William Simpson has drawn Dubrovnik thousands of times, in infinitesimal detail and from every possible angle, as the main storyboard artist for the HBO Game of Thrones serial. And yet, until a few days ago, he had never stepped foot in the city. Born and raised in Northern Ireland Simpson is a highly regarded comic artist who has worked on such hits as Batman, Judge Dredd, Transformers and Hellblazer. He has been involved with the Game of Thrones serial since day one, well maybe even before day one, and has worked diligently on all six serials to date. And as Dubrovnik features as King’s Landing in the popular serial he has been creating Dubrovnik based scenes since the second series when the city first appeared. During his first ever visit to “King’s Landing” The Dubrovnik Times caught up with Simpson in the popular Dubrovnik restaurant “Mimoza” to see his reactions as for the first time he laid eyes on reality. It was an emotional meeting.
William Simpson sees Dubrovnik for the first time
How difficult was it to draw Dubrovnik and create King’s Landing if you had never been to the city before?
The directors of Game of Thrones supplied with a lot of photo reference and said, “You can work from these can’t you?” I answered, yes of course I could. As I live in Northern Ireland and sections of the series are filmed there of course I have visited these locations, and for sure this helps me imagine the scenes. I remember having to create the Red Keep and I received some great photos of the Lovrijenac Fortress so it wasn’t too hard to imagine. What Game of Thrones does so well with Dubrovnik is they use the beauty of the city and then just add onto that with computer generated graphics. When you see Dubrovnik in the series it seems like you are looking at a whole different place, and yet at the same time Dubrovnik is clearly recognizable.
When you first saw the photos of Dubrovnik who difficult was it to imagine King’s Landing?
I should be there! You have to remember that my job is to break down the story; I don’t have to get too concerned over the details. Of course there are some details that need to be absolutely correct so that actors know where to stand on a scene, but I am not visual effects who really need to have things laid out accurately. I drew comic strips for years and all that imagination required to make those came in handy when I started to generate Game of Thrones environments. I must say that the directors of the series have been in this business for years and have a wealth of experience. So some scenes I am asked to storyboard and some not. For example the Red Wedding scene that was shot in Dubrovnik wasn’t storyboarded at all. This was a very elaborate scene, the director asked me to storyboard scenes before and after the Red Wedding, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do and didn’t ask me for a storyboard. And in comparison to that the drawing of the Black Water Bay battle scene took up a solid month of my life. It was a very complicated scene with lots of characters, and of course was filmed here in Dubrovnik.
What emotions do you go through when you first see a new season of Game of Thrones and the fruits of all your labour?
It is amazing! The very first scene that we see in the very first episode of Game of Thrones was recorded in a forest. I actually went to the forest with the director and followed his instructions, his visions. In fact this scene was a major pitch to the executives of HBO so we really pulled out all the stops. I can still remember to this day the director, Timothy Van Patten, going into see the executives whilst I waited outside. After only ten minutes he opened the door and shouted “Will, we got it!” That was the birth of the Game of Thrones as we know it. I didn’t really think anything more of it until I saw the trailer for the first series, I was blown away. I can remember a friend commenting to me “Oh my God that is exactly what you have drawn.” And it was. Seeing it on screen shows you that you actually have an effect to the overall project.
Comic genius at work
Have you ever meet some of the actors on the set, and who left the biggest impression on you?
Yeah, I've met a lot of the actors. I guess Peter Dinklage, Tyrion made the biggest impression, as he's a truly brilliant actor...but then Lena Heady would always make a major impression, as I'd met her just after I'd watched the Sarah Conor series. We had a very long conversation about that! Charles Dance was very humorous when he popped his head over my drawing board and said, “you do all this? Very good, carry on!”
There are rumours flying around that the seventh season will be the last for the Game of Thrones?
The simple answer is that I don’t know if the seventh season will be the last season. Season six will be broadcast in April on this year and I will start working on the storyboards of season seven in June or July. Although I start with my drawings at that time of the year the production starts much earlier, sometime in March. I guess the two producers, David Benioff and Daniel Brett Weiss, know what way they want the series to end, they are in constant contact with the author George RR Martin. There are so many rumours floating around, but I will only find out when they tell me. I have heard rumours of seasons nine and seasons ten and even two films, but until HBO come out and state that officially we will have to wait.
Did George Martin ever interfere and maybe ban any of your ideas?
George has very little to do with the TV series. He's much more of an advisor. The series is definitely David and Dan's work. My ideas are usually dictated by the directors of the episodes, except when I've been asked to conceptualise something. Then it goes through the producers or the production designer. Nothing's been banned yet!
What are the biggest "pitfalls" of your work, and what would be your advice to people just starting out in the business?
Basically, my job requires you to be a bit of a psychologist, a hypnotist and a clairvoyant, with a great ability to listen and also generate ideas out of the craziest of scenarios! When you deal with five directors at a time on Game of Thrones, and then the directors on the other films I do, it's a full time enthusiastic diplomacy job, with a large capacity for coffee, and that's all before I need to start drawing! Listen and be patient, because most of the directors you work with, probably have a bigger CV in film than you, so it's likely they do know more about what they need....but there's always the exception!
The Herceg Novi comic strip festival celebrated its tenth anniversary this year and brought William Simpson, the storyboard artist from the Game of Thrones, as their special guest. In fact the organisers can be proud of the fact that they, and not HBO, brought Simpson to Dubrovnik, his King’s Landing, for the very first time.
William Simpson with the organisers of the Herceg Novi Comic Strip Festival in Mimoza Restaurant in Dubrovnik