Director Neil Marshall explains how he pulled off Game of Thrones' most epic battle yet

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Jun 9, 2014, 8:51 PM EDT (Updated)

Last night, HBO's Game of Thrones delivered what some have been desribing as the greatest battle scene ever seen on the small screen when Castle Black and the Black Brothers of the Night’s Watch were besieged by those pesky Wildlings coming from south of the Wall, and Mance Rayder’s army in the north.

For this ambitious episode, titled “The Watchers on the Wall,” the Thrones showrunners called once more upon director Neil Marshall (Centurion, The Descent) who had already pulled-off (and quite magnificently at that) another epic battle scene back in the ninth episode of the second season, “Blackwater.”

So, how did Marshall pull it all off?

Below are some of the most interesting excerpts taken from interviews given by Neil Marshall about the filming of this past Sunday night's episode.

First off, in a lengthy interview with Entertainment Weekly, Marshall discussed the epicness of the episode and how he managed to keep all of the action coherent (no small feat, you guys), saying “that’s always the trickiest part, to keep your handle on the geography.”

He also discussed what he thought was the hardest thing he had to pull off for the episode:

Probably the mammoth. Everything else exists in some form or another. Even the giants are like 8-foot-tall actors that we film against green screen and make them bigger. But the mammoth is 100 percent CG. So you have to plan out these sequences where you have stunts and then you’re going to put this giant and mammoth there, and leave room for them. Easily the most complex effects work I’ve done on anything. And like you said, it’s about people understanding what’s happening where, which is kind of why I put in that one crane shot that goes all the way around Castle Black and it links all the characters together. The reason for doing that is, one, it was going to look cool, and two, because it helps the audience understand who, where and when.

As for the sequence where one of the giants made it into the tunnel beneath the Wall, Marshall revealed what was involved in the making of that scene, saying: “We built a half-scale tunnel for the 8-foot-tall actor to run along and combined it with shots with the other actors in the real tunnel.”

He also added:

Obviously it’s the second episode that takes place in one location, and it’s actually shot right next to the quarry where we shot Blackwater just outside of Belfast. When we’re filming in October, it’s absolutely freezing and pouring rain constantly and it’s like mud up to your knees. It’s pretty rough. But the extras that played the Wildlings, they were so great, they kept taking punishment and kept coming back for more.

In another interview with Zap2it, Marshall also discussed the tracking shot around the whole interior of Castle Black during the battle -- as well as revealing a bit more details about filming giants and mammoths:

I came up with that shot as soon as I walked onto the Castle Black set, which was a 360-degree set. I knew we were going to be doing battle, and I just said I want to do a camera movement that takes us all around Caste Black. Initially it was like, "Well, what's the movement and what's the point of it?" And then I figured out, what a great way to link all the characters together and show where they are at that particular point in the battle and kind of bring it full circle. I planned it out, we rehearsed it for an hour, and then we got it in seven takes.
We all gave each other a big round of applause when we got it, because it was like, "Yup, it's great. Move on." We could have spent all day on it, but it would have lost its energy, and we didn't have time in the schedule to do it. We got it in seven takes, and I'm so, so proud of it. I think it's my favorite shot that I've ever done. That ultimately proved to be quite easy to do.
The stuff involving the mammoth and the giants, that was very difficult because we didn't have a mammoth. And our giants, although they're real guys, we still have to shoot them against green screen because the two actors playing them, one is 7-foot and the other one is nearly 8-foot tall, and they're still only half the size of the giants. So we have to shoot our Wildlings on location. They're regular-sized people in a regular location. And then we have to shoot our giants against green screen, and we double them up in size on the computer and incorporate them into the live action. And then the mammoth itself is entirely CGI, so then that goes in last.
The main thing is you have to make sure there's room for them to fit in. What we had was we had this green metal framework thing, very lightweight, but it was roughly the same size of the mammoth, and we had four guys, one on each leg, in green lycra suits. They would have to run around in amongst all these Wildlings to represent where the mammoth was going to go, and the Wildlings would interact with this big green thing. Then we take that out of the shot and leave a big space, and we put the mammoth into the shot there. It's complicated and it's very time-consuming, but it seems to be very effective.

For even more on the filming of this amazing battle, we invite you to head on over to EW and Zap2it.

So, what did you think of Game of Thrones' season four penultimate episode, “The Watchers on the Wall”? What was your favorite scene? And do you guys agree that Neil Marshall managed to pulled it off once more?

(via EW, Zap2it)