WiC interviews Game of Thrones production designer Deborah Riley

Image: Game of Thrones/HBO
Image: Game of Thrones/HBO /

Deborah Riley joined the Game of Thrones team in 2013 and worked on the series until the end, nabbing four Primetime Emmys in the process. But what exactly did she do? Only designed some of the most iconic sets on television, of course! As a production designer, she was responsible for bringing to life the world George R.R Martin described in his Song of Ice and Fire books.

It wasn’t an easy task. Her job was to take Martin’s words, filter it through the vision of creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and bring something new into reality. Game of Thrones took us to a lot of spectacularly imaginative places, only realized thanks to professionals like Riley and the creative people on her team.

While at New York Comic-Con last weekend, Winter Is Coming caught up with Riley to hear all about her creative process. And don’t forget: some of her favorite set designs are chronicled in the upcoming book The Art of Game of Thrones.

First of all, Riley remembered what it was like to come on board the show as it was ramping up production on season 4:

"It was petrifying! I was pretty young to be doing the job as well and I didn’t have a whole lot of experience. But the wonderful thing was is that I really understood the material and I just thought it was in my DNA, I don’t really know how else to say it. I really begged them to give me a chance and I didn’t really want to let anybody down. It wasn’t until we built the Meereen audience chamber in season 4 that I started to calm down a bit–it was like, “Wait a minute, it’s going to be okay.” There was a moment after Castle Black where I was first being shown around and Castle Black is such a spectacular set. But it’s built on a really windy cliff in Belfast and it’s cold. It’s just the most beautiful 360-degree set and they have real timbers, a working lift, and I just felt the blood drain from my face. When we got back to the office, the location manager just grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “You’re going to be fine!”."

Crushing stress aside, doesn’t her job sound like a dream? I mean she was literally in the middle of it all and the one responsible for building the iconic places we’ve come to know so well.

Daenerys Grey Worm Barristan Selmy Missandei Meereen Throne room. HBO

Is there a set that Riley is most proud of?

"It’s funny because it was such mental aerobics all the time. It was like, “Okay, now we’re in Dorne, now we’re here, now we’re there”. We had to be fast, but Dragonstone is one that really stands out. We had that spectacular location and getting the chance to build that was just a really great thing. Meereen has a really special place in my heart because it was the first and in a lot of ways, it was the best."

Naturally, Riley’s job had a lot of moving parts. How does one even go about dreaming up a new set? “We did a ton of research!” she said. “We collaborated with creators D.B. Weiss and David Benioff and became email pals. We’d send illustrations and they’d have us try again until we had it. There was a whole process. In my book, The Art of Game of Thrones, you can read about the concept art that went into it, and what they would be looking at. We had to get the illustration just right before we could do anything.”

"At the start of every season, Dan and David would issue their outline. The producers and I would go and start scouting and start looking for possible locations. It was really great because you start talking about the shape of the scene and how it could be acted out. We’d go back to Dan and David with some basic concept art and ask them what they thought. Then we would sort of start working so by the time we’d go to Croatia or Spain or wherever there be would approved concept art and we would have done a lot of the building in Belfast and shipped it out there. And then I would fly back and forth!"

Given how large a production Game of Thrones was, I was under the assumption that Riley’s team would be fairly large in number. But that’s not entirely the case.

"It wasn’t as big as you’d think. There were five or six concept artists, and I think the art department including set decoration was around 30 people. At the very busy times, including construction, we may have been about 200, but that’s like maxing out, like when we were building King’s Landing. The great thing was that we’d come back year after year so we were all really great pals."

As a production designer, Riley has to figure out a lot of minute details about every scene, ranging from where characters will stand to where they will be looking. And sometimes, her work is so seamless that you may not even realize you’re looking at a set. In the season 7 episode “Beyond the Wall,” Jon Snow and his merry band of men ventured north of the Wall to capture a wight. You’ll recall they eventually ended up on a frozen lake — however, that wasn’t a lake at all!

"Yes, the one with the frozen lake which was actually a quarry — that was amazing. One of our producers, Chris Newman, was like, “Well, the Night King could stand here and Jon could come in from there,” and the next thing we knew we were concreting a quarry, but it was perfect."


Then there was Cleganebowl, the epic showdown between the Hound and the Mountain. A lot went into making that scene look the way it did, and working on a confined set of stairs wasn’t exactly a picnic.

"It was interesting in that sequence because so much had to happen. Miguel Sapochnick, the director, didn’t have a lot of time to shoot it. So we had to make sure that various parts of the action would take place on the stairs. So Miguel was very exact about where each piece was going to fly out, what stage of destruction it would be at, etc…He had these two guys who were fighting really physical action and his team of stunt guys was working on those steps all day. The Mountain was wearing these big prosthetics and it’s a lot to ask of the actors so we had to make sure the stairs were as actor-friendly as possible. The stairs ended up being 70 feet tall, it was enormous and just unbelievable."

Indeed, Riley was involved with so many cool scenes that she didn’t even get to stick around to watch all of them come to fruition.

"Sometimes I wouldn’t get to see the things I worked on come to fruition, like back in season 6 when the Temple of the Dosh Kaleen was burning. I didn’t have time to stay and watch it burn because they were shooting it in the middle of the night. I had been there in the middle of the afternoon and left the set dressed and ready to go. And I thought about how I don’t get the enjoyment of seeing this burn to the ground. We planned it so meticulously, but at least my inbox the following morning was full of photographs!"

What a scene that was was too! Anyone else get goosebumps thinking about it?

As we neared the end of our interview, I asked Riley if she’d be working on the Game of Thrones prequel. Given how epic her work was on the original series, wouldn’t it be cool to have her return for more? Unfortunately, it’s not to be.

"No, I’m not involved in it! For me, it was like we told this story and it’s time to move on. I do miss it terribly though! I ran into the production designer for the prequel at the Emmys, and I asked him if he was enjoying it because I just miss it so much."

Oh, and just like official still photographer Helen Sloan, Deborah Riley is a fan of Winter Is Coming! “Oh, yes, of course, we love that website!” she said when I mentioned I was from here. It’s safe to say I was overwhelmed and humbled!


Chicago White Sox Southpaw Game Of Thrones Mascot On Fire Dragon Bobblehead
Chicago White Sox Southpaw Game Of Thrones Mascot On Fire Dragon Bobblehead /

Chicago White Sox Southpaw Game Of Thrones Mascot On Fire Dragon Bobblehead

Buy Now!

Buy Now!

You can pre-order The Art of Game of Thrones by Insight Editions here. It officially releases on November 5!

Game of Thrones photographer Helen Sloan tells us how she got those amazing shots. dark. Next

To stay up to date on everything fantasy, science fiction, and WiC, follow our all-encompassing Facebook page and sign up for our exclusive newsletter.

Watch Game of Thrones for FREE with a no-risk, 7-day free trial of Amazon Channels