The last few months have graced us with an avalanche of Game of Thrones season seven promotional pictures — a first look back in April, a heroine-based release, and more, and more, and even more. We have rather quickly drifted away from being starved for season seven content to feeling —happily— overwhelmed by the sheer amount of it. And there is someone behind the camera we should thank for this. Many shows have photographers on staff, but there is absolutely no doubt the principal stills photographer for Game of Thrones is the most hard-working of them all — the incredible Helen Sloan.
Recently, Sloan was interviewed about her job on the HBO show, and it is a wonderful look at how crazy her day-to-day looks like, as well as the difficulties this strange job entails. She also touches on her lack of involvement in the many (in)famous nude scenes.
Wex Photographic got ahold of the Irish photographer to ask her all about her Game of Thrones job, starting with her prior knowledge about the series, or lack thereof:
“I didn’t really know anything about GoT, other than it was a very successful series of books that my brother had read! It was sold to me as ‘swords and horses and stuff – right up your street, really nerdy and cool at the same time.’ That gave me a chuckle.”
“As we started filming, I made a decision to not read the books,” she explains. “I wanted to be current, in the moment with the scripts. I felt that if I read ahead and discovered that a character ‘went bad’ then I wouldn’t shoot them correctly for the series we were in at that time – I felt it was important to not know too much, or too far ahead.”
Whatever Sloan might have expected, the actual experience of the job can only be described as chaotic, going by her explanation of how “there is no ‘normal’ on a film set”:
“One day we are exploding ice walls, the next day we are in a brothel… It’s different every day,” Sloan elaborates. “And that’s fantastic because the excitement of seeing something new every day really helps you forget the early mornings and late nights!”
If you want a closer look at what a “normal” day is for Helen Sloan, she is more than happy to provide — and it’s a pretty crazy itinerary, so it will be reproduced in full here:
“In the morning I will pack the equipment into the car and drive to the location or the studio. There I’ll load the gear into my little specially modified cart with 12″ all-terrain wheels for getting through Irish ditches and rivers of fake blood on battlefields! We shoot a continuous day with no break. I’ll cover scenes and also BTS (behind the scenes material), and maybe do some specials in my photo studio. After we finish shooting, the gear has to be cleaned and loaded back into the car. But the day doesn’t stop there for the stills department. I have to edit and grade the images, and potentially do a bit of retouching. Every image then needs to be meta-tagged with all the pertinent information like scene numbers and any cast or crew that are in the image. The photos are then uploaded to the server, and I do a triple backup. Then I make sure everything is ready for the next day and read the call sheet. Repeat, repeat, repeat!”
Aside from the schedules, the greatest difficulties appear with the elaborate sequences: “The biggest challenges come with the huge battle scenes. What you cannot see in the show is the 30-strong camera, sound, stunt, ADs and SFX teams all scrambling behind the camera lens, following the action as it plays out across the set. Everyone’s trying desperately to read the crew around them, so that they can carry out their task without disrupting, distracting or falling over anyone else.” And there is little room for error: “The pressure to get the shots under these conditions is immense, for the entire crew. Sometimes we can only do things once. And if you didn’t get it? You didn’t get it.”
“It’s hard to explain this bizarre dance to anyone who hasn’t visited a film set. In the midst of it, my job is to capture this crazy circus, as well as the scene in front of us.”
Incidentally, Helen Sloan may find herself right at home in this “crazy circus”: quite unexpectedly, after working for a few newspapers, her professional break came via an actual circus: “I met some circus performers in a pub and they asked me to come and take photos for them,” she reveals. “So really, my background in film photography started with the circus, and circus theater, and it just went from there. Someone phoned someone, who phoned someone else, and I ended up working in the movies.”
Sloan has found herself in the craziest circus of them all, but there are still some limitations, such as her lack of involvement in nude scenes. And there’s a good reason: “There isn’t really a reason for me to shoot [nude scenes]; it wouldn’t normally be something we use to publicize the show. Anything else, I’m free to photograph!”
At the end of the interview, Sloan reveals what her “dream shoot” would look like — and her wish is an absolutely lovely idea that we should all promote to make it happen:
“My dream shoot would be to gather together the entire cast and crew of Game Of Thrones, every character living or dead in the show in costume, every crew member who’s ever worked on the show, and I’d have a giant photo of the thousands of people that came together to make this thing that is GoT. It would be impossible, but in a parallel universe, I’d love to be able to organize that somehow. Maybe I should pitch it.”
I don’t know about you guys, but I need to see that beautifully impossible thing happen —all of Game of Thrones captured in a single photograph. Who is with me?!