Game of Thrones production designer walks us through the destruction of King’s Landing


One of the most vividly terrifying moments from any season of Game of Thrones came when Daenerys Targaryen, astride Drogon, embraced the Mad Queen within and burned King’s Landing to ashes in the penultimate episode of the series, ”The Bells.”

Production designer Deborah Riley is the person responsible for creating authentic sets for the show. She spoke to Indie Wire about her Emmy nomination for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program for her work in “The Bells,” as well as the challenges of creating — and then destroying — a practical set the size of a city.

“Having set King’s Landing on location in Dubrovnik in previous years, to build it accurately was very important, but the responsibility of portraying the horror of the aftermath of war was something that we took very seriously and wore very heavily,” Riley said. “More than any other set we had created, the role that it played in the storytelling was more significant than ever. Every step of the destruction of King’s Landing was so meticulously planned that to see it in its destroyed state was compelling and emotional. It was a shame to not have enjoyed the pristine state of the build for longer, but the true value of the set was in its final phase. The story had been told and it was a powerful goodbye.”

Deciding how to bring about that destruction meant Riley and her team would have to identify which parts of the city “were required” in the script and how the art department could best recreate them. “We needed a City Gate, which would later be blown up, the Main Street, which went through various stages of destruction, a City Plaza, which was also to be destroyed, the streets of Fleabottom, the Entrance to the Red Keep, two other city streets, as well as various interiors.”

CULVER CITY, CA – JANUARY 26: Honoree Deborah Riley attends the 2019 G’Day USA Gala at 3LABS on January 26, 2019 in Culver City, California. (Photo by John Sciulli/Getty Images for G’Day USA )

From research to shooting , the process of creating Daenerys’ path of destruction took about 12 months in all. Riley had to photograph the particular buildings of note around Dubrovnik then choose which ones her crew would replicate. This was all done “according to what action would be taking place in front of them, and how this worked with the overall rhythm of the city.”

"We designed the set over four months, checking our work in Virtual Reality as we went, built it over five months through a Northern Irish winter, and were on and off the set for the next few months, right up until the last day of shoot."

When it came time to re-create Dubvrovnik in Belfast as part of King’s Landing, Riley’s 200-person team built nine interiors and 33 separate buildings between 30 and 37 feet tall, including roof structures. “With the materials all locally sourced, the set had a massive steel framework, plywood cladding with a plaster or foam finish,” Riley said. “Every ‘stone’ block was individually scenically painted to give the set the realistic patina of the city, constantly referencing images of Dubrovnik. When it came to the destruction of the set, we followed the same process and referenced images of the London after the Blitz, recreating the horror as faithfully as we could. With aerial shots taken of the set build, the city was then extended by visual effects into the overall view of King’s Landing.”

After all that, special effects took the destruction to the next level. Riley used the same previs studio technique Jon Favreau used on Disney’s live-action remake of The Lion King. “By being able to hold the real-world build and the digital build in the frame at the same time was a revelation so early in the pre-production process,” she said.

"It also allowed our producers to have a far greater understanding of what was being built as they could ‘stand’ in the set prior to any money being spent or a hammer hitting a nail. It gave our cinematographers the freedom to be in the space and create their own shots and animatics in the virtual set using their selected lenses. Then, once all approved, the virtual build could be passed down the pipeline to visual effects, thereby smoothing their previs process and any digital design already completed by the art department. It is truly a remarkable leap forward in the world cinematic design."

There were practicalities involved, too. The team saved a lot of time by using this trick:

"The biggest cheat we had in the entire show was invented courtesy of our construction manager, Tom Martin. Because we had so little time to change over between our pristine set to the firestorm, to the destructed set, we built the destroyed set first. This destroyed set was then clad to be perfectly finished, so King’s Landing stood beautifully built with the destruction behind it, waiting to be revealed. It was an absolutely genius solution to our lack of time. Our biggest revamp took 12 days to execute and was planned with military precision."

Deborah Riley will have many fond memories from her time as production designer on Game of Thrones. She marked her last day in a very unique way. “On my last day, I buried my boots on the set as my final goodbye not only to the set, but to the show. I like to think that a piece of me is still there.”

Next. Go behind the scenes of Netflix’s Avatar: The Last Airbender remake. dark

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