Visual Storytelling: Tone, Texture, and Scale in Westeros

In a few weeks fans of HBO’s Game of Thrones will embark on the second to last season of a show that redefined how we imagine new worlds on television. While we’ve long known about the different cultures in Westeros through the written word, seeing these stories on the screen has resulted in an entirely new visual experience.

A view of Cave 16 at the Ellora Caves in India. Circa 8th Century. This served as one of the artistic influences for the Hall of Faces in the House of Black and White. | Credit: Santanu Sen on Flickr via Creative Commons

One of my favorite things about the show has always been the intricate sets and staging which was the subject last week of a presentation at the National Museum of the American Indian with Game of Thrones Art Director Deborah Riley.

During her talk Riley presented on the influences and references for her work in Seasons 4,5 and 6 where she provided examples of how the “movie” magic pulled together some of the most iconic moments of the show. What she makes clear, however, was that it wasn’t just the use of digital technology and green screen, but also craftsmanship and artistic vision that influenced what we saw on the screen. In particular was the detail of how Riley and her team leveraged historical images and art in developing the vision of the show.

Nestled in her description of visual storytelling Deborah Riley’s outlined three critical touchpoints for how we as storytellers use the visual arts to create a narrative. She spoke of how every element she designed worked towards Establishing TONE, Creating TEXTURE, and Developing SCALE.

A few quick examples:

For the interior of the House of Black and White, which towers over Arya Stark with its many, many faces; Riley used pictures from the Ellora caves in India and the Temple of 1000 Buddha’s in Hong Kong. By themselves, these two sacred spaces tell distinct and important stories about ancient religions and civilizations. Using her background and knowledge of the psychology of space and architecture, Riley used elements from Ellora and the temple to feed into the architectural language of this fictional sanctum to the Many Faced God. The Ellora caves with its repeating columns gave the Hall of Faces depth, while the repeating elements at the temple provided a foundation for holding each of the faces preserved by the House of Black and White. By mixing this visual design with lighting (and not to mention the music) we got a sense of how this space should feel – giving us further depth into Arya’s experience.

In the second example Riley was tasked with developing a vision for the Battle of the Bastards. This was an insane scene filled with bodies and grit — a jumble of people and weapons smashing together in chaos.

Riley’s inspiration? Picasso’s Guernica. Considered one of the greatest statements against war — Picasso painted Guernica in response to the bombing of a Basque Village in 1937. In using this image as her touch point Riley succeeded in creating a visual language (a texture so to speak) for the battle that was horrific and suffocating.

Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Located at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain.

With these examples in mind I left the panel asking two different questions about visual storytelling.

  1. What are the essential elements that make a narrative feel real even when it is created within a fictional world?
  2. Is there a universal language for storytelling?

While I don’t think I have the answer, I do believe that in order to tell a successful visual story you have to base it in something familiar. That doesn’t mean that the images/scenes/places being highlighted can’t be fantastical in nature – but there has to an element (or a sense of vocabulary) in order for viewers to make sense of things in their own way.

Reminder: This piece is one of many ruminations for my research project on interdisciplinary storytellingLet me know what you think! 

2 thoughts on “Visual Storytelling: Tone, Texture, and Scale in Westeros

  1. Priya, This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing this. I’m very intrigued and now wish I had heard the presentation. DJB

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