• A director on Game of Thrones' epic White Walker battle

    Tyrion and Dany talk statecraft. Cersei is stuck in jail. Arya is selling oysters, staking out a hit. Guess this is going to be a pretty bori—OH. MY. GOD. An army of White Walkers battling the Wildlings and they can run like hell!

    So.

    A few weeks ago, I commented on the use of computer graphics in GoT and how wise and parsimonious the showrunners had been, and presumably would continue to be.

    "They haven't overreached yet," I opined.

    Well, I maintain that they still haven't, but how wrong I was in estimating their ambitions! As a film-maker type and occasional recreational user of CG, I can assure you that the "army of the dead" throwdown in this episode was a big deal. Lots of stuntiness. Lots of effects. Lots of planning. Lots of storyboarding. Lots of time and effort. To think that I was complaining about how long the White Walkers took to get anyplace! All is forgiven, White Walkers.

    This even explains why there have been so few effects in the previous couple of episodes. Some matte paintings, yes; but most of the sense of scale has been conveyed with audio, practical locations, tents, and liberal dousing of Falling SnowTM. When Ghost made a cameo appearance and saved Sam's ass last episode, I couldn't help but notice that he only showed up for one shot, and then was sort of finessed out of the other angles. That's the kind of thing that happens when your visual effects supervisor says that there isn't the budget, money- or time-wise, for more shots. Turns out most of the pipeline was being saved for the zombies. Excuse me, Army of the Dead.

    Pixomondo, if the Game of Thrones wikia serves me right, is responsible for the lion's share of GoT CGI (I hope I have this right).

    Well played, Pixomondo.

    There's a great meshing of practical and CG effects here, a great corporeality and crunch and bite and slosh to the creatures and the atmospheres. Much praise is also due to the makeup department as well, not to mention props, stunts, and, let us not forget, production design. The White Walkers look great. Scary and uncanny (in a good way) and somehow smug. The ending face-off-at-a-distance between Jon Snow and Creepy Baldy Walker is totally earned — not easy when you're basically matching up a live actor shot-for-shot against a CG character and asking the audience to take their expressions as comparable in depth, and related to one another.

    WonWon was another triumph. Earlier in the show they soft-pedaled with the giants, and occasionally ran around the backhand, as it were. Here, you had full-on interaction with the environment, realistic physics in the fights with the zombies, locked-off shots, moving shots, shots incorporating crowds, extras, the whole nine. Most importantly, you cared about the guy.

    I thought, "Oh no! They're going to drag him down with their numbers!" and then I realized, "Of course they won't, because he's fucking awesome!" When you're doing these kinds of shots, there is always a logistical pressure to rule the more complicated characters out of as many shots as possible, to save effort and cash for what you know you need. Eventually you start to feel the absence of certain characters or elements, like they have a gravitational pull to them, and your eye wants to be following them somewhere offscreen. This sequence never suffered from such economies. You got the dead. You got fighting. You got ships. You got loads of extras (real and CG). You got a giant cold stepping on fools. You got White Walkers chilling in the distance. You even got Jon Snow fighting a White Walker. Bravo. Double bravo. Braavos.

    Story-wise: okay so maybe I shouldn't call the Army of the Dead zombies, but they're zombies. But I guess that their bites don't infect people? Also they don't swim. Also their bosses don't swim. Fair enough. Also Valyrian steel works as well as dragon glass? I was kind of expecting it, since they tipped that Valyrian steel would matter in the "Previously On" bit.

    I really liked Bjork-y Wildling Badass lady, and I think it was a major drag that she got eaten by the zombie kids. Would have been fun to see her more. Was she unable to defend herself because of her maternal instinct? But then why didn't she bash the zombie kids so that she could get back to her own, living, kids? It takes a village, I suppose.

    And I know some other stuff happened in the episode. Anybody want to see a showdown between Brienne and Mean Nun? I do. I like the way that Jonathan Pryce is playing the Big Sparrow — there's no moustache-twirling, no arch changing of demeanor — he is consistently calm and reasoned and blithe and ruthless.

    In her chatty-chat scene with Tyrion, there's an interesting editing choice when Danaerys says, "I'm not going to stop the wheel, I'm going to break it."

    This was the big pull-quote they used for the season preview, and stitched together the way they did then, it sounds impressive and all, but it changes when it's being said to Tyrion. Which is to say, Tyrion has just gotten through telling Danaerys that she needs to be realistic, and win over the nobles an the big Houses as well as the common folk, when Dany goes into her whole Spokes on a Wheel thing. If you're a Tyrion fan, and who isn't, don't you expect him to reply, "Yeah, that's a nice metaphor and all, but didn't you listen to everything I just told you? All you're going to have is a broken wheel."

    For obvious reasons, which is to say in order not to deflate the attitude that Dany is putting forth, he doesn't do so; but if one is going for the effect of "Wow, she just said something awesome," it would seem to call for a reaction shot. However, Dinklage being as in character as he is, there's kind of no way to cut to Tyrion without undercutting the moment.

    I mean, you might have been able to eke a "You Crazy" look out of it, but my suspicion is that Dinklage stuck to his guns and didn't give up the "I Will Follow You Anywhere" look that was called for. Perhaps I am overthinking it. But, the final effect is a bit odd — the shot on Dany doesn't breathe and then we're out, a suitable rhetorical ending to the scene but you can't help but hunger for Tyrion's take on the idea.

    Ah, Dinklage. His accent is still all over the shop after five years, but it really doesn't matter 'cause he's so damn good. I felt badly for Jorah, but it all made sense, Tyrion advising Dany to give him the boot a second time. Surely it was a thankless day for the actress who plays Missandei, though? I mean, couldn't they just have given her the day off, since she doesn't even speak in the scene? Or give her something to say? Or a look? She might have been a good audience proxy watching the tennis match between Dany and Tyrion.

    You've got to ask yourself what Jorah has in mind, what with suffering from the Greyscale and all. He's like the worst stalker ever.

    Maisie Williams is on good form here; she's been gloomy enough that her sudden smile as the oyster-girl has some real weight, and makes us believe she'll be a reasonably good servant of the Many-Faced God. I can't for the life of me decide whether the guy who plays Jaqen H'ghar is brilliant or terrible, but I do like watching him.

    Sansa learns from Theon/Reek that he didn't kill Bran and Rickon. That's nice. The scene is full-on Northern Blue Tone, and they do a nice thing cinematographically, which is to go relatively realistic with the lighting so that the windows are overexposed and the people, who are inevitably in the foreground, are appropriately dark relative to the light source. Makes you concentrate more on them as you have to pick out the details of their expression, rather than their being lost in an even wash of brightness.

    Ramsay Bolton has some dumb idea about attacking Stannis's army with 20 "good men."

    Olly is still pissed about his family getting massacred. Get over it! I kid. But why do we have this scene? So that Sam can explain why Jon Snow is doing the Hail Mary thing at Hardhome, presumably.

    Then come 30 minutes — 30 minutes! Of conflict and action at Hardhome, its own self-contained sequence. That's a lot of damn work. And, to me, it's an improvement over GRRM(May he Write in Peace)'s books, in which you never have a really strong sense of the urgency behind John Snow's rescue of the Wildlings. This gives us first-hand experience of the enemy, and puts pressure on all of the contenders in a way that has, up 'til now, only been talked about.

    Underneath it all, you feel the marshaling of strength, production-wise, for what's to come. One of the big challenges about bringing GoT to the screen has always been whether the effects and budget could keep up with the scale of the books. It's helped that much of the strength of GoT is in the long tease; yet, in the end, Winter has to come.

    So, let us now praise unsung producers. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are both extremely clever and talented, which has been noted elsewhere. Here the ace in the hole may be Chris Newman, who was our 1st A.D. when my brother and I shot About a Boy. Before that he had scheduled and planned a little movie called The Phantom Menace, which had a few effects shots and action sequences. The kind of big-screen-scale grooviness which the Hardhome sequence represents to me take some major budgeting and scheduling and producing chops, and I'd be surprised if Chris and his people weren't deep in it.

  • Death—and dragons—stalk the powerful in Game of Thrones

    We begin with a whole lot of "Previously On"-ing: Aemon Targaeryan! Greyscale can turn you into a zombie! Killer wildlings! Tormund Giantsbane! Sansa to wed Ramsay and Ramsay has some jealous gf's! The North Remembers! Mean, pre-gelding Theon! Dany doesn't open the fighting pits so Barristan gets bushwacked! This is more material, and more expository, than usual. And it is a bit worrying. It tells us that this episode will be concerned with churning through G.R.R.M.'s noodlings in books 4 and 5.

    We open on some new stuff, such lovely Missandei. She's by Greyworm's bedside. He's hanging in there, in spite of having been stabbed through the guts. This is good, as I couldn't handle it if both Greyworm and Barristan bought the farm.

    Speaking of which, yeah, Barristan. You should definitely watch yourself if you have a Sentimental Moment of Calm with Dany, as he did last episode—a sure sign that your days are numbered.

    Dany either has nothing to wear but disco gowns, or they don't wear black at wakes in Westeros. There's a nice portrait closeup of Dany with very shorty depth of field, a beauty shot, and it's all lovely and mournful until she decides to round up the heads of the Slaveowning Families We Don't Care About Who Are Clearly Funding the Bad Guys in Masks.

    Dany switches over to Lethal Child mode, and gives a speech about how she loves her difficult teenage dragons. The scene is shot in a nice cavernous space — I'm guessing a disused church someplace in Croatia? The floor is wet down to kick light up off the foreground and emphasize the depth, which is nice, and there's some nice Spielbergian holding-back-the-reveal-of-the-monster stuff, emphasized by some good foley of spear-hafts clanking and whimpering from the Masters.

    Then comes some tricky practical/CG interaction when the dragons flambee and eat a rando Master. There's definitely a stuntman fire gag, and then a flickering "real" corpse that is being manipulated by wire for the CG dragon to match to. It works, and it's pretty impressive for the reason that all of GoT's effects have been impressive — they try to do enough but not too much. It's been cool watching the series as the budgets get bigger and the scope of effects expands accordingly; they haven't overreached yet. No LoTR-style "Massive" battles, for instance. The only shot that seems a bit odd is a wide of Dany and all the Masters over the dragons — hard to believe that they wouldn't be flinching away more, and the eyelines are a touch wonky, as is endemic with this sort of thing. Dany does a weird creepy-touching thing on Vaguely Attractive Master, which will pay off later. As usual, I enjoy Khaleesi but can't help thinking that Emilia Clarke could use some more chops. It's a bit unfair, because she has to deal with more characterological range than the rest of the gang.

    The writers must be worried that we're wondering what the hell Dany is up to, because they whip up a scene between Maister Aemon and Sam, in which it is explained that she has Principle and nobody is helping her. Then Jon Snow shows up and Aemon tells him that whatever he's about to decide, he's right, nope, he doesn't even need to hear about Jon's bold idea. I get that it's supposed to bolster our belief in Jon's rightness, but it's hard to get with Jon's idea anyhow.

    snow

    Jon Snow wants to bring the wildlings south of the wall so that they don't turn into Aryan Ice Zombies. Lots of his brothers will be against it, and it looks like things could get stabby.

    Anyway first there's a growl-talking macho duet between Jon and Tormund CoolAccent. Jon goes in for a reverse-psychology/you-can-kill-me-if-you-want combo, and Tormund buys it. Tormund says Jon has to go with him to convince the wildlings. Road Trip!

    Sir Alisser the rugby coach, as expected, is mad about Jon's plan, as are lots of assorted greasy-haired biker types. Slightly Cuter Bron is on Jon's side, sorta.

    Olly, whose parents were slaughtered by the wildlings, gets a whole scene to pout through, so that Jon Snow can explain for the second time why it's a Good Idea. Damn, is Jon Snow pained and sad.

    To the North! Which is actually south of the Wall. But whatevs.

    One thing I can tell you about the North, other than the fact that, much like Pepperidge Farms, it remembers, is that people always stare out of windows in hazy blue light, preferably with a 10k light blasting through from outside, and recite dialogue over their shoulders at people inside the room.

    Lady Brienne stares out the window of some inn or other at Winterfell (a CG matte painting of course, but still, nice chiaroscuro, not trying too hard to show the details or impress). She's keen to save Sansa from the clutches of the Boltons, in spite of the fact that Sansa dealt her a facial when she offered her sword earlier. Podrick, still rocking his Armor Class 6 studded leather mail, plays devil's advocate. Then Brienne decides to entrust a message to the first gnarled peasant who shows up to remove the slops, and the game is afoot.

    This series has put a lot of effort into the naked butt scene intro, and here we are favored with a stone-to-booty dolly. Thus begins some classic exposition-by-nudity. It's a not-badly-acted scene, and that must be hard to do when you're naked in front of a passel of reprobates (read: gaffers and electricians). Poor Miranda has to twist her upper body sideways in order to deliver dialogue to Ramsay without going NC-17; Ramsay avoids full-frontal with a tactically-placed wolf's pelt. Then he rises and the buttock-score is evened. Ok what's the scene about? Ramsay has to marry Sansa, which is fine by him because he fancies her, and also he still gets to dally with the kennel-keeper's daughter, who is a) jealous of Sansa and b) scared of Ramsay. Judging by the fact that the actress playing her acquits herself pretty well, my guess is that she will prove some kind of menace to Sansa down the line. Ramsay is his usual punchable self, halfway between handsome and clownish. His closeups jump the line, which is to say sometimes Ramsay is looking screen left and sometimes screen right, even though he hasn't shifted his direction. According to orthodox editing dogma this is a no-no, and is either a) to show us that Ramsay is a schizophrenic kook or b) because the answering shot on Miranda sucked so they had to get "looks" from both sides.

    Also apparently they have unisex waxing in Westeros.

    Then the "North Remembers" housekeeping lady shows up to tell Sansa she has friends, which is basically what she did when Sansa arrived at Winterfell last episode. They both look embarrassed to be giving redundant information. "North Remembers" lady seems not to have spoken to Brienne's Room Service Guy.

    Sansa goes to look at "The Broken Tower", a nice piece of redressed architecture; the series is getting better and better at locations. Is this the tower that Bran fell from? I forget. I reckon Ireland is littered with usable keeps and castles and whatnot? The challenge will be getting the cast crew and equipment where it needs to be and when. Actually there is only one shot of the Ruined Tower in question, and it's from behind Sansa, so they might have gone with a little splinter-unit and Sansa's double and stolen that one.

    I was right about Miranda! Up she pops, being all friendly-like, and Sansa's having none of it, but then Miranda deploys the R-word ("Remember") and Sansa follows her to the kennels, where oh shit I think she's gonna show Sansa where Theon Grayjoy aka Reek is! "You wont believe it when you see it!" — dayum. If I were Sansa I probably wouldn't just cruise into the Dark Scary Building With Lots of Vicious Dogs, but I guess that's what is required.

    When Sansa went all Goth at the end of last season, I figured she might end up behaving in a more bad-ass fashion this season, but it hasn't really happened yet. I get that they were tipping to the fact that she'll immerse herself more in the intrigues of the Kingdom, but in the meanwhile her fleeing the kennels is pure old-school Sansa. No questions for Theon? And for that matter why doesn't Reek correct her when she calls him by his old name? Why not the "Reek — rhymes with X" scheme of the books? Seems like a missed opportunity.

    Aw geez, what's Ramsay gonna do to Theon? Oh no, he's gonna flay his finger or something! Phew, he's just fucking with him.

    Oy, again with the blue filter and 20k's through the window into the smoked-up interior. Now Ramsay and his dad are having lunch/brunch/dinner with Sansa and Ramsay's stepmom. Things are feeling very Addams Family. What the hell is on the platter in the middle of the table? A suckling pig with feathers and crab legs sticking out of it. Ramsay makes a toast to the wedding and Sansa is, again, not having it. Okay, I take it back, she's definitely showing some huevos this episode. Reek comes in with the wine. Awk-ward. Ramsay delicately alludes to the fact that he cut off his penis. Really awkward. Ramsay throws away all pretense of being a nice guy to Sansa, which is a bit of a relief frankly. He makes Reek/Theon "apologize" for killing Sansa's brothers, which actually he didn't do, but they didn't manage to make that clear in the "previously on" bit, so one might be forgiven for taking all this on trust, as Sansa does. The showrunners/writers are doing some pretty major condensing here, and thrusting Sansa and Theon into closer proximity with one another, sooner than in the books. Lots of ground being covered.

    It does seem odd that Roose aka Reincarnated Basil Rathbone is down with Ramsay acting like such a nutburger. Wait — Roose and Walda are going to have a baby — maybe a boy — oh snap! I don't know my Westerosi Laws of Primogeniture but Ramsay certainly looks threatened and Sansa has a glimmer of schadenfreude in her eyes, which we're definitely meant to catch since the focus on the raked two-shot racks to her. But is this good news for Sansa?

    Anyhow, Roose explains to Ramsay, in a (not-) touching scene, that they're cool because, while he was born of rape beneath a gallows, he looks like his dad (he doesn't, but whatever). Then it's time for some map-ogling. You can't be a big wheel in Westeros unless you have a big map and some carved-bone pieces that represent armies. Roose's look like two chicken drumsticks in the shape of an X. He points out that Stannis is gonna try to take Winterfell, which okay I guess, why? Why not. Roose asks Ramsay for help, which makes for a character moment but one that seems superfluous, given a) Roose seems like he could handle Stanys pretty well on his own and b) Ramsay is a complete psycho, so it's hard to believe he's much of a help.

    By this point we've had 16 straight minutes of Winterfell action, an eternity in GoT terms. Without the cross-cutting, things are feeling very A to B to C; a lot of George R. R. Martin padding from books 4 and 5 to boil down. I'm smelling some scorching of ingredients.

    We find Gilly and Sam hanging out in the Night's Watch Library. She dings him for condescending to her, then splits when Stannis arrives. He and Sam have an expository recap about the White Walkers and how obsidian weapons can kill them. Sam talks about having seen "The Army of the Dead". Where the hell is this army of the dead at the moment? Moving at a Sleestak rate of speed to… somewhere.

    Stanys's army, otherwise known as twenty extras carefully positioned at different depths and shot with a long lens, aided by some macho "loop group" patter about strapping things to other things, readies for the march to Winterfell. Jon Snow and Stanys, GoT's top mancrush duo (beating out Jamie and Bron by a hair), have a non-tearful goodbye. I've got to say I like this Stannis guy, and I can't help thinking that the writers like him more than Martin does, in part because Stephen Dillane kicks sackfuls of ass without having to lift a sword. After her major come-on to Jon Snow last episode, Mysterious Zumba Instructor Melisandre doesn't so much as shoot him a parting glance. You might think she doesn't even care for him. The sequence finishes with a nice CGI shot on Stannis's departing army, enough horsemen but not Peter Jackson-y numbers, and a simple (virtual) crane-up rather than a faux-helicopter shot; again they impress by not trying to knock your socks off.

    Back in Meereen, Greyworm wakes up and totally drops the bomb on Missandei — he was afraid, not of dying, but of never seeing her again. Swoon. Smooch. Are we going to address the question of the unsullied being castrati? No we are not.

    Dany takes Missandei's advice, which is to not take anyone's advice, and decides to reopen the fighting pits, which was actually somebody's advice. She decides to marry him, Guy-Whose-Name-I-Forget. Whereas in the book this guy urged marriage on her, here the impetus comes from Dany. Fairly standard screenwriting logic (let's make Daenerys more active); an attempt to take the curse off Dany's being stuck in Meereen in the books, though it still begs the question of what she's doing about getting the Iron Throne.

    tyrion

    Jorah Mormont takes his captive Tyrion to Dany, but first he has to get through a somewhat meh bit of compositing of boat and ocean. Don't get me wrong, I like the aesthetic, ruined Angkor Wat-y looking terrain a la Apocalypse now, it's just that the effects feel a bit rushed. It's a tricky sequence — a bunch of different camera positions, moving boat, moving water, and to their credit the filmmakers (or TV-makers, or HBO-makers) approach it head on. On further reflection I'm taken with the sequence, which to me is justified in its slightly wonky surrealism by the break into poetry; look, there's a fricking dragon! And Dinklage sells it, as he always does. It's really hard to do this kind of reacting when you don't have any idea of what your POV will add up to; it's embarrassing and takes a great degree of trust in the skill of the CGI team and the handle that the director has on the level of awesomeness meant to be conveyed. Then the Stone Men show up and nearly blow the whole thing; they're Original Star Trek-level baddies. Fortunately this bit is over soon, and we're on a nice backlit beach location. Tyrion and Jorah have lost their sailboat but gained a measure of mutual respect. Holy shit Jorah got bit by a zombie I mean touched by a Stone Man! There's something very Lost-ish about the location and the dark secret and especially the percussive music.

    Overall, more an episode about stuff About to Happen than stuff Happening. The strong cast does its best, and mostly makes it work, but you can't help but feel there's a potboiling element to some of the scenes. It's a bit tough coming off of the Barristan/Greyworm/Harry superfight, of course. I'm intrigued by the various departures from/advances from the books. Still many questions to answer. What is Brienne gonna do? Will Jon Snow ever smile again? Could somebody please kill Ramsay? How much worse does Reek smell than everybody else? The sneak peek of episode 6 promises some well-needed Arya and Pronoun-Hater-Guy, Sand Snakes, Bron and Jamie in Dornish drag, Dian Rigg acting up a storm, and various Arrivals on Horseback. Forward!