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Interview: Capturing the Throne with Helen Sloan!

Published on October 7th, 2019 | Updated on November 3rd, 2019 | By FanFest

Game of Thrones principal photographer Helen Sloan offers a look behind the lens with her compilation of stunning photographs from one of the most highly acclaimed shows over the last decade! Courtesy of HBO and Insight Editions, The Photography of Game of Thrones is a deluxe compendium offering up an exclusive look at our most beloved characters, shocking moments and breathtaking locations. Fan Fest News had the awesome opportunity to sit down with Helen and discuss her journey to ‘capture the throne’ and so much more!

Image: HBO and Insight Editions

Linda: Could you tell me a little bit about how you got started with Game of Thrones?

Helen: My answer to that question is always ‘clowns’ because I started off as a circus theater photographer. My introduction to the film world [happened] because a producer had seen these weird circus portraits that I’d taken. [So when] they were looking for something weird and wonderful to actually be a prop in a film, I got invited along to take some prop portraits.

“As a child, I had always thought I’d love to take photos, like movie posters. I always collected trading cards of film stills, especially things like Willow or Return to Oz, all those fantasy things.”

I’m from Northern Ireland and growing up I never felt I would be able to have a good job [because] we were living in a war zone. For something to come, like Game of Thrones… I can’t tell you how much this has changed the face of Northern Ireland and [for] that little girl who wanted to shoot movie posters. The fact that it’s happened at home, it’s unbelievable. When I got this book yesterday, I sat… I haven’t even looked through it.

Linda: You just got this yesterday?!

Helen: I just got it yesterday. I haven’t been able to look through it yet because it just feels so big. This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened. I have a book. It’s crazy. My journey into becoming a stills photographer… every day of it feels like a dream. I know that sounds really cheesy.

Linda: No, it doesn’t at all. 

Helen: I’m still a little bit in shock that there’s a book in front of me that people are going to have in their house. People love the show, I guess that’s why now they come to Northern Ireland and they’re like, “Oh, take me to all the nice [places] where they shot everything.” Instead of, “Oh, take me to all the trouble spots.” It’s life-changing for so many of us.

Linda: I can’t believe I’m looking at this book alongside you right now. What was the most challenging aspect of taking these photos?

Helen: There are a few things. I think Northern Irish weather and 55 consecutive night shoots were pretty difficult. Sometimes people ask, “How have you changed as a photographer and what have you learned as a photographer?” I think photography is something that anyone can learn but I think 50% of it is how you are with people and how people respond to you and how easily you can insinuate yourself into the room. I think having to have a mental Rolodex of 200 actors and different crews and how they like to work [is challenging].

“I think the thing that was the most challenging [was] working with so many different personalities because this went on for a decade.”

In the end, it was a finely tuned machine, Game of Thrones. Everyone just arrived, knew what we were doing and got the job done. I really believe that you couldn’t have thrown just any crew into the last season of that job [because] it was so difficult and I really truly believe that it was because we grew organically into being able to cope with something so big. Does that make sense?

Linda: It does make sense. After a decade of working with all these same people, I’m sure you all became very close. It must have been very emotional at the end. I can only imagine what that was like.

Helen: In the last season, every time someone died in the show, it was like a real goodbye because that was the end of their Game of Thrones journey. I knew a lot of these people I [would] never see again in my life. People get married, they get divorced, they have babies, they lose their parents, they have an illness, there are so many things that happen to a group of people in a decade. I had a daughter during Game of Thrones, I had a little girl and she’s grown up. So many people had so many things happen and to then wake up one morning and for everyone to be gone, I still find that hard. When I was making the book, I found it hard to look at the crew photos because every photograph is like a little talisman of something that happened that day. I know that people at home, if you say to someone, “Oh the red wedding”, they’ll remember who they watched it with, who started crying and then they talk, they go into work and they’ll remember all the funny little gags. I’ve seen loads of people have their toilet done with the throne and there are many little things that just permeate life from this program, it’s really everywhere. You still see it and I think we’ll see it for a long time.

Linda: Do you have a moment that really stands out in your mind? I know that’s a big ask.

Helen: I always love the first day of filming. When you come back on the first day of a season and everyone’s so happy to be there and so happy to be back and everyone’s hugging and that’s a lovely feeling because we all became a family. I guess my other favorite is [that] my daughter is in a scene, she plays the dream baby of Daenerys and Khal Drogo, I love that scene it’s my little girl. I love all the battles, every fight, every battle.

“God, I love everything about this show.”

As a photographer, being able to have free roam through all the workshops where they’re making the costumes, making the armor, stunt people are rehearsing… I get to go to all the locations, every day I have a favorite thing. I get to meet almost everyone involved, there’s so many favorite things that I can’t even start.

Linda: Understandable. How many photos did you take? How did you pick what to put in this book?

Helen: Over a million. I would say this last year of making this book is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Truly. For every photo that’s in this book, there’s another one or another two that I had to put away and there’s so many that have never been seen before. Whenever I thought about how I would structure it… I used father, mother, maiden, crone, warrior, smith, stranger because it’s the thread that runs through the whole show. I said to the publisher, “Do you think that’s a good thing? Do you think we could?” In ‘the father’, we have respect and all those things, in ‘the mother’ we have relationships and family, then we have ‘the smith’. I made [‘the smith’] because ‘the smith’ represents the workers. I thought that was a really nice way to incorporate the crew.

Linda: A nice touch. How long was the process?

Helen: Easily a year. Every season I’d put aside some of my favorites, quite often it was difficult to choose. I had a bit of a mantra… Is this a good photograph, is it a good moment in the show, is it a good story point or is it a good image. How do I choose which is more important? Also, I’m still connected to all the people personally and I had to really make sure I wasn’t choosing an image because it was a fun day or because it was a performance that moved me personally. I had to really think of who’s going to buy this book and what they wanted. Every time I thought I was getting somewhere with a formula, I had to go back. The publishers have been so patient because I would start crying because I’m so connected to it. It’s hard to explain, this is what I’ve been doing for 10 years, all year. It was almost like having a real full-time job.

Linda: I work with a lot of creative people, I understand where you’re coming from. Was it your intent all along to do a book like this?

Helen: I was never under any illusion that a book was guaranteed and usually how it’s done is that HBO would make a book. I would go into the shop and buy it and it would be a surprise to me [regarding] what was in it. It was actually David and Dan, the producers, the showrunners, who said to me, “You’re going to do a book.” I was like, “Oh yeah, that would be great if they did a book of photography.” It was Dan who was like, “No, you’re going to do the book. It’s your book, it’s your choice.” When someone says something to you that’s been a dream, you almost don’t want to get too excited, just in case it doesn’t happen. I think the reason I haven’t looked through this yet is that I’m still in that zone of… Is it real?

Linda: It’s real.

Helen: They just said, “It’s your choice.” I sat down [with] a few auxiliary photographers as well [because] I wanted to include some of their photographs. I think probably about 5% of the book is [what] they wanted.

Linda: That’s nice.

Helen: It’s a family. Even if someone was just there for one day, they’re still part of the family. I didn’t want to exclude [anyone], that’s not how it should be.

Linda: What’s the best advice you could offer somebody who now wants to do what you’re doing?

Helen: I would say be flexible, be flexible with your perfectionism, be flexible with how you are with people because it’s a big old industry and it’s got a lot of different types of people and you will be expected to make friends with all of them very quickly. If you have an actor who comes in for one day, you have to make that person comfortable so I think people-skills are 100% the best skill you can learn. Also, there’s going to be times when you want an image and you can’t get it because there is no time. There were maybe 10 times over 10 years that I was actually allowed to pose someone for a photograph after a take. I’m always just shooting during the takes and I feel there are moments where I was like, “Oh, I really want that” and I couldn’t get it.

“Let go of what has to be perfect. Being a stills photographer is an amazing job but it’s a really difficult job if you’re used to being in control.”

When it’s just you with your camera and you’re going out and doing some documentary thing, that’s great, you’re in control but it’s a whole different vibe on a film set, it’s a wonderful world to inhabit.

Linda: Flexibility is a great piece of advice.

Helen: Yeah.

Linda: Did you read the Game of Thrones books?

Helen: No. I think there are two types of stills photographers, there’s the type who are really into the story and really into the characters and then there’s the type who are really into the technique and the business side of things only. For this, I had to be really into the characters so that I could make my photographs believable because I’m charged with telling the story in one frame. I felt if I’d read the books, I would have been too far ahead in the story and if I had known that Sansa would become Dark Sansa, I might have started to shoot her differently. If I knew that someone was going to turn bad or someone was going to have a redemption story… I didn’t want to shoot beyond too nice if I knew he was going to have a big redeeming moment. I had to be in the moment every season and as much as I wanted to read the books, I felt it would skew my vision of the person in front of me.

Linda: That makes sense.

Helen: I was committed to the show.

Linda: How did you prepare each day?

Helen:  Be in the moment but also be ready for anything. If we were up a mountain and a storm came, I had to be ready for that. There are so many things you just have to be ready for all the time, including people’s moods, including the fact that someone might be having an awful day and the fact that someone might be going through some stuff personally. You don’t get to slack off on a film set, it’s tens of thousands of dollars for one day. You don’t get to make mistakes because you can’t just go and do it again. If I don’t get a scene, it doesn’t happen again. That’s it.

Linda:  What else do you have coming up? Anything you can talk about? 

Helen: I’m looking forward to seeing what I can do with the book. I worked on the pilot for the new Game of Thrones.

Linda: Awesome.

Helen: There’s a lot of things that I hope for and there’s a lot of things I would love to do. Being a freelancer, you just don’t know what’s around the corner and you can’t really plan for anything. I’d love to do more fantasy things but I’d like to do a fantasy thing that doesn’t have as much mud, that would be nice for a while. Just six months of clean, like a spaceship or something. No rain, no rain. (laughs)

Linda: (laughs) You definitely deserve to take a little bit of a break. 

A big thank you to Ms. Sloan for taking the time to speak with Fan Fest News. The Photography of Game of Thrones will be available on November 12, 2019! Pre-order your copy at Insight Editions to relive GoT’s unforgettable moments in stunning detail!

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