The House of the Dragon set creates the “right psychological climate for the story”

Production designer Jim Clay created a dragon skull that “could show up in the Natural History Museum” for the set design for the TV series House of the Dragon, which is also based on the Wolf Hall trilogy to give the audience interiors a “Machiavellian feel”.

“The main thing about House of the Dragon is that we wanted it to be a believable and plausible world, we wanted it to be rooted in reality,” Clay told Dezeen in a video call from Warner Bros studios in London, where the interior is shown. Scenes from the series were shot.

Clay, who has a background working in film, has previously created production design for such films as Belfast and Death on the Nile, directed by Kenneth Branagh, as well as Love Actually.

Creating House of the Dragon was like “doing 10 feature films” at once

The designer had to take a “crash course” in the lore behind House of the Dragon, the prequel to television company HBO’s Game of Thrones television series, before he began creating the fantasy world.

“I have to admit I hadn’t actually seen Game of Thrones, I must have been the only person in the world who hadn’t, I had to do a crash course,” he said.

The goal of the set design for House of the Dragon was to “embrace and expand” on what had come before, with Clay drawing on his film design experience to create the grand sets.

“The joy of it was that even though it’s television, it’s set like a feature film, only you’re doing 10 feature films with four different directors all at the same time,” he said.

Man standing in front of throne with multiple swords
The prequel is set centuries before Game of Thrones

To create the overall feel of the series, Clay looked to architectural influences that predate those used in Game of Thrones, which takes place centuries later.

“Game of Thrones was essentially the medieval European sensibility; we’re trying to go back further into Roman and Byzantine times, so we’re varying the palette,” he explained.

“Pure medieval is a fairly familiar genre now on television, so we’re trying to push it a little bit,” he added. “With the Red Keep castle, we tried to introduce a little bit of very early Spanish architecture.”

Two people in a castle room with a fireplace.
Red Keep Castle was based on early Spanish architecture

A well-known play depicting a later time period also had a prominent influence on the design of the House of the Dragon set.

To give the interiors of the Red Keep castle, where much of the first season takes place, the right feel, Clay drew on the Wolf Hall trilogy by the late British author Hilary Mantel. Set in the early 16th century, the trilogy depicts the rise and fall of King Henry VIII’s adviser, Thomas Cromwell.

“I took a lot from that – it’s wonderful writing, the way it captured the intrigue and Machiavellian quality of Henry VIII’s court,” Clay explained.

A grand staircase in House of the Dragon
Multiple lookout points add to the atmosphere of Red Keep

“A lot stuck in my mind as I thought about the Red Keep,” he added.

“We introduced a grand staircase, observation points, windows and corridors where, for example, the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower, could always watch who was talking to whom, who was walking down the corridor with whom – this constant sense of watching for potential threats “, he continued.

“I kept thinking of Otto Hightower as Thomas Cromwell,” he said.

Two people carrying a baby up the stone stairs
Actors Emma D’Arcy and Theo Nate walk up the stairs of the large compound set

To heighten the sense of being watched and illustrate the intrigue taking place in court, the production design team also built a set that would allow the actors to be seen moving from room to room.

“Instead of creating individual sets for the [Red Keep] bedroom, the chamber and the corridor, we built a big composite set so that we could actually take trips from room to room, and that helped give it that kind of Machiavellian feel,” Clay said.

“I think the role of the production designer is to create a psychological climate for the story and the narrative, so that’s the most important thing when I’m working on a script,” he added.

A large dragon skull on an altar with many candles
A large dragon skull was made from Styrofoam.

The double-height complex, which measures 2,500 square meters on each of its two levels and reached 14 meters at its highest point, took a team of 300 workers four and a half months to build. Like Clay’s other outfits, it was designed to look as realistic as possible.

However, part of the production design also involved creating realistic representations of fantastical creatures, including a large dragon skull placed atop an altar in the Red Keep.

A courtyard at House of the Dragon
Jim Clay aimed to create realistic designs for the show.

Made from polystyrene, the team made a series of mock-ups to get the design right before settling on the final piece.

“It was sculpted out of Styrofoam and covered in plaster and it’s a magnificent piece; it could show up in the Natural History Museum and no one would know it’s Styrofoam,” Clay said.

“We felt that maybe in Game of Thrones, the skulls and remains of dragons hadn’t been as revered,” he added.

“So we really wanted it to be a full altar with all the candles and proper reverence to the skull.”

High Tide throne room in House of the Dragon
High Tide Castle has a Byzantine feel

The first season of House of the Dragon focuses on three different houses, and the designer tried to give each of those settings a different feel.

“We’ve tried to draw a slightly different vernacular for all three houses: High Tide is a bit more Byzantine in feel with its windows, arches and decoration, while Red Keep was closer to the original medieval feel,” Clay said.

“Dragonstone has a different feel. We recreated the entire Painted Table [a carved table depicting the world in which the show is set] And we’re developing that into an entirely new composite set to accommodate the new scripts.”

Interior of the Red Keep castle
Frescoes decorate the walls of the Red Keep

In addition to the large sets, the production design also featured more subtle design details, including “pornographic” frescoes.

“Part of the summary of Red Keep was that they were living in this age of decline,” Clay said. “I didn’t want to go down the normal tapestry route. So we had these big frescoes painted on the walls, which were taken from the spirit of Pompeii and essentially pornographic.”

“We had to film that carefully and subtly so it wasn’t quite prominent, but it was there as a suggestion in the background,” he added.

House of the Dragon Room with Sheer Curtains
The interiors of House of the Dragon were shot at Warner Bros. Studios. Photo by Ollie Upton courtesy of HBO

This fall also saw the premiere of another fantasy prequel, The Rings of Power, which took a look at the events leading up to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, with the two shows potentially competing for many of the same viewers.

“We were very aware that this would be one of our main competitors,” Clay said. “We’ve been pleased that the audience has responded so well to our world, and I think the world of television and film is a great world. There’s room for all of these things.”

“Just focus on the world you’re creating,” he added.

An actor in an alley in House of the Dragon
The goal of the production was to “embrace and expand” the previous show.

While he initially found the prospect of taking on the design of a world that was well known after Game of Thrones daunting, Clay said he ended up enjoying the “feeling of freedom” from the project.

“It’s certainly more exciting for a designer than something set in 2022, where you’re often forced to go to real places and your contribution is somewhat limited to the real-world palate, whereas this is just fabulous,” he concluded.

Other television series with notable set designs include Squid Games and Ratched which features an asylum designed to look like “a beautiful person with a really dark secret”.

Photography is courtesy of HBO.

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