Northern Ireland

Fit for a Queen

by Stuart Kemp

Fit for a Queen
HBO’s Game of Thrones has taken up residence in Northern Ireland having shot its pilot there in 2010. Stuart Kemp explores why it is the ideal place to recreate the epic majesty of the Seven Kingdoms.

Drones, wind and rockslides are just some of the obstacles the cast and crew of HBO hit show Game of Thrones overcame when filming the show’s sixth season in Northern Ireland. Despite these challenges, however, the production has never lost a day of filming, thanks to the tenacity of the crew and the flexible support of the local infrastructure.

That is just one of the many reasons why the popular fantasy costume drama has been returning to Northern Ireland since it shot its pilot episode there in 2010, and the show’s commitment to the region has grown in line with its popularity since HBO opted to locate there.

“Belfast keeps improving its infrastructure and we train people up, so we have a lot of different success stories of people who started out on our show,” says Executive Producer Bernie Caulfield. A Californian native, Caulfield spends nine months of the year living and working in Northern Ireland. “Since we have been together for five or six years, we have a shorthand together,” says Caulfield. “We always aim to leave a city or location better off than when we found it. Belfast has helped us grow and we have helped Belfast grow.”

Caulfield points to the fact there are few cities in the world boasting great international connections and infrastructure coupled with easily reachable, amazing locations less than an hour away. She lives a stone’s throw from Titanic Studios – where the show’s sets are located – which is now one of Europe’s largest film studios, and currently marketed by Northern Ireland Screen, the UK government-backed lead agency for the region’s film, television and digital content industry.

Since 2010, Northern Ireland Screen has injected nearly $20m (£14m) into Game of Thrones’ six seasons. According to figures from the agency, the production’s expenditure on goods and services has contributed an estimated $195m (£137m) to the local economy for the same period.

The sheer scale of production is jaw-dropping. For season six, two full-time production units named Dragon and Wolf employed around 300 people on the shoot. Producers added a third, named White Walker, to help finish on time. Each unit films for around 20 weeks simultaneously, with 30 of those 40 total weeks being spent in Northern Ireland. Filming also takes place in Spain, Croatia and Iceland.

Fantasy island
South Africa-born Supervising Location Manager Robbie Boake, who has unearthed locations in Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains, Castle Ward, Shane’s Castle and Magheramorne quarry, says the production “doesn’t feel at all like television”.

“The crews are the reason it has worked here,” he says. “It’s been an awful lot of hard work for a lot of people and there have been situations where we have been under a lot of pressure. People have gritted their teeth in astoundingly bad weather, sub-zero temperatures, up against the clock with no complaints.”

Last year the paparazzi flew drones over the shoot in an attempt to gather footage of filming, and Belfast officials helped stop them. “It’s like shooting in Los Angeles or New York,” says Caulfield. “People don’t bother you because they realise we’re doing our job.”

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