Summer 2019

The Horrors of War,
Writ Large

Directors behind the battle sequences in Game of Thrones talk tactics, scale and the escalating stakes of television's most epic water-cooler series

By Margy Rochlin

The city of King's Landing burns in Season VIII's "The Bells," directed by Miguel Sapochnik. (Photo: HBO)

In eight seasons, the battle sequences in HBO's Game of Thrones have managed to escalate in size, scope and blood-letting such that for a director, opening a new script might mean facing down the dueling emotions of sheer excitement and almost paralyzing apprehension.

For David Nutter, the arrival of Season 5's Daznak's Pit scene in "The Dance of Dragons" prompted such conflicting feelings. To pull off a gladiator battle culminating in a spear-throwing assault from Sons of the Harpy soldiers in gold-horned masks hiding amidst the crowd of spectators, Nutter knew that it would require meticulous storyboarding and endless hours of rehearsal. "I hate to create on the day," says Nutter, who, after all, devoted an entire year prepping to direct the series' shockingly brutal "Red Wedding" scene in Season 3's "The Rains of Castamere." "The day of shooting should always be nothing more than the following of directions that have been established," Nutter explains. "The dance has already been choreographed in preproduction. Now you do the dance."

But along with the already massive task of readying more than a thousand extras—some posing as spectators, some as stab-happy attackers who needed to be coached by special Game of Thrones military advisors—also came a pivotal tech moment: Once she and her entourage are surrounded by attackers, Queen Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) climbs aboard a dragon and flies away, a first for the series.

Nutter began by working closely with visual effects supervisor Joe Bauer and VFX producer Steve Kullback, who came up with the idea of using two technocranes on location in Plaza de Toros, an old bullring in Osuna, Spain, which was transformed into a multilevel coliseum.

"One of the technocranes was the fire-breathing dragon and the other was the camera," Nutter says, "and they were both programmed to go off of each other to follow previz that had been created by myself and the visual effects department."

Because the pre-programmed dragon animation was running on a nearby computer and synced up with the motion control camera, Nutter could watch the gigantic winged beast's spectacular entrance and exit in real time. The director, who likes to talk out the imaginary interactions with actors beforehand, still knew that once the cameras began to roll, they'd essentially be emoting to a lime-green tennis ball stuck on the end of a long green stick while flags are rattled so they knew where to direct their eyes. "I'm a big believer in making sure the actors are clear about what's going on," says Nutter about his love of growling like a dragon into a handheld microphone or shouting out direction like, "The dragon is coming toward you. The dragon is coming toward you. And then spear, turn, fire!"

David Nutter: Scenes from Season V: "The Dance of Dragons" (Photos: HBO)

Two seasons later, in the 7th season episode "The Spoils of War," for which Matt Shakman would direct a different critically acclaimed battle, the fan-named "Loot Train Attack," he'd juggle many of the same elements as Nutter, but this time, on a larger scale.

Shakman wanted, in part, to pay homage to classic Westerns, beginning with a distant rumbling heard by the stoic lance-and-shield toting Lannister army, who are guarding a long string of grain-filled wagons when they suddenly find themselves outmatched by not one but two opponents. First come the ground troops: ululating, weapon-brandishing Dothraki warriors on horseback. Then in from the sky swoops Queen Daenerys mounted on a CG dragon, which has now essentially become a full-blown weapon of war: It's the size of a 747, able to soar 100 feet in the air and turn troops into piles of white ash with 30-foot columns of fire. To amp up the sense of fear and pandemonium from an on-the-ground perspective, Shakman borrowed visual language, editing and music cues from Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now.

"You have this overwhelming monstrosity coming from the air killing indiscriminately," says Shakman, citing the Apocalypse Now aerial attack in which Robert Duvall's deranged Col. Kilgore levels a Vietnamese village while blasting Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." "I watched that sequence a lot," says Shakman. "The way the dragon moves through the smoke is how the helicopters are moving through the smoke in the sky. When Duvall's helicopter lands on the ground and the smoke gathers around, it is exactly the way Drogon [the dragon] looks when he lands on the ground and all the plumes of smoke go up around him."

Because CGI sequences can take so long to create, render and edit, a Game of Thrones director has frequently been in the position of discovering that a specific effect's technology has evolved and improved since it was last deployed. Take, for example, Nutter's 5th season groundbreaker of Daenerys mounting her dragon. "That was a great moment in a great episode—but when you look back on it now, it feels more like something from [Wolfgang Petersen's 1984 fantasy film] The Neverending Story," says Shakman, of an episode that featured 11 shots of Clarke riding the dragon. In Shakman's "Loot Train," there were more than 80.

Shakman compared the way his next generation CG dragon could now dip and soar to nature documentaries about birds. "There's motion and shaking in the camera, a feeling of clouds going between you and her. The brilliant Joe Bauer had figured out a better system for the thing we called 'The Buck,' the mechanical dragon apparatus that [Emilia Clarke] sits on in front of a green screen at a studio in Belfast, Ireland. "They'd added these amazing dragon spikes and things that flap in the wind to give a sense of movement. We all know that we're watching someone ride something that does not exist in the real world and never could. But all of these things in combination create something that tricks the eye."

Betting on the idea that roaring blasts of orange-red fire would help sell the effect of a dragon blitzing the Sons of the Harpy soldiers, Nutter and stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam used a 45-foot flamethrower affixed to a motion controlled crane—a stand-in for the dragon's combustible breath—to set 17 costumed stunt people ablaze, at the time a history-making effect. In "Loot Train," Shakman broke Nutter's record by igniting 20 stunt people simultaneously. This time, however, instead of a flamethrower, Irlam came up with a system involving pyrotechnic charges buried in the ground that were programmed to explode sequentially so it looked like the dragon's whoosh of fire traveled along the battlefield, then engulfed the Lannister soldiers.

Later, an additional flamethrower burst was shot with a motion-control rig in-studio. On location, though, Shakman says he made sure each stunt person was well rehearsed, because he wanted to avoid overly expressive melodramatic reactions "where people run around waving their hands in the air and it always looks incredibly silly." But he also knew he needed to shoot the scene with eight cameras, because he only had a quarter of a minute to get it right. Stunt people are "coated in layers of cooling gel and [wear] protective flame-retardant gear, then ultimately they all put on a silicon mask," says Shakman, adding that once the fire stunt begins, the performers have to hold their breaths as Irlam counts loudly to 15, then wait for 15 or more safety officers to snuff out the flames with fire extinguishers.

Matt Shakman: Scenes from Season VII: "The Spoils of War" (Photos: HBO)

In early seasons of Game of Thrones, a violent face-off was typically the short, bloody adrenaline boost in an episode otherwise packed with Stark vs. Lannister palace intrigue. As the series progressed, the budget swelled and battle sequences began to take up more space, becoming seasonal climaxes. One such climactic fight in Season 5's "Hardhome," when an entire village is occupied, demolished and reanimated by the Night King and his army, would establish director Miguel Sapochnik's reputation for upping the show's battle ante.

By the time Sapochnik got the script for the 6th season's "Battle of the Bastards," he realized that its armed struggle—Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton going at it over who will control Winterfell—had become more than a burst of action in an otherwise talky episode. "My personal process is to break down [the script] by first trying to understand the overall point and distill that into a sentence like 'Jon's descent into hell,'" says Sapochnik about the 23-plus minutes of warfare in an hour-long episode.

Sapochnik recreated elements from famous historical battles for the sequence, which took 25 days to shoot using four camera crews, and involved 600 crew members, 500 extras, 60 stunt people and 70 horses. "It was probably one of the only times the extras were actually pinned in, and they felt it," says Sapochnik of staging a double-envelopment or pincer move, which defeated the Romans during the Battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. "We'd push it a little bit and let the action run a tad longer each take so that no one got comfortable. It feels like that's what you often do as the director: Push the limits."

To take on the prolonged clash at Winterfell that occupies almost the entire episode of the final season's "The Long Night," which, at 82 minutes, was the longest Game of Thrones ever, Sapochnik came up with another one-sentence distillation—"the final battle between good and evil"—and then tried to figure out from whose point of view he'd be telling the story of the battle. "This was especially hard on 'The Long Night,' because there were so many characters," he says.

What helped was breaking the sequence into three distinct acts, each linked to a genre—suspense, horror and action—then each act into beats. "It's much like you would prep a screenplay," says Sapochnik, adding that his calculated approach includes dividing up each storyline and tracking each character throughout the sequence to make sure they are where they need to be. "They each need a complete narrative before I put them back in the mixing bowl."

Part of the inspiration for the "Long Night" battle was the 40-minute confrontation at Helm's Deep from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, a film Sapochnik had different feelings about back in 2002. "The first time I saw Helm's Deep, I was just breaking up with my girlfriend of five years and in a really dark place," Sapochnik recalls. "It pretty much summed up how I was feeling at the time. Many years later, when I was looking for a big fantasy or medieval battle to study, it was the most sustained one I could remember, so I watched it again. It's actually three battles intercut. It was very useful to help me remember when and why things get boring. It helped me understand battle fatigue [and] how to use color to help distinguish different storylines."

Miguel Sapochnik: Scenes from Season VI: "Battle of the Bastards" (Photos: HBO)

The pivotal "Long Night" conflict required shooting for 55 straight nights—talk about battle fatigue. "Look at it this way," Sapochnik says, "I never ever want to do that again. I don't think anybody who did that ever wants to do it again. Yeah, that was tough. And I don't think it was something that anybody realized just how hard it was going to be."

The library sequence that makes up Act II of the episode was a way of breaking up the relentless carnage and providing viewers with a bit of a breather. "Hopefully what it does is it refreshes the audience," explains Sapochnik, "and they're like, 'We wanna know what's going on outside, but we're OK to be inside for a minute and slow things down. And we're also OK to be with Arya (Maisie Williams), who's suddenly gone from being this incredibly confident character that she's been for quite some time, to completely traumatized by what's happened to her.'"

From directing the extended sieges in "Battle of the Bastards" and "The Long Night," Sapochnik also developed a "how many have you got?" attitude when it comes to cameras.

"Three is nice," says Sapochnik. "Four on big action. Actually as many as you can on big stunts. Action can be very physically taxing, so the more cameras you have, the more likely you are to be able to cut something together and control the pace." He also discovered that it's better to shoot fewer takes but more setups. "Keeping the energy up is really important, and repeating the same beat, like dying many times, takes its toll on the actors," says Sapochnik. "I also think it's good not to chase something for too long."

On the slow-motion sequence where Arya kills the Night King, Sapochnik says the majority of it was shot at 96 frames a second. "It's all super-slow motion," he says, "all heightened reality, which is not what [we] usually do. It's a surreal nightmare."

Two episodes after "The Long Night," Sapochnik outdid himself with "The Bells." This time, his one-sentence encapsulation was "What have we become?" Shot on an entire city set built in Belfast, Ireland, the gruesome, carnage-filled confrontation required roughly 650 extras, and utilized nearly every type of gear that Game of Thrones had to offer, including a Spider-Cam, three motion-controlled telescopic cranes and an Artemis handheld stabilized camera.

Miguel Sapochnik: Scenes from Season VIII: "The Long Night" and "The Bells" (Photos: HBO)

In this episode, Sapochnik not only broke Shakman's burn record by setting 22 people on fire (twice), he conceived of a nonstop tracking shot, following Arya, a sort of tour guide through the chaos and horror of war as she races through King's Landing as it topples, surrounded by the moaning, bloodied and dying. "It was meant to, ultimately, come across as a seven-and-a-half-minute nonstop shot, where you follow her on the run," Sapochnik explains, but he ultimately intercut the shot with a thematically related fight sequence.

The buildings were designed to be built and also destroyed, each with its own manifold plumbing system that snaked through to doors and windows so that they could be set on fire with practical effects. The trick was building the sets in their destroyed stages first, and then the perfect sections were added on top to make for a quicker changeover during production.

Again, Daenerys uses her dragon as a tool of mass destruction, zooming downward from the sky like a low-flying, fire-spitting warplane. "Each year we've tried to better the dragon-riding experience," says Sapochnik. "This year we did the usual motion-control passes, but we also got someone to puppeteer the massive electronic buck and I did a lot of straight handheld work in the close-ups because it was faster and looked better. But the general rules are trying to keep it real. Don't make the camera do loop-the-loops or squeeze through impossible gaps. I quite like treating it as wildlife photography where one is often chasing the subject, so it feels like it's unrehearsed."

Nutter, Shakman and Sapochnik all agree that directing a Game of Thrones battle sequence—each, as Nutter puts it, "with its own voice, rhythm and melody" and all of them massive, with dozens of moving parts and with all the equipment and skilled experts at your disposal—is a self-esteem booster. "It made me better at my craft, I think," says Sapochnik. "I never thought it would, but it seems that confidence inspires confidence and makes everyone up their game. It also allows me to confront problems more quickly and get past them.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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