Fabian Wagner ASC BSC has been the DP on some amazing TV and feature productions; obviously everyone is talking about the latest season of Game of Thrones, of which Fabian worked on episodes 3 (The Long Night) and 5, as well as six other episodes in previous seasons. His CV also includes Justice League, Ashes to Ashes, Sherlock, Spooks and the White Queen. We caught up with him just before episode 3 of Game of Thrones was released to talk about his career and what draws him to a project.
Fabian knew from an early age that this is what he wanted to do, his best friend at school in Munich was the son of a theatre director, and his step father a producer. His friend always wanted to get into the film industry and become a director, so Fabian ended up filming with him.
‘I had no idea what the job entailed but then I went to a set one day with his step dad when I was about 14, that’s when I realised I wanted to become a DP. Back then I thought it just consisted of camera work, I took a big interest in cinematography and photography. I soon learnt that it involved lighting and creating atmosphere’.
It’s hard to pin him down on any particular TV shows or films that influenced him in his early years, his whole outlook always seems to have been primarily about being open and adaptable, although when pushed he does admit that ‘obviously back then there were films that influenced me like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. We were watching a couple of films a day, just loving movies, watching good films, bad films and everything in between. And there were plenty of bad films that I thought were good! But I never like to pin it down to one DP or one look.’
Fabian’s own father was an artist; ‘I grew up seeing him drawing and painting on his own in his studio, for ten hours a day. I’d sit with him and watch him but I’d have to be very quiet as he was so focused on what he was doing.’ it would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast to that than being a DP, ‘The greatest pleasure about this business is working with so many different creative people’. Fabian seems to really get a creative buzz from the collaborative element of film making, ‘It is always developing, nothing is really right or wrong and interpretations vary. Even now I’ll see things that change my whole perspective on what I do. I’ll see something that makes me go ‘wow’ and I’ll change the way I’ve been doing something for twenty years. It constantly evolves with time and age.’
Looking at the list of TV shows that Fabian has worked on reveals an interesting thread of quality, shows such as Spooks and Ashes To Ashes were starting to shift expectations of just what TV shows could look like. Since the early 2000’s we’ve seen a steady raising of the bar, add to that the bigger budgets that streaming has opened up and the game is changing. ‘I was very lucky in that sense, when I started my career in the UK it was about that time that people started to get very conscious how things looked. So when I started doing those sort of shows it was a great learning ground for me’.
Dropping into established shows for a few episodes is a great way for a young cinematographer to grow and learn; ‘I think that’s one of the reasons I’m being told that I am very flexible and open to working with lots of different people’. Being thrown in the deep end has its benefits, ‘obviously the pace is always fast on those TV shows but you learn so much when you work so intensely, so quickly with so many different directors and crews, which still influences me today.’ Sherlock is another show that was not afraid to play with the conventions of story telling, ‘it was one of the most interesting and most creative experiences I’ve ever had, I learnt so much about cinematography and everything involved with it on that job. The director Paul McGuigan has become a great friend of mine. Coming in on season two to such a beautiful and well crafted show meant that I could look for things that I couldn’t necessarily make better but I could make them my own by building on what’s gone before’.
When I ask what he is most proud of in his career he says: ‘I’m incredibly fortunate to be doing this, it doesn’t feel like a job to me. In December and January I did two episodes of The Crown with one of my best friends Sam Donovan directing. I went to film school with him and he was best man at my wedding, and this was the first time we’ve worked together since we shot all these short films about fifteen years ago. Even though you get up really early and can have sixteen to eighteen hour days in the freezing cold or the rain, it still doesn’t feel like a job. So for me, feeling proud of something isn’t the most important thing, I’ve learnt an awful lot from working on the less great shows as well as the award winners’. That pragmatism and willingness to keep learning and improving is something that marks Fabian out. There are inevitably shows that furthered his career, ‘Sherlock opened me up to the US with the Emmy nomination, but it’s often more the personal relationships that develop, David Blair gave me a chance early on by shooting The Street by Jimmy McGovern.’ Fabian goes on to admit that ‘the thing i’m probably most proud of is a music promo I did for a band back in 2005 with my friend Mark Wordsworth directing. We had a £500 budget so we did it all ourselves, designed and built the set, shot it over two days and everyone thought we’d had a £20k budget, plus Mark ended up with a big agent – so those are the sort of things that make you proud I think.’
Working with so many people also demands some pretty good interpersonal skills ‘I’ve been lucky meeting some really nice people that I have got on with, there are of course times when you don’t instantly get on, which is nobody’s fault, but you still have to deliver. I’ve now come to the point where I can work with people I like and that like me.’
‘I love working with new people as you learn more, but there is also a level of security and comfort that comes with working with the same people for a long time. For example I met my focus puller Jamie Phillips on Ashes to Ashes. I was operating the B camera and he’s just stepped up from loading to focus puller, we were thrown together and I just fell in love with him! He’s one of the best and I just ask him on every job I do, we’ve become great friends and he just knows me – I’m not very easy for focus pullers because of the way I work on the B camera, having Jamie there adds to the quality of what I’m doing’
One of those friendships and collaborations is with the director Miguel Sapochnik, together they have delivered some of the most complicated, impressive and popular episodes of that show with the dragons…
Game of Thrones
Fabian has worked on eight episodes of the global phenomenon that is Game of Thrones, six of which have been with director Miguel Sapochnik, the pair garnering a reputation for handling the biggest battles ever filmed for TV – and with season eight – possibly ever for film and TV. Fan favourites Hardhome and Battle of the Bastards from seasons five and six delivered the spectacle of big battles, but crucially also multiple plot threads that Sapochnik and Wagner wove together into emotionally and visually satisfying episodes that reward repeat viewing.
The popularity of those episodes made them the natural choice for the final season’s most explosive episodes. The Pentagon levels of security that surround the show are well known, the danger of spoilers is ever present as fans are prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get a scoop. Season eight has seen those measures taken to insane levels by HBO, they haven’t even released the names of the episodes in case they give any hints away! We do know that episode three, The Long Night, is all about the battle for Winterfell, the army of the dead have arrived at the foot of the castle walls, night has fallen and it looks like a long and grim few hours for the combined forces of Houses Stark and Targaryen arrayed against them. The video below goes into the making of this monumental episode.
Game of Thrones is literally a different world, both in terms of storytelling and production. Says Fabian; ’It’s a different beast, somewhere between a TV show and a blockbuster movie, on a career level for me it’s been huge, doors have opened that probably wouldn’t have otherwise. Also on a personal level it’s been a real journey for me. Since season 4 I’ve met Miguel and we’ve become very close as friends, we’ve done all these really big episodes together and it’s been a massive opportunity for me to expand professionally and personally’. Thrones is something of a polished machine now after nearly a decade of production. For the cinematographer they have an established camera and lens package of Arri Alexa XT cameras with Cooke and Angénieux optics, on which Fabian comments ‘It is the package I would have chosen myself had I had the opportunity. When you come into a show that is well established it’s not about changing the look and feel of the show.
Wagner brings a sense of energy to his role: ‘I grew up in a low-budget environment of having to do everything yourself, and I’m still very hands-on, my gaffers hate it! I love being active and operating the camera. I don’t like to sit in a tent and drink coffee all day.’ In the UK it’s an accepted thing that the cinematographer will also operate a camera and Fabian has made a habit of operating the B camera on shows such as Spooks and Ashes to Ashes. ‘On shows like The Street the director David Blair wanted to get me on the A camera, which I loved’. Game of Thrones runs the American system of production with two camera operators and a DP to oversee, Fabian went with this on his first season on the show (season 4, the episodes The Laws of Gods and Men and Mockingbird), but by the time they got to season fives big battles in Hardhome and then Battle of the Bastards Fabian was using four cameras, ‘So I used to say ‘look I’ll just operate the fourth camera…’ and so I did manage to run around with a camera most of the time!’ Many DP’s have stated that there is a more intimate connection with the emotion of a scene to be had by looking through a camera viewfinder, rather than monitors in a tent (although there will be coffee in the tent). ‘I just love looking through the eyepiece, and I love the experience of holding the camera and seeing the scene unfold through that eyepiece. When I look at it on a monitor I feel much more distracted. Personally I really love working with actors, it’s an amazing relationship and experience’. There is also a practical benefit ‘For some reason when I look through the eyepiece, I notice a lot more than looking at it on a monitor, I’m more aware’.
Fabian has refined his working technique to having an operator on the A camera and then he operates the B camera, ‘It’s about trusting people, having a really good A camera operator allows me to react to the scene, maybe there is something that I or the Director sees in the moment that let’s us capture the unexpected’.
That adaptability must have been essential in the fifty five nights of shooting for the major battle scene. Sapochnik is quoted in Entertainment Weekly as saying it will be ‘the longest consecutive battle sequence ever committed to film.’ And once again it consists of ‘sequences built within sequences built within sequences’, according to co-executive producer Bryan Cogman. The reference point for the shoot is the battle of Helm’s Deep shot for Peter Jackson’s Two Towers, widely regarded as one of the best battle scenes ever committed to film. On a human level, how do you shoot that many nights and not go mad? ‘It’s tough, I think we all went a bit mad. I am very lucky in that my wife was also working on the show, so we were both in Belfast, working nights and our dog was with us, so we kind of had our life with us’, although it was nocturnal ‘Working for those many nights tensions do build up, everyone is so charged with the energy of it. There is so much to shoot every night the time pressures build up, but we all got through it, nobody got hurt and it was a great experience. Though I’d certainly think twice if someone offered me a similar thing!’
Another crazy thing about Thrones are the levels of security the production has been forced into to avoid spoilers, an avid and obsessive fanbase will take any scrap of information and extrapolate whole fanciful plot points from it. ‘There’s two things here, there’s giving things away, which isn’t on at all, but then there is posting stuff that doesn’t really give anything away, but because the fanbase is so engaged they’ll be like Sherlock and deduct things from it. I’ve been told off a couple of times, I took a picture of a castle that didn’t feature in what we were shooting, but is a location we shoot at. It was a lovely dawn shot with mist and the sun coming up – it snowballed into the fans speculating on all sorts of scenarios’. There is also a sense of professional pride in delivering the final product ‘we were working so hard on this show, we were there for almost a year to make this show as good as it possibly could be, for it to be spoilt by a leak is so bad for the whole cast, crew and creatives would be so disappointing and sad.’
The third episode airs Sunday 28 April in the US and in the early hours of Monday 29th in the UK.
Interview by Iain Hazlewood