Game of Thrones (2011)

Secrets Behind the 'Game of Thrones' Cinematography

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

Game of Thrones owes much of its ability to create effective scenes and tone to its carefully orchestrated visuals. And as a fantasy spectacle of its magnitude and status, several moving parts and knowledge are needed to make it all happen. So, it is no surprise the show’s cinematographers considered a mix of fine art, strategic CGI, and practical filmmaking to achieve beautiful, compelling visuals.

Shooting Style

Shot on ALEXA digital cameras, each episode of Game of Thrones typically had about five DPs, where at the beginning of each season, they are given frame graphs organized by set and location to know what kind of contrast and filtration were used. They serve as a visual shorthand for the massive scale of cinematographers involved to ensure visual continuity unique to the show. Nevertheless, their decisions on how to present lighting and spatial awareness to portray Westeros realistically entailed much more considerable elements.

King's Landing

Game of Thrones’ constant switch in locations and their focus on location rather than episode meant that a cut from the North to King’s Landing could cut from one DP’s work to another. Most television cinematographers have to adhere to the look that the producers set to create a visual style that runs all the way through. Nonetheless, some creative freedom does make it to the final cut. Robert McLachlan, a Canadian cinematographer who worked on Game of Thrones, shot the “Eastwatch” and “The Dance of Dragons” episodes. “Eastwatch” was absent of big action sequences and instead relied more on elevating the everyday.

"Eastwatch"
"The Dance of Dragons"

Tyrion and Jaime in the catacombs, the tension between Arya and Littlefinger, the interactions between Jon and Drogon, and more. McLachlan thus focused on simple blocking and dotting a few lights throughout the scenes for depth and mystery. McLachlan recounts how, on the “The Dance of Dragons” episode, they needed to be shot according to where the sun was. It resulted in almost every shot, either backlit or under a canopy.

Fine Art Inspiration

Furthermore, some Game of Thrones cinematographers referenced more than film and television to frame their shots. They understood that in terms of composition, it all starts with fine art. And that to produce much better images, referencing movies was not going to cut it. There are scenes in the show entirely inspired by works such as the John Constable for an establishing shot or the sunset scene in “Eastwatch” where the light was stuck right in the shot as in some famous J.M.W Turner paintings like ‘The Fighting Temeraire.’

J. M. W. Turner, “The Fighting Temeraire”, 1839. Oil on canvas
John Constable, “The Hay Wain”, 1821. Oil on canvas
The Red Wedding

Others were the genre paintings by David Teniers and Adriaen Brouwer. Many of these works depict gloomy interiors with just a little window light coming in, perfect for Westeros, where electricity did not exist. Additionally, what these fine art artists have in common that merged well into Game of Thrones were their emphasis on silhouette and understanding how to use atmosphere to blend light and create more depth in the shot.

Candles

Speaking of electricity, the candles used in the production were not just for show—the cinematographers were initially committed to using large amounts of real candles to light interiors for believability. In the show’s first season, cinematographers primarily used candlelight, however, the cost became cumbersome, and the producers scaled back on the candle budget. As a result, this led the DPs to turn to mostly natural window light for day scenes.

Carousal Sets

The famous Throne Room is used for more than shady dealings and betrayals, but also different interior locations. Depending on how the set is lit, it can be substituted for anywhere from King’s Landing (warm climates, softer lighting) to the Wall (cold climates, harsher lighting). To keep the settings separate, the team would rework furniture and shoot with different lenses as needed to create greater illusions of depth.

A Living Giant

Lastly, CGI is a given when it involves a show like Game of Thrones. But even then, the shows DP’s try to use practical effects whenever they can. Remember the giant from the climactic battle of the North, which pitted the Night’s Watch and the Free Folk against the undead? Well, the giant featured most in the scene is real. Thus, standing at seven-foot-seven, his scenes were filmed on a miniature stage that shrunk all his props down to make him look larger than life.  

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