Game of Thrones artist on what it takes to envision an entire world from the ground-up

Rogue engages Game of Thrones’ lead storyboard artist Will Simpson in an exclusive interview

by Mixkaela Villalon

In the thick of summer, winter is coming. As Game of Thrones launches its new season, lead storyboard artist and weapons designer Will Simpson talks about the bloodbath that goes on behind the groundbreaking series

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FIGHTING FIRE. Will Simpson’s storyboard illustration of Daenerys and her dragons in the flames.

What exactly does a storyboard artist do in a production like Game of Thrones?

Well, what I do is I save the producers a lot of money. [Laughs] I interpret what a scene could look like through my drawings. It’s very cheap to work on paper, and storyboarding lays out the camera shots and identifies the cuts even before we get on set. My job is to try and anticipate the things that are going to be costly in a shoot, and also tell a story in the best way possible.

What’s the storyboarding process like?

I get the script and come up with basic ideas of what the scenes should look like. Then I sit down with the director and do thumbnails or little rough sketches. I ask the director a lot of questions about what they’re thinking, where a character’s going to come from, where the cameras are and where they will move to. Then I get on with drawing the proper storyboards, which have to be understood by anybody. My work has to be detailed so the lighting guy will understand it, and the director of photography, and the costume department. Game of Thrones has different directors per episode, so they have different temperaments, different ways of telling the story. I have to become a sort of psychologist to do this. [Laughs] In the end, each episode has to have a consistent look and feel.

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Simpson’s storyboard of Jon Snow’s encounter with Ygritte.

Before you get the script, do you get clues on who’s going to die next?

[Laughs] Don’t you know, on Game of Thrones, everybody dies? And everybody has a chance to come back from the dead! I’m just as surprised, honestly, because I haven’t read the books. But I do love sitting down with my 10 scripts per season and reading through them all, getting the same shock that the audience will get when they see it played out on TV.

Of all the places in Game of Thrones that you designed, do you have a favorite?

I was very much involved in building the world of Westeros, especially in the first season. So of course the location that I was probably most involved in is Winterfell, the Stark stronghold. It has these blocky castles and wide, empty spaces. It’s all very stark. But I think the work that I have the most fun with is in the DVD extras. I also do a lot of artwork for these little animated sequences for the histories of characters on the show. It’s stuff that doesn’t go into in the series, but we need it for backstories. I sit down with the guys involved and we try to envision what Volantis was like, the world of dragons, the forest people, the War of the Usurper that put Robert Baratheon on the Iron Throne. It’s great because we’re building all that from maybe just a paragraph’s description in the books.

How do you go about visualizing George Martin’s incredibly imaginative world?

If you had seen our pilot room, you would have been impressed with all the stuff we were digging up. We’re working in tandem with so many brilliant people. From the set designer, to the costume people, and the other art teams that explore all these different areas of the world for influence. We would have walls of pictures from all over the world, designs of great temples and castles and everything. Initially, when we were designing Westeros, we were looking at Scotland and Ireland, looking at castles that were very austere and cold. But when we were looking into the world of the Dothraki, we were going as far as India, looking at weaponry and designs for costumes. We had a lot of stuff that was Egyptian-based, Mongol-based. The more ornate stuff has some Persian influence running through it. So much of the set is pulled from a big part of real ancient history.

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Simpson was initially hired to design the weapons of Westeros, and distinguished weapons from each part of the realm by considering George R.R. Martin’s descriptions and the cultures that each of the Seven Kingdoms were based on.

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Jon Snow wields his iconic sword, Longclaw, bequeathed to him by Lord Commander Jeor Mormont.

You’ve worked on so many crowning scenes on the show. Has there been any instance when HBO would say, “Wait, we can’t do that. Scale it down a bit.”

There are budgetary constraints for every episode. The Battle of Blackwater Bay was a monster to do. I had four different versions of that sequence, a solid month of continuous work. I think with the first version, the director came back to me and said, “We need more blood, we need more blood.” [Laughs] But we were constantly having to adapt to budget cuts. The attack on the Ice Wall from two seasons ago, where you had woolly mammoths and giants and all sorts of characters . . . we had to be aware of how much CGI shots we could put in. The challenge is to find ways around the budget but still produce something grand. One of the great things about Game of Thrones is that it keeps pushing boundaries, and not just for TV. It keeps trying to give us something bigger and better each time. I don’t think next season’s going to disappoint anybody.