Sunday, August 25

Q&A: ‘Game of Thrones’ production designer talks challenges, accomplishments

As a production designer, Deborah Riley oversaw the construction of sets on "Game of Thrones,"
 such as the city of Meereen. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

As a production designer, Deborah Riley oversaw the construction of sets on "Game of Thrones," such as the city of Meereen. (Helen Sloan/HBO)

Deborah Riley is the caretaker of Castle Black and helped build the ancient slave city of Meereen. However, Riley isn’t a character in HBO’s “Game of Thrones” – she’s the show’s production designer.

Riley joined the show in 2013 and began working on production for the show’s fourth season. She oversees the entire art department which includes everything from set decorators who embellish the fictional world of Westeros to greenspeople who landscape the realm.

Riley will speak Saturday at UCLA’s Design Showcase West which will display the work of graduate students from top university design programs.

The Daily Bruin’s Olivia Mazzucato spoke with Riley about the challenges of being a production designer for such a large show, her favorite “Game of Thrones” set and her advice for students pursuing a career in production design.

Daily Bruin: How did you feel when you first walked onto the sets from the show?

Deborah Riley: There was such a lot to do with just their philosophy of how to get this thing made as well as understanding what the previous production designer had done and how she had established the world. … I found that all to be overwhelming, but I was also just so incredibly impressed by the quality of the work they do. When you walk onto the sets, it really is phenomenal. … It’s just a really immersive environment, and I don’t think I’ve really stood on something so utterly convincing in any kind of world before.

DB: What does your job entail for a show as massive as “Game of Thrones”?

DR: I’m really the only person within the art department who has a complete, overarching view of the whole show. … The teams who are working in Belfast, (Northern Ireland), tend not to know what’s going on in Spain or in Croatia or whatever, and likewise the teams overseas don’t know what’s going on back in Belfast. Everybody focuses on their aspect of the show and I’m really the only person who crosses over all of that. …

The other thing, which is just as important, is I need to be the cheerleader and champion of the art department and the protector of the art department to make sure that the art department has everything it needs in order to produce the work that we have to produce. … While I’m not physically producing the things myself, I am still responsible for everything that is produced.

DB: What is your most memorable experience from the show?

DR: When I started in season four, and we built the Meereen audience chamber, that was a moment that I will remember for a long time. It was the first time properly that the season four art department was able to really impact the look of the show. And obviously, as the new production designer, I had a lot of people looking at me and seeing what I would do with the show. … That was my first very strong attempt at doing that and it was a magnificent space to stand in. … It was one of those moments where I really understood the potential of these extraordinary teams of people who work on the show and just what the show is capable of.

DB: Why did you decide to speak at this event?

DR: I know that all of the things that I was taught as a student are still exactly what I do today just in terms of doing the research, photographing locations, coming up with different ideas and seeing how they develop. I think being able to share with everybody the process of what we go through on the show is hopefully something that people will find really interesting and inspiring. …

From a personal point of view, I’m an Australian who came to the United States and was shown enormous generosity here by giving me the chance to take on this amazing job on this incredible show. So I also want to be able to pay that forward and make sure that other people realize that working on these things is possible and it is possible to create these magnificent worlds and environments.

DB: What advice would you give to students hoping to follow in your footsteps?

DR: It takes a lot of bravery to actually just focus on staying on the path. … Sometimes that can be a really difficult thing, to just not panic and keep focused. I wish somebody told me the degree of bravery and courage and sacrifice that you need to pursue such a random career such as production design. There’s no set path, there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. Sometimes, it might seem as though nothing’s going to happen. And then one phone call can change everything.

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