WILLIAM SIMPSON CREATED CONCEPTUAL PAINTINGS, STORYBOARDS FOR ACCLAIMED HBO SERIES
By Robert Wilonsky
William Simpson’s job was bridging the gulf between the writers’ boundless imaginations, in which anything was possible and everything was doable, and the real world’s limitations. The project: HBO’s groundbreaking series Game of Thrones.
Now, for the first time, Simpson’s preliminary conceptual paintings and storyboards for the acclaimed series are going to auction. More than 40 pieces will be spread across 18 lots in the Dallas-based auction house’s Nov. 14 Entertainment & Music Memorabilia event, each one a singular keepsake from the show based on the novels of George R.R. Martin.
These are the rough drafts of entertainment history, black-and-white sketches and vibrant paintings eventually brought to life by armies of actors, directors, producers, makeup artists, prosthetics makers and special-effects technicians (for starters). “You’re interpreting almost the idea of what a director might see in their head,” says Simpson, a renowned illustrator of comic books, including Judge Dredd and Hellblazer, and sketcher of cinematic storyboards. “But you also want to show them … more.”
Simpson’s “more” – and nothing less – is on display in these pieces with which he’s parting only one year after the publication of Insight Editions’ coffee-table book Game of Thrones: The Storyboards. Included in the auction are some of the most unforgettable images, characters and moments from Game of Thrones hand rendered by the artist who defined the series as much as Martin, creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss and the writers and directors who worked on its 73 episodes.
There is perhaps no image more iconic (nor controversial) throughout the series’ seven-season run than the resurrection of Jon Snow. In the upcoming auction, Simpson offers two pages of panels depicting the very moment Priestess Melisandre uses the power of R’hllor to raise from the dead the slain Lord Commander. Simpson’s sketches offer the first glimpse between written word and indelible image.
Collected in this event are more than a dozen series highlights, rendered by hand on Bristol board – among them the moment it’s revealed Daenerys Targaryen is the true Mother of Dragons. Here you will find the original concept drawing detailing that moment, when the fire from Khal Drogo’s funeral pyre dies out to reveal the Khaleesi unsinged and her baby dragons hatched.
Simpson, who brought the White Walkers to terrifying life during his work on the Game of Thrones pilot, is also offering from Season 8 a breathtaking oil-and-acrylic painting of an ice monster riding his dead horse into battle. Here, too, is the Battle of Blackwater Bay Preliminary concept painting, alight with the glow of green flame – the only such painting done for the Season 2 centerpiece.
There’s also the artist’s “pre-concept” painting of a dragon laying waste to a hilltop city; and that of a young Bran Stark astride a direwolf before the idea was set aside (“When it was discovered direwolves don’t act particularly well!”).
“These paintings are the Holy Grail – they are unbelievable,” says Jim Lentz, Heritage Auctions’ director of animation art. “Behind every hit movie or every TV show is a team of artists – or, in this case, an artist – who contributes to the look of a show, the feel of a show. Through his earliest visions for Game of Thrones, William Simpson’s artwork has left such a huge imprint on the success of this show.”
The Irish artist began his work on Game of Thrones without even knowing which project he was working on. In 2010, Simpson was storyboarding writer-director David Gordon Green’s Your Highness, the medieval-times comedy-adventure the filmmaker had wanted to make since he was a young boy growing up in a Dallas suburb.
One of that film’s producers, Mark Huffam, called Simpson and asked if he would provide renderings of castles, knights in armor, giant ruins and “even beheadings, for some reason,” Simpson recalls with a laugh. Huffam wouldn’t tell him the name of the project for which he wanted those drawings, only that it was “a medieval fantasy.” Simpson asked, “Isn’t that what we’re doing on Your Highness?” To which Huffam responded, “It’s not quite like this.”
Simpson was sent fragments of scripts, and spent nights and weekends working on this side project. And then – “I will never forget,” Simpson says, “it was a Wednesday” – Huffam called back and said, “We’ve got Game of Thrones.” Simpson asked if that was what he had been working on. The producer said yes.
“I said, ‘Does that mean I have a job after Your Highness?’” Simpson recalls. “And he said, ‘Absolutely.’ And the next day I was with Game of Thrones folks and starting to get into drawing stuff for the series. It was such a beautiful job to do. One day it was weapons, then armor, then White Walkers, then dragons.”
And so it went for 73 episodes over eight years, from 2011 until 2019, as Game of Thrones bound to the top of countless best-of-the-decade and best-ever lists.
Most of the artwork offered in the Heritage auction features not only the work, but also his handwritten observations on the back (and, in some cases, even more illustrations.) On the back of his Season 2 storyboards for featuring Daenerys and Doreah and a baby dragon, Simpson writes, “Before Doreah loses the plot and betrays Dany. When the dragons are still little and learning.”
There are also pieces from the “Histories & Lore” animated vignettes that appeared on the series’ DVD and Blu-ray boxed sets, including an original concept drawing of Khal Temmo, who lies dead in the aftermath of the epic defeat of 25,000 Dothraki warriors by the 3.000 Unsullied soldiers hired to protect the city of Qohor.
Simpson keeps in his possession pieces from projects realized, completed and abandoned. A few are on the walls; most are tucked away for book projects and exhibitions. But in the case of his Game of Thrones material, Simpson wanted to make it available to fans of the series, especially those interested in knowing why something was done or how a character or moment evolved from conception to execution.
“You want the work to go to someone who is absolutely going to appreciate what you’ve done,” Simpson says. “You want it to be fulfilling in somebody’s life. I work all day on film projects, animation projects, comic artwork – all of that is bouncing about.
“You know,” he says with a small laugh, “I just hate the idea of artwork being filed away.”
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at Heritage Auctions.