Game of Thrones has been for sure one of the biggest massive TV productions of these last years. With an audience built on the George R.R. Martin’s books’ fan base at the very first phase, the show became so popular to become the perfect example of a mainstream series. Even people that considered fantasy literature just nerds’ business are now reposting thousand of times GOT related memes and jokes.
Here are some details on Game of Thrones’ cinematography that reveal how the series and some of the most famous scenes have been shot:
1 – Candles, windows and daylight
As you may have noticed GOT is set on a medieval-like fantasy world where – da – there is no electricity. Although that may sound fascinating and definitely consistent with the setting, it may be pretty challenging when it comes to start with the principal photography. And since the DPs know that lighting the scene is often not as simple as shooting in a photo studio, they have to rely on classic light sources: daylight and candles. The production of GOT spends a lot of money on candles and when, for the scene’s requirement, is not possible to go Barry Lyndon the directors of photography make a masterful use of daylight through windows or openings.
2 – La Nuit américaine
During the shooting of the scene where Ser Davos helps Gendry escape from Melisandre something very curious happened. The scene was supposed to be shot in the early morning in a specific bay surrounded by high cliffs, but unfortunately on the planned day the water was pretty rough so the little boat would have been overturned in the water. The production so decided to shot the scene in another cove at 1pm, probably not the best time to shot a scene that is supposed to take place at night time. The famous technique that gave name to the very famous Truffaut movie came to help: the “day for night”, i.e. simulating a night scene when filming at night. Everything came out pretty well also because the GOT director of photography can count on an important CGI department to put the icing on the cake or even to save the day.
3 – Don’t try to be an author
Like any other TV show, the cinematography from episode one of the first series to the season’s grand finale must be very consistent. That means that each cinematographers of GOT must leave his characteristic shooting style home to make each episode as much as indistinct as possible from each other from a visual point of view. Moreover all the directors of photography shoot based on location and not on episode, that means that in the same episode you can have a cut from The Wall to Winterfell and the two scenes could have been shot by two different DPs, that means that the style neutrality is even more important.
4 – Keep it real
Although the production of Game of Thrones can count on a massive CGI department, the directors and the DPs prefer to keep things real during the shootings. And that is for a good reason: it’s easy to imagine that a CGI giant or even an actor shot against a green screen can never look as good as a real giant. Ok, that being said, where the heck do you find a real giant? Well, a real giant is hard to find but you can take a very tall person, dress him like a neanderthal and shrunk the dimension of the stage. And, magically (and yes with a bit of help from the CGI guys) you have your raging giant breaking buildings that are half of his size.
Same thing goes for one of the most famous scenes of the last season The Spoils of War where (spoiler alert!) the dragons burn down the Lannisters’ army while they are on the way back from the blitz at Highgarden. Digital special effects can definitely help you replicating people but you do need a lot of money to animate more than five thousands Dothraki. So what they did was to take 500 extras and make them move on different spots of the terrain several time while a robotic camera with pre-programmed movements was shooting them each time. Than it becomes “just” a composition matter. They did the same for the Lannisters’ army and even for the iconic scene of Battle of bastards.
Another thing that contributes to make The Spoils of War epic is the huge amount of fire and smoke that make the landscape apocalyptic after the dragons kick in. Now, as said by the episode’s DP Robert McLachlan and as you probably know, smoke machines produce a kind of smoke that is innocuous to people but it’s also very white. This last characteristic was definitely not helping portraying the hell-on-earth landscape brought by Daenerys Targaryen and her three raging dragons. What they where searching for was more a fire into the woods kind of light, where the sun is filtered through black smoke. So someone had a “brilliant” idea: burning diesel oil. Diesel oil gives the kind of horrible smoke you need for the tone of that scene but, of course, after two days masks and goggles provided to the crew where pretty useless and everybody was coughing and feeling terrible. The production immediately stopped everything for safety reasons and they had to shoot the rest of the scene as if it was lit through black smoke and color correct the whole thing afterwards.
And finally, same applies for the fire. As you know fire, being something extremely dynamic, is something very hard to recreate digitally: until a few years ago you could always tell when a fire was shot for real or had been shot in a studio, for instance on a green screen. Even if CGI level had dramatically increased over the last few years, real fire looks always better. That is why, shooting the battle scene in The Spoils of War, the production literally set on fire the twenty stuntmen to have realistic flames, waiting for the dark for the light coming from the poor men to be emphasized on camera. Don’t try this at home.
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