By Will Ross
The cinematography in prestige TV shows has a long history of attracting superlatives like “visually stunning”, and to be frank, a lot of the time that claim is bunk. Still, it’s not healthy to dismiss praise like that out of hand every time without deeper thought, so sometimes I’ll test those claims by choosing a simple scene from a show that represents something like a dramatic median, watching it, and deconstructing it. Besides this being a healthy exercise for anyone who loves the cinema, it can yield surprising results that overturn first impressions. Today I thought I’d share that process and apply it to a scene from “The Bells”, the latest (and penultimate) episode of Game of Thrones, a series that has garnered praise from mainstream critics for its craft, even as those same critics have roundly turned against the writing in the last few episodes.
A big caveat: I haven't seen the series outside a few scattered episodes (not feeling "invested" is part of the point of the exercise). The big downside, obviously, is that I'm missing a lot of context. As a result, I try to avoid broad dramatic judgments, and to just see how the visuals are functioning in and of themselves. How do they build a sense of the dramatic environment and emotional rhythms of the scene? And, of course, how good do they look?
I often like to use small-scale interiors for this, as they afford filmmakers the most control over all factors while also cutting down on variables. It’s a good-faith methodology that particularly pays off for this episode of GoT, since that city-burning sequence looks ugly as hell.
Before we start, here’s a barebones scene description that purposefully ignores character names and narrative context:
A man writes on paper. A young girl tells him a certain woman won't eat, and that the woman's soldiers are watching her. He takes her hand, reassures her that great risks provide great rewards, and tells her to go.
Here we go!
I enjoy it when scenes start with macro shots (extreme closeups of non-humans) that provide some flavour or information that then ripple across the rest of the scene. This is a good example: emphasizing "he is the true heir to the iron throne" here has obvious dramatic potential that gives a charge to what is otherwise a fairly dramatically inert scene. I also like the angle here, both providing a legible view and emphasizing the paper as a tactile object, part of a space. The lighting further helps to characterize the space (though in context the yellowish tinge of light makes little sense since it’s supposed to be daylight, which is strictly represented in blueish tones).
Next, a backwards dolly moves from a closeup of the writer to a wide, and a dark figure steps into foreground. As a camera movement, I think this is well-motivated: it identifies the writer in a view similar to the macro shot of the paper, and then pulls back from that close-up aesthetic to the full scope of the scene. After the initial reveal of the space, the continued motion is justified by a knock on the door, which creates a further sense of potential (perhaps a threat?), so the backwards motion (and indistinctness of the body in foreground) enlivens our curiosity about who's there. The framing of the shot is fairly middling, though that's not necessarily a problem given the lighting scheme (more on that in a moment). Still, it's a fairly unimaginative use of all the negative space offered by the shadows.
One point about the framing worth praise: At the start of the shot, the writer's face is large enough in the frame that he's a clearly discernible figure, in spite of the very dark space. Pulling back makes him smaller, so the camera frames his head into a distinct silhouette over the window. Nice.
Next, let’s address the lighting. GoT has a general attitude of treating medieval-style spaces built of rock and lit entirely by small windows as, y'know, pretty fucking dark. I really respect this more-or-less series-wide choice. It's taken to quite an extreme here, and I like that; there's so much in darkness in this scene that it really bolsters the sense that this guy is tucked into a secret little nook, writing and hearing about things he probably shouldn't. So props for the overall conceit.
However, there are some points of inconsistency that make the lighting feel unnatural across the scene. It’s worth remarking upon, so it’s worth quickly skipping ahead to get a sense of the overall lighting scheme. shot 8 (seen here) reveals that the whole scene is lit by 3 windows and a candle. Two of the windows are on one side of the room, spaced quite far apart, and one is right next to the desk. Hard rays of light are shooting directly through the one near the desk but not the others; the implication is that light streaming through the desk window are direct sunlight. As a result, the direct light hitting the desk has more intense highlights and shadows than the ambient light coming from the right, which just softly lights the side of the writer's face. So far, works fine. Let's move on.
Now we get the payoff to all that buildup of expectations via the knocking and the sweeping backwards dolly: it's just a kid! I like this reversal of expectations and how the visuals of the first shot set it up, but let's talk about this shot. There are only three points of interest in the frame: the girl, that little rectangle of light behind her implying a slightly open door, and those tiny little blue highlights — looks like it's a vase reflecting a bit of the room's sunlight. Otherwise, it’s copious negative space. Now, if we know the whole scene, we can infer that she's being lit by the farther of the two windows on the right, but remember that hasn't been established yet. That feeling of "where's the light source", the overwhelming blackness, the flat angle, and the fact that her body was too close to the camera in the last shot to judge relative distance all contribute to a pronounced spatial confusion. The shot feels totally disconnected from the space of shot 2. It feels abstracted, and not in a deliberate way, but in a way that directly clashes from that big dolly shot's careful delineation of the visible room. That sense of intrinsically understanding the space has been instantly broken by this reverse shot.
But there’s more cause to pile on shot 3. I am not a fan of its composition at all. It does nothing with the negative space, and the girl is too subtly lit for her to stand out as some bright counterpoint. Her and that rectangle are basically just a smudgy vertical stripe. Yuck.
Now we come to a reverse of the writer. This is just an angle from partway through the earlier dolly move, and the composition is again just okay, though I'll spare a positive note for the use of those rays to intensify both his rightward-look at the girl and his interest in his papers. He cuts something of an imposing, intimidating figure in this shot that plays well into the girl’s nervousness and really boosts the dynamic of the scene.
The next shot changes up the shot-reverse formula by placing both characters in the frame. Truthfully, I cannot understand why this wasn't used to introduce the girl. Her small size in the frame relative to him would have emphasized the punchline of her being a lesser threat than we feared, and her position in the space is much, much clearer. If you absolutely had to retain both shots, I would place Shot 3 here instead, as the closer view of her face emphasizes her nervousness about the soldiers watching her, which is the main dramatic beat of this shot. The writer's replies could be played in standard reverse setups. It would work better, I think.
But that’s enough about how I think the scene could or should be, back to how it is. This shot's composition is again just okay. I do like the reverse-L shape creating a frame-within-a-frame, but again wish there was a little more done with the negative space in that within-frame. (A splash of light from a candle would have done wonders here.) Dramatically, it actually does an alright job of expressing the writer's disinterest in the girl's fears: he is either looking down at the paper, or, when he looks at her, his expression is hidden to us, lending an impersonal effect. Still there are ways to do this while also allowing the visuals to better express her fear.
Here's where my misgivings about the lighting come into focus: the light hitting the desk and writer does not look like natural sunlight in this shot. The highlights and hard shadow lines are gone. This was probably done to accommodate the shot, as having blinding highlights and crisply drawn shadows in the foreground would draw attention away from the girl, but this is a case where the shot should have either been rethought or scrapped entirely, because now the light feels completely artificial. Rather than direct sunlight, it looks like either light from a cloudy day, or ambient, indirect light like what the other windows do in other shots. It's soft, it rolls off gradually, it doesn't create bright highlights. It messes with our internal sense of how light works badly.
This shot (and the scene in general so far) really feels like a hodgepodge, like some creative decisions were made, and then a bunch of "practical" choices went on top and at some point the intent and style was left behind. Not without its merits, but not good either. It's these sorts of heavy compromises towards traditions of quality that keeps Game of Thrones's lighting aesthetic from feeling interesting or real. It's why every time I look at an interior scene from the show, I come away thinking "That feels like a studio."
Then we get this! After a series of mostly compositionally uninteresting shots with decreasing dramatic propulsion, we get a very nice reversal from the writer's insouciant demeanour for this simply expressed gesture of kindness. I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but I don't have anything bad to say about this shot: they committed to the lighting in smart ways, created a nice lighting gradient on the desk that silhouettes the hand well, and I like the subtle rim light over the top of the hand. It also contrasts to the prior shots, all fairly traditionally placed mediums and wides, and returns us to Shot 1's display of the dramatic potential of a hand. It doesn't redeem the scene (the whole has already stacked too many problems), but I like it a lot.
Next, we get the first properly expressive shot of the girl. Conceptually, it works as a great counterpoint: mirroring the hand, emphasizing both the distance between them and the potential for a human connection. Eye lights, subtle soft shadow lighting, and a very nice profile rim create a really nice, dimly lit portrait of her face, and the orange, flickering candlelight in the background complements the blue tones prevalent elsewhere in the scene and helps her face stand out instead of negative space.
WHERE WAS THIS CANDLELIGHT IN THE EARLIER SHOTS OF HER? On a purely logical level you could argue that it's close to the wall and therefore would only light the wall, but this could and should have been "cheated" to light the wall closer to her without anyone questioning it. That, or just add another candle! It's possible (even probable) that this was the sort of technical oversight common to the fast pace and budget limitations of television, but hey — that just speaks to not working well with your medium's limitations.
But I don't want to end my notes on this shot on a negative. It doesn't have the same punch and "wow" factor as shot 6, but it builds off it smartly, and I like it just as much.
Shot 8 is the widest shot of the scene and reveals all of the light sources. This is probably the compositionally strongest non-closeup in the scene, with the light rays explicitly casting the writer as a saint-like figure, and the dark space between him and the girl well used, since she crosses it over the course of the shot — "Crossing the darkness to forge a human connection," something like that. Unfortunately, it also reverses some of the scene's more interesting visual choices.
First, there is virtually no *true* negative space in the room, since very little of it is black, except for the shadow under the desk. Almost everything else has gradations of light and perceptible detail or geometric activity going on. The justification may be "It would look weird to have a wide where we can't see any of the room", but I say, that's what would make it interesting. Run with it! Have the characters in a pool of light in the middle of a sea of blackness! This speaks to those traditions of quality (i.e. "Production Value") in TV that Game of Thrones adheres to in its lighting and, again, makes its spaces feel a lot less visually interesting and convincing than they should. It's both inconsistent and a missed creative opportunity.
Second, it suddenly reveals the room to be much larger than it seemed before. Earlier, there was no hint that the space was this big; it would be natural to infer the wall would be halfway between this camera position and the characters. You can kind of justify this by saying: the connection they form opens up emotional space, that making the room "bigger" connotes hope, etc. I think communicating these ideas between two individuals in a secretive room is much more interesting... and more consistent.
Don’t get me wrong, in a vacuum, it’s a fine shot, though unimpressive in its use of light. It’s the inconsistencies and lack of stylistic commitment that make it a bit of a liability to the scene overall.
A closeup of the girl. Her relative size, the angle, and the fact that the camera is panning as she walks into her place makes me believe this is the same shot setup as Shot 7, and the candlelight was *just* out of frame before the pan. Real shame. I can’t think of a good reason not to have a second candle in the room to fix this.
It's not a particularly interesting shot, but it works fine, meat-and-potatoes shot-reverse stuff here. Kind of an uninteresting way to end an interaction that had such visual fireworks a few seconds ago, though.
Again, probably just a slightly adjusted position from the dolly track. Not much new to say, except that having each character visible in the foreground of the other's reverse shot is kind of a nice way to suggest their newfound emotional proximity. It still feels anti-climactic.
Now we move into the final two shots of the scene, which form a visual denouement. In shot 10 we pan back out of the candlelight as the girl walks away. It's not an interesting shot, but here her moving into blackness at least *kinda* makes sense as she moves out of that emotional warmth, and the panning movement makes it feel much more dynamic than shot 3.
Finally, the dolly moves in closer to the writer, mirroring the girl moving away from the camera in shot 11. Dollying in on a thinking character is kind of a one-size-fits-all way to put a button on your scene, and it comes off as especially uninteresting when the character’s face is so still and inscrutable, but nonetheless it works just fine; I have neither a positive nor negative reaction to it.
While the scene has some points of aesthetic interest and a genuinely impressive moment spanning two very well-thought-out shots, its ideas otherwise never connect into a cohesive whole, either on the level of individual shots or the entire scene. While the limitations of TV often dictate limited setups and camera placements that are then reused across the scene, this means that A: If you want a visually sumptuous TV show, you have to work well with those limitations and find ways to make them sing (see: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz), or B: You de-emphasize or scale back on the number of aesthetic elements you're playing with and maximize your use of a more limited technical palette. The vast majority of the time, TV is better served by B.
In short, the scene is visually not really remarkable, and yet it's still one of the highlights of the episode's cinematography. Time and time again, even in the most favourable sequences, I can never find means to justify the widespread hyperbole about the cinematography in Game of Thrones.