With Game of Thrones starting again on 24 April, we thought we’d give our readers the chat we did with artist on the series, Will Simpson, which we did in January 2014. Simpson began his career in comics on things like Judge Dredd, Hellblazer and Vamps for DC but he has now become a regular fixture on the series. The interview originally appeared in Cult TV Times back in 2014
TRIPWIRE: How did the Game of Thrones work come about?
WILL SIMPSON: A kinda long story. I’d worked on a couple of films with producer, Mark Huffam, and it’s all his fault. Mark pulled me in to do some concept costume drawings on a potential medieval comedy movie that was to become ‘Your Highness’ and my drawings were part of what helped N.Ireland get the movie. I ended up doing a lot of concept work on ‘Your Highness’ for ideas that would never get filmed, and most of the storyboards. When I started on it, Mark hit me with another bit of conceptualising. I was asked, could I work with the production designer for a possible HBO TV series, set in a medieval fantasy world, again, to show we knew what we were doing. I did a bunch of after- hours and weekend work, on this project, which was meant to be based on a series of books, where I was given a few passages on which to base some ideas, but it was all very hush hush.
It turned out to be Game of Thrones.
During my run on ‘Your Highness’ Mark came to me one day and told me, we’ve got ‘Game ofThrones’ and I asked him, “do I have a job then”, to which he said, “of course”, and I’ve been on it ever since. I moved across to Game of Thrones when my time was nearly up on ‘Your Highness”. I ended up doing half a week on both, at the start.
TW: How familiar were you with the books before you began the job?
WS: I didn’t know the books at all.
TW: What is your exact role on Game of Thrones?
WS: Nowadays, I’m the storyboard artist, with occasional concept pieces to do. In the beginning, on the pilot, I was concept and storyboard artist. Nobody knew how the show would go, so I guess they didn’t need a vast army then. I just kept being given pieces to design or realise in some form, before the other depts worked from the joint parts. I loved it, because it really helped to solidify the show. I got to design the first ‘White walker’ images, the ‘Godswood’ tree, the ‘Three Eyed Raven’….stuff like that and I got to design all the hero weapons used in the show, like ‘Ice’, ‘Needle” etc. I did a lot of armour ideas based on directions the Costume dept was discussing.
TW: How large is the production team on the series?
WS: Pretty big…do you want numbers? I mean, production is one dept, and then there’s the Art dept, and the Costume dept, and the Props dept, etc. Hard to give you a figure, but as big as a feature film.
TW: Presumably most of your work is done at the scripting stage so your work is completed by the time they start to shoot the series. Have there been any occasions when you have been needed on set when they are filming the series?
WS: You must think we’re very organised? haha! Sometimes, I get called in almost before prep to work on sequences that haven’t been fully scripted, then, I get pulled back maybe a month and a half before they start shooting, and continue pretty much all through the filming period, when changes are needed. It’s a constantly ongoing changing experience. I sometimes get called to set to work with directors, pre shooting and during shooting, which is always a bit of fun.
TW: How closely do you work with the show’s production designer Gemma Jackson?
WS: In the beginning, on the Pilot, I worked very closely with production designer Gemma Jackson, but not after. Once I was mainly doing storyboarding, I really only needed to work with the directors and Chris Newman, one of our producers, and some clarification with the visual effects dept. Gemma has left the show and we have a great new production designer in Deborah Riley..
TW: It also has a huge art direction department, so presumably you work very closely with the art directors on the series?
WS: Really, my only contact with the rest of the art dept, is if I have a query over a particular set or need info about the sets where I have to place actors or camera. And occasion socialising.
TW: When you began the series, how did you approach designing each set of characters? how closely did you follow Martin’s descriptions in the books?
WS: The characters are based on what actors have been chosen to fulfil the roles. The costume dept mainly designs the look of characters, though I did get to play around with that a little on the pilot, giving prep versions of what some may look like, as mentioned the “White Walkers’ (as they were a fantasy), and I worked on a version of the ‘Hound’ and the ‘Dothraki’ (more for prop ideas as well as weapons design). My view on the characters was probably based on my comic strip experience, after reading George Martin’s descriptions, I had defined images in my mind, which I had to draw when I was designing the weapons. Luckily, I was pretty close to the mark on most things, at least for my producers, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, so it’s nice to know I had an effect on the show.
TW: Each set of characters has a very distinctive look and feel. Can you talk us through for example the visual influences for characters like the Lanisters?
WS: The distinctive looks of families is really down to the costume department. They did a magnificent job on creating the feel of the regions that would influence the looks of the houses. I know with the Lanisters, originally there was a Japanese design in their costume, but it had to change for practical reasons. Michelle Clapton has taken all the characters to inspired places.
TW: Game of Thrones stands or falls on its visual look so how much work goes into creating the visuals for the series?
WS: The visuals for Game of Thrones are a tremendous collaboration. It’s exacting. We have to know in advance what will be green screened and what will be practical. I get to draw a first version of the storytelling, that gives us an idea what may be green screen shots, then the discussion happens over how many shots can be afforded, then the number is decided, the boards changed accordingly, and then while the practical shooting is taking place, the visual effects dept is working through a series of pre-viz shots, seeing what may be placed in the mix, and as the practical shots come in, they are edited into the animatic sequence, proving the CGI needs. Complex job, with constant ongoing changes.
TW: You spent many years in the world of comics. How different is it working on a TV series and what are the pros and cons of working on each medium?
WS: It’s all storytelling in pictures, so I don’t find much difference in working in TV/films, from my comic life. The only difference really, other than remembering the different purposes of the work, is that the TV work feels like doing roughs and there is never a finished piece of art at the end, whereas comic work always ended with a defined style finished piece of artwork. I love working in both mediums, and continue to do comic art, you just won’t have seen much of my recent work as it’s still being produced. I enjoy the experience of working as part of a team to produce a finished program….but I think it only works for me because I do my own work a well. I’m an artist first, just diversifying what skills I have into different areas. The demands of film are very similar to the deadlines of comic art. You still have to produce the story in a very readable way.
TW: The series has been a massive success. How surprised were you by its success?
WS: I have to say, after reading the first couple of scripts, it seemed like a winner. What we could see to be visualised was fantastic, tough and uncompromising, When I knew who the cast would be, it was an amazing boost in the confidence factor, and it was an HBO series. They don’t often put a foot wrong. There was a tremendous amount of faith in the production and great leaders on the job….and, it does come from an epic series of books. So, no, I’m not surprised at it being successful…though I am a bit at how successful! haha, kinda stratospheric!
TW: And does this success increase the pressure for you as one of the team on the show?
WS: Not really. I always tried to interpret to the best of my ability, and nothing has changed there. In some ways, it’s easier, because everybody on the team knows what they are doing.
TW: How much of a break do you get between series of the show?
WS: I tend to work, half of my year on the show, though in the other months, I’ve been lucky to do Game of Thrones extras art for the Blueray editions of the series. I get to illustrate some of the past histories art, that will never be filmed, but exists as animation on the Bluerays. That’s great fun stuff as we get to determine an extra part of the George Martin world.
In my break, I normally am working on another film or two, or drawing my comic strip art or working on my other projects. these days I write scripts for potential films, work on my own directed shorts, pushing for one of my features, also continue with my photography, and get on with my publishing projects, my comic book series and my up and coming art book. I don’t spend much time sitting around….or actually, I suppose I spend a lot of time sitting around drawing! I have a couple of film tie-in graphic novels to think about and there’s always those other film projects. I did some work on Dracula at the start of 2013, and a bit on Thor 2 in 2012. (uncredited though). I’ve also had about 4 exhibitions last year, and started this year with my Angel exhibition in Belfast, overlapping into 2014, along with my London Game of Thrones exhibition at Orbital Comics, this month, and in February my work is due to be featured with the big HBO Game of Thrones travelling exhibition. I must be very wicked, cause there sure isn’t any rest! hahaha.