This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 9, "Battle of the Bastards."
Game of Thrones' kickass-ery often comes less from action than it does subtle interactions between characters as they navigate the Seven Kingdoms. Last night was an exception: Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton faced off in perhaps the largest and most realistic battle sequences ever produced for TV. "The Battle of the Bastards" was a landslide of bodies bigger than Season Two's Battle of the Blackwater, and equally incredible is the fact that it was shown from start to finish. Thrones' producers didn’t skip over the actual combat, as they've done previous, instead assembling their very own army of cameramen, stunt coordinators, VFX specialists, and horse masters to put together one truly epic battle scene. In a behind the scenes video, posted to the show’s YouTube channel, Game of Thrones' cast and crew discuss what it what like to shoot last night’s episode.
Episode 9 was directed by Miguel Sapochnik, the man behind Season Five's "Hardhome." “That was basically a massacre," executive producer & writer D.B Weiss says of the episode past. "This is a battle. This is the story of a battle. We have never done that before.” After reading through the episode, the producers and the show’s horse specialist, Camilla Naprous, decided they would use a total of 80 horses in the sequence. Naprous says it was the largest horse requirement she had ever used on the show.
The two armies were first shot separately, each with all 80 horses in their ranks. Naprous explains that when the fighting then started to really pick up, they split the amount of horses in half so there were 40 on each side. All the collisions and brutal dismounts you see during the fighting were shot using the real animals. Naprous and the show’s stunt coordinator, Rowley Irlam, worked closely together to make all of these scenes as authentic as possible. “You want it to feel crowded and mayhem, and like anything could happen at anytime,” says Irlam. The horses were trained to gallop through little channels, so they weren't really colliding, but narrowly missing each other. The video shows the crew filming horses collapsing to ground in front of green screens and falling beds.
The show’s other executive producer and writer, David Benioff, describes one of his favourite shots from the season where Jon, having fallen for Ramsay’s trap, is shot from behind, unsheathing his sword, standing alone as 40 of Bolton's cavalry gallop towards him. “Part of the reason it's such a great shot is that it's all real. Thats 40 horses charging full speed at Kit Harington.” Says the Jon Snow actor, "Until the last minute I was stood there facing off against this cavalry charge, which is really scary. We were a bit annoyed cause I think everyone’s gonna think it was CGI and it wasn’t.”
In order to film the horses at full speed, the crew used a special camera mount called ‘The Russian Arm,’ which is essentially a remote-controlled camera crane mounted onto a tracker vehicle, in this case, a Land Rover lovingly referred to as the ‘Vampire Batt.’ Sapochnik remarks, “The Russian Arm is just such a fun machine to work with, because it gets such dynamic shots.”
As VFX goes, the video shows before and after shots of the set, displaying the difference between what we see in the episode, and was actually shot live. VFX Producer Steve Kullback talks about crowd replication and the way they used CGI to double the amount of extras in a frame: “You got things happening, that you can’t shoot in any real way. You got a giant punching out a horse.”
During the battle, bodies begin to pile on top of one another, creating these massive mounds of carcasses. The crew can be seen throwing different prop bodies on top of these piles, a process that production designer Deborah Riley says was actually very time consuming considering how they had to organise the pile and dress each fallen soldier in their proper sigil. They also had to factor in the dead horses, some of which were missing body parts. There were shields and flags, the fake horses had to be dressed with saddles, everyone had to be covered in blood and dirt. Says Riley, “Even though I know that all these bodies are fake, it was deeply moving.”
Benioff says that the structure of the battle was inspired by the realities of historic battles. “You read accounts of battles in the Civil War where the bodies were piled so thick it actually became an obstruction on the battlefield.” Thus the so-called 'Bastard Bowl' shows us their dirty and chaotic realities. The fight isn't clean because war isn't. George R. R. Martin, a known Vietnam War protester, doesn’t depict it as a productive: he shows us the hellish clusterfuck it can become. Last night, when the Boltons surrounded the last remaning ranks of Snow's Wildling army, his men pushed and shoved on, leaving our hero trampled, almost suffocated by the crowd. The vivid gruesome detail of "The Battle of the Bastards," is truly not for the fainthearted. But the behind-the-scenes video below is a thrill for everyone:
Game of Thrones airs on HBO Sundays at 9 PM EST.