The Secrets Behind 8 Jaw-Dropping 'Game of Thrones' Moments
"Nobody becomes a cinematographer so that they can shoot a sitcom or a police procedural," says Robert McLachlan, one of the few directors of photography who's been involved with multiple seasons of Game of Thrones.
His work -- which includes some now-iconic shots from the HBO series' most memorable sequences, such as the Red Wedding episode -- has been hugely influential in establishing the show's visual aesthetic, a style McLachlan calls "medieval noir." When other cinematographers are brought on to work on episodes, for example, they're handed an iPad filled with past examples of his and other DPs' shots; he's even been name-checked by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss in the script itself ("A signature Robert McLachlan shot, a thing of beauty, showing that night has fallen on our grim little castle" was how the writers designated an establishing shot for Castle Black in one episode).
When he's not working on Thrones or other shows (e.g., Westworld and Ray Donovan), McLachlan spends time at the great art galleries in London, Paris, and Amsterdam, looking for inspiration. "One of my favorite artists is J.M.W. Turner, who would have a little rising sun filtered through the mist or fog or smoke," he said. "If I can make a frame look like a Turner or a Rembrandt, that's really satisfying to me." Here, he shares the stories behind some of his most memorable Game of Thrones scenes, walks through some of their hidden challenges, and discusses the lessons he's learned along the way.
The Red Wedding
Episode: "The Rains of Castamere" (Season 3)
The Red Wedding is a gut-wrenching sequence, partly due to McLachlan's stroke of inspiration, which both helped set the stage for the wedding itself and helped pull the rug out from under the audience. The cinematographer wanted to help build up the idea that "we were going to get the happy ending, the Disney ending that they were so desperate for" by completely overloading the banquet room with candlesticks and torches, to get the "brightest scene we'd ever seen on Game of Thrones history at that point." When he proposed this to the art department, however, he got a bit of resistance. He was told, "Walder Frey is cheap. He wouldn't have that many candles." McLachlan explained his idea to Benioff and Weiss, who then overruled the art department, so that McLachlan ended up with about quadruple the amount of light they were originally planning.
Then, during the bedding ceremony, it was McLachlan's idea to have the various wedding guests grab as many of the torches and candlesticks as they could carry (along with the bridal couple) when exiting the room, which sucked the light out. Before the door even closes, before the band begins to play "The Rains of Castamere," the room dims, becoming darker, scarier. "It's perceptible," he said. "And the good thing is, it's organic. If we had done it theatrically, with theatrical lights, it would have called attention to itself."
The ensuing mayhem was almost entirely lit with candles and torchlight, which hadn't been done on such a large scale, McLachlan said, since Kubrick's Barry Lyndon. The problem there, he explained, was that the lenses were of such shallow depth, very little could be in focus, and "everybody's stuck being still." Here, it was an action scene, and one where everything had to be in focus, because they wouldn't have a chance of shooting some moments more than once. It also had to be shot in sequence.
"One of the reasons is that there are practical considerations because of the blood," McLachlan explained. "Putting prosthetic blood rigs on, it's very cumbersome. Fitting a blood-rig on Oona Chaplin, for when she gets stabbed in the stomach, that can take an hour. They have to put on a molded rubber prosthetic, with a tube running up the inside to squirt the blood out. And poor Oona, once she's stabbed and completely drenched in blood, she had to play dead on the floor for hours. She was shivering and freezing, because those stages in Belfast are not very warm at that time of the year! Ultimately they put her in a wetsuit to keep her warm."
If an actor had on a blood-rig prosthetic (such as Chaplin, Richard Madden, or Michelle Fairley), they tried to do their death scene in one take, because there was also the time required to clean up the blood and reset. "When the Frey comes up to slit Cat's throat, [director] David Nutter just let it play and play and play," McLachlan said. "And then he looked at Dan Weiss, and when Dan nodded, that's when her throat was slit. We only did one take."
To plan these shots, McLachlan and Nutter "talked that scene through to the nth degree" -- what shots they were going to do, what order they were going to do them, and how many cameras (three instead of the usual two). During rehearsals, McLachlan's wife, who was visiting the set, saw director David Nutter "vigorously acting out" the sequence of events for the blocking, and she ran out in tears. "We were supposed to go to dinner afterwards," he said. "And my wife was sobbing, ''Tell me Robb Stark is going to be OK! You've got to tell me that Robb Stark is going to be OK! You're not really going to do that?!'"
The episode: "Mhysa" (Season 3)
Sometimes a few people talking in a room can be a less-than-inspiring shot, and other times, it can be a work of art. The Dragonstone set was pretty dark, and had nothing to look at out the front, other than a two-toned painted backing. But for a scene where Davos' life was on the line and Melisandre intervened on his behalf, McLachlan wanted to give it some more depth and texture, as well as add a bit of a metaphor with the light -- with Davos' scroll, "he's shedding new light on the subject."
"I was desperate to have something more interesting outside," McLachlan said, "so I just took a 5,000-watt movie light and stuck it there, put a bunch of orange gel on it, and pointed it right at the lens. I added some smoke, and the smoke was just thick enough to hide the stand that the line was on, but you could still see the blue backing of the ocean and the sky out front." This incredibly simple effect makes it look like it's first thing in the morning, and the sun is just rising.
McLachlan had considerably fewer elements to work with when Daenerys Targaryen met the slaves of Yunkai and went crowd-surfing, but the problem he faced there having to marshall hundreds of extras, but in only two short shooting days, for a sequence which would usually take 10 days. (The days were shorter because it was December, and shootable light went away by 4:30pm.) His solution was to shoot in one direction one day -- Dany with the Unsullied behind her -- and the other direction the next, with the slaves coming out of the walls of the city (actually Aït Benhaddou in Morocco). That sounds simple until you factor in the crowd control, making a few hundred extras look like 10,000. "A big chunk of your day is trotting those 200 extras around the desert," McLachlan said, "so the visual effects people can composite them, to make it look like there really is a huge army behind her, and a flood of people in front of her. And I just love the shot of Dany being lifted aloft by the slaves. It was an awesome shot."
Baby White Walker
The episode: "Oathkeeper" (Season 4)
One of the biggest revelations in the series was what the White Walkers did with Craster's sacrificed sons. "It was like, 'Holy shit! So that's what's been going on for so long!'" McLachlan said. But there wasn't a lot in the script to go on -- no one knew what it should look like -- so the cinematographer met with director Michelle MacLaren, and together they made the sequence much more dramatic. One of MacLaren's ideas was to get the production to build giant ice sculptures -- "sort of an ice Stonehenge" -- to give them some scenery to work with, and an ice altar for the baby to be set down upon. For one of the shots, they decided to shoot the White Walker through the ice altar, to give the Night King a slower reveal. "It was to suggest, but not to see very well, the Night King and his cohorts," McLachlan said.
The nearest place to get big enough blocks of ice was in Dublin, so blocks had to be brought in and carved, and then the scene needed to be shot before they melted. They faced a problem with the artificial snow, since a drizzling rain kept mucking that up, requiring it to be redone. And they faced a separate problem with the green screen, since it was "unbelievably windy" that day, and the wind kept trying to knock down the 30-feet-high screen.
And then there was the baby. "We weren't having a lot of luck with the close-up of the baby," McLachlan said. "We had two or three to switch in and out, and when they brought this one in, it smiled. We all looked at each other like, 'Oh my god, we got it.' It was a case where you think, 'It's not going to work, it's not going to work… Holy shit! It just worked!'" As for the moment when the White Walker is reflected in the baby's eyes before the visual effect turns them ice blue, that was "a happy accident." "When you're dealing with a baby, you don't expect any bonuses," he laughed.
The episode: "First of His Name" (Season 4)
Once the mutineers take over Craster's Keep, it looks like a horror show. McLachlan was inspired by the works of Gustave Doré, Pieter Bruegel, and Hieronymus Bosch to create the look of depravity on the set built out in the woods just outside Belfast. "Michelle MacLaren and I wanted it to be the most Bruegel-esque, disgusting, horrible hellhole imaginable," he said. "We wanted to make it as awful and revolting as we could."
The hellish moments include controversial background glimpses of Craster's daughter-wives being raped, which were acted out by professional sex workers brought in from London and Amsterdam. ("It's never fun to film that kind of stuff," McLachlan said, "so the more comfortable and light-hearted the players are with it, the easier it is for everyone else to do. And they were bored silly, quite frankly.") Another unpleasant detail, which affected the crew more than the viewers, was how the art department dressed the Keep with real ham hocks -- which started to stink after a few days. "It was a filthy location," McLachlan said. "Everybody's covered in mud, there's a lot of actual real wood smoke, we were working nights, and you had Smell-O-Vision going on, which added to the disgust."
The most Bruegel-esque, Dante's Inferno-style visual reference, though, was the death of Karl Tanner, the mutineer voted most likely to drink from your skull. Originally, the script called for Karl Tanner and Jon Snow to fight, and for Karl's head to be cut off. But making prosthetic heads is expensive, and the production had already made quite a few heads that season, and they didn't want to spend more money on more heads. Couldn't they simplify it somehow? Rather than allowing the budget restrictions to reduce them to a less interesting stunt, they brainstormed.
The stunt coordinator came up with an idea to mount a rig on the actor's neck, so that it could look like a sword was going through his head. MacLaren wanted it come out of Karl's mouth, but they thought that might have to be 3-D animated -- and expensive. And so the stunt coordinator suggested they play with the angles (and only use a little bit of help from visual effects) to make it look the way MacLaren wanted. "It's a good example of how a Plan B turned out to be much better than anyone would have thought," McLachlan said. "We were able to give him a proper Game of Thrones death."
Shireen at the stake
The episode: "The Dance of Dragons" (Season 5)
McLachlan first visited the fighting pits of Meereen -- actually a bullring in Spain -- four months ahead of the October shoot to start mapping out the sequence. Using an app called Artemis, he could determine where the sun would be at any given time. For this shoot, meticulous planning was crucial, because they had an incredibly tight deadline. On a typical film or television show, they might do 10 to 12 shots in one day, but for this particular sequence, they had to do 50 to 100 per day, over a nine to 10 day shoot. They also had a drop-dead completion date, because of a departing charter flight.
So everyone received what became known as the Daznak playbook. "It was like a small phonebook, with each day and the shots we were doing, completely out of sequence." All the tight close-up shots were done before and after there was shootable light, when he could use artificial light and make it look natural. "It came off like clockwork," he said. "We actually finished a little bit ahead of schedule." Still, he believes it would have "substantially benefitted" from a few more days, and a few tweaks.
"The fighting pit is a great sequence," he said, "and this is all Monday-morning quarterbacking, but I think it would have been more effective if there wasn't that moment of stand-off, when everything sort of stops. I thought we lost energy there. I would have kept the action going to the last second until the dragon came, keep the audience wondering if she was going to get hit by a spear right up until she cleared the rim of the arena."
The other lesson from the fighting pit was to give action sequences a point of view. Tyrion only becomes an audience surrogate when they dolly around him as he tracks the dragon at the end. "Peter Dinklage acted it superbly," McLachlan said. "If they ever publish the scripts, you'd find them an entertaining read, because they're fairly irreverent, in some ways. All the essential information is there, but the stage direction for Peter in that moment was along the lines of, 'We end up in a close-up on Tyrion. He's never met a girl like this before!'"
A controversial moment in this episode is when Stannis burns his daughter Shireen at the stake. It was a tricky moment to capture, and not just because it was a rare sunny day, which didn't work for the tone and the mood. (To counter that, McLachlan used massive smoke machines to blot out the sun and make it as foggy as possible.) Melisandre's fires, which were actually flame bars placed between the camera and actress Kerry Ingram, created a heat ripple, and McLachlan used a longer lens to help make the distortion even more pronounced. He also played with the shutter speed, so that when Melisandre speaks "there's a subtle off-putting thing about the movement of her lips." It's a trick often used in battle scenes, but McLachlan likes to extend it to when villains speak, to make their lips seem "more violent." "Nobody knew I was doing it," he said, "but I think it was incredibly successful."
Jon Snow gets stabbed
The episode: "Mother's Mercy" (Season 5)
Although Jon Snow's final moments might look simple -- just a guy lying on the ground -- "it was actually very, very hard to pull off," McLachlan said. "To be honest, I really struggled with the lighting on that. I had a guy in black, and you wanted to be able to see the blood, and he's laying on a white surface. From a pure technical standpoint, getting enough light on the costume but not over-exposing the snow was problematic." The sequence also required a crane move, as the shot started wide "and then came down, down, down, into Kit Harington's face."
And then there was the blood-rig to consider. They wanted to be able to control the spread of the blood, to get it to run out in a pattern, but no, for the theory-heads out there, it wasn't a particular pattern that might provide a clue as to Jon's true lineage. "As fas as I know, there was no rhyme or reason to it," McLachlan said. "But it speaks to the richness of the frame that it can be interpreted in a lot of ways!"
Bronn vs. the dragon
The episode: "The Spoils of War" (Season 7)
Keeping in mind what he had learned during Season 5, McLachlan made a few suggestions to director Matt Shakman. "The script wasn't written from anyone's point of view, and when I read it, I thought, 'How do we make this loot train attack not like the fighting pit scene?'' the cinematographer said. "My immediate thought was that during the Battle of the Bastards, we knew whose side we were on, since it was told from Jon's perspective. So the first thing I said when I got off the plane at Belfast, the first discussion I had with Matt was, 'We've got to make this from somebody's point of view, and it can't be Dany." Why not Dany? Because the dragon is expensive, and she's the person burning everybody up, which wouldn't engage the audience. We need someone to root for, McLachlan argued. "We don't want to see anything happen to Jaime, and we might expect something to happen to Bronn, but we enjoy having him around. And it would be more horrifying to watch it from Jaime's perspective."
And to a lesser extent, Bronn's. Bronn's mad dash to the scorpion almost seems like one long take, but it was actually three shots blended. A burning wagon gave them one cutting point, and Bronn looking up to see the dragon gave them one more. "What seems to be a simple shot of a guy running through a bunch of mayhem is not simple," McLachlan explained. "You have to get the fires burning, you have to get the smoke, you have to get the smoke drifting the right way, you need to add your other burning elements, you've got a burning stuntman who has to gelled to go tumbling through the background, you have to make sure the horses aren't going to get out of control. The safety issues on something like that are massive. So what might be a simple 30-second shot can take half an hour to get all the elements ready to go."
A lot of the realism of the battle scene comes from the black smoke McLachlan used early on in the shoot, which came from burning diesel oil. He also used white smoke from fog machines, and real fire, but those didn't provide him with enough smoke, and certainly not enough "nasty, angry, ugly, black smoke." The black smoke was incredibly unpleasant to work in, and despite the crew wearing goggles and masks, it turned their faces black and people were coughing. After about three days of shooting in the black smoke, HBO's health and safety team shut it down. "Jerome Flynn was actually working in this horrible, caustic environment," McLachlan said. "You can see that in his face."
Going beyond the Wall
The episode: "Eastwatch" (Season 7)
If this episode made you think of The Magnificent Seven, that's by design. "That's not by accident," McLachlan said. "We're obviously tipping our hat to that." McLachlan particularly loved the moment where the heroes sit down with Tormund in a recycled set (the former Night's Watch mess hall), and then go down to the cells of Eastwatch, as Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr lean into the light. "Revealing the 'bad guys' in the cell was really fun to do," he said. "It's a familiar and classic thing where you're putting together your Wild Bunch, your Dirty Dozen, Seven Samurai, Magnificent Seven. Those movies all draw from one another, and we're drawing from all of them. And we felt like we got that one just right. You just know when you finish the shot that that's it. We nailed it."