It seems to be a reoccurring theme. Whenever director Miguel Sapochnik and cinematographer Fabian Wagner get together on Game of Thrones the two create visual eye candy that unequivocally justifies the renewal of your HBO NOW subscription.
Remember “Hardhome?” The ep Snow and the Free Folk were savagely ambushed by White Walkers. Then as our defeated heroes sail away the Night’s King reincarnates the dead right in front of us. That was Sapochnik and Wagner. And now they’ve given us “Battle of the Bastards,” the most ambitious episode to date which pits Jon Snow against Ramsay Bolton in a fight to the death clash for Winterfell.
“We put a lot of thought into this episode,” says the cinematographer. “Miguel is a very strong, creative director with loads of ideas in how to approach a story. Because we had done “Hardhome,” we wanted to make something very different but with a similar impact.”
Even before production took 25 painstaking days to shoot the battle sequence they had another uprising to quell in Meereen. With the city under siege from an onslaught of ships hurling flaming boulders in Slaver’s Bay, Daenerys confronts her enemies as they press for her surrender. But that’s far from what she has in mind. “I really like that scene because we were both trying to achieve a kind of normal Game of Thrones scene which tends to be one with a lot happening within the dialogue without anything else happening,” Wagner says. “We wanted to make the background of their meeting quite imperceptible. Then all of a sudden bombard the scene with visuals.”
The visuals Wagner is referring to are the reign of fire and carnage as every last slave master ship is charred by dragons Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion. Shot on location in Spain, the cinematographer emphasized that visual effects and stunts played intricate roles in the destruction. “There’s always a strong collaboration with VFX and our stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam. What helps is our locations. We are constantly using ones we can easily integrate ourselves in or that VFX can integrate their needs so it doesn’t become too visual effects driven.”
While all of the dragon work was generated by effects, the team does place Daenerys on the back of Drogon using green screen. “We do use a green box Emilia jumps on that’s replaced later. Then it’s all about covering the right eye lines so we have the correct height and distance to the scene. This year we had a more elaborate set up with a buck that was motion controlled. It could really imitate the movement of the dragon.” Helping Wagner complete the process was another episode cinematographer Greg Middleton. “I was very lucky to have Greg help me on the VFX side of things because I was still shooting my episode. He shot the majority of Emilia on the dragon and did an exceptional job with the exterior lighting to match the location in Spain.”
And if you’re wondering if the burning soldiers on the ships are real, they are. Those stunts were shot separately at a Belfast location on proper ships with nearby water for the stunt men to fall into. “We try to do as much as possible in camera to blend with the VFX while Irlam uniquely choreographs the stunts for us,” adds Wagner.
To tackle the 20+ minute epic clash, the director and cinematographer looked to tell the story from Jon Snow’s point of view. “We always said the main thing in this whole story should be the jeopardy that Jon could die. We always wanted to be with him and get a sense that there’s no way out. That there’s no hope. That he could die any minute. He’s a great fighter, but sometimes he gets very lucky, and we wanted to show that within the story beats and the shots we put together,” explains Wagner.
One of those near death moments for Snow takes place early on as he finds himself alone in the battlefield with enemy horses charging towards him. As the camera circles behind he takes out his sword to brace for the impending doom only to be saved by his own cavalry crashing the frontline. “That’s one of the shots I’m really proud of,” says Wagner. “We were just outside of Belfast in a fairly big field but it wasn’t big enough. We used real horses for that shot and an obstacle we had to overcome was creating the sense that these two armies were far apart. So when you do see them charge at on another it looked and felt real.”
After the two forces collide the camera follows Snow as he wields his sword through shield and skin putting us directly inside the battle. “I’m a big fan of one takes and we talked about how great it would be if we followed Jon for a minute and a half or so showing all these things happening in a short amount of time that could have killed him.” The sequence needed a very elaborate set up where real horses passed through frame with stunt men fighting and dying at Snow’s side. “It was great work by all the departments. We actually used three different set ups we later connected into one as it wasn’t physically possible to do all the things we did and have it be safe for the actors, animals, and the crew at the same time.”
Wagner didn’t use any artificial light during the battle but rather maximized natural light with negative fill to provide contrast to the characters and their faces. When the dead bodies started piling up crane shots were used to show the scale of the misery. “It’s interesting because we talked about not having aerial shots in it for a while. We didn’t want to cut out of all the craziness. We wanted it to be handheld from the moment after the horses collide and be inside that circle with everyone trapped so you really get a sense that there was no way out. But it became clear we had to cut to wider shots and VFX did a great job adding to that scope.” To emphasize the chaotic nature of the battle further, a steady frame was kept on Ramsay to give a subtle reminder that he seemed to be in control, until he wasn’t.
From sun rise to sunset, four camera crews (Arri Alexa, Cooke S4/i Lenses) shot a daily schedule that was meticulously planned by Sapochnik and first assistant director Charlie Endean. But Wagner did go off script to capture a key moment of when Snow is trapped and suffocating. “There’s a crane shot as Jon pulls himself up out of the Wildlings that we came up with while shooting. We didn’t have the time planned to shoot it so I took a camera and some stunt guys and spent a half an hour shooting them for that moment when you get a glimpse of light behind Jon and then he crawls out. I really love that sequence.”
When Sansa Stark arrives with Baelish the tides change to our heroes’ favor and the fight quickly moves to Winterfell. “As soon as our giant Wun Wun crashes through the doors we wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. It wasn’t about the battle anymore it was about story between our characters,” notes Wagner.
After his capture Ramsay finds himself tied to a chair looking at death’s door with Sansa Stark holding the key in the form of Ramsay’s own starving attack dogs. “That was a very tricky scene to shoot. The dogs look nice but they’re not. We couldn’t shoot them at the same time as our actors so we shot them separately using various plates.” Among the quick-witted bits of dialogue between Sansa and Ramsay, the cinematographer enhanced the exchange through lighting. “I wanted him in this shadowy cooler light and Sansa in a shadowy light with a little flame behind her to emphasize her fierceness and determination of what’s to come and seeing him die. That was a pretty conscious decision and I think it worked really well when we she her leave with that smile on her face.”
As you can imagine it wasn’t just Sapochnik and Wagner or VFX but everyone pulling together to make it all work, something the cinematographer appreciates being a part of. “I’m so proud it came out the way it did. Having watched it on television, it’s a testament to the crew. They worked very hard as it wasn’t an easy shoot by any means for the departments. I think Miguel and I make a good team and I’m grateful to work on such an episode.”