Did you ever wonder what it’s like to be a photographer on one of the biggest hit television shows, while everything from fake blood to fire and horses are flying past your lens? Just ask Game of Thrones set photographers Helen Sloan and Macall Polay.
Both Sloan and Polay are an integral part of the massive crew that supports the HBO show, except their job is a little different. As still photographers, they have to be versatile and unobtrusive, documenting scenes while they’re filmed, capture candid shots on-set as well as promotional images that will be on display around the world.
“You want to be as stealth as possible,” says Polay. “There’s no sort of normal day on Game of Thrones,” adds Sloan. “One day we’re kind of on a nice boat in the middle of a lake and the next day we’re setting fire to Dave the stuntman and chucking him off the side of said boat. You have to just approach each day as it comes.”
The days are long and arduous, the photographers trail film crews during continuous ten-hour shifts, while braving various environmental conditions in countries like Northern Ireland, Spain and Croatia. When shooting, Sloan and Polay have to adjust their camera settings to deal with the many degrees of lighting to capture as much as they can, or else they don’t get what is needed. “You overshoot everything, I would shoot with a wide angle lens and try to show the characters within the scope of where we were filming,” says Polay, “Sometimes it could be very difficult, because [the crew sets] the lights and the equipment and sometimes it’s hard to get that scope, because they’re already shooting a tighter shot, for instance.”
Both photographers carry a wide array of cameras with different lenses on each of them, including Nikon D5s and Nikon DFs, which are housed in sound blimps (A sound blimp is a heavy housing for the DSLR’s body that is meant to reduce shutter noise during filming.) Recently, Polay has been venturing into using the mirrorless Fujifilm X100F. Not only is it virtually silent, but the camera’s small size enables more mobility when taking images.
“It’s really hard to explain this kind of bizarre dance to anyone who hasn’t been on a film set and it’s my job to capture this crazy circus,” says Sloan, “Your senses are bombarded.”
Concerning different aspects of the show, there are certainly an immeasurable number of things to photograph. “I’m kind of everywhere for Game of Thrones, because it’s just so gigantic,” says Polay, “I’m shooting, no joke, the embroidery on the inside of Cersei’s dress, which probably the viewer can’t see, but the detail to everything on that show is so incredible.”
When asked about a memorable scene that was hard to capture, Sloan recalls: “I think for me, the most difficult thing to shoot and to deal with of the seven seasons has been the Battle of the Bastards [in season six]. It was just chaos. I’m standing there and there’s 360 degrees of cool stuff to take photos of. You’re constantly going, ‘I’m not getting everything, I’m not covering it.’ There’s just so much going on.”
Sloan, who has been there since Game of Thrones first began, helped set the tone and aesthetic for the show’s still photography. Prior to Thrones, she photographed circus performers and movie stills, whereas Polay had a relationship with HBO, taking stills on-set for shows like Boardwalk Empire. “I want to deliver a great image that’s going to sell this show, these stills can be so ingrained in people’s minds,” says Polay, “So even if it’s a comedy, I kind of shoot the same way, I try to get as close as possible and try not to annoy anyone.”
While getting the images they need, both photographers also echo the importance of respecting the comfort zone and space of each actor and actress they’re working with while on-set. Spending so much time with the cast and crew, they liken their experience on Game of Thrones to being in a family. “The cast and the crew in our personal lives have been through love and loss and change and good times, bad times,” says Sloan, “People become your crazy cousins, or your funny auntie, or your uncle you go to for advice and they just become your real family because you spend so much time together.”
So what’s it going to be like when the series ends? “I think it’s going to be really hard when it’s all over, I think that’s when it’s going to be hard to adjust back to normal life,” says Sloan, “It’ll be like that romance that you just never get over.”