Derry’s Game of Thrones

Will tries out the hot-seat on the set of Game of Thrones! (2905JC1)
Will tries out the hot-seat on the set of Game of Thrones! (2905JC1)

For many, working on Batman would surely be the pinnacle of a career - but for Derry-born artist Will Simpson it’s just another job! Now the highly-respected comic book artist and illustrator spends much of his time in Los Angeles working on one of the biggest fantasy series’ in the history of television - HBO’s Emmy-award winning ‘Game of Thrones’. JULIEANN CAMPBELL finds out more....

Will grew up in Prehen and over the past three decades he has worked for all the major comic houses: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Vertigo and 2000 AD. Nowadays, however, Will has concentrated primarily on illustration and film making and has drawn storyboards for films including Breakfast on Pluto, Closing the Ring, Reign of Fire, City of Ember and Your Highness - many of which were filmed in Belfast. This work naturally led to Game of Thrones.

One of Will Simpson's storyboards for the Game of Thrones. (2905JC9)

One of Will Simpson's storyboards for the Game of Thrones. (2905JC9)

“It’s been pretty phenomenal working with HBO, the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series seems to have taken off worldwide,” Will told the ‘Derry Journal’ yesterday. “It certainly keeps me happy in my work, knowing I’ve contributed to such a success, and the fact that it’s taken me to Hollywood in L.A. to work on BlueRay extras, is fantastic. Quite a surprise!”

Explaining how he landed such a prestigious job with HBO, Will says: “I was called in by Mark Huffam, who probably Northern Ireland’s most successful producer with credits on ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Mama Mia’ and recently Ridley Scott’s ‘Prometheus’, to do some concept work for the proposed ‘Game of Thrones’ pilot episode.

“When I then heard it was happening, Mark called me back to work on the series and I ended up doing some concept work with the art team and designed pretty much all of the hero weapons, for the pilot, which carried on into the series, and then storyboarded both the pilot and the following seasons. A dream job.”

As a storyboard artist, Will reveals the process involved in bringing a story to life.

The poster for the first series of HBOs Game of Thrones, starring Sean Bean. (2905JC2)

The poster for the first series of HBOs Game of Thrones, starring Sean Bean. (2905JC2)

“The storyboarding process works with me first getting the scripts to read - my name stamped all over them for security - and then involved meetings with the directors, or line producer Chris Newman. It’s a great process which is fundamental to working out a lot of difficulties in scenes. We then get to see beautifully realised on screen. It sometimes goes through many versions, dependant on budgetary constants, the directors and I, getting to work out the best way to present the storytelling for filming purposes. It’s very one-to-one. A pretty detailed process.”

Will’s professional comic work includes working for 2000AD, drawing Universal Soldier, Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Tale of the Dead Man, and Tyranny Rex. In 1991, he made the move into American comics, working on things like Hellblazer, Aliens mini-series, Rogue, Vamps, Indiana Jones and the Spear of Destiny and a three part Batman story, ‘Freak Out’ in Legends of the Dark Knight, as well as Marvel’s Excalibur and Punisher 2099.

Will also said he can see similarities between his recent storyboard work and years concentrating on comics

“I was always trying to be cinematic in my comic art; that allowed me to be making films on a printed page, as I never expected to be involved in the movie industry. In the end, I think it really helped in me being able to transfer my skill, and in a way, re-invent what I do as an artist, or discover a new side to my artwork,” Will says.

Viewers of series two of Game of Thrones have just been treated to Episode 9 of the long-awaited Battle of Blackwater - one of the largest scale one-off episodes that HBO have ever done.

Will was instrumental in bringing this battle to life - as he explains.

“The Battle of Blackwater was tremendous. I drew four versions of that episode, almost in it’s entirety, as it started off with a pre-emptive version, with Chris, to try and discover some of the possible future hiccups, and then going through two versions with the original director before getting to sit down with the excellent Neil Marshall to devise version four. This was a very smart move on HBO’s behalf, as Neil is renowned for his action/horror feature films, and this episode needed to be absolutely grandiose. His first comments to me, as we went through the previous versions was, ‘We need more blood’! My kind of director. He went straight to the heart of the story, and pulled it out, still beating! It is a truly remarkable episode for a TV production. I was stunned when I saw it. A great credit to the visual effects guys too.”

With this in mind, Will also welcomed the increasing popularity of Northern Ireland for film/TV projects.

“It’s superb that Northern Ireland has become a location for US movie and TV producers. It’s totally realistic to be here, as we have a very diverse landscape, within very short distances,” he says. “As long as the country doesn’t get greedy, this industry could be a perfect future for a lot of people interested in film,” he says. “We have a lot of very professional, skilled people here, but it is an itinerant industry, that moves where the work is.”

Will expresses genuine amazement that his love of comic book art has taken him so far in life.

“I never knew my career would take me to where my work is now. I started off doing paintings as a kid, landscapes and portraits, and comic art as a career was my first happy shock! I thought I was going to stay in my own studio forever, never seeing real daylight! And then through a series of strangely fated events, my film career happened. Some days you just feel like you’re being looked after! I love what I do!”

As a regular guest to Derry’s 2D - Northern Ireland Comics Festival - Will says: “I always love the 2D festival. It’s become a regular thing on my calendar and I always try to attend, if Dave invites me,”

Will says. “It’s a great relaxed environment for the comic creators, and seems to go down very well with the fans. I personally always enjoy the panel discussions. A lot of the best creators in comics try to attend, and they are always very generous with their time. “It’s always a weird nostalgia trip, for me, coming home, with a new thriving city. I started drawing here and it certainly seemed to take me far.”

So what’s next for the Derry artist? Is there anything he would still love to do?

“Next for me is ‘Game of Thrones’, Season 3. There’s also a Making of Game of Thrones book coming out in October, with an extra special limited print run, Storyboards of Seasons 1 & 2 book. That’s a real biggy. I have a film project I hope to direct soon, which is something I want to do more of, and I have my new vampire comic, ‘VMT’ to come out from ‘Renegade.’ I’ve been asked about a few other films, but it’s too early to tell. There’s a lot of things for me to be interested in right now, with quite a lot of my own scriptwriting to focus on.... and, I’m still painting! All good!”

As part of this year’s Festival, Will will discuss his work on Game of Thrones. What can fans expect? “I’ll show a lot more detail of what I do on ‘Game of Thrones’ and try to give insights on the first two seasons…but NO spoilers!” he laughs.

Don’t miss Derry’s own Will Simpson and a host of other world-class artists and writers FOR FREE at 2D Comics Festival this weekend from May 31-June 2. Will Simpson’s talk at 2D - ‘Creating Games of Thrones’ - takes place on Saturday, June 2, in the Library of the Verbal Arts Centre from 2.30pm until 3.30pm. Pre-booking advised. For details, see: www.2dfestival.com.