Recently at New York Comic Con, we were able to talk with Helen Sloan. She is a still photographer who worked on Game of Thrones from the pilot to the finale (2011-2018). Sloan was at NYCC to celebrate her new book created by HBO and Insight Editions, The Photography of Game of Thrones, which she co-authored and provided the photography for! Nerds and Beyond sat down with Sloan to discuss her time on show, and what life is like as a still photographer.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you get into set photography?
Sloan: Clowns! I started working in circus theater when I was about 17, taking photographs. I moved from the countryside to the big city, which is Belfast, and I met a load of clowns in a bar. They asked if I would come and take some photos for them for their show that they were putting on. I did that, and it turned out great. Then, as always happens with the freelance world, there’s a bit of a domino effect. So I ended up doing a lot of circus work with different types of performers…
I’d always wanted to take movie poster photos as soon as I knew I wanted to be a photographer. I used to cut out pictures from the TV magazines and stick them on my wall, but in post-war Northern Ireland you just think, “I’m never going to do that job,” because you just can’t see yourself doing that. You think, “I have to go to America” and it just seems like a job that never materialized. It seems like it would just be American men who did that job. And I just thought, “Yeah that’s never going to happen, so I’ll just be a photographer of some other kind.” But you know, time went on, and then a friend who was at our college, her and her partner were producing a short film about a goldfish. So they said, “Do you want to come and take some photos on set?” And I said, “Like a movie photographer? Yes I do!”
So I went and did some photos for their short. Then I thought, “I’m going to do this.” So then I started getting other shorts, and then I landed a job as a photographer in a low-budget film. I just pretended I knew what I was doing, and actually, Rupert Grint was in it. And I was like, “He’s famous!” So that was great, and that got a bit of traction because of him being in the film. Then I got a phone call from a friend of mine who was working in the office of a big movie that came to Northern Ireland that was the first big production that can be based in Northern Ireland after all the [political] stuff happened. She said, “We need some prop portraits for the wall of the Mayor’s office in this movie. Do you want to come and do them?” It ended up being all the producers doing cameos, so I would take their picture, and they were going to be turned into paintings. I thought, “I’m going to be bold and ask if I can be the stills photographer.” I thought they would just say no, but then I came in and I met Keith Hamshere. He did Bond, Willow, and all these cool fantasy things that I watched as a kid. And I actually had one of his photos stuck to my wall. I said to him, “your photo of Willow is stuck to my wall,” and he said, “Oh that’s so nice.” I showed him my work and I said, “Do you think I could do this?” And he was so lovely and measured and he said, “Yeah, I think you probably could.” It was a turning point, because when something changes your confidence, you suddenly believe in yourself because someone else has validated your work.
He said, “I don’t have a job for you, but you can come and help me with my computer stuff.” So I got to see his equipment, and I didn’t, unfortunately, get to go on set much with him, but then he managed to get me a job in the VFX department [on City of Ember]. So I got to be their photographer on set. It was being thrown into a $60 million movie as some sort of photographer, but after everyone left at night, I would go in and do textures. I was in this world at night, on my own on a movie set, and it was just…there’s been all these moments where you’re just going, “Whose life is this? Who is looking down on me and making these things happen?” It’s wild. (laughs)
So then from there, I met a producer who was doing all these low-budget horror films, and he said come work on these. So I did those and nothing was really taking off for me. I thought, “oh well. I can go back into the VFX thing, ’cause I actually really enjoy it, and it’s really nerdy and gritty, and you can get your teeth into it, and you can get on film sets.” Then one day, when I was in the office, they said, “Look, there’s a thing coming in that’s like wizards and magic and boobs and all that kind of stuff. It’s just a pilot, but you should put your work in.” I was like okay! And he said, “You probably won’t get it. It’s this big American company; they’ll probably bring somebody with them.” And then I got a phone call from them and they said, “We know you haven’t done very much, but we will take a chance on you for the pilot if you want to come join us,” and I said yes. So I went and did that and I mean, who the hell would have known what it would become. I just thought it would be some wizard thing that would just fade out, and it was this worldwide cultural phenomenon. And organically as a photographer, I’ve been able to grow and learn with the show — I mean who gets that chance right? So I must have swallowed a shamrock when I was a baby or something. I don’t know. (laughs)
Nerds and Beyond: Going from photographing circus performers to working on Game of Thrones, that’s quite a big jump! Do you find that it’s more difficult now, or is it more challenging now, to shoot on Game of Thrones than your earlier work?
Sloan: I think the scale of this project has been the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around. But actually, circuses and movies are very similar. There’s a lot of similar ways you have to be. You’ve got to keep out of the way, out of the performer’s eye line, in front of the audience line…there’s a lot of really similar things — like stunts. You need to learn the stunt sequence so you know when to get the moment, and also with jugglers you have to know the tricks to know what the pattern is they want. Because there’s a World Federation of jugglers, that’s like a sport, and when you photograph them, they want a specific pattern with the clubs. If you don’t get it, it’s a shit photo. So when you get on that side of things, that is still pretty high pressure. It’s just the pressure that’s different. But I think I have a platform, and all those little girls who are like me know some girl from the countryside of Northern Ireland does this job, and that means you can do this job, too, because this is our time.
Nerds and Beyond: What kind of equipment do you use to shoot on set?
I’ve always been Nikon — in fact I am a UK Ambassador for Nikon now. That was my proudest moment: someone from an actual company who makes the cameras I’ve used since I was 11-years-old saying, “We want to attach ourselves to you as a photographer.” It was mind-blowing. So for studio work, I use a D854 and D800. My favorite portrait lenses are 85mm 1.4, and all the time on set I have a DV, which is a 24-70 lens on action. Then I have probably an 850 with a 24-70, and I also have one with a 70-200 or the 85, so it’s a lot of things to be carrying around, and I obviously didn’t start with that many cameras on the pilot! I had one camera, two lenses, but you just don’t buy any clothes or anything for yourself. You just save up and buy cameras. (laughs) In my studio, I used a mix of Elinchrom and Pro Photos. It’s a real mix. I know some people are purists who like only one type of thing, and I’m like, “just use whatever works.” I make things out of polystyrene and cardboard, and people are like, “But it doesn’t look very professional,” and I’m like “yeah but it works!” I don’t want to spend $500 on something if I can make it for $15. I treat my equipment quite rough; I’m quite bad about keeping it clean and stuff, but when you’re in a mud field with snow, it’s impossible!
Nerds and Beyond: What was one of the hardest and most challenging scenes to photograph?
Sloan: Battle of the Bastards was hard because of all the stuff flying through the air — the blood, the mud, the horses running past — it was terrifying! But the weather was good. It didn’t rain for four weeks in Northern Ireland, and that is unheard of. The scenes that I really hate shooting are ones where we have rain machines, because it’s the most torrential rain. There’s a scene where they’re in the abandoned village, and Orell is there. Tthey have a fight between Tormund and Orell, and the village that has the windmill, and it’s like torrential rain. And Orell wargs in the bird and attacks Jon. That was rain machines for a few days, and rain machines are even worse than real rain! The strap broke on my coat, and the arm of my coat was just filling up with water. Rain in Northern Ireland is like that; it makes it hard.
Nerds and Beyond: Was it interesting getting promo shots without giving any spoilers away?
Sloan: Oh, that’s someone else’s department! I shot everything, and this is real paranoia where I am the only person in the world who has photography from Game of Thrones on my person. Literally hard drives hidden under my clothes, and I’m freaking out in case I get robbed. The Jon Snow stabbing at Castle Black, I had that on a hard drive in my bag as a backup. It’s all encrypted and everything, but you still have this paranoia that someone will crack it and rob you, and then they’ll have the info. So I sent all of that to HBO, and then it’s the publicity and marketing department who decides what actually gets out.
But I shoot everything, so I’ve seen all the deaths, all the big turns, and I was there for everything. Sometimes reading a script — I remember reading the script, I can’t even remember what script it was, but I remember. I was sitting in the room with a couple of my friends, and I was reading it on my phone and I was like, “No! Oh my gosh, you bastards!” And they’re like, “What? what?” And I was like, “I can’t tell you! I literally can’t talk about it for a year!” And everything that happened you can’t talk to anyone about, because everyone I knew watched the flipping show! All my friends watched it, so I literally couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I know who wins, and I know who dies, and I know who kills them, and I can’t talk about it! You have to bottle it up.
Nerds: Last question. What house would you be in if you were on the show?
Sloan: Oh my gosh, I love this question! If I had to join a gang, I would be in the Brotherhood Without Banners, without a doubt. I know the Lannisters have got loads of money and houses and clothes and everything, and I know that Winterfell people are really nice and friendly and probably more like the people I grew up with, but I feel like I fit in with the Brotherhood Without Banners. I feel like I’m that kind of person. And I want a flaming sword!