Cinematographer Robert McLachlan talks about the challenges and processes behind ‘The Spoils of War’

nikolaj coster waldau the spoils of war

A cinematographer has a heavy responsibility. Without a steady hand (no pun intended, trust me) guiding the direction of photography and camerawork, a film or episode of television can be poorly imagined or shot, unraveling all the hard work of a production. The stakes were especially high for the cinematography of “The Spoils of War,” one of the most intense, large-scale episodes of Game Of Thrones in the show’s seven-year history; fortunately, HBO had a veteran presence in cinematographer Robert McLachlan.

“Any sequence with a great deal of visual effects has to be really carefully planned,” said McLachlan, who worked on the Red Wedding in season 3 and “The Dance of Dragons” in season 5, in an article from The Verge. “It almost comes down to planning individual frames as you decide how long each shot is going to be, because those shots are insanely expensive, especially if there’s a dragon in the frame.”

In a series of interviews, McLachlan spoke about the long-range planning involved with most episodes of Thrones, but especially one like “The Spoils of War.” The crew — unlike the cast, who is typically kept in the dark about what will happen until production is well underway — gets scripts more than a year in advance, so planning for the episode began more than a year ago for McLachlan. It’s a necessary aspect of filming a show like Thrones, whose production has so many  moving parts.

Despite that and the intricacies of the episode, McLachlan said they tried to film “The Spoils of War” as “simply and elegantly as we could,” using a small, hand-held digital camera called an Osmo that allowed a stuntman riding on horseback to get shots while riding at a full gallop.

Although there were as many as 500 extras for the Dothraki charge in "The Spoils of War," cinematographer Robert McLachlan manipulated footage to make it look like many more.

Although there were as many as 50-60 stuntmen and horses for the Dothraki charge in “The Spoils of War,” cinematographer Robert McLachlan manipulated footage to make it look like many more.

McLachlan also talked about the balance of practical effects and CGI and how to make less than a hundred Dothraki on horseback look like thousands.

“Well, obviously we didn’t actually have 5,000 Dothraki. But to 3-D animate those would be wildly expensive,” he said. “We did have 50 or 60. And part of the tedious process of doing a scene like that is, you have to do crowd replication. We have cameras that can repeat their moves over and over perfectly, exactly the same way each time, so different segments can be blended together.”

As for the copious amounts of thick, black smoke that filled the sky above the battlefield once Dany and Drogon started raining fire, McLachlan said it wasn’t as simple as setting wooden props on fire. To block out the sun so the shots would look more consistent — and knowing that fire smoke would look “incredibly beautiful” — he turned to burning something a little less, er, conventional.

Cinematographer Robert McLachlan, on the set of "The Spoils of War."

Cinematographer Robert McLachlan, on the set of “The Spoils of War.”

“Special-effects smoke is usually white, and it’s quite innocuous. It’s easy to work in. It’s been proven safe to breathe. But we wanted really nasty black smoke that would look evil and horrible, and the only way to do that is to burn diesel oil,” he said. “The crew and everybody close to the fires were fitted with masks and goggles. But after two days, everybody’s faces were just black, and we were all coughing and wheezing and hacking. The health and safety officer from HBO said, ‘That’s it! No more of that!’ Everybody was relieved, including me on one level, but on the other level, I was going, ‘Oh man, there goes my smokescreen.’ “

McLachlan also touched on the importance of not only framing the characters in the screen in just the right way, but in enhancing the story that’s being told in that episode through cinematography as a whole. He said the emotional stakes in “The Spoils of War” were different than something like the Battle of the Bastards, where there were clearly defined sides.

“When I first read this episode, I thought ‘Well, here’s Dany flying around on a dragon burning everything up, and Jaime down on the ground, but is that going to work, if we’re not really rooting for somebody?’ Then I realized that the characters actually watching this conflagration, this dragon-induced Armageddon, was going to be a game-changing moment,” McLachlan said. “So we really had to focus on Jaime, and to a lesser extent, Bronn, more than this girl flying around on a dragon, which was technically hard to shoot.”

“Nikolaj [Coster-Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister] delivered one of his best performances in the show so far,” he added. “I think that’s largely what helped make it work. That, and watching a battle where you’re rooting for both sides. You don’t want to see the dragon get killed, but you don’t want to see Bronn get killed. I think it worked.”

The full article and many more of McLachlan’s thoughts are available here.

31 responses

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    1. Fantastic work. Some of those battle shots were amazing. That one of shot Jaime with the spear charging like a fool at Double D was just beautiful.

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    2. Haha same for me

      For my part the cinematography highlight is Bronn running through the burning wagons with random burning people running into him

      Camera work and atmosphere perfectly encapsulated a bewildered Bronn feeling out of his depth, the inferno carnage, and completely a panicked Lannister army

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    3. Game of Thrones receives a lot of credit for staging of its battle sequences and the general cinematic quality overall, but in my opinion it doesn’t get near enough. Pretty much every one of its major sequences puts to shame nearly all Hollywood blockbusters of recent vintage despite having much more significant budget limitations. Apart from some Nolan stuff and maybe recent Star Wars fare, it’s sequences are more visually striking, emotionally interesting and dramatically coherent. It’s really amazing and its great to hear the technicians behind it talk about it in detail.

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    4. The shots of the Dothraki archers standing on their horses at full gallop, shooting arrows, was spectacular!
      D&D flying straight over the waters of Blackwater Rush, with D’s wing speed causing a ripple effect – so beautiful.

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    5. 7 seasons in, and I can honestly say that this battle is my favourite ‘scene’ to date. It was just done so bloody well. Cast, crew, direction, cinematography, special effects, everything. Wow.

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    6. Pigeon:
      7 seasons in, and I can honestly say that this battle is my favourite ‘scene’ to date. It was just done so bloody well. Cast, crew, direction, cinematography, special effects, everything. Wow.

      Visually definitely the best. I still prefer Hardhome and Watchers on the Wall. The Spoils of War is my third favorite episode of the series.

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    7. Jack Bauer 24: Visually definitely the best. I still prefer Hardhome and Watchers on the Wall. The Spoils of War is my third favorite episode of the series.

      It would be pretty hard to beat Hardhome’s end (Jon and NK stare-off, and the utter silence as they floated away). The great thing is that even episodes or sequences that are 2nd….5th…10th on my list are still spectacular. The Spoils of War battle scene didn’t even have any of my top 5 favourite characters in it and wowed me.

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    8. Flayed Potatoes:
      Parts of the scene reminded me of Mad Max: Fury Road technically speaking. It was great.

      According to HBO’s ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ that was intentional as they said they were thinking of something Mad Max-ish for the Dothraki charge.

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    9. So many parts of this battle sequence stand out for me. Such excellent, hard work by everyone. I’m so grateful to the cinematographers for capturing so much and delivering a stunning, finished product.

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    10. Flayed Potatoes,

      Great point. Embarrassed I omitted George Miller earlier as Road Warrior is one of my favorite movies and Fury Road was one of the best films in recent years. A guy who simply knows how to build story and character through action. He’s pretty much the Platonic Ideal of a Game of Thrones director. D&D should try to recruit him for an episode in Season 8. 😉

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    11. Impressive work from everyone involved. If you haven’t yet, I would recommend everyone to check the behind the scenes snippet HBO made for this episode. No amount of words make justice to the complexity of the scenes. If it were possible this episode alone could contend for one of the technical Oscars. Can’t wait to see what else they have up their sleeve.

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    12. I’ve always been fascinated by the art of cinematography, so it’s great to hear Robert McLachlan talk about his craft in such detail, and receiving such widespread and deserved acclaim for his work. If the gods are just, he’ll be picking up an Emmy for “The Spoils of War” next year. One of the most stunningly beautiful episodes of this entire show.

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    13. This is the best interview I’ve ever read about the making of a GoT episode. Having been nominated twice for Emmys (“Mhysa” and “The Dance of Dragons”), here’s hoping he picks one up in 2018 for “The Spoils of War.”

      Interesting tidbit about Season 8: McLachlan says that of the 6 remaining episodes, “three will probably have big action setpieces and the other three will be finally telling the story.”

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    14. Slimchicken:
      Game of Thrones receives a lot of credit for staging of its battle sequences and the general cinematic quality overall, but in my opinion it doesn’t get near enough. Pretty much every one of its major sequences puts to shame nearly all Hollywood blockbusters of recent vintage despite having much more significant budget limitations. Apart from some Nolan stuff and maybe recent Star Wars fare, it’s sequences are more visually striking, emotionally interesting and dramatically coherent. It’s really amazing and its great to hear the technicians behind it talk about it in detail.

      I think early on it did. I watch a lot of the reaction and review videos and I remember a lot of talk about certain shots in the early battles but with this one I hear more about the stakes and what it means for the story than about specific shots. Maybe people are just getting too used to it now. I particularly loved the shot from behind the Dothraki Screamers charging down the hill with what looked a lot like the US Southwest in the background. I also loved the shots of Drogon flying over the river with that wave vortex and his reflection. There is even a moment when his wing goes through the foliage of a tree. That was a lot of extra work for something most people didn’t even notice. I appreciate that level of detail.

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    15. Kind of OT but still related to this episode, especially the battle – The Beautiful Death art is up for episode 4 and I’m a little disappointed with it. I was hoping he would take this opportunity to feature the Dothraki, but instead he went with a Lannister soldier in flames. He’s done dragonfire before so this seems like a missed opportunity to do something new. Still gorgeous artwork though.

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    16. There have been so many incredible ‘shots’ on GoT, but I think my top three are:

      1) Drogon’s first burst of dragon fire on the Lannister army

      2) The NK re-animating the wildlings at Hardhome

      3) The 360 shot for WotW

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    17. RedAmber:
      Very interesting interview. Here is another from Nikolaj about shooting the charge and the drowning scene.

      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/07/arts/jamie-lannister-nikolaj-coster-waldau.html?smid=tw-share

      Aw, thanks for the links, and others they lead to.

      NCW is such a nice guy, and a total fan. He’s interested in where his character goes, he ships Jaime&Brienne, he sees Jaime dying for a good cause (=honour?) but maybe never recognised. NCW “gets” Jaime more than many book/show fans. It’s great to have such a wonderful actor as NCW to play Jaime. We have been blessed. And we can have a good chuckle about it along with NCW.

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    18. Ghost’s Lunch,

      The shot where Drogon is flying over the water was unexpected and visually pleasing. I particularly liked the scene where Bronn was firing up the weapon (scorpion?) I think it’s due to the quality of the atmosphere in that shot.

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    19. Fancy word for a sellsword:
      There have been so many incredible ‘shots’ on GoT, but I think my top three are:

      1) Drogon’s first burst of dragon fire on the Lannister army

      2) The NK re-animating the wildlings at Hardhome

      3) The 360 shot for WotW

      Hard to disagree, though my #1 remains the three dragons simultaneously flame broiling the Masters’ ship in the opening segment of S6e9.

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    20. Wow the stand out info for me is that the production staff get the scripts well in advance of the actors this means you’d imagine dozens of people already know how this story is going to end!

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