Battle Harden

Fabian Wagner BSC / Game of Thrones

Battle Harden

Fabian Wagner BSC / Game of Thrones

From brutal battlefield tactics to a revenge montage sequence that echoes The Godfather, Fabian Wagner BSC reunited with filmmaker Miguel Sapochnik on Game of Thrones  to produce Battle of the Bastards  and The Winds of Winter.

Hardhome was our first job together,” explains Fabian Wagner. “Miguel and I got on straight away and worked very well together creatively and said if we come back for a big episode let’s go do it together.” Whereas Hardhome depicted White Walkers slaughtering a village of Wildlings, a planned military engagement was the epic showcase for Battle of the Bastards. “The way we tried to approach Hardhome was to create this sense that there is no way out because it is all happening inside of that Wildling village. So the camera was very rarely outside the village. This one starts off as a massive standoff but turns into something similar.”

Jon Snow leads his forces against Ramsay Bolton who has twice the number of soldiers. “We wanted to show that Ramsay is a deliberate, cool and cruel character who clearly thinks about how he is going to destroy his enemies,” explains Fabian Wagner who had 17 consecutive days to shoot the sequence. “On the other hand we have Jon who is emotionally driven; he is trying to rescue his brother and knows that they don’t have enough men to stand up against the army of Ramsay.” The desire was to have a huge horse battle without losing focus on the characters and keeping you close to the main characters, to make you feel for them. “Saving Private Ryan is a movie where I watched the first 40 minutes a couple times before we started because it achieved that. You felt like you were in that war.”

Fabian Wagner BSC with director Miguel Sapochnik (left)
Fabian Wagner BSC with director Miguel Sapochnik (left)

“We ended up shooting four cameras for the most of it,” states Fabian Wagner, who also operated the fourth camera. “We needed to get so many beats and material.” Along with using ARRI ALEXA XT cameras, shooting high speed as well as ARRIRAW 2.8K for the visual effects, and capturing with ProRes 3.2K, a Russian Arm was deployed. “We had to get that moment of these beautiful horses charging in slow-motion.” The lenses of choice were Cooke Primes and Angénieux zooms. “Zooms were mainly used for the battle because we were shooting in a huge muddy field that wasn’t easy to shoot in so I didn’t want to have to change lenses all of the time.”

Mounds of corpses litter the battlefield with Jon Snow taking a deep breath as he pulls himself out of one of them. “Miguel and I knew it would be a great moment to have,” recalls Fabian Wagner. “I said to Miguel, ‘Let’s try to do this. I’ll get in there on the floor with Kit Harington. Just give me a few stuntmen doubles to jump over us.’” Sansa Stark unleashes her vengeance upon the captured Ramsay Bolten by turning his hungry hounds against him. “I wanted to have Ramsay sitting in a cool light. I put in a flambo on the wall behind Sansa to give her a more vicious and fiery visual. Even though the dogs are beautiful they’re actually quite dangerous so we weren’t able to shoot them at the same time as shooting the actors. We had to do a lot of plates with dogs which we had to match the lighting to as well as the dog’s action to the actor’s action. It’s a lot trickier scene to shoot than to watch.”

"The desire was to have a huge horse battle without losing focus on the characters and keeping you close to the main characters, to make you feel for them."

- Fabian Wagner BSC

The Winds of Winter opens with various characters getting ready for a trial which the accused Cersei Lannister has no intention of attending for nefarious reasons. “Miguel and I wanted to create suspense for the first 20 minutes with a montage sequence that is mainly driven by music,” reveals Fabian Wagner. “We didn’t storyboard anything. We went for it.” Some of the shots take place in caverns located outside of Belfast where a deadly discovery is made. “Caverns are hard to light. They suit me because I always like to go for the most natural lighting approach. The wildfire was tricky because it’s a different colour pallet and doesn’t exist. I used a lot of real fire and mixed it up with lights that are gelled to the green I wanted it to be or used some green frames in front of the fire to give it a tint of the colour.” Wind machines were utilized to create the impression that the characters are being pushed back by the massive explosion. “We always use whatever works to help supplement the shot and the storytelling.”

A key revelation in the episode is the mother of Jon Snow. “The flashback was something we shot on a set in Belfast,” states Fabian Wagner. “We were shooting Battle of the Bastards while some of the guys were in Spain so the exterior of Eddard Stark walking up the steps was shot by Anette Haellmigk because she was shooting at that location. We cut to our set in Belfast when Eddard walks in through the door and sees his sister lying on a bed.” The face of the baby is followed by a close-up on Jon Snow who is in Winterfell being declared the King of the North. “A lot of people had a feeling of where Jon Snow came from but it was the first moment that it was put together visually.” Sansa is not happy being left in the shadows. “There’s this moment where you think that Sansa is proud of him but she also has this look where you don’t know whether this is what she really wants.” A rousing speech is made by Bella Ramsey who portrays Lyanna Mormont. “She was so professional and always got her lines right.”

Fabian Wagner BSC is all smiles as actor Kristofer Hivju watches on
Fabian Wagner BSC is all smiles as actor Kristofer Hivju watches on

“Arya Stark’s scene was great to shoot because you’re wrapping up the story of what has happened to her over 10 episodes,” notes Fabian Wagner when referring to the youngest Stark daughter who has trained to become assassin in Braavos and returns to Westeros with Lord Walder Frey being on her kill list. “I wanted it to be dark with him sitting in that big room and the girl [Arya Stark wearing a mask] serving him. I only used candles around the table and supplement them with a couple of small lights. We had another actress who was playing the other girl. We talked a lot about how we should do the reveal. Should we do a big visual effects shot where we see the other girl’s face, don’t cut and reveal Ayra’s face? In the end we said it didn’t matter that much because we can get the same effect from doing a simple cut behind the shoulder and that’s what we did.”

Concluding The Winds of Winter is Daenerys Targaryen setting off to King’s Landing with a fleet of ships and her three dragons. “We were shooting everything on a ship set that is on exterior location outside of Belfast,” explains Fabian Wagner. “It’s a big ship that they’ve built a long time ago on season two. We redressed the ship for each army. We were shooting there for a few days in December. It was raining heavily every day. I had a fairly big lighting setup there because it was getting dark very soon, there wasn’t much light plus we had the rain which worked out in the end because you have a big fleet going over water. The ship is not on gimbal so sense of motion was created by the camera movement and digital augmentation. “The visual effects guys did such an amazing job that you don’t think about those shots twice.” Wagner remarks, “Its good fun to see the dragons. Technically it’s a challenge. It takes time and is never easy but when you get to see the results and what those guys have done by making these dragons come to life you think, ‘It was worth it.’”

“The lighting was provided by Panalux this year,” remarks Fabian Wagner. “It’s a big lighting package. Because we have two crews shooting simultaneously all of the time you always need to be ready so we pre-light the sets as much as possible. You’re trying to shoot on a decent stop. You don’t want to shoot wide open. Some of those sets are huge so you need to pump in a fair bit of light. All of the lighting that we do on the stages is tungsten based so we’re using everything from 20K to 10K to 5K. Location lighting depends on each DP. I tend to use HMIs which I normally gel.” The appearance of the various sets and locations has been well established. “It can be tweaked as long as it is still within the general look. Joe Finley has been colour grading the show for years in L.A.. We constantly talk or email about certain scenes that I want to do slightly different. We have two DITs on-set who are great creatively. We create the look on the set and Joe makes it better.”

“Technically the biggest challenge was to get everything we needed for Battle of the Bastards in the time that we had,” notes Fabian Wagner who was supported by camera operators Sean Savage and David Morgan, and the whole camera team, along with gaffer Tom Gates; other critical contributors include first assistant director Charlie Endean, producer Chris Newman, producer Bernadette Caulfield, and executive producer Frank Doelger. “Creatively it’s a challenge to do two episodes in a show which is so huge and to create something that works visually throughout the whole season. It’s a great joy to work on the Game of Thrones.” Currently Wagner is conducting principal photography on Justice League. “I still can't believe I’m actually shooting it. It has been a lot of fun. Zack Snyder is an incredibly visual director and a super nice guy. He has an amazing team around him and so do I.” As to whether the members of Justice League stand a better chance against Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons or the newly crown queen of Westeros, Wagner laughs, “No one has a chance against Cersei! However, if you got all of them together they’re pretty good.”

By Trevor Hogg