Game Of Thrones – VFX – Interview with Michail Charalampidis

Imagine for a moment what it would be like to work as part of the visual effects team (VFX) for Game of Thrones, and working through the complexities of creatures, creating epic weather, and of course bringing dragons to life. Amazing to think about right? So, then let’s say after such an experience you get invited back only this time to work on-set of the upcoming season. I can hardly imagine, but for talented, up and coming director Michail Charalampidis, this is very much reality. For the past year Michail has worked here in the LA office with the VFX team, and is currently in Belfast working around the clock on-set of season six.

After connecting with Michail through a mutual friend, I reached out asking if he would be interested in interviewing with me. Ironically, he was packing up that day at the office and catching an early flight out the next morning. But, he was still kind enough to invite me there so we could interview in person. We had a great time discussing his career so far, being a fan of the show himself, and how such an incredible opportunity came to be for him.

How did your start begin? Was there a moment you knew this was what you wanted to do early on?

I’m not exactly sure a specific moment when I was younger. But, my parents would say when I first saw The Lion King when I was little. I believe we watched it in the theater and when it was over, I thought we were going to watch it again. My parents said “No” and I said “Why not” and was upset we didn’t. They are convinced that started it all. I know the elephant grave scene really did it for me and I started drawing that scene at home.  I think part of it was my parents had a home theater with a projector and we not only watched movies but TV shows as well. We’d watch with this nice surround sound system and you could really see, hear and feel all of the details of the movie. That feeling of watching movies on that scale was I think the moment I decided “I really like this.” The details, the sound effects during the epic moments in movies…that was a big thing for me.

I did acting for a number of years in high school. I was exposed a lot to theater and acting. I took a theater class, and at that time thought I was going to be an actor. I grew up on Lord of The Rings, Matrix, Terminator and thought “Wow, that’s what I want to do.” I began to explore more writing and directing and ended up writing 3 books back then.  When I came to the US for college, the moment I walked in I said, “This is my playground and I’m going to learn as much as possible so when I walk out of here I know how to do everything.” Friday nights I was staying in…learning VFX, learning editing, learning software. It was important to me to learn how to edit, how to handle a crowd, how to manage it all because so much of the time people don’t realize all the planning involved in making a movie.

Tell me about directing your first film.

It was during my independent study when it was about now making movies and looking at what makes a good movie. I knew I wanted to do more mainstream work. My first film was Years of Youth. It was an experiment as to can I handle production planning, and can I tell a story for 90 minutes that will keep people excited. I’d never done it before and asked myself, “Can I really do this?” I knew it needed to have action and it needed to have suspense. I gathered up friends from with acting experience and made a movie in just over two weeks.

Honestly, I almost bailed out at the end of the 2nd day because I was thinking the first day was horrible and in a few more days things are going to completely fall apart. I had about 50-60 people I didn’t want to drag further into the days to then fail them. I got everyone together the next morning to tell them I’m done and I wasn’t going to continue on. I said, “Guys, I think this is going to collapse and we should stop this right now.” They said, “What are you talking about? We wake at 6am, drive an hour here, are super excited, and we completely trust you. No, we should do this.”

If they hadn’t done that, I don’t think I’d be sitting here today. They may have honestly saved my career. That was a huge moment because I would have lost my confidence if I didn’t finish and might have just given up. We finished the movie and all went well. I spent my 3rd semester editing, adding visual effects, and working on it. I realized there were errors but when I screened it and saw the audience reaction it was great. I won’t say too much because I plan to rework it. For my second film I wanted to see if I could do it again and do it better, and I did.

How did you go from graduating college to working on Game of Thrones?

There were not a lot of connections to Hollywood in western Massachusetts so I had to figure out who I’m going to connect with on my own. Out of the blue I decided to go to a local filmmakers networking event. I figured I’d stop by and see what it’s about, and that’s where I met Diane Pearlman of The Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative. Diane has some great experience for films like The Matrix. She’s worked on some great films. We connected and I emailed her and we ended up doing some workshops together for students. I think that I proved to her that I’m reliable, I can deliver what I’m promising, and I’m honest. Looking back, I think that’s what is most important, because it’s not just networking, you need to have something to offer.

When I was close to graduation I reached out to Diane to see if she could help me find work because I didn’t even know where to look. She said, “I’m going to put you in touch with Steve Kullback who is the VFX producer of Game of Thrones.” And she did, along with another producer. But, both were full at the time. And so I had this really hard time right after graduation of no place to go. I’m sure many feel that way, but I wouldn’t want that feeling for anyone. I was fortunate enough to do some short term work with Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odessey, Blade Runner, Close Encounters of The Third Kind). I got back in touch with Steve and he mentioned vaguely they may need someone in LA. When they called me for an interview, I was driving at the time. They asked me if I wanted them to call back another time and I said, “NO!” I pulled right over. They said, “You might be over qualified for the job” but my reply was, “It doesn’t matter.” It’s Game of Thrones, I need to see something big, a big production, and it doesn’t get much bigger than this!

What are some of the aspects you love about working on Game of Thrones?

First, I’d say being a part of  a team that works like a well-oiled machine. It’s a team of seven people who just deliver such great work. And also, being a part of a team that allows you to grow. I appreciate working a show with such diverse visual effects needs. With some shots it’s figuring out how did they orchestrate this…it’s a shot with real people, CG people, a giant, and snow, there’s a lot of complexity to it. I really appreciate a producer who cares so much about the team.

Let’s talk about the huge fan base and how invested into the show fans are.

I love watching reactions to the show. I’m a huge fan of the show myself. Now that I’m on the inside, I read the script and think what’s going to happen next? I’m the same as any other fan when I get to an episode and a lot of major characters are dying and I’m watching it going “what’s going on here?” I couldn’t sleep after that one. That’s how invested as a fan you become. We go through the same process when reading a script, that a fan does watching the show.

What Game of Thrones does so successfully is create a blend. There is no line between good and evil. Honestly, that’s what I fall in love with about it. Your good characters need to have disadvantages.

Everyone enjoys working on a show that is so well received. We just want to keep doing good work and continue to surprise people. The writers continually surprise us!

Michail  on-set: 12027771_10207499280540735_4654923323565189415_nPhoto Credit to Niamh Currie

I arrived in Belfast on the 1st of June and will remain here until the end of production currently scheduled for mid-December, right before I would have to spend more money on winter and rainproof clothing. So far the weather has been pretty supportive and our exterior shootings have been going smoothly.

Can you share with me what your new role is for this coming season?

So, what do I do on set? For the most part, I assist our VFX data wrangling team with their needs. What does a VFX data wrangler do? It’s not a well known position, but crucial to the development of all our visual effects shots. We gather as much information as possible about all VFX shots so that our post production artists can work on them. We want to capture the conditions under which a shot was taken. What kind of camera, lenses, filters, the distance between the camera and actor or the camera and where the dragons will be. Sounds like a lot, but all this information is essential for later. Another important step is archiving all of it so that we are able to properly distribute it to our vendors when post begins. It gets difficult when you have thousands of shots. The number can get higher now as we are dealing with a lot of potential VFX shots as well and we want to save information for those as well in case they become actual VFX shots.

What are some surprises you’ve encountered so far? How about challenges?

Our biggest challenge is being ready for everything. VFX is not always a straightforward job and you have to be creative with the way you get ready for a shoot. We can’t anticipate everything, but we can try to anticipate as much as possible. Even though there is a lot of prep work for our big vfx sequences, we can’t predict what will happen on the day, especially for such a big and complex show like Game of Thrones. The thing that surprised me the most when I got here and we started working on season 6 was the amount of time we put into prep. It’s not just a visual effects department thing. All departments spend weeks meeting with each other and going page by page breaking down the needs of every scene.

Communication is crucial and sometimes extremely hard when there are so many moving parts. Unfortunately prep is not something they teach you in college. The attitude among students is that all problems will be somehow solved on set. Although there are decisions made on set, prep is the most creative process. That’s where all big decisions are being made and production is mostly the execution of those decisions.

What does your family think of your work and the show?

We were all fans and watching the show even before it was ever a possibility of me working for them. My family is quick to tell me, “Don’t you spoil anything for us!”

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Thank you so much Michail, and we can’t wait for more updates along the way!

Michail on IMDb