Eight years after it first created a generation of obsessed fans, Game of Thrones is getting ready for its final bow. The finale will resolve once and for all who rules over the Seven Kingdoms (for now), but it also provides an opportunity to look back at the level of detail and complexity that has gone into this genre-defining show over the years.
Long before anything is even created on set, storyboards are a vital blueprint for realizing the as-yet-unrealized moments of any large-scale production, and few projects require their aid more than an epic fantasy like Game of Thrones. The world of Westeros owes much of its look to storyboard artist William Simpson, who has used pencil and paper to bring to life everything from Jon Snow discovering his direwolf to the Battle of the Blackwater.
Game of Thrones storyboard artist William Simpson at work
As the show comes to an end, Simpson’s work is being celebrated with the release of Game of Thrones: The Storyboards, a book from Insight Editions collecting his beautifully rendered art. We caught up with Simpson ahead of the finale to get his thoughts on world building, collaboration, and “economic art.”
A Storyboard’s Purpose
“Boards are both a creative tool and a logistical one,” explains Simpson. “Initially, they describe the events in the story as a visual that preempts difficulties while telling the tale in the most dynamic way necessary. But they also create information that gives the producers a guide to what a scene is going to cost.” On the creative side, meanwhile, they provide a guide to what a scene could look like, capturing where a camera might be, and how characters and events are positioned in front of it. On the logistical side, it’s especially important for more complex, non-dialogue sequences to influence production.
“Storyboarding is where the story gets honed down into a more manageable form, where the number of set ups change and the number of CGI shots are culled. So, instead of ten giant shots, it becomes a cheaper three,” Simpson says. He refers to this as “economic art.” “Overall, though, the storyboard has to show everybody what needs to be achieved for the best storytelling, as perfectly as possible.”
Simpson’s process begins when he receives a script. Occasionally, he’ll arm himself immediately with his trusty 2B clutch pencils and some A3-sized paper to start breaking down scenes. “When I read a script, my head is full of images from the story, like running an internal film strip, and in the end, it’s my master guide,” he says.
But more commonly, Simpson will first meet with an episode’s director to discuss the script and rough out thumbnails (approximately four frames per page) that capture the director’s vision. “There’s a lot of ‘Do we want a specific angle? Do we want a particular approach? Do we go overhead, behind a character, wide, close up, mid shot?’” he says.
Then Simpson will take those thumbnails and render them in more detail, after which they’re scanned and numbered in Photoshop for production purposes. How long it takes to storyboard a season in that way is influenced by a few factors. “It all depends on how many scenes need to be storyboarded, and how many changes may be made. It’s always a refining process. I was usually on GOT for six months, working on ten scripts. Although season eight was a year. Some years were bigger than others for director needs. The more CGI, the bigger everything got,” he explains.
Simpson’s personal creative philosophy is “to always be adaptable.” “All directors are different,” he says. “Some ask for more input than others, but all have their vision of what they want, to do justice to the script.”
Connecting with Characters
Another element that guides Simpson’s process is his connection to the world and its characters, which allows him to see through their eyes in ways that greatly aid his work. “All of the characters have their own thought processes, and their motivations swirl around in my head as I’m drawing,” he says. That goes for human characters or non-human ones; it doesn’t matter if it’s a Lannister or one of Daenerys’ dragons. “Everything in the story, every creation, is a character, and each are personalities. For me, there’s no difference in the way I describe humans, dragons, or White Walkers,” says Simpson. “They all have to be true to character.”
That means channelling their thoughts and feelings onto the page. “My storyboards are full of as much emotion as I can pack into the shots, so all the departments have some idea of the intent of the sequence. I need them to be clear. Though I must admit, I like getting dramatic emotion into the drawings. I can’t really do it any other way.” For example, when the dragon Drogon slides down a pyramid to return to Daenerys, standing on a balcony, “there’s closeness and some kind of love between the two, in those boards — or at least that’s what I tried for. It may seem unnecessary, but for me, it was very necessary to try and imbue some of that.”
Looking Back as a Fan
One thing that’s infectious about Simpson is that he comes off as much a fan of the show as the rest of us. All you have to do is ask him what he’s most proud of throughout the eight seasons to hear a whole slew of excited answers. “For many different reasons, Blackwater Bay, because it was a major challenge,” he says. “The Joffrey riot with Sansa’s attack and the Jon Snow ice-wall climb, because I was given a free hand with those scenes and they both got filmed from my boards. Hardhome and the island ice battle with the Wights, because they were just downright epic. the Tully funeral barge scene, because I got to put a little well-thought-out logic in there with the Blackfish.”
“But, most of all, it’s still the opening scene of season one, where we go with the Night’s Watch characters to the encampment of dismembered bodies and we find the White Walkers for the first time. It was going to be the big intro that hurled us into the series and would lead us for eight massive years of TV history and travels and Emmys and interviews.” For him, and the rest of us, there is only one thing left. “Now, all we have to do is sit back and watch the end. What an amazing epic to be part of.”
All images courtesy of HBO and Insight Editions.