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7 Secrets of a Game of Thrones Weapons Artist

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Game of Thrones YouTube Channel

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—which begins its fourth season on Sunday—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

Helen Sloan/HBO

“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 We have a couple of ballistas, which again are of historical reference."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

Photo courtesy Tommy Dunne/HBO

"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

Photo courtesy Tommy Dunne/HBO

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

Helen Sloan/HBO

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

Helen Sloan/HBO

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."

6. JUST A FEW PEOPLE MAKE ALL OF THE SHOW'S WEAPONS

Tommy Dunne/HBO

On Game of Thrones, there are always two units shooting at once, and Dunne has to make sure that each unit is equipped with all of the weapons it could possibly need. All those weapons add up. "It’s a hundred for this, a hundred for that," Dunne says. "We have 50 for the Night's Watch, and 50 for the Boltons. There are 200 Unsullied; the most we’ve had is 350 to 400. There are spears and shields and daggers for all these guys. We get some big numbers."

Still, Dunne's staff isn't huge. "We have between four to six people, probably an average of four people, in the workshop at any time: myself, a model maker, a blacksmith, a coordinator," he says. "You get used to it—you work in there 12 or 14 hours a day. It’s really hard to train people, because it’s quite a skilled profession." Dunne and his team make clay models of the weapons, then send them to the foundry. The foundry will create a small part of the weapon, Dunne says, and it's when that part comes back that the work really begins. "For example, deburring, recessing and drilling, shaping to fit the sword blade, polishing and applying antiquing fluid, aging and relinishing," he says. "So the foundry only plays a small part in the process depending what that part is." On some of the designs, 90 percent of the weapon is handmade and doesn't go to the foundry at all.

Dunne is looking ahead, too, to methods that are more high-tech. "With 3D printing, we can do it in one shot and then send the print to the foundry," he says. "It’s something I want to look into a little more this year."

7. YOU HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO USE THE WEAPONS TO MAKE THEM

"If you have no knowledge about the weapon, you’re just making an item," Dunne says. "Everything is made in conjunction with knowing what the weapon does and how it should react and interact with other weaponry. It’s not just make something and then give it away and then suddenly you find that somebody has to fight with it." Dunne works closely with the fight coordinator to find out what's required of a weapon before he starts training an actor how to use it.

CHOOSE YOUR WEAPON

Game of Thrones Wiki

Dunne tells us specifically what went into making some of the show's signature weapons.

ICE SWORDS: "The wight’s weapon—when they’re walking or on horseback with the White Walkers—is a bit more intricate because it’s an ice sword, but you don’t see much of them, really. These are clear resin swords that are oven-baked—it’s clear glass that looks like a shard of ice. It’s quite intricate."

NEEDLE: "In the case of Arya’s sword, Needle, we wanted to make it look like what it sounded like, and give a little bit of elegance, remembering that it was more for a girl and a child at the same time—a small item which is quite delicate and quite finite."

FLAMING ARROWS: "A normal arrow might be 32 inches, but for flaming arrows [like we used in Season 2’s Battle of the Blackwater], we add another six to eight inches to a larger piece of wood. Then we put on a foam wad that is impregnated with a chemical mix and we burn it, so it’ll be blue, depending on the mix that the special effects team puts on them."


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15 Things You Might Not Know About Chewbacca
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images
ANTONIN THUILLIER, AFP/Getty Images

Even if you don't know the name Peter Mayhew, you surely know about Chewbacca—the seven-foot tall Wookiee he has played onscreen for over three decades. In honor of Mayhew’s birthday, here are 15 things you might not know about Han Solo's BFF.

1. HE WAS INSPIRED BY GEORGE LUCAS'S DOG.

The character of Chewbacca was inspired by George Lucas’s big, hairy Alaskan malamute, Indiana. According to Lucas, the dog would always sit in the passenger seat of his car like a copilot, and people would confuse the dog for an actual person. And in case you're wondering: yes, that same dog was also the inspiration behind the name of one of Lucas’s other creations, Indiana Jones.

2. HIS NAME IS OF RUSSIAN ORIGIN.

The name “Chewbacca” was derived from the Russian word Sobaka (собака), meaning “dog.” The term “Wookiee” came from voice actor Terry McGovern; when he was doing voiceover tracks for Lucas's directorial debut, THX 1138, McGovern randomly improvised the line, “I think I just ran over a Wookiee” during one of the sessions.

3. HE'S REALLY, REALLY OLD.

In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Chewbacca is 200 years old.

4. PETER MAYHEW'S HEIGHT HELPED HIM LAND THE ROLE.

Peter Mayhew
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Mayhew was chosen to play everyone’s favorite Wookiee primarily because of his tremendous height: He's 7 feet 3 inches tall.

5. HIS SUIT IS MADE FROM A MIX OF ANIMAL HAIRS, AND EVENTUALLY INCLUDED A COOLING SYSTEM.

For the original trilogy (and the infamous holiday special), the Chewbacca costume was made with a combination of real yak and rabbit hair knitted into a base of mohair. A slightly altered original Chewie costume was used in 1999's The Phantom Menace for the Wookiee senator character Yarua, and a new costume used during Episode III included a specially made water-cooling system so that Mayhew could wear the suit for long periods of time and not be overheated.

6. ONE OF STANLEY KUBRICK'S CLOSEST CREATORS DESIGNED THE COSTUME.

Chewbacca's costume
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To create the original costume for Chewbacca, Lucas hired legendary makeup supervisor Stuart Freeborn, who was recruited because of his work on the apes in the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Freeborn had also previously worked with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove to effectively disguise Peter Sellers in each of his three roles in that film.) Freeborn would go on to supervise the creation of Yoda in The Empire Strike Back and Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.

Lucas originally wanted Freeborn’s costume for Chewie to be a combination of a monkey, a dog, and a cat. According to Freeborn, the biggest problem during production with the costume was with Mayhew’s eyes. The actor’s body heat in the mask caused his face to detach from the costume's eyes and made them look separate from the mask.

7. FINDING CHEWBACCA'S VOICE WAS BEN BURTT'S FIRST ASSIGNMENT.

The first sound effect that director George Lucas hired now-legendary sound designer Ben Burtt for on Star Wars was Chewbacca’s voice (this was all the way back during the script stage). During the year of preliminary sound recording, Burtt principally used the vocalization of a black bear named Tarik from Happy Hollow Zoo in San Jose, California for Chewbacca. He would eventually synchronize those sounds with further walrus, lion, and badger vocalizations for the complete voice. The name of the language Chewbacca speaks came to be known in the Star Wars universe as “Shyriiwook.”

8. ROGER EBERT WAS NOT A FAN.

Roger Ebert was not a fan of the big guy. In his 1997 review of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back, Ebert basically called Chewbacca the worst character in the series. “This character was thrown into the first film as window dressing, was never thought through, and as a result has been saddled with one facial expression and one mournful yelp," the famed critic wrote. "Much more could have been done. How can you be a space pilot and not be able to communicate in any meaningful way? Does Han Solo really understand Chewie's monotonous noises? Do they have long chats sometimes? Never mind.”

9. HE WAS ORIGINALLY MUCH MORE SCANTILY CLAD.

In the summary for Lucas’s second draft (dated January 28, 1975, when the film was called “Adventures of the Starkiller, Episode I: The Star Wars”), Chewbacca is described as “an eight-foot tall, savage-looking creature resembling a huge gray bushbaby-monkey with fierce ‘baboon’-like fangs. His large yellow eyes dominate a fur-covered face … [and] over his matted, furry body he wears two chrome bandoliers, a flak jacket painted in a bizarre camouflage pattern, brown cloth shorts, and little else.”

10. HIS DESIGN WAS BASED ON RALPH MCQUARRIE'S CONCEPT ART.

Chewbacca’s character design was based on concept art drawn by Ralph McQuarrie. Lucas had originally given McQuarrie a photo of a lemur for inspiration, and McQuarrie proceeded to draw the character as a female—but Chewbacca was soon changed to a male. McQuarrie based his furry design on an illustration by artist John Schoenherr, which was commissioned for Game of Thrones scribe George R.R. Martin’s short story “And Seven Times Never Kill a Man.” Sharp-eyed Chewbacca fans will recognize that Schoenherr’s drawing even includes what resembles the Wookiee’s signature weapon, the Bowcaster.

11. HE WON A LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD.

Fans were angry for decades that Chewie didn’t receive a medal of valor like Luke and Han did at the end of A New Hope, so MTV gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1997 MTV Movie Awards. The medal was given to Mayhew—decked out in full costume—by Princess Leia herself, actress Carrie Fisher. His acceptance speech, made entirely in Wookiee grunts, lasted 16 seconds. When asked why Chewbacca didn’t receive a medal at the end of the first film, Lucas explained, “Medals really don’t mean much to Wookiees. They don’t really put too much credence in them. They have different kinds of ceremonies.”

12. HE HAS A FAMILY BACK HOME.

According to the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, Chewbacca had a wife named Mallatobuck, a son named Lumpawaroo (a.k.a. “Lumpy”), and a father named Attichitcuk (aka “Itchy”). In the special, Chewie and Han visit the Wookiee home planet of Kashyyyk to celebrate “Life Day,” a celebration of the Wookiee home planet’s diverse ecosystem. The special featured appearances and musical numbers by Jefferson Starship, Diahann Carroll, Art Carney, Harvey Korman, and Bea Arthur, and marked the first appearance of Boba Fett. Lucas hated the special so much that he limited its availability following its original airdate on November 17, 1978.

13. MAYHEW'S BIG FEET ARE WHAT KICKSTARTED HIS CAREER.

Mayhew’s path to playing Chewbacca began with a string of lucky breaks—and his big feet. A local London reporter was doing a story on people with big feet and happened to profile Mayhew. A movie producer saw the article and cast him—in an uncredited role—as Minoton the minotaur in the film Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. One of the makeup men on Sinbad was also working on the Wookiee costume with Stuart Freeborn for Star Wars and suggested to the producers that they screen test Mayhew. The rest is Wookiee history.

14. MAYHEW KEPT HIS DAY JOB WHILE SHOOTING STAR WARS.

Peter Mayhew
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During the shooting of Star Wars, Mayhew kept working his day job as a deputy head porter in a London hospital. Though he was let go because of his sudden varying shooting schedule at Elstree Studios, he was eventually hired back after production wrapped.

15. DARTH VADER COULD HAVE BEEN CHEWBACCA.

Darth Vader
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David Prowse, the 6’5” actor who ended up portraying Darth Vader—in costume only—originally turned down the role of Chewbacca.  When given the choice between portraying the two characters, Prowse said, “I turned down the role of Chewbacca at once. I know that people remember villains longer than heroes. At the time I didn’t know I’d be wearing a mask, and throughout production I thought Vader’s voice would be mine.”

Additional Sources: Star Wars DVD special features
The Making of Star Wars: The definitive Story Behind the Original Film, J.W. Rinzler

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
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When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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