How 'Game of Thrones' Designed Last Night's Fiery Set Piece

The architectural inspiration behind Vaes Dothrak was, well, unlikely.

by Beckett Mufson
16 May 2016, 3:40pm

Image courtesy HBO

This article contains spoilers for Game of Thrones Season 6 Episode 4, "The Book of the Stranger."

The incendiary finale to last night's powder keg of a Game of Thones episode reminded us of the "fire" part of Daenerys Targaryen's (Emilia Clarke) constant threats of "fire and blood." With her dragons locked up or 90% MIA since Season 4, we haven't gotten a good roasting from the Mother of Dragons in awhile. “It’s so exciting, very tingly-making. Every season I get at least one spine-chilling moment. I just stand up and I go, ‘I’m hearing what you’re all saying, but funny thing, I’m going to kill you all. I forgot that I have an ace in my back pocket and now I win,’" Clarke told Entertainment Weekly. We doubt there could have been more satisfied recipients than the Bro-thraki Khals who have spent several episodes threatening to rape and imprison her for the rest of her life.

In watching last night's episode, you basked in the warm glow of female empowerment (and dead Khals), but you also witnessed the destruction of a unique set piece courtesy of production designer Deborah Riley. “The great thing about Vaes Dothrak is that we were able to try a completely different kind of architecture to anything else that I’ve explored on the show," she tells The Creators Project. While the general aesthetic and attitudes of the Dothraki seem to evoke the conquering cavalry of Genghis Khan, their holy city is actually a combination of African and Canadian arcitecture.

"I managed to find a really fantastic-looking tiny African village. The references to it are brilliant. It’s called Benin, and their style of architecture is nothing like anything I had seen before. We drew very heavily from the roof lines they use and their style of mud finish and that sort of stuff," Riley says. By repurposing a village used in Ridley Scott's 2014 biblical epic, Exodus, with elements taken from Benin's architecture, the production design team was able to create a setting completely foreign to both Western and Westerosi visual sensibilities. "The thing that I was really proud of is that these buildings look like they could have existed in that landscape," Riley continues. "They match the mountains beautifully and really look like they were embedded into that environment."

The Canadian architecture comes in through the (now former) temple at Vaes Dothrak, which drew from Arthur Erickson's distinctive mezzanine at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. "The rhythm of the exterior of the temple is set up exactly the same way as his building," Riley says. "I took the building and turned his rhythm upside-down." These details help us view the Dothraki in a new light. Doesn't it kind of make sense that they're a mixture of an African tribe and inside-out Canadians? Sure, their culture is built on violence, but they basically play the Game in socks, sarongs, and sandals.

Pictured: Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO

We won't be seeing the temple again, as it's been razed to the ground by Daenerys the Unburnt's latest power play, itself a prime example of Game of Thrones' magic. We've seen actors walking amongst this much fire on this show before, though under different circumstances. The burning of Mance Rayder (Ciarán Hinds) at the stake required similar visual wizardry. "The big special effects issue there was the fire," says Paul Ghirardani in a Season 5 featurette. "We're constantly setting the fire, then constantly exinguishing it." Adds stunt coordinator Rowley Irlam, "We burn him at the stake by stacking up the flames, the camera, and Ciarán, we create the illusion that he's on fire."

Knowing Game of Thrones' creators David Benioff and D.B. White's dedication to using real fire whenever possible on this show, including massive dragon-sized flamethrowers, we suspect that this scene was a hot one for Emilia Clarke, especially since she confirms to EW that it's actually her in that conflagration. "This is all me, all proud, all strong. That ain't no body double," she says. The scene contradicts statements that A Song of Ice and Fire author (and Game of Thrones producer) George R.R. Martin has made in the past, that Daenerys' immunity to fire when she entered Khal Drogo's pyre in Season 1 was, "unique, magical, wonderous, a miracle," and would probably not happen again. Meanwhile, showrunner Weiss calls it "her superpower," in EW, though he quickly qualifies the statement by says, "But this isn't that type of show." 

Nevertheless, this scene had something for everybody who watches Game of Thrones: killer effects, an empowering female kicking ass, a brutal power play gone right, nudity, and niche architecture trivia.

Pictured: Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen Credit: Courtesy HBO

Game of Thrones airs on HBO Sundays at 9 PM EST.


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Game of Thrones
special effects
Production Design
daenerys targaryen
emilia clarke
Game of Thrones Season 6
Deborah Riley
arthur erickson
book of the stranger