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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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THE ILLUSIoNIST

FROM AGGIELAND TO THE FANTASY WORLD OF WESTEROS IN "GAME OF THRONES," DEREK SPEARS '91 HAS JOURNEYED ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF DIGITAL EFFECTS.

BY BAILEY PAYNE '19

FROM AGGIELAND TO THE FANTASY WORLD OF WESTEROS IN "GAME OF THRONES," DEREK SPEARS '91 HAS JOURNEYED ON THE CUTTING EDGE OF DIGITAL EFFECTS.

V isual effects supervisor Derek Spears ’91 knows what Benjamin Franklin meant when he famously declared that time is money. Spears’ last project cost more than $86,000 for every second of screen time, not including production costs. It was Bud Light’s 2019 advertisement for Super Bowl LIII, in which the beer brand’s happy-go-lucky, “dilly dilly”-chanting kingdom is invaded by a ferocious dragon from the world of “Game of Thrones.”

The digital effects for the ad were produced on short notice, so much so that Spears was reluctant to specify how much time his team had to work with. “If we tell people we did it that quickly, they’ll want it done that quickly every time,” he joked. He and his team at the visual effects studio Pixomondo were brought onto the project in no small part due to his experience animating the dragons on “Game of Thrones” itself.

Daenerys and Dragon

BRING ME MY SWORD

Spears was born in Boston, but his parents moved south to raise him in Spring, Texas. His father, Henry Spears ’66, had earned his master’s degree at Texas A&M University in computer science, a novel field of study at the time. The elder Spears instilled in his children a curiosity for math and science as well as a hearty appreciation for Aggie football and traditions. Derek went to College Station to follow in his father’s footsteps and study electrical engineering.

Before he encountered the field of visual effects, Spears interned during summer breaks with a computer manufacturing company called Alliant Computer Systems. There, he grew interested in a digital workstation produced by Silicon Graphics called the IRIS 3130, a hulking mammoth of a computer workstation with an impressive 16 megabytes of storage. If a modern-day MP3 player had the same storage capacity, it could hold about four songs.

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He was intrigued by the system’s ability to create real-time 3D graphics and the possibilities that imaging technology offered at large. Spears talked his manager into allowing him to represent Alliant at SIGGRAPH, an international computer graphics conference. The wide showcase of cutting-edge digital hardware and software floored him, especially the technology being utilized in the entertainment industry. “That was when my interest in computer graphics grabbed hold, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he recalled.

OVER THE WALL

Few electrical engineering graduates today enter the workforce with the goal of becoming digital effects artists. This was doubly so when Spears first began his career, when digital effects were as experimental as they were extravagant. He believed that competition between movie studios to produce more dazzling effects would lead to rapid advancements in computing technology. “Early digital effects captured the imagination of the world, because we saw things we could never create before,” Spears said. Art was being re-engineered, and he wanted to be on the ground floor.

Upon graduating with his bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M in 1991, Spears made a beeline toward a position at Silicon Graphics and immediately ran into a brick wall. Soon after he applied, the company entered a hiring freeze. Undeterred, he worked odd consulting jobs until he found his way back into Silicon Graphics through its software development division.

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When his team was brought on to help develop a pioneering digital compositing system for Kodak, Spears saw a way in. “I talked to people from Kodak’s visual effects arm, Cinesite,” he said. “I got a job there by promoting my skills at a much greater level than I was actually capable of.”

He moved to Los Angeles and acted as a computer graphics supervisor at Cinesite for three years. By 1999, Spears was a visual effects supervisor at Rhythm & Hues, where he worked on various blockbuster movie and TV productions, such as “The Sum of All Fears,” “Superman Returns,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “The Walking Dead.” He and his team created magnificent effects that integrated digital models and animation with live-action footage to create images that could never be realized with practical on-set trickery alone.

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EARLY DIGITAL EFFECTS CAPTURED THE IMAGINATION OF THE WORLD, BECAUSE WE SAW THINGS WE COULD NEVER CREATE BEFORE."

- Derek Spears '91

Emmys

UNBURNT

In 2015, Spears’ team received a special assignment from HBO producers. “We were given a simple task, which was to animate and light this one particular scene,” he said. “They wanted to see if our work could live up to their standards for the show.” That show was the hit fantasy series “Game of Thrones,” which at the time was filming its fifth season.

In the pivotal scene, a massive dragon belonging to main character Daenerys Targaryen swoops into a coliseum, shakes the ground as it lands and gobbles up enemy soldiers running for dear life. Spears’ team sent their rendition of the scene and aced the audition with flying colors. HBO gave them the green light to produce the final sequence, and they sustained a strong working relationship with the show during the following seasons.

“Over the three seasons I worked on it, ‘Game of Thrones’ had a very interesting evolution,” Spears explained. “In that first battle scene we worked on, there was actual fire being used on set to interact with the stuntpeople. They attached a flamethrower to a giant motion control crane and had it spray flames where the dragon was supposed to, and it looked great. Unfortunately, at the end of that scene, when Daenerys climbs on top of the dragon and flies out, it was all very static because the camera didn’t move around her.”

Emmys

In season six, production improved the dragon-riding effect. A large machine similar to a mechanical bull was built that mimicked the movements of the fictional dragon, which actress Emilia Clarke rode. The footage captured with the machine was much more dynamic, allowing Spears’ team to create swooping camera motions around her and the dragon in flight.

“Season seven took it to another level,” Spears added. For the first time, his team was tasked with rendering not just one person riding a dragon, but several people. To accomplish this, multiple shots of actors in movement were synchronized and composited together to attain the illusion of one harmonious movement. That commitment to problem-solving and constant evolution earned Spears, his team and the army of artists that worked on “Game of Thrones” three Emmy awards for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

CHAOS IS A LADDER

“You know the dragons aren’t real,” Spears said, “and thanks to the behind-the-scenes features on the DVDs, you know how they were made. But if the effect is done well enough, you can look past all that and still be fully engaged in what’s happening.” This is the biggest challenge of working on a show like “Game of Thrones”: sustaining the audience’s suspension of disbelief, or their willingness to accept the impossible for the sake of enjoyment.

Film editing has often been called an “invisible art” because when it’s done well, it’s almost unnoticeable. Cuts from one shot to another happen seamlessly in rhythm until the audience forgets the cuts are there. Spears thinks visual effects artists can benefit from measuring their work by a similar standard. “You have to get out of the way,” he said. “You have to let the story play out without distracting from it. People don’t go to movies to see visual effects; they go to see characters and a story. We have to support that.”

In 2017, Spears left Rhythm & Hues for Pixomondo, where he is working on the upcoming Roland Emmerich-directed World War II film “Midway.” In between his usual work, Spears is also exploring augmented and virtual reality technology that could change how effects are executed in the future. Instead of acting against a blank blue studio screen, for example, actors could interact with laser projections of digital characters and elements on set before those effects are finalized after the fact.

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Iron Throne

INSIDE THE GEORGE R.R. MARTIN COLLECTION AT TEXAS A&M

In the world of “Game of Thrones,” almost all recorded history is preserved in a vast library called The Citadel by the scholarly Order of Maesters. In the same spirit, curators at Cushing Memorial Library and Archives preserve a sprawling collection of “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin’s work. The collection includes nearly 50,000 pieces, more than 1,300 books and an assortment of memorabilia. Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Curator Jeremy Brett is one of the staff who maintains the collection.

CLICK TO EXPAND

CLICK TO CLOSE

What inspired Martin to store his books and materials in Cushing Library?

Brett: “Mr. Martin has been a longtime friend of Texas A&M. He came here for several conventions on campus, including OtherCon and AggieCon, and made a number of friends and acquaintances in the College Station area. During one of these visits, our then-director Don Dyal spoke with Martin about the possibility of donating his archives to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Research Collection, and Martin agreed. He was impressed by our sci-fi and fantasy collection and the way we archived materials. In 1992, he began sending materials here that were previously stored in his garage.”

Do current Aggie students interact with the collection?

Brett: “Oh, yes, very many. Students have used the collection for classwork as well as for recreational reading. Nearly anything—from ‘Game of Thrones’ swords, correspondence between publishers and showrunners, board games and even lunchboxes to the more than 1,300 copies of books in various translations—can be pulled for viewing. Interest in the collection has historically peaked when Martin is in the news or during the release of new seasons of ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Why is it important to preserve “Game of Thrones”-related materials and memorabilia?

Brett: “George R.R. Martin is one of the most significant fantasy writers of our time. Both ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ bring joy, heartbreak, excitement and a sense of adventure to millions of people. If we want to understand how any cultural work can have such a powerful and long-ranging effect, we need to look at all the products of that work, from the manuscripts that form the text, to the published works, to the merchandise based on the work. We need to preserve the totality of the work.”

HOLD THE DOOR

Spears never lost his homegrown affection for Texas A&M. The football team remains especially close to his heart, as he fondly recalls camping outside G. Rollie White Coliseum waiting to pull tickets to Aggie games. “One time, my friends and I camped out for tickets to the Texas game, and a photo of me made the front page of The Battalion,” he remembered.

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“One of the great things about Texas A&M is that there are so many opportunities as a student to look beyond your core education,” he continued. “Even though the visualization program was just developing during my time at Texas A&M, I was still exposed to many different experiences, technologies and ideas." For artists and engineers alike, Spears has one lesson from Aggieland he wants to pass down. “There’s a tremendous number of toys out there,” he said. “Go play with them.”

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Contact:

Larry Zuber

Assistant Vice President for Development
College of Architecture