Sean Savage, Assoc BSC ACO & SOC, is best known for his ground-breaking work as “A” Camera operator on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”, as well as a long list of film credits including “The Last Kingdom”, “The Look of Love”, and “Snow White and the Huntsman”. A veteran of television and cinematic productions around the world, Sean is the current president of the Association of Camera Operators (ACO).
Powering through ice and fire with Sean Savage, Assoc BSC, ACO, SOC
After nine years, eight seasons and 73 episodes, 2020 saw HBO mega-hit “Game of Thrones” reach its epic conclusion. The final season pulled in over one billion viewers across 170 countries proving that appointment to view television is still alive.
As “A” Camera Operator (Dragon Unit) Sean Savage, BSC has contributed to every episode, shooting lavish sequences in acclaimed episodes “The Long Night”, “The Spoils of War”, The Rains of Castamere (AKA “The Red Wedding”) and “Blackwater”.
Shooting in parallel with “Wolf Unit”, Sean’s Dragon Unit took on creating the show’s signature wild and wintry scenes. “We shot anywhere that was minus ten degrees,” says Sean, “Wolf Unit got Croatia, Malta, Spain and Morocco, Dragon Shot in Iceland and Ireland - it was tough”. Powering the Dragon unit through nine tough years, Anton/Bauer’s DIONIC and VCLX battery solutions proved to be the power behind the throne.
I’ve always had Anton/Bauer batteries,” says Sean, “They served me well for all nine years of Game of Thrones. We worked in many horrible conditions,” he continues, “low temperatures, cold, snow, fake snow, rain - a great deal of rain, and the batteries kept everything ploughing along”.
One of the standout pieces of the long-running saga was the critically acclaimed penultimate episode of season six, “The Battle of the Bastards” (BoB) an epic battle between the forces of Jon Snow and Ramsay Bolton for control of Winterfell. Directed by Miguel Sapochnik with Fabian Wagner ASC BSC as DP, the episode earned six Primetime Emmy awards, the most Emmy award-winning episode ever, and is a fan favorite too being the highest-rated episode on iMDB.
Inspired by the Battle of Agincourt, the episode was shot over 23 days and involved 700 crew, 600 extras and 70 horses. At the center of the action - Sean and his camera. “I think it’s one of the most remarkable pieces of television ever made, “says Sean. With such a vast amount of people to coordinate, equipment reliability is critical, any failure that causes the production to come to a stop or the need to retake a scene is costly, not just in money but also reputation. “If you don’t use reliable equipment, you are going to erode your relationship with the director and the DP then actors and ultimately the production.” Says Sean, “Your team has to work perfectly so you have to come along with great equipment which includes your batteries.
A close and trusted relationship between Director, DP and Camera Operator can make a world of difference.
Sean explains, “You can physically move the camera skilfully as an operator but at least half of the job comes down to your ability to interpret and translate words of the director or DP into storytelling.” Continuing, “Some are visual and graphic and explain incredibly well what they want, others describe basically because they are more into the performance and less into the visual. I love that aspect of it, not only interpreting it correctly but also translating into something beyond what they thought or better than they imagined, and that’s where you get so much satisfaction”.
He adds, “I take a great amount of care of working it out and giving them something extra. If you get asked to back again and again, then you did good”.
“The scene where Jon Snow was in the battle and it goes black was not scripted,” says Sean, “Miguel was open to me interpreting the scene slightly differently, using the degree of trust I have built up over six years with actor Kit Harington and coordinating with the stunt coordinator, Rowley Irlam and his team to make the scene more aggressive. I was straddling the camera and the guys just started piling in - fortunately I’m built heavily enough to resist most of that. We had a safe word if it got too much. We must have had 7 or 8 guys on top of us. When I saw the darkness completely cover Kit’s face, I was shouting at him to open his eyes and fight to get out, which he literally had to do - and he forced his way through the stunt guys. We cut to his face, emerging from amongst hundreds of bodies as the camera goes 40-50 feet in the air. The result was excellent, viewers stop breathing, they are holding their breath for as long as he does to get out of that near-death experience. That was one of my greatest contributions to a scene; it’s the most impactful sequence I’ve ever shot.”
When you are not shooting a cast of hundreds, reliability is equally if not more important. Sean explains, “You have an actor in the right space, not physically but in their head, and you know you have just one chance to capture it while they are in the peak moment. When they are absolutely ready for it, you have to be completely ready for them and your camera must be up and running and reliable. Anything else is unacceptable.” Continuing, “You can feel the whole tension on set because you know it’s going to work - you are going to achieve this amazing shot and a very talented actor’s emotional message will shine. In those moments camera reliability and battery reliability becomes ‘it’ and failure is just not an option.”
Game of Thrones featured several long takes where the action is not interrupted by any cuts. Scenes where nothing can be allowed to stop the shot. Sean recounts “In a long take such as capturing Arya Stark running for her life through the streets of Kings Landing as the city crumbles to destruction all around her, we can’t have a battery fail, that’s just unacceptable in a ‘one-er’ we only use equipment that we know will not fail.” Adding, “We have to put so much effort into a shot, so much collective concentration - reliability is so important.” When every second counts, the onboard fuel gauge on Anton/Bauer batteries allows precision production planning. “You give a nod to your wonderful assistant for making sure that everything is working so you can get to the end of your run without having some kind of technical failure including batteries running out”.
Costing $210 million for six episodes, shooting the seven hours of television needed for “Game of Thrones’” eighth season meant weeks of gruelling 10-hour days, each day producing roughly 45 seconds of footage. But high-stakes and pressure need not go hand in hand. Sean explains, “You need to be in control of the equipment.” he says, “If the equipment is in control of you then you are in a spot of bother. If you’re in control of it and you’ve done your homework and your preparation, and you’ve got the right team around you there is no dread factor involved”.
One advantage of filmmaking over documentary or live situation is we have lots of breaks, so the pressure on batteries is not as great. Our Anton/Bauer batteries can easily outlast any take they cope admirably with anything we throw at them”.
It’s been said that batteries are the last thing you consider, but the first thing you notice when it’s not there for you. “Not so,” says Sean “you’d be very surprised, batteries are very important. In a studio situation we always have block batteries such as the Anton/Bauer VCLX, which we combine with onboard DIONIC batteries for the camera so we can hot swap; we can pull the main battery without the camera losing all of its information and having to do a time-consuming reboot, which directors are not very fond of. We can always rely on Anton/Bauer batteries on board the camera to keep it ticking over while we change the main battery.”
Dragon Unit used three cameras usually, but on big battle days there were more. “For the battle sequences we had up to 10 ARRI Alexa cameras,” Says Sean, “one on a Steadicam, another mounted on an Artemis stabilizer and others on cranes around the set.”
There are very few jobs that excite me as much as camera operating on a big movie.” Says Sean, “Running among stunt men and horses and having arrows thrown at me and swords hit across my head - I couldn’t imagine doing anything else”