Game of Thrones spearheads resurgence in sword & sorcery fantasy art of Warrior Kings & Queens.
The current popularity of the bloody and salacious Game of Thrones and a host of paler imitators may have roots in Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-worthy performance as the historical Elizabeth (1998), the Queen who was perhaps the most important ruling Royal, King or Queen, in British history.
The politics and imputed romances of her reign embroiled both her throne and bedchambers. Released from her half-sister’s dungeon to go on to successfully stabilize a country wracked by religious war, all the while being threatened by Spanish invasion from without and overthrow by the plots of her male “suitors” from within, her life was epic and an intimate human drama rarely captured in fiction.
Then the British import The Tudors (2007–10), brought us an updated lusty beautiful/horrifying portrayal of King Henry VIII, this time focusing on the athleticism of his youth—before he was gravely injured (crushed under a horse while jousting) and became the iconic morbidly obese figure we’re more familiar with.
The Tudors casting of the svelte and smolderingly sexual Jonathan Rhys Meyers (as well as the alluring Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn) marks one of those important departures from the collective story we all carry in our heads, created from childhood on through college and beyond. We call this general narrative “history.” We become incensed over what we feel are profane depictions of our heroes and their beliefs and intentions—as if we could ever know what roiled the mind of a monarch in 1532. Protestants are understandably upset when the Reformation is de-emphasized as “back story,” the better to focus on a King maneuvering wickedly and recklessly in order to secure a divorce both secularly legal and religiously Hell-free, the better to pursue the super hot girl of his dreams.
There is Jeremy Irons in The Borgias as Pope Alexander VI in the late 15th Century committing every possible sin and debauchery that moderns minds could project or imagine for any man of power, much less a Pope surrounded by a family and College of Cardinals just as ruthless with privilege and wealth. Watching this re-casting of the past you need to pinch yourself to remember that the action is set within the Roman Catholic Church which was then and apparently still may be a political and social quagmire. The critics favor a modern French production of this story, Borgias, where they cavort and garrote in the same fashion. This version’s episodes are still in production.
The Nixon Presidency (1969-74) has long been held in the collective American consciousness as the high-level mark in Presidential criminality. But only fringe conspiracy theorists believe that the Nixon ninjas actually murdered political opponents and witnesses. Yet that’s currently accepted as “believable” plotting in popular dramas like Scandal and especially the American remake of House of Cards, in which Kevin Spacey’s deranged politician, Frank Underwood, has no problem with assassination as a method to attain his vengeance and promote his personal advance.
And that’s what it is all about on these current shows: politics as a means to personal revenge, enrichment, and power for sheer power’s sake. The good ol’ days of Henry’s romancing of Anne, let the world burn, seem naïve now.
Do viewers really accept this current storytelling as credible, that this stuff is really going on in the White House, in the royal court of the Tudors or at the Vatican or is this just “political science fiction” grounded in reality but played out into another world altogether?
Game of Thrones, adapted from a series of novels still being completed by fantasy writer George R.R. Martin, might just be the craziest-ever mash-up of wildly divergent time periods, some actual historical events, dragons, mysticism, warring Kingdoms of tangled bloodlines, political marriages, incest among the nobles all soaked in the blood of a thousand traitorous sword-thrusts and festooned with heaving bosoms in (and often out of) designer silks and satins. The interior and architectural decoration of the times of this tale seems to have been informed equally by combinations of ancient Babylon, Egyptian archeology, Conan the Barbarian and Victoria’s Secret. Ruminations by grizzled older warriors trudging toward the next battle touch upon the great themes of crime & punishment, political corruption, religion, loyalty and true brotherhood—but never rise above standard wooly maxims. Never has so much superlative acting and massive production value been expended on comic book level human drama.
“Thrones” is a new extension of Hollywood storytelling nonsense with every scene crafted to push my buttons in some pleasurably cathartic manner.
Worries over what conservative or liberal or sexist or pro—or anti-gay messaging is going on here must be laid aside as there is no algorithm detailed enough to explain what any of this story really “means.” It really is just a “game” to be won or lost by its ever-shifting rules. Being naked in its intent to be no more than sheer entertainment makes the series immune from serious academic, philosophic, historical or literary criticism. Game of Thrones frees us to enjoy it for what it is: a feast for the senses on the way to the next big lunatic lunge on the narrative rollercoaster. A sampling of tributes to the show as imagined by its many deviant fans is a testament to what will go down as one of the most marvelous box of chocolates one could ever hope to have opened. It’s undoubtedly not good for us—but it’s just oh, so good.
I wait every Sunday here in Los Angeles, attending screening parties when I can, for this glorious, masterfully crafted, and richly creative tour de force which acts as a deliciously sweet nightcap after another in an endless series of 80 hour work weeks.
How about you?
What is the most important information that needs to be expressed on storyboards at this point in production? This information usually flows from who (director/editor) to whom (set designer, etc)?
In prep, the storyboards are full of the essential camera movements and green screen CGI elements. As always, Storytelling is the essential element, something that will be understood by the various departments, from Director of Photography and the camera dept, through the VFX green screen CGI dept for visual composites through to producers, determining what can be afforded to be shot.
I work directly with the director, interpreting his/her ideas, and sometimes with the line producer, working out the logic of the storytelling to give us a 'heads up' as to what may cause problems for the actual shoot.
The information flow, is usually from Director, to me, then on to production, before they distribute the sequences to all others who may need them.
Is there much "pre-editing" being done in the sequencing and layout of scenes? And if so, what is usually being emphasized by directors, editors and others in their input?
There's quite a bit of pre-editing being achieved in the sequences, the process enabling a ' nailing down' of shots, especially for the cost constraints. Part of what we determine in prep, is what is logical and artistic to film, and then combine it with the shot list allowance of what we feasibly can actually have, What can be practical live filming, and what has to be an VFX shot.
William Simpson is an international artist, whose career began in comicstrip art, working on a range of character icons: Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Batman, Transformers, Hellblazer, Tyranny Rex, Aliens, and Vamps. Now he's primarily in movies.
In recent years he has developed his work in the film industry providing conceptual art and storyboards for a variety of feature films, such as: Reign of Fire, directed by Rob Bowman, Freeze Frame, directed by John Simpson, Neil Jordan's Breakfast on Pluto, and most recently, Game of Thrones for HBO, David Gordon Green and Danny McBride's Your Highness for Universal, Lord Richard Attenborough's 2006 production, Closing The Ring and the Tom Hanks produced, City Of Ember. Currently on Game of Thrones for HBO.
Is there a tremendous amount of detail on storyboards on a big production like Game of Thrones that wouldn't exist with a more modest production—or is the functionality of deciding how a narrative is going to be told the key consideration always in any production?
I think functionality of narrative is pretty essential, but, there's a lot of storytelling, good directors know, and don't need to be visualised in a board first, but on a show like Game of Thrones, the details in what will have to have CGI elements, a primary concern for compositing real with unreal. We’re creating Westeros here, and we have to see what can be achieved by drawing it first. It must be considered worthwhile as I've been there for 5 years already.
Is there a special feeling you get from being so deeply involved in the internal "DNA" of what is obviously going to be an important landmark series?
I think the delight is in watching so much of what you've done, realised on screen. Game of Thrones is a vast production and requires quite a lot of prep over the ten episodes in a season, and so many drawn sequences turned into film footage is always a buzz. It's definitely great to be an essential part of fandom's fav series.
We’re creating Westeros here, and we have to see what can be achieved by drawing it first.
How did you come to get your job doing storyboards for Game of Thrones? Is this the usual pathway to being considered for such jobs, or are there others for interested deviants to pursue? What can you tell artists who want to do storyboarding as a dream job? What should they be doing?
This is a really big question and there is a massively convoluted answer to it. You see, there's a lot of being in the right place at the right time, and having 20 years of comic strip experience doesn't hurt!
I was brought in to do some concepts, while I was working on Your Highness. I wasn't told what the project was, just given a few key pages of script, and asked could I come up with some castle images and knights and a few interesting location shots, one being the beheading scene at the beginning of the story. These images were then sent in a package to HBO, and they seemed to help them decide on coming to N.Ireland to film with their production base. When I was told we had the series, while still on Your Highness I asked my producer friend Mark Huffam, " do I have a job then" haha, to which he said "of course".
I asked my producer friend Mark Huffam, “do I have a job then” haha, to which he said “of course.”
After I finished my concept art on "Your Highness" ad did a day of 2nd unit directing for it, I then moved on into Game of Thrones and started conceptualising weaponry. I created the designs for all the hero weapons, at that time, 'Ice', 'Needle', 'long claw', etc, were mine, as well as developing the very first set of images of the "White Walkers", "The Godswood Tree", "Cersei's" carriage, and "The Three Eyed Ravens". I helped on some of the armour and helmet elements for Costume. I did a pretty neat version of the 'Hound', pretty close to what was made. After that, I went on to Storyboarding.
The comic side of me has generated a diverse artist, so having been recognised as such, I was used properly to generate ideas in the beginning. I've since storyboarded all four seasons, and will be getting into the fifth, coming this year.
It's not been the usual pathway, but then I don't think there actually is a 'usual'. Sometimes, I pitch myself at films, if I know in advance they're happening, though now, most of my time, I'm called up and asked, when am I available. It's nice when you get a call, which has a value on what you do as an artist with experience.
For anybody wanting to do any form of art, including storyboarding, you have to be in love with drawing, and storytelling. You have to have a perverse nature that allows you to work long hours drawing as a job, and then finding yourself also drawing for fun. You have to love this pursuit. No half measures. I try to bring all the sensitivity I had in comic strips, into what I do in storyboarding, though some may do it as a job, I tend to come at it as a solver of problems in storytelling and somebody who says, 'great, I'm going to be drawing all day!' No fear! It's another great mode of self expression.
For anybody wanting to do any form of art... You have to love this pursuit. No half measures.
For The Reader
Would you assign world class literary and philosophical value to Game of Thrones? If so, why?
Is there an unspoken “agreement” between film producer and film consumer as to the intended “pure entertainment” vs. “think” purpose of a film experience?
Are you annoyed when historical figures are portrayed in ways that greatly diverge from the picture of them you have always had in your head? Or do you find this refreshing and creative, even if involving massive “poetic license?”
Do you think moviemakers have a duty to portray historical figures as they were, or is it enough that their life events are accurately recorded, as well as their beliefs and words. Is it OK to cast Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia when the real Lawrence was only 5 feet tall? Is it OK to give the young Henry VIII six-pack abs?
Do you think fantasy and science fiction stories should steer clear of politics generally and stick to common human questions of love, loyalty, valor as motivators for characters? Does the feeling that the author is subtly pushing his or her political or social beliefs on the reader, no matter how delicately, a turn-off for you? Or is this something writers should never hide in their art?
Do you think all the elements of Game of Thrones that could be found by individual viewers to be offensive, sexist, racist, homophobic, pro-violence, are “forgiven” by the utter outrageousness of the story in general? Should there always be a place for politically incorrect fun?