While there was an overwhelming amount of challenges to face with Season 7 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, in production designer Deborah Riley’s mind, all roads lead back to Dragonstone as the crux of it all.
Daenerys Targaryen’s arrival at her ancestral home in the season opener was “a massive moment for the character and a huge opportunity for the art department”—and Riley fully felt the moment’s weight. “Dragonstone was the piece of the puzzle that I was most excited about. The outline described so many elements that were going to need to fit together, both locations and set builds. I also felt a great responsibility in helping to tell the story of the character through the presentation of the space,” Riley shares. “I knew from the start that it was going to take careful planning to make it work as a believable whole.”
Of course, having worked on Game of Thrones for four years at that point, a bombardment of Herculean challenges was nothing new for the production designer. In fact, it was something she embraced. In prepping Season 7, Riley was accustomed to taking on these challenges autonomously. “If there were any areas that we needed relief with, the producers would help us if they could. But mostly, we would bring in the people to make it happen and work until it was done,” she says. “It is that simple—and that difficult.”
Those eagerly anticipating the return of Game of Thrones after 12 months off the air can rest easy, in expectation of a spectacular eighth and final season, knowing that the series’ creatives are working harder than ever before. “The final season nearly killed me. I realized at a certain point that all of the work in previous seasons was just a warm-up for Season 8,” Riley reflects. “By the end, I had nothing left to give and finished knowing I had done everything I could. Season 8 does not pull any punches and is raw and honest and important. I can’t wait to see it.”
Game of Thrones is the first and only television series you’ve ever taken on. What made this show one you wanted to take on?
Game of Thrones was the first television series I worked on, although that was never seen as a problem. Game of Thrones is not strictly television, as it was known at the time, and not a feature film either; it was its own animal. The one thing it had in common with television was the crazy schedule, [but] everything else looked like film. The size of the screen it was to be seen on never entered our conversation.
I interviewed for the job at the start of production of Season 4. As the art department on Game of Thrones is all about world building, it appealed to me greatly, as it would any designer. I did exactly what they tell you you should never do in an interview: I begged. I knew in my DNA that I could do the job, not that I had any real proof, and I was lucky enough to be given the chance.
The series’ final two seasons have had shortened episode counts. Thinking about budget, I imagine this must have allowed for even more scope per episode.
That is correct. Everyone’s immediate assumption is less episodes equals less work, but that could not have been further from our experience. At the time, Season 7 was more ambitious than anything we had done before—now eclipsed by Season 8. We had so many massive builds that all seemed to be happening at the same time. As there were less characters, it meant that there were less alternatives to shoot on the schedule. This had bought us time in the past, as it gave the shooting crew more options. We had to work faster—there was no other way around it. We were building the Dragonstone Audience Chamber at the same time as we were building Euron’s ship, The Silence. For the size [of this] show, we were a relatively small team in Belfast and this stretched us beyond what we were expecting. The good thing is that we were all used to working with one another and beyond the basic set-up, it was the loyalty of the crew and our pride in the show that enabled the sets to be finished on time.
Can you give a sense of your process in prepping this season’s episodes?
The producers and I break down the outline that is supplied to us by David [Benioff] and Dan [Weiss], our writers and showrunners. We then go through what is assumed to be a set build, which means it will shoot in our stages in Belfast, and what is to be shot on location, historically in Croatia, Spain, Iceland or in Northern Ireland. A very early version of the shooting schedule appears. We scout for locations, we budget and we budget again. Early on I would start with our concept artists and gradually gain all of the necessary approvals to start building. For each and every set, major moment or prop piece, this process would be adhered to. When the directors arrive, we go through the process again and make changes where necessary. Nothing would ever appear on set that has not gone through the rigorous approval process. We were all very aware of keeping true to the look of the show and the vision of David and Dan, no matter how busy we were.
Over the course of your time on the series, how have you navigated the challenge of shooting across various countries, simultaneously or otherwise?
It all comes down to teamwork. We had a wonderful team of art directors, set dressers, construction, painters, and greensmen who would work abroad. They would do their prep in Belfast so we were all in the same space and then leave for pre-production of the foreign unit when required. What could be built in Belfast would be built in Belfast and then travel out to the various countries so that the standards and various approvals could be maintained. I would travel back and forth as often as possible. It was necessary as I was the only person in the art department with eyes over the whole show. The art directors only focus on their slice of the show and are not aware of the details established in other parts of the season and how these might cross over. It sounds exhausting and it was, but it was also incredibly inspiring and exciting because the locations chosen were always spectacular and seeing the whole show emerge was a great privilege.
Approaching an episode of Game of Thrones, where have you tended to look for visual inspiration? Did any outside inspirations come into Season 7?
I have always looked for inspiration in architecture. I am always interested in how spaces feel, as much as how they look. The power of the sets and locations to help tell the story is something that we always took very seriously and the homecoming of Daenerys Targaryen into her ancestral home of Dragonstone was something that Dan and David gave specific instructions about. With reference to the Dragonstone Audience Chamber, the power of totalitarian architecture as well as the device of forced perspective to help strengthen the focus to the throne, were statements they were very interested in making. I looked first to Louis Khan and his Salk Institute and later the Église Notre-Dame de Royan, for brutalist inspiration. When it came to Euron’s ship, The Silence, again we looked to historical references. This time we found Roman Naval warfare particularly inspirational.
You submitted season opener “Dragonstone” for Emmys consideration, an episode that is clearly important to you. Can you expand on what made that episode special?
“Dragonstone” is such a pivotal moment. For the art department, it is the episode in which the whole tapestry of sets of Dragonstone island and castle are seen for the first time. There is no talking in the last five minutes of the episode when she first lands on the island and makes her way into the castle, through the Audience Chamber to the Map Room. The sets and locations are so beautifully featured in those last five minutes that it was the clear choice of the episode to submit.
With other design-rich sequences like the Citadel montage, which included extending the Citadel Library and the Restricted Area, introducing the Privy, Mess Hall, Isolation Ward, Infirmary and Autopsy Chamber, the extension of Winterfell and Cersei’s massive Map of Westeros, 701 is a wonderful cross-section of the work of the Game of Thrones art department and all of us are very proud to be able to offer this episode for consideration.
Could you explain your approach to major battle scenes like those on display in “The Spoils of War”?
In massive battle sequences, the work of the art department—particularly set dressing—can be underestimated. Beyond the selection of the location and the massive scorpion that Bronn uses, “The Spoils of War” was all about set decoration and keeping the continuity throughout the sequence. The wagons, the horse tack, elements to be burnt, the devastation and the destruction all need to be followed throughout the sequence. The props people, the greensmen, on-set painters and set dressers all did a phenomenal job to make the battle and the aftermath as convincing as possible, all the while working closely with SFX and VFX to be sure we were all telling the same story.
What was involved when it came to Euron’s fleet of ships, which factored heavily into this past season?
The Silence was required to be so much bigger than the boat that we usually use in the show and, as scripted, was much bigger than we could afford to build. Similar to the war ships of the Romans, The Silence had to ram its opponent and a corvus would descend onto the deck of the opposing ship so that the Ironborn men could run aboard. We looked at various ships throughout history, from Japanese medieval warships through to those of the Roman navy. The Silence took shape with a massive kraken on the Naval Ram, an extrapolation of the Ironbornhouse sigil. Due to its very short build time, the ribs as well as the kraken sculpt were CNC cut and arrived in kit form and with the expertise, experience and patience of our local boat builder and head sculptor, it was hastily constructed.
Making the size of the sea battle convincing all came down to VFX, but the design of Euron’s ship, the integration with the ship that we already had in the car park and how the two would work together became a job that was closely supervised by the art department and Special Effects. As with any battle sequence, safety is the number one priority and special effects always take the lead and work with the stunts team. The art department makes sure that what we provide works for them and provide them with a safe environment. Elements to fall, break and burn are all identified to work with the action that is all highly choreographed. Following the shooting of this sequence, Euron’s ship then had to be craned into another position in the car park to allow the access around Yara’s boat to be reinstated.
“Beyond the Wall” features an astonishing sequence out on the ice, with Jon Snow and his men surrounded by White Walkers. How was that moment executed?
The Frozen Lake sequence of Episode 6 was to take place ‘Beyond the Wall’, with part of it to be shot on location in Iceland and the very specific fight sequence with a high amount of stunts and VFX to be shot back at base in Belfast. By literally concreting a quarry, we were able to create our own ‘Frozen Lake’ and keep most of the scene in camera by painting and snowing the surrounding cliffs. The central island was specifically designed to accommodate the scripted face-off between Jon Snow, his men and the undead wight army. It was built as any other set, with timber formers and a hard plaster finish. The set was incredibly exposed and we braved all of the elements during construction and the snow team worked for weeks and weeks to turn the cliffs of the Belfast quarry into a frozen landscape.
We worked with VFX on the Frozen Lake the way we would work on any other set. We built and finished the set to be nearly entirely in camera so that they could focus their work on the wight army and the dragon.