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Game of Thrones unsheathed: Meet the woman behind the swords

With season 8 set to be "bigger and badder", we talk with Natalia Lee, the expert behind the bloody mayhem.

There are so many brutal, bloody murders in Game of Thrones, it's hard to pick a single person who's the most deadly. But one woman is behind a surprising amount of the mayhem on screen: armourer Natalia Lee.

"Someone's gonna die," Lee says of the upcoming season 8, with more characters set to reach a violent end, "and it's always gonna be our weapons that do it."

Along with weapons master Tommy Dunne and various designers, producers and performers, Lee is responsible for many of the HBO hit show's iconic weapons, such as the fan favourite Heartsbane sword.

Lee, who grew up with a background in sports shooting and had a career as a police armourer, can be seen on screen in Game of Thrones as the ear-chopping tribeswoman Chella. She's also recently handled more modern weaponry on Amazon's forthcoming show Jack Ryan, and she's developing her own weapons-themed factual show. I spoke to her by phone from her native Australia about being responsible for the deadly tools of Game of Thrones.

How do you start the design process?
I'll do my hand sketching and marker rendering because I just really want to work on paper, and then ideally work with it in the workshop drawing right there next to a blade, next to a crossguard, a hilt and pommel.

Imagining the weapons of Game of Thrones.

Natalia Lee

Do you work with concept artists?
It's easier to work in technical specs first rather than if we work from an art designer or an art concept. They might do a more comic book or fantasy design, and then you're trying to make that fit, whereas I work technically and say, 'OK we're going to insert a glass marble in here and then we can get exact measurements.' It's easier for me to source jewellery if I have to fly in an Austrian Swarovski Crystal, or I know they only make 5mm in a certain cut of crystal or diamond. 

How do you symbolise the character of the weapons? 
The Heartsbane is probably a pretty good example, the sword for the house of Tarly. I referenced hunting rifles and Biblical Renaissance paintings for that epic look. That was two weeks just in research and putting together sketches, research into things like hunted animals. I ran an arrow the full length from the pommel to the crossguard incorporating all those sigils and archers maiming animals. Putting all that detail in, I knew exactly our tolerances for the crossguard.

How do you make the weapons?
In the older days obviously there were lots of different procedures for bladesmithing and forging weapons. If we're doing a close-up, then we'll get a steel blade that's nicely pattern-welded. But that's only for close-ups -- we can't really use those because they could chop heads off. So we use a lot of modern technology. We'll do a lot of fancy machining: CNC [computer-numerical control] machining, laser-cutting, bronze casting.

Realistically, a lot of that stuff can now be cut out and we can go directly to 3D printing. That might not allow us to have the finish that we want, in bronze or in steel, but will do safety variants in rubber. And different stunt teams want different things. Chinese or Hong Kong stunt teams work with bamboo blades because they bounce off faster, or another team works with aluminium blades to get that clang.

What kind of different versions are made for each weapon?
We have to find safety variations for the film set, but still make it look realistic. Half the time you might be seeing really elaborate rubber-moulded weapons [on screen]. They're hand-painted with complicated chemical resin components to make it look like it's steel.

If we're doing a wood weapon, like a quarterstaff, we'll have an intricate painted pattern that looks like wood grain. When we did the Ice Sword, that was a huge chemical structure to make it look like icicle crystals. Sometimes we needed it to shatter, for other times we needed it very firm but not brittle, so we went through all these chemical concoctions with our model makers trying to get that clean, Perspex look to make it look like ice.

Where are the weapons made?
Everywhere. Take Heartsbane -- there's a lot of different component parts and we might outsource certain components. On Game of Thrones we have a young blacksmith for when we'll need him to do traditional blacksmithing or even to appear on screen hammering something out and quenching something.

Inside the Game of Thrones arsenal.

Natalia Lee

We have a massive military-style hangar. There'll be people in there fletching arrows, making bows, building siege weapons. We may bring in carpenters to help us make large catapults and trebuchets. We have a bowyer who's a specialty bow maker. We've got model makers that specialise just in safety components. It's like a museum archive now. We've accrued a lot of weapons of dead characters. 

Then we go out in the field and spend all day with the actors and directors on the film set in a muddy bog somewhere in Ireland or a desert in Morocco or glaciers in Iceland. We've got mobile workshops we set up for each unit that we're running on the film set. There's many days and nights I've spent on my truck having to fix things and repaint things and do all sorts of things out in the field. 

Do the weapons work?
Most of our stuff has to work. We might have some specific variants, it might be a lower poundage of bows or we may have pre-stressed bows. Arrows and spears, they may look real but we'll put rubber tips on there. When we've got 400 soldiers in the background we'll put a lot of safety versions in there. If we have a stuntman being hit by a war hammer 20 times for 20 takes, we might get a super-soft one.

What we call the "hero" or the principal, close-up version, will be under close guard so you can't even get a paper cut. We just lock them up in cases and then we have all the different variations. One character, if they're gonna fight a lot they could have 20 different variations. For extreme close-ups we have to just switch in and out, so that's when my job gets harder on the set, especially in action sequences. 

You have to constantly look at the monitor to see if it's believable. That's where great directors of photography come in. And maybe even CGI comes in sometimes, for a really specific scene, if we just could not physically make it work safely with the real thing. That may be the same with projectiles or with muzzle flashes from firearms. It might be too close to someone's body, and we just can't get a safe direction, we'll then incorporate CGI to get things done. There's a lot of work to re-create something for the screen and do it safely in the real world. 

Isn't it easier to just use CG effects? 
Viewers are pretty savvy, we can see what is CGI and what isn't, so we try to do most of it realistically. CG is more about replication. We couldn't physically make 50 or 20 of those siege weapons. Same with the soldiers: we may work with maximum maybe 400, but you're replicating them to look like 10,000 or 100,000.

Even the huge siege weapons work, like the trebuchets or the ballista-style Scorpion?
Yeah, it's a fully working ballista. It's like a giant crossbow. We have giant bolts and projectiles for it, and we do them in variations of rubber tips or we've got ones that break away. And we don't need the projectile to go as long -- we can use CGI, or we know how to cheat the shots. 

Action scenes often require multiple safety variants of each weapon, carefully designed to look like the real thing.

Helen Sloan/HBO

Sometimes it's fun operating a trebuchet. But in the end it's just the biggest pain in the backside -- it's too big and when you have to start coordinating traffic control throughout the cities and how to get it into fields and stuff you're like, yeah, that was a great idea theoretically, but practically you never want to see it again. Yeah, that's a beast. We're always arguing with production managers over the amount of trucks. Why does Nat and her army always need so many trucks? And I'm like, because this one holds a giant ballista! There's a lot of late-night phone calls from me to the production manager. I've gotten a few gray hairs before I should have. 

What's it like transporting all this deadly weaponry around the world?
You gotta go through customs, I have to package in military-grade containers. They're going by road, they're going through extreme temperatures, so you have to understand the chemical natures of the weapons. In Iceland it's subzero temperatures. You're going to have rust, you're going to have moisture. It's a lot of work drying and oiling and maintaining the leatherwork. When you get grit and dirt you have to clean things, and if you get a massive army, we've got fake blood, you're the one cleaning hundreds of swords. It's not much fun. Each material, aluminium, everything, may soak up fake blood or paint differently. It's just bloody hard work, all those weapons!

Sub zero working temperatures, Iceland.

A post shared by Natalia Lee (@natalialeearmoury) on

We had an army of 400 in Morocco and that's sets of spears, shields, everything. Plus we try and double that for breakages. For me it becomes quite a big process, the logistics of it. I've got to get this stuff all around the world and back. I say sometimes I'm an arms dealer.

How do you teach actors and extras to handle the weapons?
I get called in all the time for rehearsal. There's a lot of little tricks you pull them to one side and teach them how to walk and talk with it. I have one little lesson where it's like a handbrake -- when you're walking, you're sitting down or you're swinging past someone you pull your hilt in like a handbrake so you don't swipe everybody behind you with your scabbard.

Which actors are the best fighters?
There's some that are just phenomenal. They're used to fighting, being in action movies, like Nikolaj Coster-Waldau [who plays Jaime Lannister]. He's just so sporty. He's so competitive. He's amazing. Maisie Williams was quite young when we got her so she took to it really well.

Will there be more cool weapons in season 8?
There's always cool weapons and swords. I can't really say much. It's gonna be the biggest battle in TV history, I can definitely say that. It's just getting bigger and badder. 

Thanks to the Christine Cain and Hayden Ashby of the University of Nottingham Medieval Combat Society, and Marta Svetek of Independent Drama stage combat, for their help in preparing this article.

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