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Natalia Lee with the Heartsbane Sword. Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

An Interview with Natalia Lee, film armourist on Game of Thrones

6 June 2018 Suzanne Frost

Of course, the HBO series Game of Thrones has its fair share of kick-ass female heroines but still, London Calling was surprised to find out that the person getting all the soldiers in the realm ready for their fight scenes is a sporty Australian lady who, as far as we know, is the only female film armourist around. While we are all eagerly waiting for the show to return in 2019, Natalia can tide you over with her countless stories from the set and her passion and dedication to detail will certainly make you appreciate all those epic fight scenes even more.

London Calling: You have chosen a very unusual and interesting career. Tell us a little bit about your path, how you started out and how you got to where you are today!
Natalia Lee: Looking back, I realise I was always surrounded by all things weaponry.Growing up I would always be at shooting ranges with sporting shooters. Later in Security jobs I would go through certifications in Firearms, Baton & Handcuff training. I would complement that with self-defence and martial arts training that would include the use of swords, nunchakus, knives, stick fighting. I remember in my late teens doing some stunt training and my teacher was an old school American cowboy who introduced me to bullwhips (which would later become so valuable when I was asked to stunt double an actress using a kangaroo leather bullwhip). I worked in Security, Maritime Security and a Police Armoury as a civilian looking after law enforcement weapon and ammunition needs.  All these jobs gave me exposure to a wide variety of weapons and defensive armour and equipment. I began assisting Film Armourers on big productions and eventually became one myself. 

Natalia Lee in the Game of Thrones Armoury Workshop. Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

LC: What is your experience of being a woman in such a male dominated industry?
NL: Film Armoury is a specialist field and there’s not that many people doing it in general…and even far fewer females. I’ve personally never met one. It’s not an easy job, I really have to chip away at it every day. Realistically I’ve only just started my career.  Most men I work with are about 20 years my senior so you are always the youngest, learning as much as you can.  Back in the day, attitudes were discouraging and I had to constantly prove that a female could do the job, just as well if not better, than a male. I was super fit, attentive and a fast thinker but still had to build a tough persona. When you’re young, those attitudes and remarks can really affect your confidence. As you get older you start to believe in your abilities a lot more and ignore the white noise. It’s a lot easier now to get 400 rowdy toy soldiers on my side or laugh off those dumb comments.
 
Film Armoury is not an easy gig. You need a tactile nature whilst still being very assertive.  When you‘re in charge of thousands of weapons, safety has to be your top priority and the cast and crew need to trust and respect your instructions very quickly.  It takes time and a lot of experience.  As a woman, you have to come to the resolve that you will be the only female in the room and it will be isolating. You wouldn’t believe how many times I still get mistaken for the secretary or the other half! But I have to say that most men are very supportive and want to see females pursue amazing career opportunities like Film Armoury. To those dinosaurs that don’t - you‘re an extinct species and you should spend a day out with me on an Armoury boot camp, I will make sure you walk out with a healthy dose of respect for women in the workplace!

Sand Snakes Bracalet Dagger Design. (c) N.LEE. Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

LC: How do you train actors for fight choreography and how do you make it safe? And how would you help an actor who is really struggling?
NL: Each weapon and Film or TV project is different. Each actor has varying degrees of experience and complimentary skill sets. Generally you will familiarize the actor with the weapon, its moving parts and general safety.  Stunts may spend more time with the actor if stunt choreography and other actions are involved. Film Armourers are always on standby on the film set whenever weapons are being used, making sure the actor continues to execute the functions safely and correctly. There will be many safety versions of a weapon and many directions for cast and crew to follow. 
 
Some actor’s may have weeks of training while others may have just 5 minutes before a take. It all depends on the type of action required.  If the weapon is part of the main focus we will have made sure in advance that all the necessary training has taken place. My job is to watch every take and tweak every little movement that goes on camera and reset the weapon. The key is to remember the actor has so much to think of during a take and relies on all departments around them for guidance and feedback. Sometimes I will have Stunt Coordinators, Military and other Technical Advisors working with me to add authenticity and specialised training. From Bows to Swords to Catapults to Ballistas, every day is different.   
        
 Natalia Lee working on a Sand Snake Whip. Image courtesy of Anderson Group PR

LC: All the fans of Game of Thrones would of course love some of your stories from the set! Who is the most talented sword fighter on GoT?
NL: Where on earth would I start?  Two tonne catapults on the magnificent Croatian coast.  Sword fights on freezing Icelandic glaciers. Perhaps the Knight’s tournament on the most epic Mediterranean fortress wall. As for sword fighters, you can’t go past the phenomenal Jaime Lannister even with one less hand. Arya is out of this world, played by a very dedicated young actor. The world’s strongest man, Hafthor Bjornsson was incredible as The Mountain in the phenomenal fight against the Viper. The main cast have gone through years of training and were all very committed to their roles. The show has always had an epic feel to it, on and off camera. Cast and crew have put their heart and souls into the project and it’s really resonated with audiences around the globe. Then there was that time I played a little grizzly character myself.  Watch out for my cameo in the earlier seasons. I was a tribal leader called Chella who chops ears off and wears them around her neck. Or that time I was a stunt double wearing very risqué body armour for a ferocious Sand Snake ... so many stories!
 
LC: Apart from training the actors you also design props and weaponry. You must have a lot of knowledge of the history of armour. Can you tell us something about how you research and design weapons?
NL: With Film Armoury most things begin with the script. You then seek references and research that may come from a variety of sources: books, manuals, seeking out specific experts or going through museum artefacts. You may need to put together teams and specific workshops. You may need to design the weapon first, other times it’s about modifying existing ones. With film you’re almost definitely going to have stunts and action - that dictates the safety variants you will have to make.  There may be a variety of individuals and departments to liaise with: Directors, Producers, Visual Effects, Special Effects, Stunts and Actors to name a few. It’s a complex process.   

Heartsbane Sword Design (c) N.LEE. Images courtesy of Anderson Group PR

I always try to incorporate elements pertaining to the script. The Game of Thrones Heartsbane sword is a good example. I wanted to incorporate the House of Tarly sigil, the hunting archers, into the design. I positioned mirrored archers centrally in the crossguard maiming other house sigil animals. I drew inspiration from biblical renaissance paintings and classic hunting rifle engravings.  If you look closely, there’s Lannister Lions wounded with the archer’s arrows along with Targaryen Dragons, Baratheon Stags etc. There’s a large arrow running down the full length of the handle with the pommel flaring out for the feather fletching. This was 3D printed from my sketches to create a mould to then cast in bronze.  The crossguard utilized traditional sculpting methods. The handle and scabbard was made with burr elm wood showcasing rare grain patterns and unique cracks for an ancestral antique look. The sword took months to complete and was a collaborative effort with some very talented folk.
 
LC: What are you most proud of or what do you consider a highlight of your career so far?
NL: It would have to be the Game of Thrones Heartsbane sword. I wanted to prove to myself I could design a beautiful timeless and classic sword.  When Weapons Master Tommy Dunne and our whole Armoury team were enthusiastic about the design, I knew it was going to be a special piece.  I’m not sure I’m going to top that anytime soon.  It’s now a part of TV history.   
 
Game of Thrones Season 8 is currently shooting and will air in 2019.
 
 
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