Who gets to create all of the awesome sets on Game of Thrones? Since Season 4, production designer and art director Deborah Riley has been in charge of designing the show’s unique architectural look. “If you’re asking an audience to believe in dire wolves, dragons and giants,” Riley says in a recent interview, “you need the world to be as believable as possible.”
Riley brings a lot of big project experience to the table: as an Australian designer and architect, she has collaborated with Baz Luhrmann on films like Moulin Rouge, and also directed the opening ceremonies for the 2000 Sydney Summer Olympics. She says that her grand-scale experience helped her tackle the mountainous sets required for Game of Thrones:
I was 39 when I was first given the job, and probably wasn’t the most obvious choice. But working with Baz, as well as Alejandro González Iñárritu on 21 Grams, gave me experiences with visionary ways of approaching filmmaking. And working on the Olympics definitely teaches you to stay sane during the madness.
As in the real world, different cultures produce different-looking art and architecture, and Riley employs this idea to provide each region of Westeros and Essos with its own unique and identifiable look. This helps make the fantasy more believable, and Riley often takes advantage of existing architecture to help define each specific show location, which helps anchor both the filmmakers and the viewers as the storylines hop around the world.
Of course, the Thrones sets are often a fusion of existing structures and visual effects. For example, some shots of the Wall blend visual effects with a model constructed of polystyrene coated in hot wax, while Castle Black is a sprawling stage embedded in an Irish quarry. Riley was stunned when she first saw Castle Black: “When I saw that full-sized, 360-degree shooting set, I thought, ‘these people are crazy.'”
Riley discusses several examples of the real architectural masterpieces that inspired her while designing sets for the show. Season 6 appears to largely be returning to locations we’ve already seen, but she is going to be able to unveil new elements of Vaes Dothrak. The look of the Dothraki city will be influenced by the works of Canadian architect Arthur Charles Erickson:Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, by architect Arthur Erickson
“They sometimes make fun of me for bringing these modern references into a fantasy world, but I quite like it,” says Riley. Let’s check out a few more of her inspirations.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan Revival Period as the inspiration for Meereen Palace
“I think Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mayan Revival period was a huge influence on Meereen and Daenerys’s world. The great thing about his work during this particular time is that these buildings have a certain domesticity to them, but they also felt sort of monolithic and ancient at the same time. There’s a sense they could be inside a pyramid. You understand that people could actually live there.
That was key to us figuring out how to design Dany’s penthouse, for instance. How could it feel like it was inside a pyramid, but also a place someone would be comfortable living in? I’m here in Los Angeles, so I referenced the Hollyhock House and the Ennis House.”
Albert Speer’s Third Reich Architecture as inspiration for the Bank of Bravos
“[David Benioff and D.B. Weiss], the two showrunners, wanted something that conveyed the wealth and power of the bank. The question was how to bring the intimidation of Albert Speer’s architecture into the world of these bankers. I think it worked perfectly. The design also established a much different aesthetic from King’s Landing, and the very Mediterranean architecture that had been established in the show.”
“There was one long corridor Speer did, and the general takeaway lesson from his work was scale. It was just absolute scale, and a great sense of the psychology of space. That really fascinates me; it was an immediate manipulation right from the start. It was very well played, something that we tried to adopt. The great thing about these scenes in the Iron Bank is that you immediately understand who’s in control.”
Varanasi, India, as inspiration for the House of Black and White:
“For the exterior of the building, David and Dan described it as a building that would have one door and no windows, and be the home of the Many-Faced God and the Faceless Men. Arya has no idea what’s inside. So when she arrives, she would have no clue what was there, so the building has to be faceless as well. I was looking at Varanasi on the bank of the Ganges, and how those buildings rise out of the water.”
“For the Hall of Faces, I was looking at the Ellora Caves in Western India, how ancient the carvings were, how incredibly intricate the stonework was. There’s also a temple in Hong Kong called the Temple of 1,000 Buddhas, which has literally a thousand Buddhas. So if you lay those two things atop each other, you literally have the Hall of Faces.”Ellora Caves, India
“I wanted the faces to be a part of the building, not like a library. You can’t let logic get in the way of your brain sometimes. We started thinking about how they would get to all the faces and find them, but then that got into a layer of specificity that got in the way of the shot. We were layering ladders, and just went with it as is, which is a much stronger image.”
We’ll look forward to seeing Riley’s new designs in Season 6. If they’re anything like her previous work, our eyes will be in for a treat.