How Game of Thrones cinematographer Fabian Wagner learnt his trade in Leeds

Before playing a key role in the biggest TV show in the world Game of Thrones, cinematographer Fabian Wagner learnt his trade in Leeds. Chris Burn speaks to him.

Fabian Wagner (right) with actor Kristofer Hivju, who played Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones.
Fabian Wagner (right) with actor Kristofer Hivju, who played Tormund Giantsbane in Game of Thrones.

He’s been nominated for Emmys, works with world-famous famous actors and took being the cinematographer for some of Game of Thrones’ most important, ambitious and controversial final episodes in his stride - it is fair to say Fabian Wagner has come a long way since he was learning his trade while living in a student house in Leeds.

Now 41, Wagner came to Yorkshire when he was 22 from his home city of Munich in Germany after a year at the European Film College in Denmark to study at the Northern Film School inspired by his love of English television and actors and came to fall in love with Leeds and the North of England - despite a rather rocky start after moving into student accommodation around the Hyde Park area of the city.

These are the Yorkshire actors who have appeared in Game of Thrones“When I first came to Leeds I was pretty shocked,” he says. “Leeds was very different back in 2001, it had some quite rough areas. I had been there two months and had my car set on fire. That was my experience of Leeds!”

Fabian filming during the Battle of the Bastards episode.

His property was also burgled twice. “One of the burglaries happened when I was in the house, they threw a brick through the window while I was in another room.”

But despite the initial challenges, he grew to love the city as he did a two year’s masters degree in Film and Moving Production and built his skills as a cinematographer - a job that involves working closely with a director to create the shots that bring a story to life.

I played a White Walker in Game of Thrones“I had three-to-four amazing people on my course and made really good friends. Leeds became my favourite place to be. Yorkshire people are very friendly, I just loved how you get on a bus and people say ‘Good morning’ and ‘Thanks’ when they get off. I also spent a lot of time in the Yorkshire Dales and I just loved the north of England.”

After graduating and deciding to stay in Leeds, Wagner initially worked on corporate and commercial films with local companies Provision and Mezzo. “It was not what I ultimately wanted to do but it was great. I was operating a camera every day and I was shooting as much as possible in my spare time. And a lot of people were helping me and supporting me, like all the guys and girls down at Provision and Howard Dawson at the Film Lab. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of all of them.”

Wagner had worked on shows like Sherlock before starting on Game of Thrones in 2014.

How the real Game of Thrones played out at Hadrian's WallHe stayed in Leeds for almost a decade, working for shows such as A Touch of Frost as part of the ‘second unit’ responsible for shooting additional footage the main film crew did not have time for.

Wagner’s big break came in 2008 when the BBC was shooting a spin-off of spy show Spooks aimed at a younger audience and called Spooks: Code 9 in Leeds and Bradford and he persuaded the producers to give him the job as director of photography for the six-episode run.

While the show itself was not a hit, it led onto extra work for Fabian on other shows like Ashes to Ashes, Hustle, DCI Banks and Spooks itself.

In 2012, Wagner worked on the second series of the BBC’s smash-hit Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, which became famous for its innovative ways of showing Sherlock’s deductions on screen.

Wagner was director of photography for eight Game of Thrones episodes.

His work on his first of three episodes, A Scandal in Belgravia, earned him his first Emmy nomination. Wagner says he always finds it difficult to tell if a programme he is working on will be a success.

Sherlock was a lot of fun to work on and there was something different about it. But I never approach work thinking something is going to be a success - it never turns out the way you think. I’m my harshest critic. For me to say, ‘This is good’, happens very rarely. I’m very lucky to be working as much as I do. It is a very tough industry - you have to give everything but you have to have luck.”

It was his work on Sherlock that caught the attention of Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss who asked him in 2014 to work on the epic fantasy show based on George RR Martin’s books.

After binge-watching the programme which has dozens of major characters and multiple storylines and shooting locations as he had never previously seen it, Wagner says it took time to adjust to what he had taken on when he arrived on set.

Wagner sitting on the show's famous Iron Throne.

“The scale of the show was much bigger, incredible compared to other stuff. But scale has never bothered me - it is all the same principle and I try to approach everything the same way. But I do remember walking into the throne room for the first time, I had never seen a set so big and thought ‘I don’t have a clue how to light it’. But in the end it is the same principle whether big or small - you do the things that you love doing.”

Wagner ended up being director of photography for eight episodes of Game of Thrones - taking the helm for many of its most dramatic shows. He received a second Emmy nomination for his work on the Hardhome episode, which was hailed as one of the best in show’s history after ending with an extended battle sequence involving an army of the dead.

Six of the eight episodes Wagner ended up working on were directed by Miguel Sapochnik and the pair won much acclaim for the way in which they staged ferocious battle scenes while retaining a focus on characters’ individual stories in the Battle of the Bastards episode and their handling of The Winds of Winter where Cersei Lannister moves to destroy her enemies in a shocking way.

He says having a good working relationship with directors is a vital part of his job.

“The relationship is very important. Mig and I have become friends but we have always been on the same wavelength. Such a relationship is amazing to have. But each one is different and interesting so there is always a lot to learn.”

But there was something of a backlash to the show’s final series, which concluded earlier this year, and saw Wagner and Sapochnik work on two key episodes - The Long Night featuring a climatic battle against a huge army of the dead and The Bells, involving Daenerys Targaryen launching an attack on the city of King’s Landing.

Filming for Game of Thrones took place in several different countries, often in extreme weather conditions.

There had been great hype around the final series and particularly The Long Night as details gradually emerged about the scale of the episode as the longest battle scene in film and television history.

Wagner says: “It was a huge challenge, 55 consecutive nights in Belfast from January to April. It was freezing cold, with wind and rain and snow. But I can’t say it was tough for me because I love my job.”

But when the episode aired, many viewers complained they had been unable to see what was happening properly on screen. Wagner says he strongly feels the criticism was unjustified.

“I’m always very happy and very grateful to receive criticism. It is something I have always done. If I make a mistake, I absolutely accept it. But that episode wasn’t too dark from a technical point of view, it was creatively dark. Some people wanted to see everything but we were deliberately leaving some things to the imagination. I totally stand by what we have done - I watched it back on numerous devices.”

While The Bells was hailed as technically stunning, it received criticism from many quarters for its storyline, as did the wider plot for the final series with many fans unhappy with what they perceived to be unlikely character decisions, loose ends and rushed plot developments.

Wagner says he understands the mixed reception but does not agree with it, defending show creators Benioff and Weiss. “I understand that some people are disappointed but I am perfectly happy with the way it went. I think David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss] are geniuses, they have created one of the biggest shows in the world and to maintain that over eight years was an incredible feat.

"There are certain storylines I didn’t enjoy as much but I am not the one writing it. If I was able to write something of similar success, I would feel entitled to criticise them. With a show with so much expectation around it, the higher you are, the lower you can fall - it was almost predictable.”

Now living near London with his wife, Fabian is currently focusing on family life after recently becoming a father to a baby girl. But he hopes his career one day take him back to where it all began - Yorkshire. “I really love Leeds and really want to come back and shoot something up there.”

Sadness at end of show

Wagner says it was hard to say goodbye to working on Game of Thrones.

“I did feel the pressure of having been part of that family and show for five years and knowing we are not going to come back after this season. That was quite sad. It was very emotional, we have all become friends, the crew and actors. We spent a lot of time together and have seen a lot of the actors grow up. A lot of us are still in touch.”

Many of the actors on the show had connections to Yorkshire, such as Lena Headey who played Cersei Lannister and grew up near Huddersfield. Wagner says he would often talk to those people on the show from this region about his own connections with Yorkshire. “We always talked about the North.”

Wagner says he hopes to return to Yorkshire in the future.