Some moments stick with you. Perhaps the moment is a memory, good or anxiety-inducing. Maybe it’s a particular conversation. Or it could be a scene from a story, one so impactful and so wondrous you feel it viscerally. You never forget it, not after reading thousands of pages, not after years pass. Then an adaptation of the book series brings that scene to the screen more beautifully than you could have hoped. And it builds on the scene in a way that further sears the moment into your heart. That’s what happened in The Wheel of Time season two finale when Mat sounded the Horn of Valere. Time slowed. Music softened, then swelled as the horn rang out across Falme. Fog unfurled with pops of color, and then cleared to reveal the Heroes of the Horn.
The Heroes of the Horn. And Mat Cauthon, who has been so unsure about himself and his place, is one of them. He realizes who he is, who he has been all along. Mat, beautifully performed by Dónal Finn, swings his quarterstaff and dagger—his ashandarei—with confidence and knows he is one of them. He is a hero.
The Wheel of Time showrunner Rafe Judkins, who co-wrote the season two finale with Timothy Earle, tells Nerdist, “I still tear up. I’ve literally seen it 100 times, and I still tear up because it was one of those things that we talked about very early in the writer’s room. Writers who didn’t know the books were like, ‘We can’t do that. You can’t really pull it off. It’ll feel silly.’”
They’re not wrong. On paper, the scene sings. Mat sounds this artifact from legend and changes the tide of the battle. An army of dead heroes bound to the Pattern and to the Horn charge into battle. It has every reason not to work on the screen. But Judkins says they were committed to showing the Heroes of the Horn and doing it right. “Everyone worked so hard. Even those writers, too. Everyone really got on board with this idea of, ‘We’re going to figure out how to pull off this moment and make it emotional and make it work,’” Judkins says.
Judkins explains everyone from the VFX team to director of photography Maja Zamojda leaned into what the moment is from the books. That means smoke and mist and heroes from different ages of The Wheel of Time. VFX supervisor Andy Scrase recalls, “Rafe, at the time, was making a point to me about how this would be a big moment for the fans seeing this happen, ‘It’ll mean an awful lot to them.’”
Judkins says everyone started with the scene as written in The Great Hunt. Then they built on it. He says, “We spent unlimited time, really, trying to build to that moment correctly and get every single team building towards it. It took a lot to pull that off. It’s probably the most expensive shot in season two in terms of the costumes and the hair and makeup and the VFX, and all of it.”
The Sounding of the Horn of Valere
The Horn of Valere shines brightly against Falme’s blue skies. It’s plastic (though they considered white glass), prop master Lukas Katakalidis says, but electroplated with real gold. Katakalidis recalls, “We started with different concepts of, you could say, more traditional horns. It was quite a long process and we tried different shapes and sizes. But then, at some point when we showed Rafe—I think he had the idea that this item would come from the Age of Legends era, so we didn’t need to stick to a traditional shape and could come up with something new. We made a new shape that could fit the request.”
The Great Hunt describes the sound of the Horn as “a clear note, golden as the Horn was golden.” The very sound of Horn resonates through the ground and sky. Supervising sound editor Matthew Skelding knew it had to sound beautiful and unlike anything else in the series. “We had to design something completely from scratch, but then we threw out all those ideas and went with the music to see what that was doing,” Skelding says. “Then we worked around Lorne [Balfe]’s score to create something completely new that weaved in and out of the music so that it could tell the story but then disappear. Just sound unique really, and different to anything we’ve done before.”
The sound team combined several elements for the Horn of Valere. They bought a few things off eBay, they used bells. But above all, they wanted to work with Lorne’s music to make sure the horn sounded elegant. But they had to give the Horn of Valere its moment. Skelding says, “We shaped the world around that sound and created the space for it to take over. Doug [Cooper], the mixer, did a great job of shaping that and allowing it to be that big, massive thing and giving that sound some weight.”
The Heroes of the Horn Appear
“The heroes revealing themselves from this mystical fog that forms behind that—I think that was our most expensive shot actually [in season two],” Scrase says. “Just because of the time that goes into it and the type of work requires, there’s a lot of effect simulations, which in the VFX world, it’s a very time-consuming and expensive process. That was one of those moments where you wanted to pour a lot of time and effort into it.”
The Horn of Valere summons at least a dozen of the Heroes from ages past. Artur Hawkwing, Amaresu, and Birgitte Silverbow are easy to spot. They show up in The Great Hunt, as do Rogosh Eagle-eye, Gaidal Cain, Mikel, Paedrig, and Otarin, among others. The heroes appeared through the fog—Scrase notes they took care to make the fog distinct from the mist that obscured the Whitecloaks’ arrival to Falme. It needed to be an eye-catching moment, so Scrase says they went for an idea of explosions of colors in the smoke itself as the heroes formed. The colors are based on the main colors in each hero’s costume. He says, “There was lots of different inspiration I saw for that. Different things were fireworks going off in thick smoke, and the Holi Festival, and exploding paints and things. I looked at loads of different references for that.”
The Heroes Enter the Battle
That exploration led to the look of the heroes as they jumped into battle, holding back the Seanchan across Falme. It wouldn’t make sense for them to move like the other characters, so Scrase turned to his usual sources of inspiration in arts and science and other film and television to depict the heroes in action. He landed on a photography technique to help give the Heroes of the Horn different movement.
“I found some really cool looking things for the heroes early on, which was long exposure photography. I’d used it for inspiration on one or two other areas in the show,” Scrase explains. “But I think for the Heroes of the Horn, it gave a very dramatic look. The look for our heroes came about from all that, and it was executed really well from the Framestore, the VFX vendor working with me on this. What helps is it almost conveys this visualization of movement and drama when the heroes are fighting.”
Amaresu in particular sticks in Scrase’s mind. “With her, I think that’s a really good example because of her colors and her costume by Sharon Gilham. Combining the costumes with the environment, with our effect got this really dramatic look that I was quite happy with in the end. We had the idea that when the heroes first appear, they didn’t feel quite normal. When they’re moving into action, when they’re fighting, when they’re running, you see this hero’s effect on them that makes them stand out.”
The heroes each have a unique look and they have different sounds, too. Skelding says they used the sound to keep the audience focused through the many battle sequences in the last episode. That was especially the case around each of the Heroes of the Horn. “We tried to design sounds for each of them, to be able to pick out each person individually with bigger impacts on the huge hits. It was about picking up Mat onto his journey throughout that entire charge as well. The design is very much based around each of the different fighting styles of each of the heroes and trying to tell each of their own stories throughout the battle.”
Mat Cauthon As a Hero of the Horn
Mat recognizes the heroes immediately. He remembers himself. Artur Hawking tells Mat, “I have fought by your side times beyond number.” Bringing that revelation to Mat was an important part of the scene, Judkins says. “[We wanted to] make it have an emotional impact for Mat who… We needed a way to clearly communicate to the audience that one of his core character traits is that he doesn’t believe he’s a hero, but he is one. That’s a big part of what we wanted his story to hit hard to the audience who isn’t familiar with the books by the end of the season. This is a guy who is a hero, even if he doesn’t believe it.”
By making Mat one of the Heroes of the Horn, The Wheel of Time TV series brings together different pieces of Mat’s history. “There’s a couple of different things that happened for Mat in the books in terms of his ability to speak Old Tongue, the memories in his mind, the holes in his memories, the skills he has with the staff,” Judkins explains.
He continues, “There’s all of these various disparate traits that he has. Sometimes in the show, we’ll try to—Dave Hill from Game of Thrones always calls it fantasy duplication, where sometimes there’s multiple reasons that things happen and that one thing to look for in adaptation is how to bring it to one thing. Mat’s most iconic thing is blowing the Horn of Valere. We tried to tie some of these things to this moment of blowing the Horn of Valere. I think it actually tracks really cleanly and makes a lot of sense.”
And of course, Mat wasn’t the only familiar face among the Heroes of the Horn. Uno Nomesta, who the High Lady Suroth had executed earlier in the season in an extreme departure from the books, is among the heroes. Judkins says, “We did have that plan [for Uno] because we’re combining… This is a little bit of an Easter egg spoiler. Some hardcore fans will notice. But we signal very clearly another character in the books that we’ve combined Uno with. Two swords.”