Harsh Realms: 5 cinematographers contribute to the new season of HBO’s fantasy-adventure series Game of Thrones.
by Michael Goldman
HBO’s series Game of Thrones documents the political, military and emotional entanglements between rival ancient kingdoms on a fictional continent. As such, it’s a period piece, a fantasy piece, an ensemble piece and a production that relies heavily on location, design and camerawork to pull off the illusion. The show is so big that it has required the efforts of multiple cinematographers; three shot season one, and five shot season two, which began airing last month.
After the production of its pilot, which involved some film capture, Game of Thrones evolved into the first hour-long HBO drama to be shot digitally. Every episode has been shot with Arri’s Alexa, and the cinematography team has relied on a state-of-the-art, data-centric workflow to shoot, process and assess imagery as the show traveled the globe from its home base in Northern Ireland to locations such as Malta, Croatia and Iceland.
“We were well into prep on season one [in the summer of 2010] before we decided to go with digital capture,” recalls co-producer Greg Spence. “After [cinematographers] Alik Sakharov [ASC] and Marco Pontecorvo [AIC] did three days of tests with 35mm, the Sony F35 and the Alexa, we chose the Alexa. Alik and Marco were impressed with its dynamic range and resolution, particularly in the highlights, and they felt it would pick up our costumes and textures nicely.”
For the show’s second season, the production switched to a file-based workflow. Footage was captured to Codex data recorders and taken to the dailies colorist and editors in the cutting room in Belfast, where most of the show was shot. (Season one was captured to HDCam-SR tape, and digital-imaging technicians did color correction on set.)
“We’ve had multiple cinematographers and DITs handling multiple units in different countries, so in season one we sometimes ended up with dailies that had divergent looks, which caused some confusion,” Spence explains. “Therefore, for season two, we brought [dailies colorist] Jon Reid to Belfast to operate alongside editorial at Yellowmoon, the post facility where the picture editors were based. Jon worked closely with our cinematographers during prep and shooting so they could get what they wanted, and we got a consistent look in the dailies.”
This season, Kramer Morgenthau, ASC shot the first two episodes and material featured in several others; P.J. Dillon shot episode three; Martin Kenzie shot episodes four through seven; and Jonathan Freeman, ASC shot episodes eight and ten. A stand-alone episode separate from the other locations (largely because of a major sea battle) became episode nine, shot by Sam McCurdy, BSC. This collection of cinematographers was necessary because extensive portions of the season were shot in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Vatnajökull, Iceland, and that material was used for multiple episodes.
Therefore, says Morgenthau, the cinematographers did their best to “watch each other’s work and stay true to a cohesive look. No two directors of photography will shoot exactly the same way, but the material was so good, and there was such a consistent vision, that we were able to [maintain] a cohesive thread.” The cinematographers were frequently able to compare notes during prep before embarking on their separate shoots. They also used the Pix System online-dailies platform to view each other’s dailies through a secure connection, making Game of Thrones “a completely interconnected production” across the globe, in Morgenthau’s words.
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