Production designer Deborah Riley has been with Game of Thrones since season 4, and has dreamed up some of the show’s most striking sets. Speaking in Belfast at a Royal Television Society event called Creating the visual world of Game of Thrones, Riley says she was “absolutely terrified” when she showed up for her first day on set.
Riley spent her first day at Magheramorne Quarry, at the Castle Black set. “All the timbers are real,” she said. “The forge is a working forge. I thought: ‘These people are mad.’” Four seasons later, Riley’s art department is working on the eighth and final season of the show, and she knows how important it is to make the audience feel the locations are real.
The universe of Game of Thrones includes many different kingdoms. It’s the job of the art department to make sure that those kingdoms are separate and different from one another. When that works, the audience accepts these different worlds as being real. In my head, Westeros is about as real as anywhere else.
On a show with sprawling sets, CGI dragons, larger-than-life characters, and three production units, Riley also realizes the importance of keeping everyone on her team happy and loyal. “We’d never have been able to get through the volume of work without all of us returning, year after year.”
We move very, very quickly, which can be frustrating. But the great advantage of that is we can’t muck around. Decisions have to be made, we commit to an idea and get on with it.
Riley briefly studied architecture at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and while she didn’t end up becoming an architect, the attention to detail learned on that track helped her as a production designer, as did her knowledge and passion for buildings. For example, when designing the Iron Bank of Braavos, she looked at the designs of Nazi architect Albert Speer did for Adolf Hitler. “They are all about power, intimidation and wealth.”
Meanwhile, Riley pulled inspiration for Daenerys’ audience chamber in Meereen from legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “I was always very proud of the amount of color, pattern, and texture that we managed to put into that space,” she said. And for the House of Black and White, she looked at the religious buildings along the banks of the Ganges River in India. “I love the way the stone steps rise up out of the water.”
Riley and her art department begin work on each new season when they receive an outline from showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss, which she says are “an absolute joy to read.” From there, she collaborates with the producers of the show to decide which scenes will be filmed on location, and which scenes will be filmed at Titanic Studios in Belfast.
Game of Thrones films in many different parts of the world, which is bound to present unique challenges for a production designer. For example, the Massacre at Hardhome in season 5 was almost filmed in Iceland, but logistics eventually demanded it be moved to Magheramorne Quarry. In season 4, the battle between the Mountain and the Viper was filmed in an abandoned hotel in Dubrovnik, Croatia. It required a lot of sprucing up. “It was completely covered in graffiti, but, for us, the most important thing was that the bones of the amphitheater were there. After weeks of plaster, paint, and rings it was completely transformed.”
And in season 6, Riley’s team was tasked with creating the huge wall of bodies used to trap Jon Snow’s army in the Battle of the Bastards.
To achieve the body piles, we had to bulk it out with rostrum to make it as efficiently as possible. We also had to provide all the uniforms and saddlery for the battlefield, a massive and thankless task. But it was satisfying to think that we were able to capture images like this in camera, and that visual effects weren’t required.
With filming on season 8 wrapping up, Riley’s production design journey with the show is almost at an end. “The experience of Game of Thrones, particularly in the lead-up to the end, leaves me absolutely speechless,” she said. “Creatively, it’s been full of the highest highs and the greatest riches that you can possibly imagine. It’s also kicked me to the ground a couple of times, as well.”
Six episodes left; we’re looking forward to seeing what Riley breaks out for the grand finale.