myriad locations, lavish production design, and impressive special effects, Game of Thrones undeniably blurs the lines between TV and film. It is no wonder that GOT is one of the “most expensive shows ever made” (Stefansky), averaging about $10 million per episode during Season 6 (Cuccinello). Considering all its awards and premiere records, certainly GOT was worth the investment, but adapting this series to the screen was a risky endeavor. While Game of Thrones incorporated the same complex, serialized storytelling that had begun to permeate television after The Sopranos, never before had these elements appeared in a “fantasy story” set in a brutal “fictional kingdom” (Gorgan). Thankfully, the network’s investment paid off, and the series continues to take risks with each new season, introducing complex storylines like Bran’s that extend beyond the source material and incorporating visually spectacular battle sequences like the onslaught of wights at Hardhome.


The Reed siblings fight reanimated skeletons North of the Wall.

Among the most phenomenal aspects of Game of Thrones is its use of CGI, especially as it relates to bringing the fictional creatures of Westeros to life. Indeed, Game of Thrones relies on convincing, seamless CGI to create these fantastical beings so that audiences will buy into this universe. In the words of Bustle critic Leah Thomas, “We may know that dragons, armies of skeletons, and faceless men aren’t real- but the team behind Game of Thrones makes sure nothing sticks out.” Perhaps the most iconic creatures in Game of Thrones are Daenerysdragons. The dragons must appear convincing, as they are integral to Daenerys’ storyline and character growth; Daenerys constantly interacts with her “children,” cradling them, stroking them (pictured below), and eventually riding one of them to safety. The linked clip from Pixomondo illustrates the complex combination of rendering and compositing required daenerys-and-dragonfor each dragon sequence in Season Four. Of course, Daenerys’ dragons have only grown larger and more powerful as the series has gone on, evolving from near-helpless babies to massive beasts that can roast Daenerys’ enemies and whisk her to safety.  The linked clip depicts the evolution in dragon VFX from seasons one through three. Before GOT, this level of special effects was largely relegated to blockbuster films (Gorgan); thus, the use of CGI in Game of Thrones blurs the lines between cinema and television and reflects HBO’s cutting-edge brand identity.

HBO’s new series Westworld is similar to Game of Thrones in many ways; both are grandiose genre series with sky-high budgets, lavish production values, and jaw-dropping VFX. The first season cost around $100 million to produce, and, like GOT, much of the show was shot on location in Moab, Utah, the backdrop of many classical Western movies (Fehrman). Moreover, both shows offer “copious violence and sex” and infuse the “well-worn” fantasy and Western genres with “new life” (Bady). Many critics have noted these similarities, hypothesizing that Westworld will take over Game of Thrones’ position as the flagship HBO series after the latter’s final two seasons (Bradley).

Among the most notable similarities between the two shows is the use of VFX; Westworld, too, relies on impressive CGI to create the convincing fictional creatures— here, remarkably human-like robots— to populate its world. Much as Daenerys frequently interacts with her dragons in Game of Thrones, the major human characters of Westworld frequently interact with the robot “hosts,” and the hosts interact with each other. In this way, the linked scene in which Dr. Ford converses with an outdated model, Old Bill, mirrors the scene in which Daenerys fears her own dragons for the first time. The show’s VFX supervisor Jay Worth explained that Cosa VFX, the company behind CGI in Stranger Things and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Zakarin), used “jerking, mechanical-like motion” to emphasize the imperfection of older models like Bill (Failes). With the help of effects program Nuke, the team layered simple effects to make the actor’s big gestures appear as a series of smaller movements (Zakarin).

Of course, the idea in Westworld is that the robots in the park now are practically indistinguishable from humans. When William first arrives in the park, he asks one of the hosts if she is real, only for her to respond, “Well, if you can’t tell, does it matter?” As such, CGI is typically only used to show robots malfunctioning, as with the dangerously aware Peter Abernathy and the glitching Sheriff (pictured below). sheriff-2gif.gifFor this eerie effect, the special effects team made one of the Sheriff’s eyes track the fly crawling on his face, whereas Abernathy’s malfunction in the pilot episode was mostly the actor’s performance, as the linked clip demonstrates; all the VFX team did was manipulate his pupils and eyelids slightly to make him appear slightly “off” (Zakarin) and use 2D tricks to make him start and stop as Ford instructs him to move between “builds” (Failes). The result of these special effects is that Westworld, like Game of Thrones, is far more cinematic than the average TV show. Executive producer J.J. Abrams commented on Westworld’s cinematic qualities, observing, “The production value of this thing is preposterous… But it’s HBO. That’s what they do” (Stefansky). He went on to point out that the “writers and directors wanted to maximize the sense of a cinematic experience” (Stefansky). Thus, Westworld and Game of Thrones alike fit HBO’s cutting-edge mold by pushing the boundaries of television production value.

dolores fly

Yet, as much as Westworld resembles its predecessor, the use of CGI in Westworld is far more self-reflexive than in Game of Thrones. Whereas the VFX in GOT are intended to be seamless, the CGI used to bring robots to life in Westworld does the very opposite; instead of making something fictional appear realistic, Westworld digitally manipulates human performances to appear visibly unnatural. The robots appear purposefully artificial because the show thematizes human creation and raises questions about technology and voyeuristic media. Laura Bradley from Vanity Fair points out that, while “both shows feature plentiful gore and sex, Westworld has cleverly framed itself as a critique of the same sort of gratuitous moments that Game of Thrones seems to relish.” As such, the show constantly reminds audiences of its own construction, often pulling away from dramatic moments in the park to showcase the employees working behind the scenes. One such example occurs during the finale, when Dolores’ emotional death scene beside the ocean is interrupted when lights flash, the hosts freeze, and Ford steps up to accept applause for his new storyline. Likewise, VFX function in the series to create an “unnerving, unreal final product” in which “glitches, stalls,” and “inconsistent expressions” reveal “what happens when robots perfectly designed to imitate humans malfunction and artifice can no longer obstruct their nature” (Zakarin). In other words, the CGI in Westworld is intended to stand out and unnerve audiences, forcing viewers to acknowledge just how horrifying it is that humans can mimic reality and all the terrible things that could go wrong. For example, when the Sheriff glitches and his eyes start gazing in different directions in the linked scene, the audience feels as uncomfortable as the guests, and darkness lurking beneath this fantasy world reveals itself.

dolores death

Ford interrupts the emotional climax of Dolores’ storyline.

Thus, Game of Thrones and Westworld differ from one another in many ways, yet these distinctions, too, reflect HBO’s brand identity, since the network does not simply repeat its former successes. Westworld and Game of Thrones also share a great deal; both are both R-rated, high-budget genre shows with complex long-form narratives Yet, Westworld criticizes media-making itself, holding up a mirror to shows and movies like Game of Thrones that provide voyeuristic pleasure through sex, violence, and escapist fantasy. Whereas Game of Thrones was groundbreaking for bringing such high-tech visual elements to television, Westworld is innovative its self-reflexive use of complex narratives and visual splendor to critique storytelling and technology. So, while both shows boast similarly cinematic CGI, it is only logical that both shows should utilize VFX differently. After all, HBO’s brand requires that its flagship series be radically new in some respect, and both Game of Thrones and Westworld stand alone as uniquely innovative masterpieces.

Works Cited


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