Game of Thrones production designer names her favorite sets

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 )
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 ) /

Game of Thrones production designer Deborah Riley joined the show in season 4. A while back, she talked to Backstage about her Emmy-winning work.

“I work very closely with the producers, directors, cinematographers, construction manager, all of those people,” Riley said. “[I] have a great team of art directors, props makers, painters, and plasterers,” she said.

"We all work together to make a cohesive environment for the show to be set in and that means that we would either be working on location or building a set on stage, which in the case of “Game of Thrones” was based in Northern Ireland. The locations were also in all different countries, so we were either in Iceland, Croatia, Spain, or Northern Ireland itself. It’s a fantastic job. It means you’re head of the art department, helping make beautiful images to set the story in."

Riley explained her process, which always started with an episode outline approved by showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss. From that point, she and her team would begin scouting locations or building sets. When that’s finished, individual directors would come in and develop thoughts about how they wanted to film each scene.

Joffrey and Margaery Tyrell’s wedding. The Art of Game of Thrones. HBO and Insight Editions

“You get the directors who come and visit it as its being built, and so by the time we get to the first day of shoot or rehearsals, everybody knows what it is,” Riley said. “They’ve all seen it before. It’s been camera tested and we’re all ready to go. It’s a long process. Sometimes on Game of Thrones it was really fast, depending on the size of the set, and sometimes it was quite slow and took a long time to develop.”

"Crucially, there’s one stage of the process with the concept designers. Those concept artists create images that are signed off and that’s really what we’re trying to achieve is the physical manifestation of those illustrations and that’s what that “Game of Thrones” art book is really. It’s just a beautiful collection of all the concept art."

Unfortunately, as the lead designer, Riley never had the time to stay and watch the actors’ shoot on her sets. “Not only do you have to create more, but you’ve got less time to do it. So that’s the biggest difference. In terms of finishes and the quality of it, that all had to be the same. It was quite a learning curve for me. I just had to work really fast. Communication is the key, too.”

Riley recalled her “audition” for the role she expertly filled after Gemma Jackson left the show in season 3. “When I was auditioning and interviewing for the job, it was very clear they were introducing a new conductor,” she said. “They weren’t changing the whole orchestra. So the main thing I had to do was work with the people who already were in Belfast and had done three years of the show. I was so lucky to inherit such a talented group of people and over the next five years, I became incredibly close to them. It couldn’t have been better.”

If you’re interested in getting more insight into Riley’s work, it’s on display in The Art of Game of Thrones, available now.

"It was like a real trip down memory lane. It’s like a family album, in a sense, because it takes you back to a time and a place and the artists who drew it and what we were doing at the time. Most of all, it’s a real tribute to them because it’s a book full of all the concept art, and that’s a very crucial stage in the design process. I was lucky to have a lot of the same artists with me over all of those years. It’s a book that’s full of their work and I just can’t wait for them to see it. A couple of months ago we were running through all the artwork again, but once they get it in their hands it’s going to be a completely different thing. It’s a wonderful opportunity for all of us."

Perhaps inevitably, Riley’s favorite set to this day is Daenerys’ audience chamber in Meereen, which must have been one of the first she worked on after getting the gig.

“To this day, I still get quite emotional thinking about the Meereen audience chamber, and that was way back in Season 4 because that was the first really big set that we built,” Riley said. “It was the first sort of new look that the new art department had been able to give the show, and I was very nervous about my position at that point. Then once that was built, it was like, I’m going to be fine. It was a relief to survive. I’ll never forget that one for that. Before it was brought down, I went and said a little quiet goodbye to it because I was very fond of it.”

I can see how Riley became attached to the Meereen set; I mean, it felt like Dany was there forever, right? “Working all the way through to Dragonstone, I loved. Even what we did in Season 8, it was such an emotional experience not only in terms of the story we were telling but in terms of the art department. To build something and then destroy it, and to destroy this throne room that had been standing for so many years, I found it quite traumatic to do all of that.”

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