ALEXA wins the "Game of Thrones"

Alik Sakharov, ASC and Marco Pontecorvo, AIC spoke with ARRI about their experiences shooting "Game of Thrones" with ALEXA cameras.

Apr. 8, 2011

Based on the bestselling fantasy book series "A Song of Ice and Fire," by George R.R. Martin, the new series "Game of Thrones" launches its ten-episode season on, April 17th, 2011 exclusively on HBO. Alik Sakharov, ASC and Marco Pontecorvo, AIC, shared cinematographic duties on the show, though Matt Jensen took over for Pontecorvo when he left the series to direct a feature. The production shot with ARRI ALEXA digital cameras in Northern Ireland and Malta. Camera equipment was supplied by ARRI Media in London, while the lighting package came from ARRI Lighting Rental.

How did you set about deciding on a visual approach?

Marco Pontecorvo: We began with a concept of a very strong and committed look, in order to express the atmosphere and scale of the show; we also decided on how the look should differ between Northern Ireland and Malta, in order to help the audience place each scene. Once we'd done that we started work on some LUTs to really discover that look - this was in preproduction - and then the LUTs were adjusted and refined while we were shooting. Alik made his adjustments and I made mine; mainly it was playing with the curve and applying desaturation, with a generally warmer look in Malta and a cooler approach for Northern Ireland. 

Unfortunately I had to shoot some stuff in Northern Ireland to match the Malta footage, which was extremely difficult because we had rain and grey clouds in Ireland! In Malta the sun was warm and higher in the sky, so to be faced with the flat, grey light of Northern Ireland was a big challenge! I had to use a cherry picker with a couple of ARRIMAX lights so that there was at least a little bit of shape to the backlight; then I pushed the contrast and the curve of the image. 

Alik Sakharov: The tone of this series had to be a little bit more expansive than most TV shows. We didn't want it to feel claustrophobic; we were basically trying to explore as many filmic possibilities as we could and structure shots to create the depth and breadth of a feature film. I also explored the idea of under-lighting certain scenes, which allowed us to concentrate the eye on where the action is happening, as opposed to lighting everything in one big wash of light. I have to say that the ALEXA was instrumental in getting this stuff. I never thought I would be singing praises to HD technology and yet there I was, utterly enamoured by it. 

So ALEXA helped you achieve a cinematic look?

AS: It really did. It's remarkable, the latitude of the camera, its look, and also its ability to so closely represent the curve of film; I was just flabbergasted. We tested a film camera and two digital cameras very extensively for a full week and took the tests all the way through postproduction, working with Gary Curran, our colorist at Screen Scene. There was so much information in the ALEXA images that it just won us over. 

MP: I was convinced that ALEXA was the right choice as soon as I saw material from the two digital cameras. My only consideration was that, at the time, ALEXA was a prototype, so there was a chance that it wouldn't be as user-friendly as a more established camera. But once we had taken the footage all the way through postproduction, we knew that ALEXA was the one. Both Alik and I are more used to shooting on 35 mm and it remains our first love, but ALEXA is very, very close and after we'd seen the test results we didn't have any doubts that it would deliver both in terms of budget and quality.

AS: ARRI gave us fantastic support. I've never really shot extensively on HD and that was with cameras with real limitations. We've all been waiting for the next big thing; when ALEXA arrived it was vastly different from what had come before and for the first time I was happy to shoot in situations with extreme highlights and shadows.

Was ALEXA's dynamic range a significant asset on this production?

MP: First of all the ALEXA was extremely user-friendly, but yes - the dynamic range was fantastic. Of course there's always room for improvement, but I can't see why I'd need more dynamic range - and my style for the show was to shoot with a high contrast ratio. That was the case even in Northern Ireland, when we were shooting on the stage; I had a lot of contrast, with strong shafts of light and lots of shadow. The range could easily be from T2.8 to T22, so I did need the ALEXA's dynamic range and it performed very well. If you give me the stops, I'll use them!

Did the camera's sensitivity also prove advantageous, and did you waver from the base sensitivity of 800 EI?

AS: I found the 800 EI rating of the camera very comfortable – it sat perfectly. There were occasions where I was pushing the camera to 1600 EI and I have to say that I didn't see much noise. One of these scenes was set in a crypt and I barely lit it at all – it was basically all done with candles. The colorist sent me a message and said that I obviously knew what I was doing because the image was perfect, but I had no idea what I was doing, I just relied on the camera! In general I lit it very much like I would a film set. The demands of the camera were not huge. ARRI has gone to great efforts not to create a monster that requires a lot of attention; I wasn't a slave to the technology; the technology was there to help me and the results were the same if not better than film.

MP: The sensitivity was useful for scenes set at dusk, but generally I was using my normal 35 mm lighting package. I shot all of the interiors at 800 EI and the exteriors were 500 EI. I suppose I was using a bit less light than normal, but not a huge amount. My approach was very similar to working with 35 mm. I didn't really use it, but I saw in the tests that it's still good if you have to push to 1600 EI. If you need it, the ALEXA is there – put it like that.


What recording solution were you using and how were you viewing rushes?

AS: We recorded to HDCAM SR and concurrently to SxS cards. To be honest we didn't follow the normal routine of dailies; that workflow was eliminated and instead the LUT was recorded on the slate and the post house could use that information to apply the right look. On set we had monitors calibrated to the LUTs and I relied heavily on that. As soon as the SxS cards were taken from the camera, our DIT plugged them into his computer, pulled up the references, applied the look and put up the stills. At the end of the day he would give me a flash drive with all the images on it, already corrected and with the LUTs applied; in a way, those images were my rushes.

MP: Collaborating with a good DIT is fundamental because he can help you take full advantage of all the possibilities of the camera without you having to expend energy on this, allowing you to focus on the more creative side of things; he will also prevent problems coming between you and what you want to achieve. The fact that our DIT was able to basically time all of the material while we were shooting, and create a look for each scene, was fantastic, because the director and everyone else could see what we wanted to achieve from the beginning.