Among the many delights of the “Game of Thrones” viewing experience is seeing which locations appear on the opening credits map in any given week. But sometimes, I wind up wondering what the logic is for certain decisions about the map, like some weeks we see locations that don’t actually appear in that episode, while locales where several characters are present (and that have appeared on the map before) aren’t featured.
For instance, tonight’s episode, “Sons of the Harpy” (I reviewed it here) featured our first new map location of season 5, the southern Westeros kingdom of Dorne, even though Dorne had first appeared on the show two episodes early. And the Eyrie appeared in the credits of several early episodes, even though no characters have been there this season, while it didn’t appear at all late last year when Sansa and Littlefinger were living there.
Earlier this week, I got on the phone with “GoT” producer Greg Spence to talk about the various logistical and creative reasons for why some locations appear in some weeks, and some don’t. Here’s what you need to know:
It took the show a while to settle on a map style.
“Early on, before we had ever shown anything to HBO, we were concerned about having so many characters and having so many locations, and looking for ways to clarify and connect with where we were,” Spence says. “We played around with a lot of ideas.”
One would have been “an Indiana Jones-style traveling camera kind of thing,” while another would have followed the style of the interstitals on “Wild Wild West” – not with commercial breaks, since HBO doesn’t have them, but to mark the transition from one location to the next – that presented that little piece of the larger puzzle that is George R.R. Martin’s world.
Eventually, Angus Wall at Elastic, the company that makes the titles, had, according to Spence, “a vision of a mad monk, in a tower somewhere,” who was somehow keeping track of all this action, “and creating as he went. He would then fashion little automatons out of the materials that would be available in his world. They would be stone, or tin, or wood, and everything would feel very hand-crafted.”
Some locations are constant.
Every episode’s map features King’s Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and wherever Daenerys is at the moment. That doesn’t change even if the episode doesn’t feature a single scene in one of those places, or if there aren’t any significant characters there at the moment.
The map is meant to be symbolic, rather than literal.
Winterfell has remained constant even though it didn’t appear at all in season 3, and for most of season 4, because “Because it’s the seat of the Stark power and the Stark family, and those are one of our primary groups of powers, we wanted to keep it in.”
Similarly, the map always gives us some location over in Essos where Daenerys might be, even if Emilia Clarke and friends have that week off.
“The way the main title, and the way that the camera travels, and crossing the Narrow Sea into Essos is important to us,” says Spence, “because it communicates the expanse of the show, and it helps to remind the audience of the entire world in which the show takes place. I think if we tried to limit the main title to just places that appear in the episodes, or we’re literally tracing each character, it would be more confusing and less successful at its primary task, which is really orienting people to the world.”
Time is a factor – for the show and for the people who make it.
The opening credits are the same length every week – in part to fit the theme music – so even an episode featuring a bunch of locations that Elastic had already created wouldn’t have room for all of them in the title sequence. Beyond that, though, it’s not just a matter of pointing and clicking at different graphic files on the computer. Setting up the camera’s movement from place to place – with King’s Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and somewhere in Essos having to be factored in no matter what – takes a lot of time.
“It would be untenable, both from a production point of view, and probably from a cost point of view, to make a completely customized 3D animated, 90 second sequence before every single episode. That would be a tremendous financial and creative burden. What you do see is a very complicated 3D build. The guys at Elastic begin working in October in order to deliver the sequences to us in February and March. So it’s quite a bit of manpower and man hours that goes into it.”
At the start of each season, production figures out what locations will be visited and tries to figure out which can be practically shown. Spence says there are usually “three or four camera paths per season, and within those paths, there’s a certain amount of revisited towns and cities, and we reuse animation, and we balance that with new camera moves and new animation.”
Sometimes, familiar locations are used as stand-ins for where people actually are.
Like I said, the Eyrie came back at the start of this year, even though Sansa and Littlefinger had already left its walls at the end of the previous season.
“For the reasons of production, and also of affordability, we do often reuse camera moves wherever we can,” says Spence. “We also have certain associations with characters. Now, we have the Eyrie, that early in the season we were associating with Littlefinger and Sansa in their trip. They’re not right in the castle, but they’re nearby when they pass Pod and Brienne on the road. So frequently, because those two are in that region and near there, even though we don’t literally go into the Eyrie, that’s the place that we chose to best symbolize where Littlefinger, Sansa, Brienne and Pod are. Until they have a meaningful interaction somewhere else, we would leave that in the main title.”
Single location episodes don’t get special treatment.
So far, there have been two episodes (season 2’s “Blackwater” and season 4’s “Watchers on the Wall”) that took place in just one locale, but the map functioned like it always did.
“For continuity we would imagine that the title sequence and the path it travels is more representative of the season than a literal translation,” says Spence. “I think to get too literal wouldn’t work with the timing that we have for the sequence itself, and for the animation. It would be spectacular fun if we could animate an entire Castle Black, 107-second title sequence, where the camera goes up and down the Wall, and up and down the elevator and around to the courtyard, that would be a blast. It just wouldn’t be possible.”
Old animation doesn’t usually get changed.
Of the pre-existing animation, the only one that’s been significantly tweaked has been Winterfell, which was on fire for a couple of seasons and is now decorated with the sigil of House Bolton.
When I wonder if the animation for Meereen would change to reflect Dany’s troops knocking over the Harpy statue atop the pyramid, he says, “You know, that’s actually a good idea. We didn’t think of that. But that’s an interesting idea for next season… But I’ll bring that up with David and Dan to see if it makes sense to knock the Harpy off of Meereen. The Harpy popping up on top of that pyramid is so much fun in the animation, we probably wouldn’t want to pull it down. Maybe we would break it in half or something.”