House of the Dragon gave audiences the opportunity of going back to Westeros after Game of Thrones ended in 2019, focusing on the Targaryen family a century before the events of the original HBO series. A dynasty ruled with fire over the land, and Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) had to grow up in order to face her destiny.
Awards Radar had the opportunity of speaking with Catherine, who is currently nomianted for an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography on a Series (One Hour) for her work on the eighth episode of the first season. She is currently working on the second installment of the adaptation of George R. R. Martin‘s work. Goldschmidt was excited to discuss the creative choices she took to capture the magic and fantasy of Westeros on the screen.
Awards Radar: What’s the hardest part about finding the correct lightning for the dragons, creatures which are not present on set?
Well, happily there are always people in the scene as well as dragons- so I tend to light the people and the space, and let the dragons fall into this. VFX brings a model of a dragon so we can photograph that in the light for reference. (Note: we didn’t have any dragons in Ep 108, but I did do some dragon pickups for other episodes last season.)
AR: How do you use the dark setting of caves, castles and dangerous cities to frame the character’s story?
It’s always story specific, so I’ll use an example from our Episode. The scene where Daemon finds the dragon eggs we wanted to be very mysterious. In the sequence, we approach Dragonmount first from the outside and then we cut and we’re inside a deep, dark crevice that has a bit of daylight streaming through. It’s an extreme wide shot and it’s hard to tell just how wide until you notice a teeny, tiny body climbing down the crevice in silhouette. We cut and we’re in a close up of feet jumping down and walking across the crevice floor. Then we’re tracking across a mound and we reveal someone’s hands are mining for something. The hands are chipping and clawing away at the mound until suddenly a dragon egg is uncovered and lifted out of the muck, and only then do we reveal Daemon’s face. This sequence was scripted far more simply than what I’ve just described, but together with director Geeta Patel, we fleshed out what we thought was a visually dramatic introduction both to Daemon in our episode as well as the process of hunting for dragon eggs. The setting of the dark cave helped us sell the mystery of who/how/what was happening, and we purposefully left a lot to the viewer’s imagination.
AR: What was your favorite sequence to film throughout your involvement with the franchise?
My favorite sequence to film I think has to be our throne room scene where Viserys sits the Iron Throne again and Vaemond is beheaded. It was such a long, complicated scene to film, with all the major characters coming together again. The shifting power dynamics were such a treat to photograph, but my favorite part of the scene has to be Viserys’ entrance. We filmed his entrance primarily from his POV, and coupled with Paddy Considine’s incredible performance – it still gives me chills when I watch it.
AR: What was important to show about Viserys’ fragile state after he got sick?
It was important to show quite a number of things about Viserys’ fragile state in Episode 108. Physically speaking, in our episode he appears thinner, weaker and smaller than ever before. His leprosy-like illness has eaten away his eye and part of his face, and this he keeps covered for most of the Episode with a few key exceptions. To show this change in his physicality, we collaborated with all the departments: Art Dept, Hair and Make-up, Costume, VFX… For example, the Art Dept cut a hole in his bed so he could sink into it more, appearing smaller. Hair and Make-up, including SFX Prosthetics, did an incredible job of aging Paddy, and we shot some tests to make sure the prosthetics worked with the lighting. The way the audience is introduced to Viserys for the first time in our episode is through Rhaenyra’s PoV. She hasn’t seen her father in 6 years, and doesn’t know how frail he’s become. I loved shooting this scene because again, we got to build some mystery and suspense with Viserys’ slow reveal. What’s important about showing his vulnerability in this scene is that Rhaenyra has come back to the Red Keep to defend her son’s claim to the Driftmark throne and by extension her claim to the Iron Throne, and she needs her father’s help to do this. When she sees how weak and frail he’s become in her absence, she understands how precarious her position now is. Once the audience sees Viserys through Rhaenyra’s eyes as a bedridden invalid who is barely conscious, then it is even more of a shock when we reveal his arrival later in the throne room. In shooting his arrival primarily from his perspective, we show how difficult it is for him to cross that gigantic room in his current pained state, and therefore how important it must be to him to defend his daughter’s claim.
AR: Did you take any visual cues from something that you liked on Game of Thrones, or were you trying to establish your own look for House of the Dragon?
I loved how Game of Thrones was shot, and we referenced it a lot while shooting House of the Dragon, but that said we were definitely trying to do our own thing. The cameras and lensing we used were totally different to GoT– we shot large format on the Alexa 65 and the Alexa Mini LF. Color was used deliberately on GoT to delineate between the worlds and the families, but on HotD, we’re in King’s Landing most of the time, focussing solely on the Targaryens. This freed us up to connect color more subtly to character and emotion, which in Episode 108 for us meant a colder, darker look with more contrast. Like GoT, we move the camera mostly on dollies and cranes with almost no handheld, but unlike GoT, we used a lot of Steadicam as well. For me, Steadicam is a tool that lets us really stay close to a character and experience the world through their eyes.
AR: What was a challenging sequence that might have come off as simple on the screen?
They were all challenging in their way! One small, but beautiful scene that I love is the Silent Sisters’ scene that comes directly after the explosive Throne Room scene. It’s a scene that we were originally supposed to shoot on location in Spain. When plans changed, we had to bring the scene back to the studio, and figure out a way to shoot it on an existing set. Collaborating with Production Designer Jim Clay and Set Decorator Claire Richards, we were able to transform the Small Council Chamber into this new space where the Silent Sisters are doing their embalming work on Vaemond’s corpse. Geeta and I had pulled some references involving a lot of candles, and this we impressed on Claire- to really highlight the religious aspect of what they were doing, and to set the mourning mood for Rhaenys. There’s a final shot of Rhaenys in this scene (actually in the whole episode) where we really wanted to get inside her head, and so I shot her on my favorite lens- the 58mm T Type DNA- which has some beautiful focus fall-off on the edges. This lens combined with the bokeh of the candlelight and Eve Best’s wonderful performance makes for one of my favorite shots in the whole episode.
AR: Is it hard to work with the scale of the dragons, considering their massive size compared to that of the humans?
I have to say that everything on House of the Dragon is larger than you might expect, not just the dragons! The scale of the sets was larger than anything I’d lit before. The size of the crew was bigger than any I’d led before. But the thing about size, just to state the obvious, is that it is scalable. In other words, you just multiply what you’d normally do by 2 or 3 or 4, and then it’s all the same. For example, if I was used to shooting a dinner table scene with say 6 major characters and 2 cameras, on HotD, our dinner table scene had 12 major characters and I shot it with 4 cameras. So, it becomes a math problem. And the way the dragons are approached on the show is exactly the same. We know the size of every dragon and how it fits in the spaces and the sets. We ground all of our creative decisions very much in reality so that the tone of the show is more historical epic than it is fantasy.
AR: What lessons did you learn from your journey in the first season that are helping you out with your work in the second one?
Good question! I learned many things last season, but chief among them is how to stay true to the tone of the show and still put my personal, creative stamp on my work. It’s a very delicate balance, but I think because everyone liked what Geeta and I did with our episode last season, it meant that this season, we are being trusted with even more responsibility. It’s a wonderful thing to have your hard work rewarded, and I know Geeta and I are both very grateful to the showrunners Ryan Condal and Miguel Sapotchnik for the creative freedom they gave us last season.
AR: What can you share about the backbone of the second season? Is it similar to the first one, where it was the relationship between Rhaenyra, her father and Alicent?
I can share nothing! I’m sorry, but I’ve signed an NDA, so all I can say is- tune in next year to find out how the story progresses!
AR: What would you say is different about working in science-fiction (like you did in Doctor Who) compared to Westeros’ fantasy? Both use high budgets to tell stories with grand, fictional elements. But what makes each challenging as a cinematographer?
Doctor Who is such a fun show to shoot because the tone is quite wacky. Unlike House of the Dragon, where we spend a lot of time trying to ground our choices in reality, on Doctor Who, there’s really no focus on reality whatsoever! Whereas on HotD, the lighting is always motivated by the real world sources of Daylight, Moonlight and Firelight, on Doctor Who– there are so many more places the light can come from. On my episodes of Doctor Who, I played a lot with color in lighting. The TARDIS (the Doctor’s time-traveling spaceship) was lit mostly blue and golden, whereas this other spaceship the characters find, I lit to be more teal and yellow. When they go to Hong Kong, I asked the Art Department for a lot of red and purple neon sources to motivate the lighting from, again to give a whole new color cast to this location. Our visual challenge on Doctor Who was really to differentiate between all these different times and places the characters go, and color was a tool we embraced to help us do this. As I was saying earlier, we use color on House of the Dragon much more subtly than this, as the palette is much more restrained. The visual challenge of HotD, at least as I saw it in my approach on Episode 108, was really to show the emotional story of all the characters. Every choice I made related to camera and lighting was not only grounded in reality in terms of the historical time period, but also in terms of being connected directly to the characters’ emotional arcs.