For its first seven seasons, the opening credits for Game of Thrones served as the TV equivalent of the map inside the front covers of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, orienting the viewer to where (roughly) in Westeros and Essos the characters would be that week. Over the years, the fanciful whirligig models representing King’s Landing, Winterfell, the Wall, and 18 other locations have become as deeply identified with the show as Daenerys’s dragons.
But as anyone who has seen the first episode of Game of Thrones’ final season knows — SPOILERS start here for anyone who hasn’t! — the credits for the show have been razed and completely rebuilt from the ground up.
It’s something the team responsible for GoT’s credits — Elastic, the production studio also behind the opening credits for Westworld, The Crown, and True Detective — have been thinking about doing since basically the very first season.
“Our initial pitch [for the credits] had all these little bells and whistles that were just too ambitious for the first pass,” creative director Angus Wall told BuzzFeed News. “We wanted a second bite at the apple, as it were, to really do all the stuff that we had initially talked about.”
In the early conceptions of the show’s pilot, the map was meant to be even simpler, as two-dimensional interstitials between the different far-flung scenes within each episode, to help the viewer make sense of where they were within Martin’s fantasy world. Once the producers realized returning to a map several times within an episode slowed the pace of the show, the map was moved to the main credits, and Elastic brought it to three-dimensional life, creating computer-generated clockwork models of each location as if they’d been built by, say, an eccentric maester with a lot of time on his hands in Oldtown.
The credits changed from episode to episode, as characters relocated to new areas in Westeros and Essos like the Eyrie or Meereen. That kept the team at Elastic busy building new models each season, but there was always the lingering thought that they could do even more.
“Every season, we’ve been talking about, ‘We should try to redo stuff,’” said Kirk Shintani, who led the CG team for the credits for the first seven seasons, and was the art director for the Season 8 credits.
The credits were working so well, however, that the Elastic team ultimately chose not to fix what wasn’t really broken.
But Season 8 presented a unique challenge: the cast of previously scattered characters had consolidated into just a handful of locations — basically King’s Landing, Winterfell, and the Wall — and audiences no longer needed to understand where those locations are in Westeros.
So in June 2017, after Elastic had delivered the credits for Season 7, GoT executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, along with producer Greg Spence, met with the team to discuss the plan for the Season 8.
“They said, ‘Let’s blow it out,’” Shintani said. “‘All the things that you wanted to do, let’s do it.’ For us, seven years of ideas just started pouring out.”
“In a way, we would have been really sad not to have had a second shot at doing all the stuff that we really wanted to do with the titles,” Wall added. “It was really kind of cathartic for everybody.”
The Elastic team knew they wanted to maintain the fundamental visual language they developed for the credits in Season 1, and keep the map of Westeros looking like a model someone from within the world of the show could conceivably build themselves. But with eight years of advancements in visual effects since GoT’s premiere in 2011, the team could make that map considerably more elaborate and detailed.
“You can go so much further and deeper with the tool set now than you could back when we did Season 1,” said Wall. “The first seven seasons, there’s an impressionistic aspect to the title sequence that I really like in an 8-bit way, in the same way that you would like Minecraft. But the new sequence is rendered with so much more accuracy and fractal detail.”
With that ability came a shift in how the Elastic team envisioned what the credits could do in supporting the larger story.
“To me, in Season 7, all the storylines and all the interactions between all the characters became a lot more intimate,” Shintani said. “You became acutely aware of the relationships between everybody, and how these things are going to come to a point.”
The Elastic team felt the credits could reflect that sense of immediacy and intimacy.
“You’re not getting this overarching view anymore. You’re getting this down-low, really specific micro view of what’s going on,” he said.
Added Wall, “We wanted to explore the idea that there was more under the surface than previous seasons, and that there was an interior and a depth in terms of the layers beneath the surface that we had only hinted at before.”
“I’ve been mulling over all of this stuff, every season, thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool if dot dot dot,” Shintani said.
Here’s what happened when Wall, Shintani, and the rest of the 25-person team at Elastic got to make those dot dot dots into a reality.
The astrolabe has new murals.
The literal center of the GoT credits have always been an intricate astrolabe circling a fiery star and decorated with murals meant to represent the history of Westeros and Essos that predates the show: the Doom of Valyria (which seemingly ended the age of dragons), the Battle of the Trident (which concluded Robert’s Rebellion against the Targaryens), and the Rise of House Baratheon as the rulers of Westeros.
As Season 8 represents the climax of an epochal moment in the history of Westeros, the Elastic team thought it only fitting to create three new murals representing seminal moments from the show itself, this time in reverse chronological order: the fall of the Wall, the Red Wedding, and the birth of Dany’s dragons.
“The idea is we have witnessed history that has become memorialized lore, and we’re probably going to witness more,” Wall said.
We start at the Wall, and track the Army of the Dead.
The original credits always followed roughly the same pattern: starting at King’s Landing before wending their way up to Winterfell and the Wall. This season, however, the direction has been reversed.
“With the White Walkers’ seeming inevitable crush southward, it seemed to make sense to start north of the Wall,” said, er, Wall.
Beginning the credits at the Wall — which now has a giant hole where Eastwatch-by-the-Sea used to be — also allowed the team a natural place to introduce one of their most significant innovations for the Season 8 credits, namely tracking the progression of armies marching through Westeros. In the credits for the Season 8 premiere, “Winterfell,” the Army of the Dead’s southward creep is represented by tiles on the map flipping from white to an icy, White Walker–y blue.
“It harkens back to classic strategy games like Risk, where you move game pieces around,” said Wall. “In the first seven seasons, we move from place to place. But we didn’t necessarily see representations of ‘armies’ on the move.”
Wall and Shintani were careful to limit their comments to just the credits for “Winterfell,” but it’s clear that viewers can expect this innovation to continue to alter the map throughout the rest of the season. It’s part of Elastic’s desire to have the new credits more directly reflect the show’s narrative week to week.
“It becomes very much like a bullet point story outline of the events that have unfolded,” said Shintani. “It was really cool for us because we got a chance to help the story, instead of just framing it.”
There is a new location this season, and there’s more to it than you might think.
Despite all the character consolidation this season, there’s clearly still room for some new locations, starting with the Last Hearth — the seat of House Umber, and the first location reached by the Army of the Dead.
While it’s unclear whether the location will prove important beyond “Winterfell,” the Elastic team built in a specific nod to a crucial visual motif that’s been recurring throughout the show.
“If you look at the mountain that the Last Hearth is sitting on, it has that spiral shape that you’ve seen the White Walkers lay out bodies in spiral form, and you’ve seen the spiral shape reappear on the murals on the walls in the North,” Shintani said. Intriguing.
We finally get to see inside Winterfell — for a reason.
Of all the changes Elastic made for GoT’s credits, easily the biggest and most complicated was the decision to create interiors for the major locations with the same complex visual language they’d been using for the exteriors. As Wall and Shintani explained, much how the exteriors in the old credits indicated the key locations within each episode, the choice of which interiors to depict in the new credits also connects to key interior locations for the show.
“They gave us a long list of places that were important,” Shintani said of the GoT producers. For Winterfell, Shintani said the Elastic team was tasked with creating models that included the Great Hall and the crypt, but he was guarded when asked if Winterfell’s interiors might change over the course of the season depending on what happens each week.
“I’ll say that there are differences in every single episode,” he said, speaking about the credits in general. “From episode to episode, pay attention, because there’s lots of hints scattered around.”
Mining Shintani for info about the season is fruitless anyway, since he and the rest of the Elastic team know very little in advance about what is in each episode proper. Every season, the GoT production team has sent Elastic sketches and concept art for the new locations for that run of episodes, which the team then synthesized into the specific look of the credits. But Elastic never learned the context behind those locations.
“They’re really good about giving us enough information to be able to make sense of what we need to do, but they’re really careful about not giving us more than we need,” Shintani said. “We end up filling in the blanks just like everybody else for a lot of it. ‘Well, if we’re going here, here, and here, then we’re probably going to be following this person and this person, because that’s where they were last season.’”
Given the increased level of direct plot detail in the new credits, the Elastic team did get more specific information for Season 8 than they had received in previous seasons. But Wall and Shintani still professed to have no idea what actually happens this season — and they prefer it that way.
“Quite honestly, I don’t want that information ahead of time,” Wall said. “I’d rather just know the bullet points of what we need to do in order to make an appropriate title sequence. I love watching the show, and honestly look forward to watching every story beat unfold.”
We now end at an updated King’s Landing, which stands taller than the Mountain.
The old credits always ended at a location far from the central action in Westeros, either tracking Dany’s journey through Essos, or sweeping over to the remote locales of Dorne or Oldtown. This season, however, the credits end at King’s Landing, diving down through the Red Keep before concluding at the Iron Throne.
“The show is called Game of Thrones, and the Iron Throne is in King’s Landing,” Wall said. “I don’t know that this is going to be the case or not, but the entire show is moving towards the Iron Throne. … So it made sense to end there.”
In order to have the model be large enough to fit all the necessary interior detail, the Elastic team had to create a massive CG structure. If it had been built to scale in the real world, Wall estimated it would stand roughly 20 feet tall.
The old credits never used a hard-and-fast scale for the model structures, but for Season 8, Elastic used a virtual human as a reference for every single detail within its giant model of Westeros.
“The wood grain is to scale. The metal is all to scale. Everything is rendered in a way that is much, much more accurate to a specific size,” said Wall. “I’m sure that we will have detractors who will prefer the old look. But what we were going for was something that was less impressionistic.”
Shintani said that the producers asked for the Season 8 credits to highlight the Red Keep’s map room and serpentine steps. The team additionally got to update some changes that the capital of Westeros has experienced during the show. The old credits have signified changes at Winterfell — it was covered in smoke for two seasons after the Boltons burned it at the end of Season 2, and while the Bolton family held the castle, the Stark direwolf sigil was replaced by the Boltons’ flayed man sigil.
King’s Landing, however, remained unchanged in the old credits, despite Cersei’s destruction of the Sept of Baelor and ascent to the throne as the first Lannister to be Queen of Westeros at the end of Season 6.
“There are things like that that we’re aware of that we just didn’t have a chance to update over the course of the last seven seasons,” Shinati said. “We got a chance to revisit everything.” In the new credits, the Sept is no more, and the sigil over the Iron Throne is the Lannister lion instead of the Baratheon stag.
There are, however, some peculiarities of the old credits that the Elastic team likely won’t get to sort out. The credits for Season 7, for example, continued to end at Oldtown well after Samwell Tarly had left it — something the Elastic team only learned when they watched the episodes along with everyone else. In earlier seasons, the credits highlighted locations in Essos like Vaes Dothrak and Yunkai even when Dany wasn’t actually at those places. After repeatedly hearing about the glory of Casterly Rock and Highgarden over multiple seasons, meanwhile, they weren’t featured in the credits for the one episode actually set in them. And despite the many crucial locations north of the Wall, the credits never ventured beyond it.
Budget and time constraints led to many of these decisions, as well as the creative determination to focus on architecturally driven seats of power that appear in more than a single episode. Still, after getting the opportunity to revisit the credits for the final season, it’s been easy to just keep thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool if…
“The places that I would have loved to put in [the credits] over the years are the places that have the most emotional resonance, not necessarily the places we spend the most time,” said Shintani, who cited the Season 6 episode “The Door” — when the Night King attacked the home of the Three-Eyed Raven and we learned the origin of Hodor’s name — as the episode that particularly resonated with him.
“We never really established where that was,” he said. “If I had another shot at it to start over in Season 1, and redo every single season over again, I would try to sneak some of those things in there.”
For his part, Wall said he has no regrets about the past credits. “I'm not one to look back and critique what we did. I prefer to look forward to what we can do better the next time,” he said.
Of course, there won’t be any credits to make after Game of Thrones’ series finale airs on May 19. Given the new, plot-centric approach and his own aversion to spoilers, how did Wall and his team tackle the challenge of creating the credits for easily the most anticipated episode of television this decade?
“I'm going to be really cheeky,” Wall said with a laugh. “We’ll have to wait and see.” ●