We Want That Job: Game of Thrones Set Designer

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And it currently belongs to an Australian designer.

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Pictured: Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke photo via Helen Sloan/ HBO

“You should be able to smell a set, it should feel so real,” says Australian production designer Deborah Riley. Though she borrows this quote from Academy Award-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, with whom she collaborated on the fiercely realistic 2003 drama 21 Grams, Deborah says it applies equally to the worlds she creates on Game of Thrones.

“The whole fantasy question in Game of Thrones never really comes up,” says Deborah. “We don’t talk about it that way. Yes, they’re dragons and they’re direwolves and they’re White Walkers. Those might be fantastical elements, but even those are made to look as real as possible and they interact in the world in a way that hopefully is very convincing. There’s no fantastical aspect to the design at all.”

Based on A Song of Ice and Fire, a series of novels by George R.R. Martin, HBO’s Game of Thrones has become one of the most popular programs on television, attracting upwards of 20 million viewers per episode worldwide.

A record high of 8.9 million US viewers tuned in for the season six finale in 2016. Every plot twist sets the Twitter-sphere ablaze; character deaths – pundits have calculated that this notoriously violent series has averaged 136 deaths per episode from seasons one to five – are as shattering to diehard fans as the demise of real-life celebrities or heads of state.

Though she hadn’t seen a single episode when she landed the job of production designer on the Game of Thrones set (and therefore had to cram in 30 hours of viewing before meeting showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss for the first time), Deborah is now well aware of the weight of her decision to join the production back in 2014.

“Game of Thrones is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I think that probably for the rest of my career, people will ask me about it – as they will ask anybody who’s worked on the show – because it is such an unique animal,” says Deborah. “It is something that has entered the pop culture dictionary now and it’s an amazing experience to have a front-row seat in that production and to see how it works.

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Pictured: Emilia Clarke, photo via Nick Wall/HBO

“Somehow, despite how difficult and tiring it is, and even though we can be standing in the mud and the rain or the searing heat or the fake snow or dark, it is something we’re all very aware is very, very special. So in that way and in terms of all the very, very talented people that I have met, it has changed my life.”

A University of Queensland architecture graduate, Deborah, 43, went on to study stage design at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) before working on feature films such as The Matrix (where it was crucial that she could draft drawings of buildings), Jindabyne and Moulin Rouge, and even the Sydney Olympics closing ceremony.

Mentored by Academy Award-winning production designer Brigitte Broch, Deborah moved to LA in 2008 and immediately began interviewing with directors and producers. One of these early interviews was with a producer of a little-known series in development called Game of Thrones. Five years later, in 2013, Deborah received her callback. Gemma Jackson, the British production designer for the show’s first three seasons, had quit – and Deborah was asked to take the helm for season four.

Describing a 10-episode series of Game of Thrones as the equivalent of working on five feature films at once, Deborah readily confesses she did not have the experience required when she began work on the “huge beast”. Each season involves collaborating with five different directors on 10 scripts and countless sets and locations.

“The important thing was that they were having to replace the conductor and not the orchestra. This was made very clear to me, so I needed to be the sort of person who could fit in well with an existing team,” she says.

And fit in she did. In her first season, Deborah won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction. In 2015, she was awarded another Emmy for Outstanding Production Design, and has twice won the Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design.

“As well as being exciting and a very proud moment, it was also a great relief,” says Deborah of her first win in 2014. “It meant we had done it. We had, as an arts department with somebody new there, managed to pull it off.”

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Pictured: Eugene Simon, Finn Jones, Jonathan Pryce, photo via Helen Sloan/ HBO

But more than accolades, Deborah – who created new and elaborate sets for seasons four, five, six and the yet-to-be aired season seven – has won the hearts and minds of the millions of loyal Game of Thrones fans worldwide (who can thank her for The House of Black and White in season five, a temple inspired by Indian architecture and sculpture as well as the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong).

“I love architecture and I think something that I’ve been able to offer the show is making strong architectural statements with each of these different cities and trying to give them a real sense of weight and depth and scale and texture,” she says.

“It’s been great for us as an art department to be able to stretch our wings and explore what we can offer… It was a real opportunity for us to explore all different kinds of architecture and introduce different colours and textures in the show that hadn’t been seen before.”

And as diverse as each set is, the process of creating it is generally the same: first, concept art is created and approved by the showrunners, then construction drawings are made, costed and start to become a reality thanks to builders, plasterers and painters. Deborah usually sends photos during this process to the producers, and next up the set is decorated and lit, before a cinematographer tests it on camera.

While discussions in chat rooms and on social media sites generally focus on the finer plot points, Deborah says the Game of Thrones sets generally blend into the creation of what she terms “real artificiality”.

“The world of fantasy is dancing on the borders of reality… in my case, Westeros is real and so we have to bring that to the camera. We have to be able to make these environments that we create as real as possible and that means the depth of research that we do, the ageing of the props, the painting of the set or the directing of the set,” she says.

However, on occasion her work and the work of her team do get signposted. “The great thing about Game of Thrones fans is that they are very aware of all of these different worlds and have very clear ideas of what they should look like or what they were imagining. Every now and then, the production design will be mentioned. That’s a great thing, because it shines a light on a whole huge department that works silently all year,” she says.

When Deborah joined the show in 2014, she relocated to Belfast, Ireland, home to the main production office (where, coincidentally, the historic Titanic ship was built) and many of the show’s locations. She’s become head honcho to art directors, concept artists, set decorators, carpenters, painters, sculptors, plasterers, drapes workers, prop makers, prop painters and model makers, as well as entire art departments that spring up at the various international locations including Croatia, Spain, Scotland and Iceland, to name a few.

“It’s an enormous team, but I really don’t think that it’s as big as people would imagine it would be on such a big show,” she says.

Deborah works night and day for nine to 10 months of the year (in 2014, across 200 days of filming she caught 65 flights), returning to visit her mother in Brisbane during the show’s hiatus.

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Pictured: Emilia Clarke, photo via Helen Sloan/ HBO

“One of the most challenging things about the show is that we just don’t get time to really explore all of our options. Sometimes we’re moving so quickly that we have to move forward with an idea before it’s been properly fleshed out. In order to stay on top of everything, we just have to be very, very organised.”

Even if she were permitted to reveal it, Deborah says she couldn’t even begin to calculate her budget per episode; rather she works on a “build-for-build” basis.

“Some episodes obviously cost, from an art department point of view, more than others, because some episodes have big builds and some take place in established sets,” she explains.

US magazine Entertainment Weekly reported that each episode of series six cost in excess of US$10 million, taking the season budget to a total of more than US$100 million.

Meanwhile, before season seven even airs to delighted fans, Deborah has already turned her attention to the next, and final, season. She says a good production designer needs to be “pragmatic” and not become attached to their work.

“For me, set design is the perfect thing because it enables you to occupy and enrich the lives of the characters by putting them in environments that hopefully help elaborate on their story,” she says. “But the great thing is that it doesn’t live forever. It’s important to not take any of these things personally. These are pieces of work that have been created. Oftentimes, we’ve been able to explore ideas that, in any other profession, we wouldn’t be able to do – and that for me is a great privilege.”

Production design, Deborah believes, is about problem-solving and good communication. She says she owes her career to her mentors: Brigitte Broch, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Australian duo Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin.

“It’s very important in a young person’s career to show them how it’s done and to work with them on all different scales of projects to see how things differ and to see how somebody’s career actually works,” says Deborah.

But it was her work as art director on the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 that most prepared Deborah for the scale of a production like Game of Thrones.

“You can’t possibly ever underestimate the value of all of the people that you work with. And on something the size of the Olympics, it’s a real army manoeuvre to get 3000 kids in the centre of a field all carrying a dove that lights up and then get them off and get the new set on.”

And despite this mammoth task, we’re betting she couldn’t possibly have estimated the enormity of what lay ahead. “I am proof that your life can change in a phone call,” she quips. “I knew in my heart and I said it to them, that to the very depths of my soul I knew I could do the job. I just needed to be given a chance.”

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