Back to the Battlefield

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Two years ago in a quarry just north of Belfast, the Battle of Blackwater came to life under the keen eye of director Neil Marshall. It was not an easy shoot, requiring nearly a month of night shoots in the unforgiving October weather. The red mud was so churned up by the trucks and the feet of the marauding hordes of extras and crew, that by the end, it was no longer possible to drive anything but the sturdiest of vehicles down to the castle set. Carrying kit out became a challenge of endurance.

Two years and two seasons on, we have returned to a location not far from the first and Neil is back at the helm once more. It’s still several weeks of night shoots, and being Belfast, there is still rain, but this time the fight Neil is navigating is not anywhere on the water. The planning of this battle has been taking place for months but unlike any other episode of Season 4, Neil’s will be filmed in a very concentrated burst. In fact, for many on the show – including most of the cast and the other directors, their work was complete before filming on this episode had even begun.

Throughout our shooting schedule, our crew and specialist departments are on their toes, but perhaps never more so than this season. This episode has kept the teams in stunts, armoury, prosthetics, SFX and VFX particularly busy, with camera tests and stunt rehearsals happening for several weeks beforehand.

As always, I can’t give too much away, but a little hint won’t hurt: Although this battle will not be laden with wildfire, I can say you’ve never seen an army like this on ‘Game of Thrones.’ 

A Fire Burns Bright in Belfast

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On a cloudy day in July, in a car park opposite the Paint Hall in Belfast, a group gathers by one lonely SFX truck. Tourists walking between the Titanic Museum and the Pump-House don’t even glance in our direction and a jogger runs down the road oblivious to our rag-tag bunch.

Then, on command, 15 feet of fire shoots through the air.

The first time, no one really notices the flame. SFX have a tight control on the rig and the fire is only coming in short bursts to give the camera crew and VFX team a chance to calibrate and get closer to the outlets.

Once the bursts come more regularly, a few begin people stop and point across the road and through the fencing. The flames, burning a hot bright orange are hard to miss – and that is what we want, because this is the dragon fire test for Season 4.

As the dragons grow and start to test their power, their fire breathing will get stronger and more powerful. The Dragons are legend for a reason and this season we will get a hint of why. The final tally, 22 canisters and 400 litres of gas – all for just one day in Essos.

Leeches, Dragons and a Bear: Behind the Scenes of Episodes 307 and 308

By Cat Taylor

One of the things that I’m always amazed by when I watch the show is how easy it is to forget the amount of work that goes into creating each set. The tent in which Robb learns he’s about to be a father was actually built on ‘A’ Stage, one of two new sound stages at the Paint Hall Studio in Belfast. It was designed by Gemma Jackson and then decorated by Set Dec and the Props departments with fabrics and furniture brought in from as far away as India – each piece was specially chosen to reflect the feel and style of House Stark. The scroll Talisa is writing was actually written in the Valyrian language, translated by our wonderful language creator, David J. Peterson.

In the same way that so many departments are involved in a short scene, many locations are often used to tell a single storyline. By now you will have seen the spectacular Ice Wall climb in Episode 306 and so much of Iceland's stunning scenery in the wildlings' approach to it. But by the time we see Orell and Ygritte in the woods, we are back in Toome, Northern Ireland. The scene was filmed back in September, six weeks before we went north of the Wall.

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The Making of a Bear Fight

Westerosi tavern-goers know “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” is a popular drinking song. But the phrase took on a new meaning Sunday night when Jaime Lannister rescued Brienne of Tarth from a bear pit. Wondering how stars Gwendoline Christie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau tangled with a bear and made it out alive? This video takes you behind the scenes.

In his interview with HBO.com, Coster-Waldau jokes the bear was a bit of a diva.  

The fight's intricate storyboard will give you a sense of how much teamwork was required. 

What was your reaction to this bear and his maiden fair?

Faking, Baking and Quaking: Behind the Scenes of Episode 304, 305 and 306

By Cat Taylor

Poor old Jaime, having to fight with only one hand. Don’t worry – those three men taunting him weren’t extras with vicious natures, but rather part of the stunt team.

As for Varys' special delivery, our man in the box required no stunts. The sorcerer was played by a local actor and the crate he arrives in was specially made – as so many of the props are – to a finish of appropriate roughness. One of a few designs, it was eventually chosen for its sturdiness.

On the other end of the scale is the perfect finish and grandeur of the Sept of Baelor. The Sept is actually a little over half a sept; the appearance of a full circle was created using camera angle tricks and VFX. The massive space where the Sept was built in is shared with something unexpected, that you don’t get to see until Episode 306: the huge ice wall that Jon and Ygritte must climb with the wildlings.

The ice wall was built by our amazing construction team and it took six weeks of testing and sampling to find a construction method and materials that worked. This was then tested by stunts for safety, and once filming of the climb began, we had crews working through the night to repair the damage done during the day's shooting.

In Westeros, the Wall and King's Landing are thousands of miles away from each other, but things are a little different in the real world. In Belfast, you’ll find the Wall sandwiched between the Throne Room and parts of the Red Keep, and more specifically Tywin’s new chamber, where Cersei confronts her father.

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Mance Rayder’s Camp

By Cat Taylor

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Photo Credit: Helen SloanSome of you may have read a previous post where I talked about our first meeting with Mance Rayder and how hot his tent became with all the SFX fires and torches burning throughout the day.

Even if we are filming on a Lava field here in Iceland, it’s not hot anymore – the car display indicates the temperature is minus 11 degrees. It’s day five, and all of Mance’s camp, not just the inside of his tent, is laid out before us. The camp is the product of months of work from the art department and weeks of construction by the local crew. It is spectacular.

Walking from base, the edge of the camp is only a few feet away, but the site is like a fantasy. If you can ignore the cameras and crew, you might believe you were actually inside a wilding village. Our extras (the men all with fabulous beards of course) work in between the huts or huddle around fires, and even children run through the snow to greet a visitor from the Wall, in their own special way.

It’s also a day when our friend Ian Whyte, who plays the White Walker, is back in a different role, one we haven’t seen before. He’s got some awfully big shoes to fill for this particular scene.

A few behind-the-scenes moments from today: How about our fantastic SFX boys setting up a grill behind one of the huts at the edge of camp and handing out hotdogs to anyone who wanted them? Or the fact that in the magnificent wide shot up and over the camp there were certain crew who couldn’t clear the shot fast enough after setting a prop, weapon or flame and had to curl up inside the tents, waiting for the cut?

Special Effects’ Tricks of the Trade

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Photo Credit: Helen Sloan

Smoke

For chimney fires, the SFX team uses a false chimney and makes sure it doesn’t leak into the building. In combination with a ZR12 machine, a sturdy grey box that delivers smoke through a wide nozzle, they use an oily solution to make the smoke, which is safe to breathe and won’t do damage to plants or animals. The machine is in the chimney, so the SFX team can control it with a remote, and because the smoke has to stay the same consistency throughout the day, the team can turn it up or down depending on external elements like wind.

For atmospheric smoke, the SFX team can cover an entire forest with their set-up. The team lays down flat tubes that are normally used for irrigation, but Jonathon Barras and the team fill them with air. They are up to 100 meters long, surround a whole filming area and, if needed, can be joined together to become 200 meters long. They can be fed from one end, both ends, or the middle, depending on what coverage is required. Large gas burners are brought in to heat the pipes and create the smoke.

Snow Candles

Snow Business provides all the snow candles for the show. What is a snow candle? A certain type of paper is soaked in a chemical that makes it burn slowly, and as it does, the candle creates a very fine ash that the SFX team spins in galvanized buckets. If they find the right wind, it drifts nicely through shot; if the wind is not moving in their favor, you get crew members’ faces full of fake snow and a lot of complaints. According to Barras, snow is one of his favourite things to do, but also one of the hardest natural phenomena to recreate. “I took fake snow to Iceland,” he told me, “but we never had to use it.”

Pyrotechnics

The SFX team has only used a few pyrotechnics on Season 3 – swords hitting each other, swords striking rocks. Pyrotechnics, according to Barras, is every boy’s dream. You get to blow things up and never have to put them together again. The SFX team is pretty excited whenever the pyromancer appears on the show, as it suggests that the team might get to blow some more stuff up. Safety-wise, it is probably the strictest of all elements – you can’t have mobile phones on set or use radios, which can be limiting, especially for the ADs who have to talk to each other constantly.

Rain effects

For rain, the SFX team uses the same type of pumps the fire department has on its trucks. If possible, they connect to hydrants or pull from rivers, if we are close enough. If we aren’t, they have huge 20,000-liter dams to hold water. For big rain (like with Arya in Harrenhall’s courtyard, or over the battle in the Blackwater scenes) they uses a spinner on a crane about 100 feet in the air. The water pressure spins the head in a huge circle of rain, maybe 30 meters across, and they put four of those on the crane at once. With that all set up, the crew can create coverage that has the same area as a football field. The SFX team loves it. The crew hates it. THEY HATE IT.

Prop Closeup: Beric's Flaming Sword

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Photo Credit: Helen Sloan

By Cat Taylor

While chatting with the SFX team, I managed to wrangle some information on how one of my favorite effects of the season came to be: The Sword of Fire.

There were, it turns out, actually two swords – one that would burn for an actual fight sequence, and another that has the ability to bleed and ignite itself.

The fight-sequence sword is a real sword that the workshop team milled with a number of channels, each one stuffed with a dura-blanket material. The flame retardant fiber is then soaked in IPA (isopropyl alcohol). This was then covered in another layer of material to make the blade look uniform and sword-like again. Because of the length of the sequence, the flame has to last (and burn strong) for at least 3 minutes, which was something of a challenge, as the fuel burned off so quickly.

The second sword had blood inside the blade and could be ignited. The sword itself split into two pieces, and the inside was filled with a series of small, sealed channels. Some were filled with gas, the rest with fake blood – that way, when the blade was drawn across any surface, skin or otherwise, hitting a button on the hilt of the blade would release blood through tiny holes down the side, making it appear as if blood was welling up from a cut.

There was a tiny pilot light, which you could never see on the blade, but when a button was pressed and the gas released down the channels, the sword would burst into flames. You could not use this for any contact during a fight scene, though, as the mechanism inside is too delicate to withstand the impact, and with the blood and gas being supplied into the blade, it would be unsafe to use for stunts.

CORRECTION: During the craziness of production and starting with a story comparing Stannis' and Beric's flaming swords that turned into something more technical and specific, the original title of the piece was erroneously posted with this blog and has caused some confusion. To clarify - this story is about Beric's sword and I never changed the title to reflect the change in focus. Can this be one of my nine lives?