Thrones, castles and mud

CR Grad Guide: Jess Crombie, a production designer for TV and film, talks about creating fictional worlds for the fantasy drama series Game of Thrones

Gemma Jackson is a production designer for television and film. From 2009 to 2012, she worked on Game of Thrones and was awarded an Emmy for outstanding art direction on the series. Since leaving the show, Jackson has returned to freelancing and is working on a film about King Arthur.

Could you tell us more about your background, education, and how you came to be working on Game of Thrones? 

I went to art school and studied painting before doing a postgraduate degree in theatre design. I worked in theatre for about nine years. Around 1980, I worked on a small political film with an all-female cast, and my film career began when I scored the job as art director on Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa [1986 neo-noir mystery about an ex-convict who becomes a driver for a female escort, with Michael Cain, Bob Hoskins and Cathy Tyson].

Before Game of Thrones, I did another TV series with HBO, John Adams, which was very successful [the show won four Golden Globe Awards and 13 Emmys, one of which was awarded to Jackson]. HBO is very loyal to its staff, and I had made good friends there, so I suppose I was a natural choice for Game of Thrones … I still went through the usual process though, meeting with the director and discussing ideas.

What made you want to become a production designer after studying painting?

I loved painting, but I didn’t feel I had the philosophical drive to become a painter. What I love about theatre, TV and film is the collaborative element, and the interpretative aspect of it. That, and the fact that every job is so different.

Could you describe the scope of your role on the show?

When it started, we weren’t really sure how the show would grow or develop. It was a normal job, reading the script, interpreting what George [RR Martin, author of the novels on which the series is based] had written, working out what the directors wanted and building up images and designs for each set. By the time I left, we had six huge stages and warehouses full of sets, and it’s getting bigger every year.

It was a large team; I worked with an art director, a decoration department, a wonderful construction manager, Tom Martin, and a huge amount of painters and plasterers. With each new series, we’d have a new set of things to design, as well as developing the worlds we’d already established.

What did you most enjoy about working on Game of Thrones?

I loved creating the contrast between each of the different worlds; it was very important to have a clear distinction between the North and South [the show is set in the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos; the northern regions are cold and wintry, while the south appears warm and exotic]. You could find influences for these different stages almost anywhere – with Castle Black, I was inspired by Tibetan buildings, high in the mountains, while King’s Landing had a much more Mediterranean feel to it.

One of the most challenging sets was Harrenhal [a fictional castle], which we built brick by brick in Bambridge. The Sept [above] was seven sided, which was important as the characters’ religion is the Faith of the Seven. We built a third of it, so it was quite a job working out how to repeat the set, but it looked quite stunning in the end.

With others, we would refashion bits from old sets with new graphics, or dress existing structures. To create the Iron Islands, we dressed the harbour at Ballintoy, near Belfast, with mud and moss, as the harbour structure itself was perfect. For Craster’s Keep, [a small homestead in the wild north], we used huge logs and trees to build this beautiful set in the middle of the forest.

It was an extraordinary job, really, and I feel terribly proud of it. Being in Belfast [much of the show is filmed in Northern Ireland], I loved walking past the docks and the sea and into these lavish worlds we’d created. I miss it a lot, but I think after three seasons, it was a good time for me to leave – as a freelancer, it’s the longest I’ve worked on anything and once I’d set up the look and the roots of the show, I felt it was time to move on and do something else.

And what advice do you have for people who want to work in production design?

You’ve got to have gall – you have to be able to deal with so many different people, and have a wonderful imagination, and I think you have to be quite fearless. Those qualities have to be inherent.

Getting into this kind of work is very different now than when I started but, today, I think you just need to get out there and do your own thing. Do small projects, student films, anything you can, and take every opportunity that’s available.

Gemma Jackson is represented by Independent Talent Group, All images shown courtesy Gemma Jackson



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