In the Trenches with the Special Effects Team

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Jonathon Barrass

Special Effects Floor Supervisor

Wolf/Dragon Units

UK/Iceland

Jonathon ‘Jona’ Barrass and I sat down this week between takes on a scene from Ep 309 (directed by David Nutter) to talk about his work on the show. We are perched on the edge of some electrical kit boxes in a field near Saintfield just outside Belfast. After a week of rain, everyone is reveling in the sunshine – apart from the crowd of Wildings who are running across the ground in heavy furs.

How did you find yourself in SFX?

A friend of mine was working on HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers’ in the SFX department, and I went along one day to lend a hand and show my face. I had no formal training so to speak, but with a military and engineering background, it meant I was used to the technical side and the fast pace. The military definitely helped with that.

You’ve worked on a lot of action movies, ‘Die Another Day,’ ‘Casino Royale,’ ‘Batman Begins,’ and five of the ‘Harry Potter’ films, do you prefer TV or movies?

Well, ‘Harry Potter’ particularly was very similar. All the outdoor elements with the wind, rain and smoke. Very similar indeed. But in the end I came back to TV because I prefer it. The pace is so much faster, and that suits me, plus with this show it still feels like a film when you see the finished product.

On ‘Game of Thrones,’ each department faces some pretty big challenges, what would you say is the biggest for the SFX team?

I would say the biggest challenge on a show like this would be filming different episodes with different directors out of order and all at the same time. Everything can change on a daily basis. We plan of course, but really it’s working out day to day how we are going to make things work and match to any filming we may have done already. It may be raining one day and sunny the next and you just never know.

We have the best back up team, our guys in the workshop are some if the best engineers you can imagine. They send us things to play with, and we break them and send them back, but the atmospherics, the rain the smoke and the fire. We always have that on board the trucks and ready to go, depending on what the directors need.

What is your favourite element to play with?

I do like fire. I’ve been asked to do 20-foot rings of fire, with flames that reach 20 feet in the air. The firemen and I are great friends now, because first and foremost it’s got to be safe. I don’t think many people realize that every fire you see, campfire, the columns in the throne room, it’s all SFX. It has to burn the same way all day. It’s really tiny things you’d never notice if it’s right - something as simple as ripples in the water, that has to be the same every take, because otherwise people do notice when it’s wrong.

What would you say has been the biggest single challenge so far?

(we pause here as David calls a take and the Wildings jump a 4-foot wall)

Technically speaking, the flaming sword was definitely a process, in terms of getting it to work. We have these amazing stunt guys and CC Smiff who is a Sword Master, swings the swords so fast it takes a lot not to get the flame to go out. Laurence Harvey in the workshop turned this bit of aluminium into this flaming sword that ignites from nothing. It’s amazing. I think more than anything, I’m looking forward to seeing that fight scene play out.

Then next week, we have this huge challenge coming up with a massive amount of gas. There may be some burning; there may be a lot of burning, in fact. We have these giant gas tankers you see on the roads, and we can empty that in 20 minutes – gone, so we’ve got to set that up, make it safe and make it work.

Looking back through everything we’ve seen on the screen, is there one thing you look at and think – yes, nailed it?

For me, it was last year on Ep 2.09, “Blackwater.” Even though it never stopped raining in the quarry, and Neil Marshall and Sam McCurdy threw stuff at us everyday, it was the best. Down at Banbridge we had everything going on, air canons, water canons, water tanks, we had ships’ masts falling into water and stunt guys running everywhere. It was amazing.

Favorite Character?

Tyrion, definitely – everything he does is just brilliant.

Any advice for people who are interested in joining the SFX world?

Well firstly, there are two types – the Workshop and the Physical.

There isn’t a single way of getting into it really. There are courses you can do in model-making and engineering that are good if you want to work in workshop, designing things and being behind the scenes. Engineering particularly is great, but to be on set, to do the physical stuff – well there’s no real training for that, it’s just experience. Being good at technical things helps, and it can get pretty dirty. A lot of people start in the workshop and then try their hand on set, learning how it all works and just figuring it out. You’ve got to be imaginative, to be able to figure out how to get it done. It’s not glamorous, but then it can take you to places you’d never dream you’d end up going.