Christian Zilliken

digital artist / CG supervisor ("Game of Thrones")


'Game of Thrones' (20 episodes, 2013-2017). He helped create part of the imposing fantasy worlds (landscapes, cities, armies, ships, castles, shadow demons, zombie horses) in the successful US TV: Christian Zilliken.

Christian Zilliken

digital artist / CG supervisor ("Game of Thrones")


Christian Zilliken
Christian Zilliken | © Christian Zilliken (private)

The impressive visual special effects realised with three of his colleagues for their project "Game of Thrones - Braavos Establisher" were awarded by the "Visual Effects Society" (VES) in Beverly Hills 2014 in the category "Outstanding Created Environment in a Commercial, Broadcast Program, or Video Game". "Mackevision", the company that employs the team, received an Emmy Award in 2015 for their contributions to the fourth season of "Game of Thrones", the most important television award in the United States. 

While he was still working for the company Pixomondo, which also specialises in data-based visualisation, during the second and third seasons of the cult saga, Christian Zilliken has been working as a CG Supervisor at Mackevision Medien Design in Stuttgart since 2013. CG' stands for computer graphics. These are brilliant images created by means of three-dimensional computer graphics - moving in the film/online area or static for posters and advertisements. Anything that can be imagined in the mind's eye can be vividly realised with CGI ('Computer Generated Imagery'). Such productions can be created entirely on the PC, but can also be combined with real photos or film elements in a virtuoso manner. Their limitless possibilities are highly appreciated by the advertising industry. For example, the customers of Mackevision, one of the world market leaders in the CGI sector, include not only the Who's Who of the automotive industry - from Audi to BMW, Chevrolet, Chrysler and Ford to Lamborghini, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche - but also Bose, Boss, Epson, the Danish jewellery manufacturer "Pandora" or the British luxury motorboat manufacturer "Sunseeker". 

Christian Zilliken (* 10 September 1980) has turned his hobby into a profession. "The origin of it lies in visiting an amusement arcade when I was seven or eight years old." Already during his time at the Gesamtschule Bonn-Bad Godesberg, the son of a carpenter and a secretary became involved with the world of computer games. How it is created fascinated the Star Wars fan. "I am the classic autodidact," admits Zilliken, "acquired my know-how according to the try & error principle. If I didn't know something or encountered problems, I looked for people on the Internet who could answer such questions; by the way, a degree course in my special field didn't exist at the time." A three-year voluntary abstinence from computer games was followed by a professional entry into virtual reality from the age of majority. The much sought-after freelancer received a wide variety of commissions from the company Pixomondo, among others, to contribute the visual effects in films such as 'Hugo Capret', the nostalgic declaration of love to cinema that won five Oscars, the spectacular fighter pilot/world war epic 'Red Tails' or the stylised science fiction flick 'Oblivion' and, of course, for seasons two and three of 'Game of Thrones'. After twelve years as a freelancer, "who was always called when there was a fire", he took his first permanent position in 2013 - at Mackevision. Since then, the self-proclaimed "couch potato", who even plays computer games in his spare time, has provided visual contributions aside from 'Game of Thrones' to three episodes of the US-series 'The Shannara Chronicles', Roland Emmerich's disaster blockbuster 'Independence Day 2: Resurgence' and the revenge thriller 'I.T.' as well as further projects.

Christian Zilliken lives in Stuttgart (Germany). 

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Interview June 2016

„Brave New World“: from vision to virtual reality

Rest or deadline pressure can stimulate creativity. From my point of view, for example, a painting is never finished. Every work could be worked on for a lifetime. Nothing is perfect. But despite the pressure of deadlines, you simply have to take the necessary space for rest and relaxation. Diligence takes time! In my experience, if you don't stick to this rule, it takes even longer for a painting to reach its final state. 

When there's a deadline but no intuition, it helps me to talk. Fortunately, I work with a team of professionals; if I'm at a loss, my colleagues and I have sound know-how right in the next room. If I can't fall back on this, for example in private projects, it has often proved helpful to do something completely different - to take care of a different part than the part that is blocking me so much at the moment; often the blockade then solves itself - sometimes as if it were the easiest thing in the world! Sometimes, unfortunately, that is exactly what really happens. For me, it's a reason to feel ashamed because it took me so long to find an obvious solution. Fortunately, this doesn't happen too often.

Unlike amateurs, who can wait for inspiration, professionals rarely have the time to sit around twiddling their thumbs. If there is no inspiration at the beginning of the work, it should come at the latest during the creative process. Otherwise, I think you have a hard time. It's certainly always up and down. Sometimes things work better, sometimes worse. On the one hand, it's a question of what the person enjoys, but on the other hand, it depends a lot on the task as such.

Being creative means both magic and pain. As an artist, you always identify with your work to some extent. That can have unpleasant side effects. I've tried to get rid of that, but I haven't been able to get rid of it one hundred percent. In concrete terms: if you are dissatisfied with a result, it can affect the general mood. But it's the same the other way round: if you're very satisfied with a work and then you see the result in the cinema or on television, sometimes after months of work, you get goose bumps.

In my line of work, the path of concrete implementation from theory to practice goes like this: First there is a white sheet of paper and an idea. This is recorded and worked out as a concept image or later as a storyboard (for moving images by the 'concept artist'). Then the components are analysed and divided up. These are worked out individually and then realised three-dimensionally - as so-called ‚grid models‘ that can be moved in the 3D world. Such a step is called 'modelling' and is carried out by the 'model artist'. These models are 'painted', so to speak (by the 'texture artist') and the material properties are defined (by the 'shading artist'). Once these steps have been completed, the element is ready. Next, the movement of the models and the camera settings are implemented according to the storyboard (by the 'animator'), and ideally everything is finalised.

In the penultimate stage, the lighting is set in the 3D programme (by the lighting artist). As soon as everything is right there, the sequence is calculated. This is the part that can make things quite complicated. Depending on what is being imaged, this is a complicated calculation and takes a long time to work out. On average, it takes about 20 to 45 minutes per frame, but it can also take up to three or, in extreme cases, 24 hours per frame. As a rule, 24 frames are required for one second of fluid movement. This means that with such a peak demand, up to 24 high-performance computers of the latest generation and one day are required to create one second of film. With a scene of 30 seconds, it is easy to imagine how much time and computing power is required. That can get out of hand. It is therefore all the more important that there are no more errors in the calculation task and that the most efficient calculation method possible is used. If something is still wrong, the result can be useless in the worst case, i.e. the time invested in it is wasted and it starts all over again.

When the steps described have been completed, the calculated image sequence is sent once again to a specialist in the 'compositing' department (the 'compositor'). There, further tricks are used to improve the image and, first and foremost, the colours are adjusted again and, if necessary, the computer-generated motif is merged with real shot material. This result is sent to the customer. Later, the grading artist receives it. He adjusts the colours one last time and, for example, matches them to the look of the movie.  

That was roughly the procedure. In many cases, however, the approach is slightly different, and there are numerous other steps that I have omitted here for the sake of simplicity; these include the 'Effects/FX Artist', who is responsible for effects (if something is blown up, for example), or the 'Matte Painter'. He paints the background for a picture, for example. 

All the work steps are mastered by specialists from the respective field. This shows well that above a certain level of complexity it is simply impossible to accomplish such a task alone. 

When things are going well with creativity in this profession, one works in a highly concentrated way. We have no rituals to put us into a creative workflow, so to speak. Rather, creativity, when it comes, arises of its own accord during the work - perhaps through immersion in the picture or simply through concentration. As a muse, of course, I have my girlfriend!  

Art comes from skill; the better someone masters their tools, the easier it is for them to realise an idea. Also, over a longer period of being in a field, one can learn more. So experience and age certainly play a big role. However, when you are young, you are most capable of learning. In this context, an artist friend of mine comes to mind who went to art school in Russia as a child and was able to paint photorealistically with a piece of charcoal as a teenager. Nowadays he teaches others to do so. 

I like to be creative on my own, but I also like to work with others. It's easy to tackle bigger projects in a team. Especially in my field, I cooperate with highly specialised people who each have years of experience in their field. It is impossible for one person to be a specialist in all the necessary fields. With private projects, on the other hand, which are realised completely on one's own, one has absolute control. For me, that also has its appeal. 

Trusting other people who can compensate for one's own deficits in creativity, if necessary, is above all a sign of common sense. My specialities are materials and light. In addition, there are other disciplines that I am well versed in; so I know what most of the sections are about. However, to imagine that you know all the areas better than the specialist in question is an overestimation of your own abilities. Maybe there is someone who can do everything best. But at least I haven't met him yet.

For me, the individual satisfaction in creative pursuits lies first and foremost in self-realisation, followed by artistic recognition in second place and commercial success in third place. You are proud to have created something; you are happy when others like it. If it also brings money, all the better. However, this is probably the least important point for most artists, as it is a kind of 'pleasant side effect' for them. Even with commissioned work, I think the commercial interest should come last and the result as such first! The main subject is always the work in and of itself. Something of artistic value is, after all, of greater importance than something that is commercially successful!

What role does perfection play in creativity? In my opinion, there is nothing perfect except reality! I personally don't find perfection is soulless at all, although that is exactly what is often claimed in connection with perfection.

When the creative process of an artistic work is finished depends on what it is about. For commercial projects, the completion is ideally no later than the deadline. Without this, as described at the beginning, one could continue to work on each painting until the end of one's life. But of course that doesn't make sense, because if you followed that consistently, you would never get anything done.

With private projects, I take as much time as I need to like the result myself. Then I first show it to other artists and friends, listen to their criticism. If I receive it, I continue to work with it; if I don't receive it or don't share it, the project is published.

If you're not open to constructive criticism, which can make something better, it's difficult to work in a team. Consequently, you can only work as a lone warrior and therefore never work on something really 'big', at least in my field of cinema/TV. These tasks are simply too complex for one person to handle alone. To assume otherwise would be a misconception.

People are often dissatisfied with the result when they hand in a completed job. This can be due to many factors - most often it is because there was too little time available. Often the reason for the frustration is that one was too absorbed in the task. However, it has often happened to me that I have looked at scenes I was totally dissatisfied with again after a year and found the result absolutely super. You can become operationally blind during the work or become too fixated on aspects that are, however, negligible in the overall picture. This is another reason why teamwork is so important.

Worrying about whether a winning streak might break one day and the crash might happen does no good! I just try to work accurately all the time. In my opinion, success or failure should be a minor matter. If you stick to working conscientiously, you have nothing to reproach yourself for if there are failures and, on the other hand, you can be happy if your work is crowned with success.


"The most popular of my works so far is probably one from 'Game of Thrones': the Titan of Braavos - a huge statue at the gates of the northernmost of the nine 'Free Cities', partly based on Venice. For this setting, my colleagues René Borst, Jan Burda, Steffen Metzner and I even received a 'Visual Effects Society Award'. In addition, our employer, Mackevision GmbH in Stuttgart, has won an Emmy Award. 

When we saw the concepts for the setting for the first time, it was a goosebump moment and it was immediately clear to us that this idea would work! We were definitely inspired by the collective enthusiasm for the idea. And I think everyone put some of their imagination into the setting."

My favorite work: The "Titan of Braavos" statue VFX version by Mackevision

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