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5 Secrets of a Game of Thrones Weapons Artist

Tommy Dunne was working as a welder when a friend hired him to make weapons for Braveheart. Nearly two decades later, as weapons master for Game of Thrones, he designs the show’s blades and bows, guiding them from sketches into the actors’ hands. He and a team of four artisans create hundreds of weapons per season, equipping everyone from the soldiers of Westeros and the men of the Night's Watch to the Khaleesi’s Dothraki warriors and the Wildings beyond the Wall. We asked him to share the tricks of his trade.

1. INSPIRATION COMES FROM HISTORY

“I look at different periods and different eras—Egyptian, monolithic,” Dunne says. His crossbows, longbows, composite bows, and ballistas are all modeled on real weapons. "We handmade a catapult for the Unsullied this year, which is quite a large item, and quite powerful," he says. "It’s two tons of oak, nine foot length by ten foot height, with wheels. We have a couple of ballistas, which again are of historical reference." He uses the web for research, of course, but relies heavily on his own library to get the scales just right.

2. MATERIALS, MEANWHILE, ARE MODERN

"Normally, we make a hero weapon, which is a little more presentable camera-wise—steel blade, brass crossguard, wooden handle, brass pommel, all that," Dunne says. "Obviously, we don’t fight with steel." Since actors can’t fight with actual steel swords, Dunne uses aircraft aluminum, which is strong but flexible. He also uses bamboo for training blades and rubber for weapons for extras or if the scene involves animals or stunts. "If the actor did fall or had to jump down quickly, there would be no injuries," he says. "We wouldn’t fight too much with rubber, unless there were stunts." The shields tend to be plastic—except the Unsullieds’. They get aluminum. "It varies in what we need," Dunne says. "We try to keep the shields strong, durable, lightweight, but flexible to a certain degree. We have to make sure they’ll withstand smashing together, but also, if someone falls over onto a shield, that they’re malleable and [the actor] won’t take as much of a hit."

Arrows, meanwhile, are basically the real thing. "Our arrows have rubber tips, but 99 percent of them have wooden shafts and copper ramming as well," Dunne says. "An arrow has a residual strength, so once you let go of that string on the bow, it creates a bend in the arrow itself. If you have weak wood, it will shatter straightaway."

3. THERE’S NO SLACKING WHEN IT COMES TO WEAPONS

Every weapon, whether it’s for a major character or a minor one, is made with the same exacting level of detail. Why? Dunne says that if there’s a particular extra you want to keep out of the camera’s eye because you slacked on his weapon, it’s pretty much a guarantee he’ll end up front and center. "The spears, the shields—if a camera touches it in any way, shape, or form, we have to make sure it looks its best," he says.

4. WEAR AND TEAR IS AN ART

You can’t expect characters to ride into their sixth epic battle of the season with weapons that look shiny and new—so Dunne makes sure to appropriately age and weather the props. "There’s nothing that would look brand spanking new or straight off the shelf—there would be areas that would be naturally worn from having your hand on the pommel or crossguard and that natural wear from constant use," he says. He might use sandpaper, stains, or dyes to make sure a buckle or blade shows its age.

5. WEAPONS ARE CUSTOM-MADE FOR THE ACTORS

In addition to considering a character's costume and backstory, Dunne has to take the actors’ proportions into account when designing their weapons. “You don’t want to make something that’s too small or too big or too weak for the actor,” he says. “The actors, they love us; we’ve had no complaints. There’s a lot of 'My weapon is cooler than your weapon.' The Mountain’s got such a big sword, and you get people going, ‘Why didn’t you make me that? Why can’t I have that?’ You’re not the Mountain! He’s a huge guy. Absolutely massive. It's one of those things."

(YouTube link

(All images credit: HBO)

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The article above, written by Erin McCarthy, is reprinted with permission from the May 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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