You can easily shoot a thousand frames a day – over the course of Game of Thrones I’ve shot over a million photographs
Keith Wilson met Game of Thrones principal stills photographer Helen Sloan on the eve of Series 7, still cleaning her kit bag after the Battle of the Bastards…
Series 7 of Game of
Thrones premieres on 16 July and Helen Sloan is on spoiler alert as she answers my questions about the Emmy Award-winning fantasy drama. The Irish photographer was an unknown in the rarefied world of film stills photography when she got the job in 2011, but since then her work has been seen by millions of fans, all eager to know what happens next in the bloody battle for the Iron Throne…
There’s only so much you can say, but were there any particular shoots from Series 7 that tested your abilities this time round?
Well, I think everybody knows we were in Iceland so I can talk about the weather. It was -28°C with very, very strong winds on top of a glacier, and that was our very first day of shooting in that location. I’ve shot in the cold before, but for the type of work we were doing, it was very cold to be standing out all day. It was pretty hard, but you get through the work and you’re done. In Belfast this year we shot a very big and long sequence that tested everyone to the limit because the weather in Belfast is so changeable and we were dealing with a very big number of cast and crew and extras.
You are expected to get lots of different types of pictures, so how do you know you have got everything that is expected of you?
We have a great relationship, my photo editor and I. She just knows that I love the job enough to be wanting to get as much as I can. I’m not ever resting. I guess my best quality, from my boss’s point of view, is that I’m nervous. I’m nervous that I haven’t got things, so I’m always looking for more pictures. I’ve got a list in my head of things that are happening that day, or things that might be interesting, because the guys in New York who deal with the photo department are not able to be on set, so I’m always thinking: ‘Okay, what’s cool that they’re missing?’ Not just the scenes, but things like the prosthetics workshop, or how many people are in at 4am in the morning dressing the extras? Ithink that’s a real spectacle for someone who never gets to see it. I’m their eyes, thinking what would they like to see: buckets of fake blood and those funny little things you just don’t get to see on TV.
I suppose it’s about feeding the fans’ curiosity as well?
Yeah, definitely. The fans are so incredible and so dedicated and so passionate that they just want to see everything that there is to see. They can’t get enough of it and they notice every little detail. On a day-to-day basis I am expected to be a jack of all trades. I am expected to do landscape work, portrait work in available light, photo studio work, flash set-ups and behind-the-scenes documentary work. We do a two-day photo shoot at the end where we shoot all the props and costumes that we’ve made. I think people don’t realize that Gameof
Thrones, the actual production, is just art on an industrial scale. The things that we make are amazing. I’m surrounded by artisans. It’s a really incredible position to be in as a photographer because there’s never a day where there’s nothing to shoot.
What did you know about Game of Thrones before you got the job?
I didn’t know anything about Gameof Thrones. The producer who wanted to put my portfolio forward described it as something with a lot of swords and magic, and thought it might be right up my street as my photography has always been described as a bit dark, a bit melancholic, dramatic. He believed the style of my work would suit the show they wanted to make, although no one knew how big it was going to become. Back then it was just a pilot that they hoped would do well, but it’s become the biggest TV show in the world, which is incredible.
Did you read the books?
When I knew the pilot was going to season, I decided that I didn’t want to read the books because I thought it would affect how I shot the characters. For example, if I knew someone was nice right now but was going to become a horrendous murderer, I thought I might put that into my photography; I might start to shoot the character in a different way if I knew they were going to turn bad.
What have been the twists and turns in the path that led to this life-changing opportunity?
My first paid job was for some clients that I met in a pub in Belfast and they wanted someone to take some pictures of their circus act so that they could promote themselves. Then they told their friends who told their friends and I ended up doing quite a lot of circus work for people from all over
the world. I started to really love being this kind of fly on the wall of this incredible world of circus.
Then a girl who worked in the office of a film that was being shot, who knew my work, somehow got one of my portraits under the nose of a producer and he wanted me to take some portraits, as props that would appear in the film rather than to promote the film. When I was there I got talking to the on-set stills photographer, Keith Hampshire. It had always been a thing at the back of my head: ‘I’d love to take photos of movies, but how do you get that job?’ So, I just happened to be in a situation where I could speak to one of these elusive people, and Keith and I just hit it off straight away.
How did he help you?
He had a look through my work and said something that gave me that bit of confidence: ‘You could do this, you’ve got the eye, you’ve got the style.’ Okay, if Keith Hampshire says Ican do it, I can do it. So, I started to do more film shorts, and then, just through the contact of a contact, Imanaged to get a job doing this series of low-budget horror films, which suited my style because it was dark and melancholy. I seem to have always ended up on jobs where I’m shooting in the dark and it’s something I’m good at.
What did you shoot Series 7 with?
On set I always have four bodies: two D3s, a D5 and a Df, all in sound blimps [soundproof housings]. Around my neck Ihave another Df. Each camera has a different lens on it, so Idon’t have to change lenses at any point. I always have two 24-70mm lenses, an 85mm f/1.4, a 70-200mm f/2.8 and a 14-24mm f/2.8. Then Ihave a load of very fast primes and they’re always in the bag. For more specialized things – if I’m in the studio, say – I’ll use the 105mm f/2.8 micro. I decide which cameras and lenses are the best combo on the day.
Which is your desert island lens?
My 85mm f/1.4. It’s such a beautiful lens and it never disappoints. Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s my best lens in low light. I’ll swap over to the other primes, the 50mm or whatever, but I always go back to the 85mm and just step back a bit because it’s just beautiful, the quality of the photographs from that lens, and it’s so sharp. It has a good weight to it too. That’s a bit nerdy I know, but that weight helps me with my balance and camera shake.
What are your preferred techniques and settings when shooting on set?
I’m fully manual all the time. I prefer a grainy texture to my photographs so I usually shoot at quite a high ISO. I like to have quite a high shutter speed because I don’t like set-ups and I don’t like asking for set-ups. It’s not nice to ask the actors to go through it all again for me, especially if it’s been emotional. So I like to get that little bit higher shutter speed so I can shoot them talking and moving and going about their action.
It’s about doing the job without being noticed?
Yeah, I just like to get on with it, and I think it’s better for everyone else if I’m just getting on with it. I remember I was on a job one day and an actor turned around to me and said: ‘Where have you been all day? That was a great scene, it looked amazing and you missed it.’ And I said: ‘I was there. The whole time!’ I went home that night and I felt like I had won a prize because he hadn’t even noticed that I had been in the room.
ROBERT SHEEHA N AS LUKE , CHERRYBOMB
JAMIE DORNAN AS PAUL SPECTOR, THE FALL
KIT HARI NGT ON AS JON SNO W AND ROSE LESLIE AS YGRITE , GAME OFTHRONES