How Weta Digital made Game of Thrones so great

Despite being plagued by leaks and hackers, the seventh season of Game of Thrones averaged a staggering 31 million viewers per episode in North America once live, time-shifted, on-demand and streaming plays are tallied up.

The hit fantasy TV series is filmed in several exotic locations around the world, but one of this year's most memorable scenes was created right here in New Zealand.

If you enjoyed Jon Snow and his buddies battling an undead polar bear in the driving snow, you were enjoying the work of Wellington-based Weta Digital.

Wayne Stables, one of the company's visual effects supervisors, says his team was very excited to work on the HBO series.

"Weta is a big place and there is a very large percentage of Game of Thrones fans here. On Tuesday mornings, like this morning, it's quite common to be sitting around having a cup of coffee talking about last night's episode," he says.

"You say to me, 'would you like to work on Game of Thrones? And would you like to make a zombie polar bear?' I'm really not going to think about that for too long. 'Yes! When can we start!'"

Since it was founded in 1993, Weta Digital has worked on dozens of major films including Avatar, The Avengers and Fast and Furious 7. Working on one of the biggest TV shows in the world took up a large chunk of the company's last year.

"Nine months that wasn't full time, but it was nine months from when we first started to work with HBO, then developed the bear and what he looked like and some of his motion, probably with a core crew of about 20 people."

Before Game of Thrones was smashing ratings records, geeky stories about wizards and dragons were generally looked down upon by Hollywood snobs... but that all changed after New Zealand became Middle-Earth.

"Lord of the Rings really helped legitimise fantasy as a completely valid genre," says Mr Stables, acknowledging the differences between the franchises.

"Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies have more of a fantasy element to them - more magic and mythical creatures. Game of Thrones has always felt rooted more in English medieval type history. It felt like it started around the War of the Roses period and built itself based on that. It's developed more of a fantasy element as it's gone along, but it feels more gritty and earthy."

Kiwi viewers of the polar bear episode may have noticed a credit thanking the New Zealand Film Commission for its "assistance" - which likely means the show will receive a New Zealand Screen Production Grant.

"It's a really competitive industry internationally. Where we are, the Government grants and tax relief type things - they play a huge part in the work that we can do."

Mr Stables says working on TV shows like Game of Thrones is a dream come true - but insists it's a very achievable dream for any Kiwi who wants to join in the fun.

"I used to work in a bank. I didn't have a degree in this industry, I learned it as I went along," he says.

"When I was seven-years-old, I saw Star Wars. I saw a spaceship fly above my head and I thought it was just the coolest possible thing in the world to do. Sometimes you might take a slightly roundabout route to get there, but there is every opportunity to work on these great shows. People should just do it - and they should be encouraged to do it as well."

Weta hopes this isn't the last time they work on Game of Thrones and for the eighth and final season, they know exactly what part of it they want to create

"After watching last night I did think, I would have loved to have done that dragon! That was pretty cool. But we'll see how we go, maybe next time."

The eighth season of Game of Thrones, however, is at least a year away from hitting our screens.