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‘Game of Thrones:’ The Reality of Production on HBO’s Fantasy Series

The television phenomenon that is HBO’s Game of Thrones premiered in April 2011 and enjoyed immediate critical and fan praise. Filmed in exotic locales in Northern Ireland, Malta, Croatia, Iceland, Morocco and elsewhere, Game of Thrones features compelling characters, bravura production design and the feature-quality cinematography viewers have come to expect from HBO productions. Medieval fantasy never looked so good on television.

Robb Stark (Richard Madden). Photo by Helen Sloan

Among the series’ many accolades are two Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series, among more than two dozen nods from the Television Academy in its first two seasons. The show looms large in the vibrant fantasy subculture, but has crossed over into mainstream success—through season two, it is considered the third most-watched show in HBO’s illustrious, awards-strewn history.

With the launch of season three in March 2013, the contributions of three new cinematographers will hit TV screens: Anette Haellmigk, Robert McLachlan, ASC/CSC, and Chris Seager, BSC. They paid fealty to the cinematic look in earlier episodes created by cinematographers Jonathan Freeman, ASC, and Kramer Morgenthau, ASC (Morgenthau earned an ASC Award for his work), but inevitably added their own personal touches through their visual strategies and decisions, made in light of the new scripts and situations. Other cinematographers who have contributed in previous seasons include Alik Sakharov, ASC, Marco Pontecorvo, AIC, Sam McCurdy, BSC, P.J. Dillon and the late Martin Kenzie, BSC.

The production is scheduled in an unusual way. At the start of prep, at least ten scripts were ready to shoot. Actors are apt to stay with certain locations, while cinematographer-director teams work concurrently and fly between the various far-flung locales. At any given time, as many as five teams are prepping, shooting or rehearsing. A “decent” amount of prep time helps, as does two weeks, roughly, of shoot time per episode. Occasionally a shot made by one team will show up in an episode credited to a different cinematographer, but the resulting efficiency is “miraculous,” according to McLachlan and Haellmigk.

Melisandre (Carice van Houten). Photo by Helen Sloan

“Christopher Newman came up with this remarkable schedule,” says McLachlan. “It’s absolutely genius. You’ve got five episodes shooting concurrently. You bounce around a lot, and your 16 days per episode are spread over four months. It’s very impressive.”

To maintain a degree of consistency, producer Greg Spence distributed Apple iPads loaded with frame grabs from seasons one and two. As the season progressed, images from season three were added. The basic style of the show had been established, with naturalistic lighting, a sometimes-palpable atmosphere with shafts of daylight, and lots of firelight as a primary source.

Anette Haellmigk (Bunheads, State of Mind, The West Wing, The Nine) says that she was working on Big Love when she first saw Game of Thrones. She responded to the material and immediately wanted to work on it. “It touched me,” she says. “In a weird way, I know what to do with this. I was very familiar with mythical sagas. I thought that the look established over the first two seasons was very befitting of the show, and rather than change things, I wanted to enhance. Kramer’s episodes were the most inspirational to me.”

Haellmigk describes the look as naturalistic, but with a bit more romance or harshness, depending on the needs of the scene. For the former, she emulates the warmth of Caravaggio, and for the northern, colder world, she tries to shoot in overcast conditions or block the sun out.

Margaery Tyrell (Natalie Dormer, center). Photo by Keith Bernstein

Both cinematographers praise the production design and art direction. “When I first walked on, what impressed me were the sets,” she says. “The way they were built, and the way the textures and colors worked. I’ve never seen anything like it, not even on big feature films. It was just so tasteful, and the detail was amazing.”

Haellmigk came onto Game of Thrones with director Alex Graves, with whom she has a long professional history. She also had a working relationship with producer Bernadette Caulfield dating to Big Love.

“The camera style of the show, especially in interiors, includes more tableau shots,” she says. “It’s not like The West Wing, where you do it with long walk-and-talks. The tableau approach is good because, while you give up some movement, you gain a lot of ability to make beautiful compositions and create beautiful lighting. For some action scenes we went more handheld, and exteriors in general gave us opportunities for more camera movement.”

Haellmigk says her episodes played more with shards of light angled through scenes and sometimes bounced onto actors. These shards worked well with the established smoky atmosphere justified by the many flame and fire sources. The show often mixes cooler daylight and warmer tungsten or firelight. “I love to do that anyway, and I think that gives it a realistic look,” she says. “Even though we might not be aware of it in our world, that is the reality. I don’t like it when all the lights are the same color.”

Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) in Dragonstone map room. Photo by Helen Sloan

The cameras were ARRI Alexas. In season one, Game of Thrones became the first hour-long HBO series to be shot digitally. For season three, the images were recorded using Codex Digital recorders via fiber optic cable. The ARRIRAW file format was deemed too data-intensive given the large number of units working. Simultaneously, the images are recorded to the camera’s onboard SxS cards as a backup. Standard LUTs are used for basic situations, but the cinematographers are free to adapt them to the particular needs of a given scene. The images are finalized at Modern VideoFilm in Santa Monica with colorist Joe Finley.

“The ALEXA is an absolute workhorse,” says Haellmigk. “We took that camera from Morocco to Iceland and shot in rain and sun and all types of conditions. The cameras we had never failed us, ever. In terms of the dynamic range, I was able to do everything that I wanted to. You still have more dynamic range on film, but it’s getting really close now. You see a very good image. You can judge your exposure on a monitor and that allows you to paint a little more. Because of this format, I think I have become more daring, because I know how far I can push it and still get an acceptable image. You have to make sure that you make the post department happy, and find a happy medium in terms of exposure. But I was very happy with the camera.”

McLachlan (Human Target, Harper’s Island, The One, Final Destination 3) had worked with director David Nutter in the late 1990s on the visually innovative series Millennium. They reteamed for episodes nine and ten, the final installments of season three.

“The wonderful episodes that Jonathan and Kramer had done lingered on elegantly composed and lit frames,” says McLachlan. “After looking at the episodes David had done in season two, I realized quickly that his style of shooting was much less static and much less ‘proscenium’ than Game of Thrones generally.”

That’s not to say that they weren’t careful about composition. “David is much more about getting lots of pieces and telling the story that way,” says McLachlan. “Because we were doing the final episodes of the season, we had comparatively massive scenes, including a wedding that has oodles of extras, a lot of dialogue, and not much time to shoot it. We had three cameras, and I had to light in way that worked from any angle. Stylistically, it will look different.”

Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), Bronn (Jerome Flynn) and Podrick Payne (Daniel Portman). Photo by Keith Bernstein

McLachlan recalled a dungeon scene shot amid the ruins of an old castle. “David’s feeling was that if it’s going to be completely dark, why are we in this location?” says the cinematographer. “You could do it on stage with black duvetyn. So I pushed a little bit of extra light in from a window at the end of a tunnel. It felt as if maybe it was bouncing off the ocean in front, so we got a bit of texture in the bricks, and added a couple of torches. We certainly didn’t bring in any more electric lights. The wonder of the Alexa is that you can actually do that. I just love that camera. You take it out of the box, turn it on and it works perfectly—just like a film camera, and unlike some other video cameras. We tried to shoot at 800 ASA as much as possible, but it would depend on the situation.”

For most scenes, McLachlan took the edge off a bit with Schneider Optics Hollywood Black Magic filters, which combine diffusion and softening effects. “I think they’re terrific,” he says. “They’re my favorite for shooting digital. I had very, very light ones on most of the time, and occasionally I went a tiny bit heavier if there were cosmetic issues.”

Each shooting unit is equipped with a full set of Cooke S4 prime lenses and Optimo short, medium and long zooms. “Basically that’s what I carry myself when given a choice,” says McLachlan. “I’ve got some of those same lenses in my own package, so I was very happy to work with familiar tools. David wants the flexibility to adjust the focal length between takes very quickly, so the Angenieux zooms were on a fair bit.”

Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke). Photo by Keith Bernstein

One troublesome set was a council room carved into the rocks overlooking the ocean far below. The cave ceiling offers no opportunity to hang lights. Torch and candlelight work for night scenes, but daytime was another story. A sky/sea horizon backing didn’t work. “When I had a scene that took place at sunrise, I decided to make it look like a J.M.W. Turner painting,” says McLachlan, who is the son of an artist. “So I threw a bit of blue light on the backing and then stuck a 5K ARRI Fresnel right smack in the shot, where it could light the whole cavernous set. We put a couple of Lee CTO gels on it and then added enough smoke to hide the stand. The Alexa was able to give a clean image without any more flaring than the filters and smoke created, and even held detail in the area around the ‘sun.’ It was a last-ditch effort to not repeat what we had all done and been vaguely unhappy with. It worked perfectly for the scene, where a critical piece of information was handed over and the situation was seen in a new light.”

In another scene that can’t be described in detail due to the tight secrecy HBO maintains, McLachlan came up with a simple yet brilliant lighting strategy to foreshadow a dramatic turn of events. The scene begins with a relatively high-key interior, with twice as many candelabras and torches as was customary. McLachlan says the extra light coaxes the audience subconsciously to let their guard down. At a natural turning point, the cast picks up most of the light sources and walks out, dropping the light level significantly, just in time for the darker, dramatic story point.

“It worked really, really well,” he says. “I get goose bumps thinking about it because it’s been a long time since I had a forum with drama as good as this show, along with the terrific art direction, not to mention adequate time to think about it and plan it.”

“The whole experience of working on Game of Thrones reminded me of why I wanted to be a filmmaker,” says McLachlan. “When we got to Morocco, we were standing on locations where they shot Lawrence of Arabia and The Man Who Would Be King. When I saw that film as a kid, it just swept me away. We were absolutely transported. Just the thought of working on a project like this was beyond my wildest dreams.”