The Reality of Fantastic ‘Game Of Thrones’ Detailed in Panel

How do you produce a scene of a burning temple that involves multiple locations (an exterior in Spain, an interior in Ireland), practical fire, hundreds of extras, crowd replication, motion control and 18 camera positions? If you’re part of the “Game of Thrones” crew, you rely on preparation, pre-visualization, multiple passes … and each other.

Discussing the HBO fantasy series in the Monday session “Game of Thrones: Behind the Scenes with the Filmmakers,” executive producer Bernadette Caulfield, producer Greg Spence and cinematographers Anette Haellmigk and Jonathan Freeman, ASC, all emphasized the importance of collaboration. These panelists joined moderator David Geffner to review some of the most momentous sequences from the show’s sixth season, including the destruction of the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen by Daenerys, which was screened at the session.

“Game of Thrones” production is based in Ireland and filming locations include Croatia, Spain, Iceland and Morocco. “It’s hard to conceive of a show on this scale,” said Caulfield, who oversees production of two crews for 22 weeks each year. “It’s an amazing schedule.”

Using two crews is critical for maintaining consistency, Caulfield said. “You have your teams; you stay together.”

This ensures that each of the five kingdoms in the series maintains a consistent and distinct look and feel. As Spence said, “We have to identify where we are very quickly.”

Spence relayed the broad criteria for the show’s visuals, explaining that although the directors and cinematographers are encouraged to experiment, they aim for “a little filtration, but not too much, a measurable amount of diffusion and organic lighting sources.”

Crediting Freeman for describing the show’s visual style as “organic expressionism,” Spence explained that, given the show’s medieval setting, “organic” means light motivated by sky, sunlight, candles and torches.

Even for the Temple of the Dosh Khaleen fire, Haellmigk said, the scene was produced using a controlled gas burn that could only be shot for five minutes at a time. (Haellmigk noted that actor Emilia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, was “fearless” during the scene’s reference pass and multiple takes.) Spence said that using CGI would have been “cheaper and easier” but wouldn’t have delivered the visual impact that viewers expect.

Scenes such as this, or one of the epic battles that Freeman captured for the episode “The Door,” begin with a storyboard. “Prep time is critical,” Freeman emphasized. Once storyboarded, each sequence is sent to the pre-visualization team. That team then works out the logistics and physics and creates the media for reference.

Spence noted that some of the shots the director and cinematographer design are literally impossible, and the pre-vis process identifies potential problems. Using the previs, shots are all planned well before shooting begins.

Spence said this keeps everyone from arriving at the location or set “with 150 extras and then saying, ‘Uh oh.’”