We discuss the Game of Thrones episodes The Long Night and The Bells that Fabian Wagner ASC BSC worked on. Both episodes were epic in scale, from the action and emotional standpoint and also in length, clocking in at 82 and 79 minutes each. This season has been a triumph of production in a show that has got relentlessly bigger and more popular over its decade long run. From a technical angle it has put the film and TV industry in Northern Ireland firmly on the global stage. All of the amazing talent in design, production, stunts, infrastructure and resources has redefined what can be achieved on a TV show.
One thing above all that makes Game of Thrones really great, is the way it consistently overturns narrative conventions and the expectations of its fans. There are no real heroes or villains, just people driven by hopes, fears, greed, love and anger. One ‘hero’, Jon Snow, is actually a bit of a berk who is always getting bailed out (generally by his sisters). The other one, Daenerys, is something of a psycho who has been consistently brutal across all eight seasons of the show. In the penultimate episode she commits mass murder on a gigantic scale. The show subverts tropes and expected patterns of ‘heroic’ storytelling to such a degree that many fans have become completely unseated this season. An article in The Guardian newspaper neatly describes why it is has ‘never been a show that gives fans what they want’.
Episode three, The Long Night, directed by Miguel Sapochnik and lensed by Fabian Wagner, set the internet on fire because it was set at night, in the dark. Too dark for some Game of Thrones fans, many of whom were to say the least, vociferous on social media. Fabian addresses that in our interview, but I think there is another angle at play here, the limiting factor of bandwidth and compression on the quality of streamed content – you can have the best TV in the world, but what is shown is only as good as what comes down the line. Compression and internet quality will affect the image. We will be looking at this in a separate article.
Anyway, this is all an aside to what we are interested in, this rich soup of greed, power, vengeance and aggression all makes for great visual storytelling!
The length of these two episodes required the cast and crew working through around 200 days. There were a significant number of major characters filming their last scenes,
‘It’s always great fun killing off some of your favourite characters’ Fabian enthuses, ‘I loved the scripts and having been involved in all these battles, which are great to do, but I do enjoy these emotional scenes. Game of Thrones has great writers and great actors so it was fun to shoot both episodes. There is so much emotion in The Bells, with all the innocent people in the city that become victims and the changes in Dany, it was great to be able to visualise that’.
Although the episodes are thematically different there is a shared visual narrative thread through them both, of characters separated from their allies acting as our eyes and ears through the episode.
The Long Night, Game of Thrones Season 8 Ep 3
That Miguel and Fabian are such a good team is brought out in many of the more intimate shots; in The Long Night the character Melisandre tries to light a wooden barricade on fire with her magic. It doesn’t work straight away, and in a series of close ups we see the mix of determination, fear, confusion and desperation flash across her face. I enquired whether this is storyboarded or decided between them on set.
‘Miguel didn’t want to make Melisandre the kind of witch that can say something once and it just happens, he really wanted to show the pressure she was under, and that she might not be able to do it. I don’t think we storyboarded that specific scene, we certainly did when working out how the unsullied would come out of the castle and make a tunnel for her to come out through, then for the actual scene of her attempting to light the barricade we knew that we wanted to build tension up over quite a time so we shot various close ups. but we didn’t plan precisely how beforehand’.
The action outside and within the castle is counterpointed by the tension amongst the non-combatants who have taken refuge within the crypts beneath Winterfell. Here Fabian lit and composed many of the scenes as tableaux ‘People often talk about it but that was the first time I’ve really taken inspiration from paintings, and artists such as Vermeer.’ The palette of colour subtly shifts through the episode, ‘I worked on this more than anything else I’ve shot. I knew we had 80 minutes of night time and I didn’t want the same look all the way through. So I evolved the lighting through the episode with four atmospheres, one was pre-storm before the Night King arrives, and the only light is what comes from Winterfell. The second stage was the Night King arriving with the fog, wind and snow, this dissipates the light from Winterfell. Then once the trench is lit the light from the castle is drowned out so there is no blue left and the red takes over. Miguel and I always talked about it being like hell, there’s no way out for these guys. So in Winterfell it’s predominantly red, but in the Weirwood with Theon and Bran you are further away from that trench, so you still feel a little bit of the blue light from the cold moonlight. Towards the end of the episode the fire in the trench dies down so the blue light is brought back’.
Game of Thrones has always adhered to this gritty sense of reality, even when magic and dragons are involved. From a filming point of view one thing they have used hardly at all is slow motion. So when it came to the penultimate scenes of The Long Night, where Arya saves the day and literally destroys the whole army of the dead with one stab of a blade, being all in slow motion had a huge impact. The tension was drawn out almost to snapping point. Again was that planned? ‘We introduced a bit of slow motion in the battle of the Bastards episode. We actually shoot a lot at 48fps just so we can use slo-mo if we want to. it’s unusual for Game of Thrones so it was nice to accentuate those moments’.
Inevitably we have to mention the furore surrounding some fans opinion that the episode was too dark. ‘Just because it’s dark doesn’t mean I didn’t light it. What’s disappointing with a lot of the comments is that, whilst you can never please everyone, is that they don’t acknowledge that there was a creative decision made that this was the way we wanted to show it. We didn’t want to show the whole army of the dead, we wanted them to be a threat, all of those decisions are creatively driven.’ Tonally the episode sits perfectly within the story arc, Game of Thrones has always been a dark show, both literally and story wise and it seems unfair that Fabian was singled out for so much abuse online. It might have come from his comments in another interview about viewers tuning their TVs properly, but here he was merely reiterating what has already been said by the likes of Tom Cruise, Chris McQuarrie about Mission Impossible; Fallout and Netflix with Alfonso Cuarón‘s Roma. The scale of the battle and the shoot to capture it has been compared the the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings, maybe fans expected it to look like that as well. Yet it was totally different, Thrones is certainly not anything like Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. One has women and children being killed by the dead and reanimated, the other had an elf surfing down a staircase on a shield whilst shooting orcs with his bow. Okay, that is a rather flippant comparison, however it does illustrate the tonal difference between the battles well.
The Bells, Season 8 Ep 5
Where the Long Night is basically a straightforward good v evil fight in which the living fight the dead for their survival, The Bells is a very different story. The episodes exposes the destructive and brutalising nature of war and the thirst for revenge. The old adage that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist is borne out as the liberation quickly becomes slaughter of the innocents. Director Miguel Sapochnik and Fabian frame many of the shots in ways that hark back to previous episodes of the show, but with the tables turned, our heroes are now the aggressors. ‘There’s quite a few shots that replicated exactly what we did on Battle of the Bastards, which was always our plan’.
The episode is peppered with short emotional beats that tell the story economically, on an individual scale that informs and directs the larger narrative. ‘There is one moment in all the chaos where a Lannister soldier, who we identify as a ‘bad guy’ is seen trying to get the civilians to safety, whilst our ‘good guys’ who we supported in the last battle in The Long Night have now become savages who rape, plunder and kill.’
A realistic grip on geography and scale is never lost in any of the scenes, whether being chased through the corridors of a castle by the undead or through the labyrinthine streets of a city by dragon fire. Fabian admits this is tricky to do but credits it to ‘the beautiful production design of Deborah Riley, to be able to be shooting on the back lot in Belfast on the beautiful set that they built was amazing. Miguel and I spent a lot of time with Deborah, David Nutter and David Franco (director and DP on episode 4), on how we could make the best use of the set and what we could add on to it that gives us a new feel or sense of space’.
‘We used a lot of top shots, Miguel and I both like them and the set just gave so many opportunities to do them in camera with people on steps and battlements. Also the very high VFX shots give a sense of where we are and what’s happening.’
The production moved straight on from the long and grinding night shoots for the Long Night in February and March, so that exterior shooting in the city set could start in late April and make the most of the light. Would the Spring light in Northern Ireland be able to replicate the previous location shooting for Kings Landing in Dubrovnik and Spain? ‘It’s a massive set and I wouldn’t have wanted to have lit it for day, although I did use more lamps than I normally would have, especially in the alleyways. Making the most of the light was part of the scheduling, I sat down with Toby Ford, our first AD, and went through exactly what we should shoot and when, what direction we should shoot in the mornings and the reverses in the afternoons. Then we found other scenes we could shoot in the 3 or so hours between those parts. We were mostly lucky with the sun, although we had rainy days as well, but I tried to keep it consistent through scheduling and placement’.
Showing the carnage as the city is destroyed and population massacred involved a huge amount of practical effects, ‘for example, one guy gets slashed across his back; he comes on to the set with the prosthetic wound applied, we shoot the scene and then it’s tweaked in post for the split second before the wound occurs.’ likewise with the falling masonry ‘we were dropping rubble around the actors, so there was stuff dropping next to us and Maisie Williams (Arya) as she ran through the alleys – obviously it is enhanced with VFX, but the atmosphere, smoke and dust was all there’. They had to wait for the dust to settle as the crew cleared up for successive takes, ‘but that’s what makes Thrones so real and immersive’.
The fire effects are a combination of practical on set effects and shots of fire that are composited into the frame, ‘So for the big dragon fire effects along the streets I’ll shoot it with big interactive lighting units up in the air to replicate the light of the fire. Then we go into the studio and shoot a flamethrower at the correct angle, finally we’ll set pyro’s in the street set for the explosive effect – these real elements are composited together to look fantastic.’ Thrones is a record holder for the largest number of stunt performers set on fire, groups of ten to twenty are routine for the show. Stunt co-ordinator Rowley Irlam deserves recognition for his incredible work on the show.
Arya killed the Night King in The Long Night, but in this episode she is reduced to ‘just another one of the people in the city who could get killed by dragonfire, and I love her realisation of that.’ In an iconic scene after Arya has tried and failed to save some of the innocent inhabitants of King’s Landing , she sees a white horse standing abandoned in the ruins. This scene in particular references so many moments in time, from the ash falling like snow in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the bombed out wreckage of European cities in the Second World War, and the fact that we all lose in war, whether it is physically or mentally. Arya stands transfixed as the sun sets behind her through one of the streets – ‘we were shooting and I was pushing everyone to be as quick as we can as I knew the sun was going down. I moved some scenes around so we could get that shot, literally five minutes after we shot that the sun had gone down behind the buildings. You know, we had the shot planned out and thankfully everyone just pulled together to get it at the right time’.
The camera and lens package used on the production has been ARRI Alexa and Fabian has favoured the Angénieux zoom lenses for both of these episodes with the lighter Optimo 15-40 and 28-76 being used hand held. “I don’t actually use them as zooms, I just like the look we get with them – although obviously if a camera is on a 10:1 zoom they can always punch in easily’. Previously Cooke S4 primes had been used, but Fabian favoured the look he was getting with the Angénieux glass.
The style of the show has always adhered to classic framing with cameras on dolly, crane or steadicam, ‘at the same time you can do something totally different, handheld and crazy in the fighting sequences. That’s one of the great things about Game of Thrones, plus the producers have always allowed Miguel and I to follow our instincts.’
A good example of going with a different feel was the set-piece battle between the Hound and the Mountain, the much hyped Cleganebowl that fans have been clamouring for since the early days of the show. Shot on a massive staircase set that was slowly disintegrating as the castle was being systematically destroyed by Dany upon her dragon. ‘That was a tough shoot, the staircase was a huge set but there was only one way in and one way out. There were so many people involved as well as Rory McCann (the Hound) and Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson (the Mountain) and their stunt team doing the fighting’. Also Hafþór had prosthetics which had to be reapplied after each piece of action knocked them about. ‘We would find something else to shoot whilst we waited for them to be sorted out, close ups of Rory or swords hitting off walls and floor. You never just sit about!’.
‘It was also a tough one to light as the set went right to the top of the stage so there wasn’t anywhere for me to hang any lights. We had to devise a fresh plan that would also light the green screen adequately, plus we started with the staircase almost intact so we were inside, and then about halfway through a big part had to break away and so more light would come in. It was very tricky five day shoot but I’m really happy with the way it turned out.’ The whole fight is a stand out part of the episode, bloody and visceral and also packing an emotional punch. After all this had been on the cards since the show began and the scene delivered a fitting end for these characters.
Game of Thrones has certainly been groundbreaking in many respects, and is at the top level of what can be achieved in the medium of a TV show. A massive contributing factor is the pace of development and improvement in camera and grip technology, ‘There are amazing cameras, smaller and more affordable which allow you to do amazing things these days. The combinations of cameras and lenses that are available today is incredible. But, at the end of the day, with Game of Thrones we have the luxury of these massive and detailed sets that add to the authenticity’. For Fabian it is also a case of stepping outside of what is familiar ‘I found myself in the past sticking with things that I knew, because it would make life easier. But in the last few years I’ve pushed myself to try out different set-ups and styles so that I wouldn’t become complacent.’ Fabian stresses that he is always learning, ‘every day I discover something new, which is why I love working as a cinematographer. The more experience you have then the more you can experiment and take other things in. All of my experiences in low-budget film making and TV shows ten or more years ago have helped me to be flexible and improvise on the go. So often we would be shooting one scene whilst setting up the next one to get finished in the hour we had left to shoot. It’s also valuable in the moments where the director may say that something isn’t working out, it’s given me the confidence to be able to adapt quickly.’
Game of Thrones is a unique and hugely popular property, the LA Times puts it well when they say ‘No other series has ever built such a deeply detailed and far-flung world, with a geography as varied as its social constructs, religions, languages. No other series has propelled such a massive yet impeccably individualized cast through such an impossibly intricate cat’s cradle of story lines that honestly should have collapsed long ago but didn’t.’ Each and every member of the cast and crew has contributed to its success. HBO have made a documentary, The Last Watch, on the making of the last season that delves into the human stories of the crew, it’s well worth a watch.
Interview by Iain Hazlewood