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Game of Thrones darkness enhanced the terror, production designer says – CNET

If you think watching Game of Thrones is a grueling emotional experience, try working on it. For production designer Deborah Riley, season 8's Battle of Winterfell was just one of the tough assignments in her time on the show. "To re-create death and violence like that over a long period of time ... it's wearing," she says. "It really saps your soul."

Despite being "traumatized and exhausted" by the scale of the job, Riley describes Game of Thrones as a "fantastic" experience she's sad to leave behind. As production designer, it's her role to define the look of the show through sets and props -- both physical and created with CGI. Having learned the ropes working on The Matrix and Moulin Rouge, the Australian has led the production design of the dragon drama since its fourth season, winning four Emmy Awards, a Bafta and several Art Directors Guild gongs along the way. 

Production designer Deborah Riley and art director Paul Ghirardani in September 2018 with their Emmy for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period or Fantasy Program (One hour or more).

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

As the eighth and final season builds to a climax, viewers of season 8's third episode The Long Night complained they couldn't see much of the dramatic Battle of Winterfell. Riley defends the creative decision of cinematographer Fabian Wagner. "We always received lots of criticism before about Game of Thrones being dark," Riley told me over the phone. "I actually thought it added an extra layer -- the fact you couldn't see everything made it all the more terrifying to me. To me, it enhanced rather than detracted."

Here's a lightly edited transcript of my chat with Riley.   

You've been the production designer of seasons 4 to 8 in Game of Thrones. What was it like to inherit the world of Westeros rather than starting from scratch?
I always thought I was incredibly lucky to get the job on Game of Thrones. It never bothered me at all that this show had three seasons beforehand. Frankly, I didn't have enough experience at that point in time to start a whole show myself. And the show kept growing throughout the years so I was able to go and establish my own [designs].

Game of Thrones

The Meereen audience chamber as seen on season 5 of Game of Thrones.

HBO

What locations and sets are you most proud of?
I was always very proud of the Meereen audience chamber in season 4, purely because that was the first major set we built for season 4. There was a lot of pressure, a lot of people looking at me to see what I would do. So I felt that once that audience chamber was established, hopefully people felt it was in a sure pair of hands.

Deborah Riley

Deborah Riley in the set of Game of Thrones.

Macall Polay/HBO

What were the biggest challenges?
The frozen lake of season 7 episode 6, Beyond The Wall. That was an absolutely astonishing thing we had to create. A certain part was shot on location in Iceland, but also because of the large amount of stunts and visual effects we had to bring the scene back to Belfast. So we created a complete frozen landscape in a quarry up in the hillside of Belfast. 

It was extraordinary to see an entire quarry concreted and turned into a frozen lake. It was so convincing. It was months and months of work in really punishing weather, but the result was absolutely fantastic.

How hard is it to keep the secrets of Game of Thrones, and how much do your family and friends nag you for information?
If you worked on the show, we care for it so much that we just don't want to spoil it for anybody. Really the only time I've struggled [was] when I finished season 8. I was quite traumatized, I was so exhausted, and there were so many things that I wanted to talk about but I couldn't. 

How was your experience in the show?
It was absolutely fantastic, the five and a half years that I worked on the show. But at the same time, the story was told. So there was also a resignation to it ... and I was incredibly proud as well. Such a mixture of feelings, but the main one I remember was just absolute exhaustion. 

Game of Thrones, temporada 8

The mandala left by the Night King that we saw in episode 1 of season 8.

Helen Sloan/HBO

Does it help a little bit that now you can finally start talking about it? The show hasn't ended yet but at least we've seen some of the episodes.
Yeah, well, I mean I've been able to show photographs, because I've never shared with my friends or family photographs from July 2017 to July 2018. So, for instance, the mandala that the Night King left, I have pictures of us putting it up on that wall. And it's such a macabre thing.

Can you talk about some of the other women who worked behind the scenes?
There are a lot of women behind the camera. The executive producer, Bernie Caulfield, was more or less head of the show. She's an extraordinary personality. A lot of the production office were also women. Michele Clapton, the costume designer. There were women in all of the departments. In Australia, the shooting crews would probably have more women. In construction, you would see more women. Certainly, in the art department, we had a lot of women [in Game of Thrones] in the drawing room and in set decoration. It's a great place to be -- it's also a punishing place to be. There's a lot of long hours and often in dreadful conditions. 

Game of Thrones darkness enhanced the terror, production designer says     - CNET

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What about the representation of women in front of the camera? As a viewer, there have been moments that have been very uncomfortable to watch for me as a woman.
I'm only there to service the story, to serve the directors and the showrunners. Women throughout history have not always had an easy time, and I have no problem whatsoever with showing that in all of its ugliness. The showrunners always have known there would be characters like Cersei and Daenerys that would rise. I've always had faith in them, and my job as a production designer is not really to ask.

So you know how the show ends?
I think I know how it ends, but I haven't seen episode 6. I first received an outline of season 8 a year and a half ago, so I had a secret for a really long time. It'll be fascinating. The great thing is people have no idea how far the show still has to go.

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