A 25-day shoot, 500 extras, 70 horses, 4 camera crews, a budget rumored to be in excess of $10 million. That’s what it took to make Game of Thrones’ Battle of the Bastards.
The figures though, only tell half the story. It takes more than cash and resources to create satisfying, character-driven action on that scale. You also need expertise, experience, and the following…
Trust in your director
When “Battle of the Bastards” director Miguel Sapochnik emailed the Game of Thrones producers to suggest going ‘off-book’ for three days to shoot a non-scripted episode sequence, he fully expected to be told where to go. “Dan and David like their scripts executed the way they wrote them, and with good reason,” he told Entertainment Weekly.
Sapochnik’s teams had been unable to complete the originally scripted scenes due to a three-day downpour that turned the Northern Irish location of Saintfield in which the battle was filmed into “a bog nine inches deep with mud.” So, at the risk of inviting the showrunners’ ire, Sapochnik suggested a more achievable alternative.
Their response? “They said it sucked not to be able to finish as scripted but they also understood the crunch we were in and they trusted me and to have at it.”
The resulting sequence, in which Kit Harington’s Jon Snow is almost trampled underfoot by a stampede of his fellow fighters, became one of the battle’s most memorable moments. It’s also one of Sapochnik’s favourites: “No VFX, no fighting, just Kit giving a stellar performance and a crazy top shot as he pushes his way back out (we affectionately called it the “rebirthing” shot).”
Actors who are geeky about their own show
Here, Kit Harington draws a comparison between Jon’s “rebirthing” in the Wildling crush and another character’s scene from a 2013 episode. “That moment of when [Jon] comes up and he gasps for breath, reborn again in a way, I found weirdly reflective of the moment of Dany being held aloft at the end of season three.”
Think back to the end of season three’s “Mhysa,” and he’s right, the similarity is there. It’s a relevant observation for fans sold on the idea that Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow, respectively representing the “fire” and “ice” that gives George R.R. Martin’s novel series its name, are two characters with entwined fates.
“You’ve got things happening that you can’t shoot in any real way,” says VFX producer Steve Kullback of the episode. A giant punching out a horse, for one.
Without the digital replication, animation, and compositing skills of Game of Thrones‘ vast VFX team, the battle as we saw it obviously wouldn’t exist. “We had a lot of cavalry, a lot of infantry, Wun-Wun the giant is involved…” explains VFX Supervisor Joe Bauer. “Most of it would be photographed but it also needed a lot of digital enhancement.”
The confidence to send 40 horses charging at your star
With over 70 horses and riders, “Battle of the Bastards” has the largest equestrian requirement ever in an episode of Game of Thrones, but the real work came in making the horse action scenes feel real while protecting the animals.
Unlike the historical pitch field battle scenes Sapochnik watched in preparation for the episode (Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 epic Ran was his major reference point), the cavalry charge had to look the part without harming the horses.
“Back in the day” he told EW, “you’d see these huge aerial shots of horse charges and there were two big differences. First, it was all real—no CGI or digital replication. And second, often when the horses would go down, you can kind of tell they got really hurt. Nowadays you’d never get away with that, and nor would you want to.”
The solution, explains Game of Thrones horse mistress Camilla Naprous, was for the horses to pass through two-foot channels and be filmed in such a way “so it looks like they’re clashing but they’re not.” When the horses are filmed being knocked to the ground, special thick falling beds are hidden from view when the footage is digitally composited into the final scene.
Not all of the horse action was achieved using VFX, however. Showrunner David Benioff describes here what is probably his favourite shot of all of season six: “When we’re behind Jon Snow and he sees that cavalry wall galloping towards him. Part of the reason that’s such a great shot is that’s all real. That’s 40 horses charging full-speed at Kit Harington”.
In the video above, the Game of Thrones showrunners name the Roman fight against the Carthaginians at the Battle of Cannae, the Battle of Agincourt, and the American Civil War as different historical inspirations for this episode’s clash.
Like the wall of Bolton shields that contains the Stark army until their rescuers appear, the troops of famed military tactician Hannibal encircled their Roman opponents to slaughter them. The pile of corpses that forms part of the wall trapping the Stark army was inspired by real-life accounts of American Civil War battles, explains Benioff, “where the bodies are piled up so thick it actually became an obstruction on the battlefield.”
According to Sapochnik, the Bolton circle-trap was originally scripted to use horses rather than shields but was changed to make the sequence more “production-friendly,” i.e. cheaper and more manageable. The shield wall was also, he says, “a way to avoid seeing horizons on the field and therefore having to dress fewer dead bodies or stage background fights so deep because we didn’t have the money.”
Attention to detail
Game of Thrones production designer Deborah Riley’s team spent hours making sure that each of the model corpses in the wall of dead bodies was dressed correctly in the right armour, and that each of the fake dead horses was draped in the correct house sigil for the battle.
Covered in that much mud and blood and glimpsed through a flurry of action, you wouldn’t think anyone would notice, but now that anyone with the power of the freeze-frame button can highlight a careless mistake, the required preparation was done to eliminate any such risk.
A strong grasp of character
“Jon isn’t a great leader in that battle,” says Kit Harington in the video above. “He can galvanize people into following him but tacticionally he loses his temper and control.” According to Harington, Jon’s major mistake in season six is “that he doesn’t listen to Sansa […] Ramsay’s weapon all the way through is antagonizing people, drawing them into a trap. And Jon completely falls for it.”
Dan Weiss concurs. “He doesn’t account for Ramsay’s gifts for psychological manipulation, which Sansa warns him about.”
Iwan Rheon, who plays Ramsay, explains his character’s thinking: “He’s thought, ‘Oh, this guy’s going to do something stupid and honorable because he’s not going to be able to control himself so I’ll shoot his brother with an arrow!’ But he’s waited until the perfect opportunity so that Jon Snow is within archers’ range, which will make his army run forward and then bring them all into the perfect position where they can all be slaughtered.”
“It was actually a very good plan, I thought!” said Rheon. “He even had a plan for the giant, Wun-Wun, massive long pikes to poke him down. But unfortunately the riders came in and ruined the party for Ramsay.” After which point, “he kind of knows he’s buggered.”
“We were toying with that idea of Hitler in his bunker in the last days,” Rheon goes on to explain, “and how you start losing sight of the actual reality because you’ve gone too far into it. Even when Jon Snow is beating the shit out of him, he’s just smiling and going ‘This is great.’”
That beating from Jon Snow was another key character moment in the episode. According to Sapochnik here, it took an entire day to film (during which time two of Harington’s punches accidentally landed on Rheon’s jaw): “Ten hours with Kit on top of Iwan, beating him. I just shot it from every single angle I possibly could. The only direction I gave to Kit is that he’s not human anymore, he doesn’t feel any sympathy, empathy for this guy.”
Harington explains his take on the scene: “It’s a horrible moment when you see your hero go a bit too far. The audience is going ‘yes! Ramsay’s getting what he deserves. He’s still getting what he deserves. Okay. Stop. Could you stop now?’ You go from hating the person that’s being punched and then something should slightly turn into ‘this is my hero becoming a monster.’”
A desire not to repeat yourself
“We’ve had a number of night-time battles, we’d had a number of sieges, but this is the first large pitched battle,” says David Benioff. “It was something different for us.”
Unlike season five’s battle-heavy episode “Hardhome,” which Dan Weiss describes as “basically a massacre,” this was “the story of a battle. We had never done that before.”
Weiss continues, “From the beginning we knew that one thing we’d never had on the show was a true medieval pitched battle where two sides bring all the forces they can into play in some battlefield that’s somehow negotiated or agreed upon and they go at each other until one of them wins and the other one loses.”
With yet another bloody sequence ticked off, what’s next on the Game of Thrones to-do list?