Many fans of Game of Thrones have been waiting for April 2019 with bated breath, anticipating the release of the final season. The series has made history as one of the most popular shows with dedicated fans around the world, and an even more dedicated crew who have created the many magical kingdoms within. Panalux have been privileged to be a part of the majority of the series, and primary lighting supplier for the last 4 seasons.

To commemorate the show and all the hard work that has gone into lighting these incredible worlds, we sat down with Tom Gates, gaffer for all 8 seasons, to shed some light on what it was like to be a part of Game of Thrones and what the future has in store now that Winter has arrived.

Game of Thrones series 8—courtesy of Sky 2019

An Era at an End
Well it certainly has been quite a journey. After eight years on Game of Thrones it has come to a standstill, to a stop. The team get on really well together and it's been the same team for eight years. We all know each other, and I'll take them everywhere with me whenever I can.

How a 30 Year Career Began

I've been a gaffer for 30 years. I was a budding electrician before that. Well, not so budding (laughter). But years ago, when I first started, I just thought that I'd kind of like to be a gaffer. To be honest I didn't want to carry cable when I'm 60 years old if I could just sit back and do a lot of pointing. I used to watch a lot and I would think “Christ, I'm never going to get the hang of this” and then all of a sudden, one day it just sort of clicks. I think you can read as many books as you like about it, but it doesn't make any difference. I think it's either something that just clicks in, you've got it or you haven't; it's hard to describe.

They haven't sussed me out yet if they keep asking me back after 8 years, they haven't caught onto me yet... If they don't call me for the prequels you'll know they've finally sussed me out.

A favourite scene or setup, either from a technical perspective or the environment

Another working relationship that has evolved is Andy’s with Panalux.

Tom Gates and Bret McCrum

There's probably quite a few I suspect over the years, but I'd say a lot of them probably were on Game of Thrones. All the DoPs have been really great and I've got on with pretty much all of them—very lucky there. Jonathan Freeman, Fabian Wagner, Franco, Annette... there were so many, and they've all been great.

I was very lucky to have that amount of DoPs. With Game of Thrones there's usually four or five DoPs on it [in one season]. Most features have one DoP, so it's like five films for me because they all have different ideas, so you have to try different things. Obviously, you can't change lighting for every DoP every time they come on the same stage, but you have to try and balance it somehow. You have to find a way to give them what they want. The whole idea is they've all got their individual touch, their own perspective on it, otherwise it would be all the same; and it would be too much work for one DoP.

I'm quite lucky, I've learned quite a bit from working with so many different DoPs and have been able to pick up all their unique styles and see variations on how one set can be lit.

Fundamentals of Gaffering & Night Shoots

From what I know now there are quite a few things I would have changed years ago, but the basics—the angles: key light, back light, top light—are still the same. The DoPs have their final say on it, but the basic rules are still in place.

On Game of Thrones we used to use a lot of tungsten, we used full Wendys and tons of quarter Wendys for all our night shooting; everything backed up by Avo racks dimming. On the night shoots we went tungsten because it's much simpler, less things can go wrong. So, we kept it quite simple and it worked really well.

On a particular scene it was interesting because we used a strange colour. I won't give it away now but it worked really well. It was a bold choice but fair play to the DoPs that wanted it, because sometimes an effects colour can look too theatrical, but it didn't, it looked totally natural.

New Tech & an Evolved Approach to Lighting

The advancement of all lighting with LED is amazing, but sometimes older lights work better for the film. I'm doing a film now with an old friend of mine, Ben Smithard, and he wants to go back to tungsten. It's a period film so tungsten is nicer, he just wants to go conventional, old–fashioned 1K, 2Ks pups.

Years ago when we put big soft–boxes up with space lights, we used to checker them: one with half blue and one with tungsten, so if they want to go to night we use the blue and if you want to go to day you use straight tungsten. You could even mix it, you'd still get away with it. With the LED world you can have the whole box on in any colour. From that point of view its fantastic for filming, for production.

[New technology] has made it easier because you can go bi–colour, daylight, tungsten, RGB—you can use any colours. It's made it a lot easier, for cabling and for the environment: the power used on LED is 300 Watts as opposed to a space light which is 500 Watts. Every year it changes—everybody still learns something new each year.

Game of Thrones series 8—courtesy of Sky 2019

Relationship with Panalux

Tom elaborated on how working with Sinead has helped him achieve the monumental job of lighting Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones was big. We didn't realize how big it really was, it caught everybody by surprise a bit, including me. It was difficult at times because I have to organize all the equipment, I have to do the list for everything for six or seven stages and every nut and bolt has to be counted. Luckily because of Sinead [Panalux Sales Director] I can ring up “Oh, I didn't put this down” and she'll take care of it. Sinead's done them all with me.

There were so many pressures because it's so big—it really worked because of my relationship with Sinead and Panalux in many ways. I mean, who else can phone up, ask for 1000 feet of cable or two 20 Ks? There are not many people who can do it, she's backed me up all the way.

It is undoubtable that teamwork plays an extremely important role in getting the show to look the way it looks and be filmed on time. There are a number of amazing people who are a part of Tom's team and two to note are Bret McCrum, rigging gaffer, and Laura Thompson, Bret's Panalux account manager. Sharing a similar relationship to Sinead and Tom's, Bret and Laura are an integral part of the process. Working together, the two ensure processes run effortlessly and efficiently.

How Panalux has helped to solve complications and make some of the more difficult shoots a little bit easier.

Game of Thrones series 8—courtesy of Sky 2019

Panalux solved all our problems because you have the equipment, the backup, the know–how, all the technology of all the generations, and you have the generators.

The night shoots where rain and wind are our worst enemies we never suffered equipmentwise. We got everything done. We didn't even go over by one day—we shot for three months at night and we didn't go over by one night. Three months of day exterior where there's no lighting involved hardly, you'd be hard pressed to finish on time. I don't know how we did it, maybe they made our schedule easier—I don't know, but we definitely finished on time at night.

It's a testament to everybody—it's a whole team, like one big family. So it's been really good.

What the Future Holds

Admittedly “not good at having time off,” Tom is back working on another Panalux serviced film, Downton Abbey. Having built a strong relationship of trust with his crew on Game of Thrones the same team will be joining him for filming around London on Downton Abbey the movie. And if those GOT spin–offs happen, Tom is ready to go back:

Well, if they asked me, yeah. I like Belfast, I like the crew and the people. And HBO and everybody in Ireland really look after you—they were fantastic.

You can see Tom's work on the big and little screen very soon; the release of Downton Abbey and, of course, the final season of Game of Thrones. It'll be a chance to see how a 3–month battle scene shot at night translates to the screen and a chance to appreciate the kind of technique and mastery involved in lighting a kingdom.