Throughout its eight seasons, Game of Thrones has featured a ton of plots — like, literally, a ton. There have been epic battles (including between the dead and the living); there have been weddings (Red and otherwise); and there have been dramatic shifts among characters vying for power — over the realm, and over one another. Its scale has been huge, raising the ante for fantasy dramas on television — and in movies — for the foreseeable future.
And Helen Sloan, Game of Thrones‘ principal stills photographer, has documented it all.
Sloan is from Belfast in Northern Ireland, where the HBO show’s main headquarters have been since its first pilot — the one directed by Tom McCarthy that would later be redone — was shot in 2009. Sloan, who had been taking photographs since she was 11, got a job traveling with a circus to shoot “melancholic portraits of clowns and acrobats,” she told BuzzFeed News. That gig eventually led to a job in Northern Ireland’s nascent film industry, doing stills for low-budget horror movies. A producer she worked with told her about Game of Thrones, encouraging her.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Sloan remembered the conversation.
“Look, there’s this job coming into Belfast, and it’s got all kinds of wizards and a lot of the nerdy stuff that you’re into,” Sloan recalled him saying.
She mailed HBO her portfolio, “a big solid leather-bound book,” she said, thinking there was no way the company would hire a local photographer.
“And, of course, that was a decade ago,” Sloan said, “and I managed to make it the whole way through without perishing.”
The Game of Thrones production was always a large one. But at first, it was relatively quaint, with only one unit working on the pilot, and a cast full of kids who kept the show’s hours humane.
“I think if you transported me from those days of the pilot to a day in the middle of Season 8 — I mean, they’re just two completely different jobs,” Sloan said.
From the start, because of the popularity of George R.R. Martin’s books, there was also “a hype and an excitement and a pressure to succeed,” Sloan said. But as the show’s success grew, and so did its ambitions, “the scale and the pressure and everything just kept multiplying.”
“It was a tiny little pup, and then it became a giant direwolf,” Sloan said.
She quickly realized that by shooting Game of Thrones, she was creating the archive of the show’s history. In Sloan’s episodic photographs — the ones that show what the audience has seen on camera — “you have to really stay true to the cinematographer’s vision and to what the camera shooting,” she said. In her behind-the-scenes shots, “I become the documentarian of the show.”
Sloan went to the set every day and shot a mixture of half episodic images and half behind-the-scenes images. With the episodic pictures — which some set photographers restage after a scene has wrapped — Sloan would get as close as possible to a main film camera and shoot throughout the take. It was sometimes a delicate negotiation with the crew.
“No matter how cavernous the set might be, the camera crew are always crammed into some corner. But I always felt like it’s much better for me to insinuate myself into the camera team at the very beginning, and stay there,” she said. “That way — as long as I’m extremely discreet and respectful to the people around me — I get to shoot the real performance. I don’t need to pressure the actor into doing something again for me, which is unfair.”
With the show’s production over, Sloan has been putting together the book The Photography of Game of Thrones, a compilation of her work that will be published in September. The process has caused her to realize the show’s scope, and her part in it, which she called “surreal.”
“You know, this is a huge thing that we’ve been involved in. But when you’re on the inside of it, you don’t feel it like other people feel it,” she said. “Going through a million photos from a decade, it was only when I started to do that process that I really realized: God, this is something that I will be talking about for the rest of my life.”
Working on the book has also made her wistful. “For the crew, we have built a family on the ground. And all of a sudden, the last day of Season 8, that family just evaporated,” Sloan said. “One day there was 700 people there, and then the next day, they’d all gone home.”
“It really is something that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.”
Sloan curated 12 of her favorite photographs from Game of Thrones, and talked to BuzzFeed News about them. (Presented in almost chronological order.)
Catelyn Stark in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
The context: Catelyn has been fired up by her childhood friend Littlefinger, who is trying to instigate a Westerosi revolution for his own gain. He has lied to her, and told her that the dagger an assassin used to try to kill Bran was once his — but he lost it in a bet to Tyrion Lannister. In disguise on her way back to Winterfell from King’s Landing, who does Catelyn happen to run into at the Inn at the Crossroads? Tyrion! He recognizes her, and she ends up performing a ridiculous citizen’s arrest on Tyrion that totally backfires and kind of…causes the war between the Lannisters and the Starks.
The photograph: “She just was Catelyn Stark,” Sloan said of Fairley. “Everybody felt it, everybody felt that motherly love, just kind of emanating from her. She’s just so ethereal and amazing. And I love — maybe a bit selfishly — but I love that Michelle is a Northern Irish actress.”
(Oh, and photography nerds: She uses Nikon cameras. Her favorites are the D5 and the D850. She uses Nikon prime lenses too, “because the show is dark in nature and calls for it,” and uses “soundproof blimps, so that people don’t hear the shutter of my camera.” The blimps also “act as a slight layer of protection around the camera from fake snow, torrential rain, or rubber swords from extras when I’m in the middle of a battle.”)
Catelyn Stark in “The Rains of Castamere”
The context: The context is a nightmare! The Starks have been lured into House Frey with the assurance that Lord Walder Frey has forgiven Robb and Catelyn for breaking a promise that Robb would marry one of Walder’s million daughters. Catelyn’s brother, Edmure, will instead marry another one of the daughters. But actually, they’ve all been invited to the slaughter that is the Red Wedding. In this photograph, Catelyn has threatened to kill Walder’s wife in exchange for him letting them leave safely. Like Lord Walder gives a shit! Roose Bolton then stabs Robb — “the Lannisters send their regards” — killing him. A broken Catelyn slits Mrs. Frey’s throat, screaming. It was Fairley’s last episode.
The photograph: “One of my most moving moments of the whole experience of Game of Thrones,” Sloan said of Fairley’s acting, “was her scream during the Red Wedding. I think there wasn’t a person in the room that day that didn’t get chills. And she did it again and again. And every time it was harrowing, and heartbreaking. And you know — and she was gone.”
Ned Stark in “Cripples, Bastards, and Broken Things”
The context: “I think that that’s when Arya comes in to see him in his study, I’m pretty sure that’s the episode, but I’m actually can’t remember because it was, you know, a long time ago.” (The image wasn’t in HBO’s digital library, so they didn’t know either — tell us in the comments if you have a better guess than that episode! It may be from that same episode, but before Cersei comes to talk to Ned?)
The photograph: “As the first big, famous actor that I was going to work closely with, I think Sean really spoiled me, because he is such a fatherly kind of man,” Sloan said. “And he really just lets you do your job. He’s very quiet; he’s very stoic. And I think I’m so glad that it was him and not some, like, wild diva type character that would have just brought me to tears.”
“I love that image of him because he’s just in the moment,” Sloan continued. “I love images of the crew working around an actor, because it always makes me think of that analogy of the beehive — that we’re inside the beehive, and all the worker bees are just getting on with their jobs. I just love watching those little moments of all the busy bees around the actor to make sure they’re perfect before the camera rolls.”
Daenerys and Khal Drogo in “Valar Morghulis”
The context: Dany is in Qarth and goes to the House of the Undying, where her dragons are being held captive. There, she has a number of visions, including of her late husband and baby son, Rhaego (who was born dead in Season 1).
The photograph: Baby Rhaego was played by Sloan’s daughter! Alan Taylor, the episode’s director, cast her because she had “tons of hair” and “didn’t look like a baby.” “It was Alan Taylor’s fault!” she said with a laugh. (After the episode aired, Sloan saw that someone on Reddit wrote, “I can’t believe they put a wig on a baby.”)
Sloan’s daughter is now 8, and Sloan has shown her pictures of the scene. “She knows who Jason and Emilia are,” Sloan said. “And she’s like, ‘Yeah, they’re my TV mommy and daddy.'”
Tyrion and Podrick in “Blackwater”
The context: Tyrion has taken a liking to Pod, and Pod squires for him during the Battle of the Blackwater. During the battle, Ser Mandon Moore — a member of the Kingsguard and a total jerk — tries to kill Tyrion, who is not only the hand of the king, but is the mastermind behind the battle. Ser Mandon misses Tyrion — who had taken off his helmet — but he’s slashed in the face, scarring him. Pod kills Ser Mandon, and cuddles Tyrion, who passes out.
The photograph: “Blackwater” — when Stannis attempted to invade King’s Landing by sea — was the Game of Thrones‘ first big battle episode. It was massive, and showed what Game of Thrones could do.
But Sloan loves this image for its intimacy. “Dan and Peter — I love their kind of strange relationship,” she said.
“I’m drawn to those moments of quiet, because I feel like that’s where the power is,” she said. “If there aren’t any moments of quiet emotion, you know, and moments that are real character moments, then it’s pointless. I just think that moment of Pod and Tyrion was just beautiful. It was almost like a religious painting, that moment — you know, the beautiful light.”
Beric Dondarrion in “Kissed by Fire”
The context: Lord Beric Dondarrion has forced the Hound into a trial by combat to answer Arya’s accusations that the Hound murdered Mycah, her friend (aka “the butcher’s boy”). They fight in a cave, in front of Arya and the Brotherhood Without Banners. The Hound actually kills Lord Beric (who, of course, is brought back to life by Thoros of Myr).
The photograph: Up until Beric’s last episode — Season 8’s “The Long Night,” in which he finally died for real — the effect of his sword igniting was always spectacular. Eventually, the props department invented a sword that would actually catch fire, Sloan said. But in Beric’s early days, the sword would be coated in a flammable liquid, and then lit.
Which meant, of course, that the set was full of fire.
“It was so hot!” Sloan said. “Everyone was sweating buckets. I mean, there was fire everywhere. The actors were pouring ice water down inside their costumes because they were so warm. And I think that battle inside the cave was such a trial for everyone that any shot that I got that was good, and that I liked, I just felt like it was such an enormous victory.”
Sloan also loved watching Dormer act. “His voice just creates a vacuum in the room,” she said. “When he speaks as Beric, you just get sucked, and everything disappears.”
Jaime Lannister in “Kissed by Fire”
The context: Jaime and Brienne are kidnapped by truly awful followers of Roose Bolton. One of them, Locke, has cut off Jaime’s hand and made him wear it around his neck as it rots. After Brienne and Jaime are brought to Harrenhal, Bolton instructs Qyburn to help Jaime, which is when this was shot.
The photograph: Jaime (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is one of Sloan’s favorite characters because his Game of Thrones arc takes him from being a “polished, prince-type person to this broken, broken man,” she said. “And Nikolaj’s great for a photographer, he just lets me work.”
The lighting on Game of Thrones has been a constant topic of discussion. But in the case of “Kissed by Fire,” which was directed by Alex Graves, Sloan singled out cinematographer Anette Haellmigk for her choices. “I feel like she’s very inspirational to me, because she’s a pretty powerful lady in the photography world,” Sloan said. “And I loved shooting her lighting.”
“You can see the shaft of light is kind of hitting the top of the bandage,” Sloan added. “And I love that.”
Joffrey Baratheon in “Second Sons”
The context: It’s Sansa and Tyrion’s wedding day, and Joffrey — who despises them both, and torments Sansa constantly — shows up to walk her down the aisle, since her father is dead. (Because Joffrey had him executed.)
The photograph: In “Second Sons,” Joffrey’s behavior at the wedding of Tyrion and Sansa in front of his future poisoner, Lady Olenna Tyrell, surely hastens his demise, which will happen four episodes later in Season 4’s “The Lion and the Rose.”
But according to Sloan, actor Jack Gleeson brought none of Joffrey’s spitefulness to set, and would turn the character on only in front of a camera. “I remember shooting this photo, and he was just being so nice — he was asking me how my day was going,” she said. “And then when you say, ‘OK, are you ready?’ he just turned into a fucking monster!”
“There’s just like a switch that flips with Jack, and he becomes Joffrey,” she said. “And his face changes, and his demeanor changes. And it just turns into this awful little shit. This evil, evil character. And it really moves you when you’re looking through your lens and you see it happen.”
The context: “Hardhome” has more than one setting — several of them pivotal for what’s to come — but it’s the battle scene at Hardhome, when Jon Snow first lays eyes on the Night King, that makes this episode one of the best-reviewed of the series’ run. When Jon and Tormund go to the wildling village of Hardhome, they are attacked by the Army of the Dead for the first time.
The photographs: “People say to me, ‘Oh, what’s an average day on set?’ And an average day for me is watching a stuntman be set on fire, and pushed over the side of a boat,” Sloan said with a laugh.
“There were all these little moments where you would be standing talking to the White Walkers or the zombies or some extras who all had, like, flesh hanging off them and were wearing like these weird green VFX tights,” Sloan said. “This is my life! So here, there are three guys dressed as zombie White Walkers sitting in a tent eating cookies in front of the heater with granny hairnets on their heads! Those moments of realization where your life is insane — I love those.”
Sloan learned not to take episodic shots of scenes that were going to have special effects inserted into them. “If there’s going to be a castle in the background that’s not actually there, I probably won’t point that way, because then we can’t use that photograph.”
But they can make great behind-the-scenes images, as when a horde of wights were actually a “constant stream of stuntmen jumping off cliffs into boxes.”
(The stunt actors were watched by Rowly Irlam, a stunt coordinator, on the right in the photo.)
Cersei Lannister in “Hardhome”
The context: As I said, “Hardhome” has a lot going on in it, and that includes Cersei being stuck in the Great Sept of Baelor, asked to confess every two seconds by Septa Unella. (She’ll get hers in the next season — Cersei sees to that.)
The photograph: Sloan picked this image to contrast with the Hardhome battle ones. “In one season of Game of Thrones, I got to inhabit so many worlds,” she said.
Sloan added that Cersei is clearly divisive. “Because there’s so many parts of her that are broken, and you almost feel sorry for her. And then you’re like, ‘No, actually. I hate her,'” she said. “And that’s why I put her in here in a moment of weakness — because she’s so powerful a lot of the time.”
Jon Snow and Sansa Stark in “Book of a Stranger”
The context: Jon Snow has quit the Night’s Watch after being, you know, killed by a few of his brothers. It was temporary, but it stung! Before he leaves Castle Black, Sansa — finally freed from Ramsay, and flanked by Brienne and Pod — arrives, seeking safety. She’s been through hell, and is wary…but then she sees her brother Jon.
The photograph: “Well, everybody wants the Starks to be OK, don’t they? I’ve yet to meet anyone who wasn’t rooting for all those kids to get back together,” Sloan said.
“That moment of Sansa in the courtyard, when the camera’s on her and she’s breathing. And she’s like, Is it him? Is it him? And then it’s him. You feel it as a viewer,” Sloan said. “I’m part of the company, I know the story — but I still felt that tension. It’s like there’s live theater happening right in front of the crew.”
“How lucky are we?” Sloan added, sounding happy and wistful. “We get to watch theater all day.” ●