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‘Game of Thrones’: Building and Destroying King’s Landing Was a Real Horror Show

Multiple Emmy-winning production designer Deborah Riley used Virtual Reality for the first time for the impressive creation and destruction of an entire city.

“Game of Thrones”

Helen Sloan/HBO

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With the “Battle of King’s Landing” from Episode 5 (“The Bells”) of the final “Game of Thrones” season, we finally got to glimpse the immense capital city of the Seven Kingdoms in its entirety, just in time for its total destruction by Mad Queen Dany (Emilia Clarke) and her firebombing Drogon. For production designer Deborah Riley (poised for her fifth and final “GoT” Emmy), it was the most ambitious and important set build of the entire series.

“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,” said Riley. “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.”

In many ways, the visual development of King’s Landing throughout the series was an incremental process, but it meant starting over again for this one-time only complete build. The first step was identifying what parts of the city were required in the script and how the art department could best recreate what it already knew of the city but could afford to build. “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,” Riley said.

“Game of Thrones”

Helen Sloan/HBO

All in all, Riley was engaged with the research, design, build, and shoot of the set over the course of 12 months. First, she photographed the distinctive buildings of Dubrovnik and made selections of the buildings her crew would replicate, “according to what action would be taking place in front of them,” she said, “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.”

Riley’s team built nine interiors and 33 separate buildings between 30 and 37-feet-tall, including roof structures. And she deployed a crew of 200 people to build the set. “With the materials all locally sourced, the set had a massive steel framework, plywood cladding with a plaster or foam finish,” said Riley. “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.”

However, the introduction of VR in the art department with The Third Floor previs studio was a significant breakthrough for the series, one which Riley will leverage in future work. VR not only changes the design process, but, as witnessed by Jon Favreau’s innovative virtual shoot on “The Lion King,” also offers more wide-reaching industry potential. “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,” Riley said.

“Game of Thrones”

Helen Sloan/HBO

“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.”

Meanwhile, the major challenge of the set was the same as it had been every season — lack of time. “The biggest cheat we had in the entire show was invented courtesy of our construction manager, Tom Martin,” Riley said. “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.”

In the rearview, the building and destruction of King’s Landing was the perfect end to the art department’s time on “Game of Thrones,” according to Riley. “Although I look back very fondly on other sets over the seasons, nothing had tested us quite the way the building and destruction of King’s Landing had, and no other set had been so universally admired by the cast and crew. We had truly given it everything we possibly could. 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.”

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