Of Ice Walls, Gruesome Murders and Soaring Dragons

Game of Thrones - cinematography

There are two ways to watch a show like Game of Thrones. One is to immerse yourself in the experience and accept a world of giants, lopped-off heads, massive ice walls, exploding citadels and flying dragons as reality. The other is to sit back in awe at those same effects, wondering “how on earth do they do that?”

Cinematographer Gregory Middleton (L) on set with Game of Thrones director Jeremy Podeswa
Gregory Middleton (L) on set with Game of Thrones director Jeremy Podeswa

“How they do that” is the bailiwick of Gregory Middleton, cinematographer. As one of the directors of photography on Game of Thrones, his job is to make the unreal real, which is largely a technical challenge. After consulting with the director and production designer of the particular episode he’s shooting, he determines lighting colour intensity, camera angles, light levels and all aspects of the visual interpretation of the script. He directs the efforts of camera operators – as well as occasionally running cameras himself – and makes sure that the levels he determines are maintained over the entire episode, even though he may film in locations all over the world.

Then, he has to make sure it all works when the dragons fly over.

It’s demanding work, and Middleton, now 51, has a long list of credits (see sidebar) that indicate he is at the top of an extremely competitive craft. He was aware of the competitive nature of the movie business when he started out, but when he graduated from UBC’s film studies program in 1989, he found himself presented with some unique opportunities. The film industry in BC had begun to boom.

“It was pure good fortune for me how the industry advanced during the five or ten years after graduation,” he says. “I had more opportunities here than some of my friends who went to USC.”

The UBC program was still more or less in its fledgling stage when Middleton attended in the mid-1980s. He grew up in Montreal and went to John Abbott College there. As editor of the student newspaper, Bandersnatch, he came to Vancouver to attend an editors’ conference. He knew he wanted to pursue film studies and took the opportunity to look at both SFU and UBC as potential schools for film production. UBC won.

He was aware of the competitive nature of the movie business when he started out, but when he graduated from UBC’s film studies program in 1989, he found himself presented with some unique opportunities. The film industry in BC had begun to boom.

He chose cinematography as his focus because most students wanted to be directors. “I learned the basics of just about every aspect of technical film-making in the program,” he says. “And because it was such a small program, and I was one of just a few cinematographers, I had the opportunity to try everything.”

One of the outstanding parts of the program for Middleton was the lectures given by visiting professionals. “I learned a lot about the industry from just listening to some of these pros,” he says. “And visiting programs to give talks is something I do now.”

Middleton gave himself five years after graduation to see if he could make a living as a cinematographer, and found he could. He worked as a camera operator and second-unit cinematographer on a number of movies, and as main cinematographer on a series of short films. But his big break came in 1994 when his friend and fellow UBC grad Lynne Stopkewich, MFA’96, tapped him to be director of photography for her film, Kissed, based on a short story by Barbara Gowdy. It traced the evolving infatuation with necrophilia of the star, played by Molly Parker.

Kissed became an indie hit and caught the attention of Canadian director Jeremy Podeswa. He invited Middleton to come on board to shoot The Five Senses, also starring Parker. That movie was a success, winning Genies for best picture and best direction, and Gregory Middleton was on his way.

That early experience set a pattern for how his career would develop. As in most areas in life, it’s the people you know and how you get on with them that makes the difference. “You have to be good enough to get the job, obviously, but you also have to be the kind of person the producer and director want to work with,” says Middleton.” Being a warm body with skills isn’t good enough to get you hired.”

After The Five Senses he did a series of small but successful films, then worked with Jeremy Podeswa again on Fugitive Pieces, and with Paul Gross on Passchendaele. That in turn led to the opportunity to work as the main cinematographer for the hit show, The Killing. Then he was called by Podeswa, who had been tapped to direct two episodes of Game of Thrones’ fifth season, to join him as cinematographer. The call, he said, made him jump up and down like he’d won the lottery. He and Podeswa collaborated on two more episodes in each of seasons six and seven, and he shot the dragon visual effects for episodes in season eight.

Similarly, his recent work on Watchmen came about because of the work he did with director Nicole Kassell on The Killing.

Gregory Middleton impresses as quintessentially Canadian: polite, upbeat, seemingly happy, friendly and approachable. He’s also infatuated with the work he does. How does that easy-going quality hold up when he has to deal, day to day, with some of today’s biggest stars? Are they sometimes hard to work with?

“David Bowie wasn’t just a star, he was one of the world’s megastars. He had the kind of magnetic personality that drew the room when he walked in. But he was the most generous, lovely guy.” ~ Gregory Middleton

He tells the story of filming Mr. Rice’s Secret in 1999. It was a small Canadian film that caught the interest of none other than David Bowie. “He wasn’t just a star,” Middleton says. “He was one of the world’s megastars. He had the kind of magnetic personality that drew the room when he walked in. But he was the most generous, lovely guy. At the end of the day, these stars just want to do the best job they can. They’re nervous like anyone else. And the bigger the star the more nervous they are sometimes. They have a reputation to maintain, and they don’t want to mess up. You help them bring out their best.”

As cinematographer, Middleton is responsible for every shot in the Game of Thrones episode he’s hired to shoot. Production crews travel to all the locations, producing all the required scenes for the entire season in each location (Northern Ireland, Spain and the Balkans).

For example, in the scene at the beginning of season seven, when Daenerys lands at Dragonstone, the beach is located outside the town of Zumaia in Northern Spain. The actual landing, with the boats in the background, was filmed in Northern Ireland, but the walk up the beach was filmed in Spain. As the gates open off the beach leading up to the castle (which was added in post-production) we see a long walkway up a hill. This was filmed on location at a monastery in San Juan, while the scenes in Dragonstone castle and the map room were filmed in a studio. His job is to make it all look seamless.

“The exciting part of my work is how I contribute to telling a really great story. It’s all about illusion, anyway, but the better the technical stuff is, the more convincing the story is.”

Whichever way you chose to watch shows like Game of Thrones, it takes a force of will to think about technique instead of being swept up in the pure magic of the huge castles, the gruesome beheadings, the gorgeous landscapes, and the majestic, soaring dragons. Still, it’s nice to know that someone has it all in hand – the technical stuff – so that we can dream in peace.

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