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Devising a new look for House of the Dragon

Fabian Wagner, BSC, ASC was among more than a dozen cinematographers who lent their talents to Game of Thrones, helping to change television production and global viewing habits along the way. Wagner contributed his eye and taste to eight episodes over four seasons, including “Battle of the Bastards’ and “The Winds of Winter,” earning his second Emmy nomination and his second ASC Award in the process. Thus he was perfectly prepared to envision, along with showrunner Miguel Sapochnik, the visual signature for HBO’s House of the Dragon, which is set in the GoT universe, but unfolds two centuries prior. Directors of photography Catherine Goldschmidt, Pepe Avila del Pino, and Alejandro Martinez also shot episodes based on the look set in the first chapter.

“At the very beginning we talked about how can we make this show feel like it’s in the same world, but different,” says Wagner, “to elevate the Game of Thrones look to a new sphere. We wanted to imbue the images with a bit more grit and colour, with a lived-in, dirtier look. There’s a little more movement and slightly less classical composition when appropriate. We wanted to create something that had its own style, its own look and character.” 

Among the earliest steps was testing the ARRI ALEXA 65, with its significantly larger sensor, capturing at 6.5K resolution. Game of Thrones had been shot mostly on ARRI ALEXA XTs and Minis. 

“The ALEXA 65 brought a very important visual aspect to the table, because we were shooting in such amazing, beautifully designed, big sets,” says Wagner. “The large format really helps bring those sets, and that world, to life.”

Many of the big sets were built on four stages at Leavesdon in the U.K. Locations included picturesque spots in Croatia, southern Spain and Portugal as well as near Cornwall. The ALEXA 65 was usually on a crane or other larger mount. Additional cameras were ALEXA Mini LFs, often used in handheld and/or action situations. 

In GoT, the realms are famously delineated by very clear colour choices. For Dragon, Wagner and on-set colourist and DIT Ian Marrs nudged things in a new direction. “We pushed quite a bit more yellow in there,” says Wagner. “It was an interesting process, and in our minds, it presented that world very well.”

The larger sensor offers a new way of seeing. “Of course, you get that amazing depth of field,” says Wagner. “Game of Thrones was always about shooting big wide shots that develop into close-ups. That’s how I wanted to use the 65; to show off the sets in a big way, and then develop into close-ups. And the close-ups just become so stunning because of that depth of field and the large sensor, which digs into the shadows, and creates this beautiful image. You can be on a much wider lens, closer to the character. You can really focus in. There’s a close-up in season 1 where she is crowned queen, and those lenses really brought her out in the scene and emphasised the moment.”

Emily Carey and Milly Alcock on set with showrunner Miguel Sapochnik

Marrs, also a veteran of Game of Thrones, is a trusted collaborator. “Because I operate quite often myself, I leave Ian in the tent and he’ll keep an eye on everything,” says Wagner. “He’s technically very good – he knows everything – but his greatest attribute is his creativity. Working with him to create the LUT, and talking through what we wanted to do differently, is probably the aspect I enjoyed the most about the project.”

Marrs worked on Game of Thrones from the beginning, serving as DIT assistant on seasons 1 and 2 and moving up to DIT for the remainder. He remembers the ALEXA Classic and all the iterations along the way. He says that the additional data generated by the ALEXA 65 is not a drag whatsoever on the workflow, and that the benefits are obvious. 

“Everything seems like a breeze,” Marrs says. “We used the CODEX Vault XL system, which dealt with the ALEXA 65 and Mini LF footage pretty fast. Once my assistant, Isaac Perez, had done his backup, we sent the Sled drives to the Leavesden Studio Lab, operated by De Lane Lea. 

“I have certain cheats in my LiveGrade software, certain lens offsets, which makes it easy,” says Marrs. “I’m spoiled on House of the Dragon because we have a dailies colourist, so I know there’s someone backing me up. The 65 didn’t cause any problems. Other than lack of portability, the Vault XL didn’t cause us any issues. I love the simplicity of the CODEX system. You want reliability. You don’t want stress. Let it be safe. Going all the way back to the ALEXA XT, I’ve literally never lost any footage!”

Marrs points out that GoT was never a high resolution show. In the early days they made do with 2.8K ProRes 4:4:4. Even when the cameras went to 3.2K, the lenses weren’t perfectly suited so the effective resolution remained 2.8K after cropping. ARRIRAW first came in for green screen and other shots that specifically benefitted from the data boost afforded by ARRIRAW and CODEX Recorders. 

House of the Dragon is OpenGate on the ALEXA 65 and the Mini LFs, which results in exponentially more data. “Even one day’s worth is easily more data than we used to shoot in a week,” says Marrs. “As far as our procedures, it’s no different. In the old days, you handed off the physical mag or card. On HOTD, it was a Vault Sled; after a back-up copy was made on site, and always in secure Pelican cases. The lab people have an operating team and their own Vault XL. When Fabian proposed the large format at first, there wasn’t as much pushback as we expected, in part because there was a general sense that they wanted this show to look different. We have the CODEX Data Manager on site, which is quicker and easier. 

“So really, it’s no different than the way we did things with lower resolution,” says Marrs. “It doesn’t slow us up. It just gives us more colour information for the final colourist. And it looks great. It allows Fabian to shoot these really sexy centre frame shots, with beautiful falloff. In that coronation shot, when it rack-focuses to the throne and she’s coming down the aisle, she just looks stunning.” 

Wagner generally saw dailies projected at the Leavesdon facility, but he occasionally consulted his iPad, equipped with the PIX iOS App. HBO typically uses PIX for dailies and WIP cuts review for producers and directors. 

The series premiere of House of the Dragon set an HBO audience record with ten million live viewers, and then topped that number with its second episode. The Season 1 finale aired on October 23, 2022. Within days of the premiere, HBO renewed the show for a second season. Preparations are under way, with an expected air date in late 2023. House of the Dragon won Best Drama Series at the Golden Globe Awards in January 2023.