It’s been more than a decade since Game of Thrones hit screens and its legacy only continues to grow with the release of HBO’s latest series in the franchise, House of the Dragon.
Even though the last of Daenerys’ dragons roared in 2019, the show’s impact still looms large in one of its principal filming locations – Northern Ireland. Lovers of the show have long been making pilgrimages to scenic locations like Ballintoy Harbour, the Dark Hedges, and Castle Ward to admire the rugged landscape that captured the heart of George R. R. Martin’s vast continent, but now fans can delve deeper than ever before with the Game of Thrones Studio Tour.
We spoke to Brad Kelly, General Manager of the Game of Thrones Studio Tour, to learn more about the experience.
Where did the idea for the Game of Thrones Studio Tour come from? Was it Linen Mill Studios who started things off, or was it done with HBO’s backing?
With so much of the series filmed here, (the site here was used for approximately 30% of Game of Thrones filming in Northern Ireland) it was a natural next step for HBO and Warner Bros. to want to create an experience for fans.
Can you tell me more about Linen Mill Studios? Was it started especially for Game of Thrones?
It was an old linen production facility – which was around for many, many years last century – and when this facility was left empty, it could have been used for different purposes. But a fantastic opportunity came along with HBO, and the production, so Linen Mill Studios was born at that point.
So, whilst Game of Thrones used a lot of Northern Ireland’s landscape and Titanic Studios in Belfast – an existing production facility that would have had productions before and after – this site was adapted wholly for Game of Thrones production.
Then it became what we’ve got today, which is a world-class visitor experience.
So now it’s finished as a studio and its full-time purpose is as a studio tour?
As soon as the show finished it wasn’t intended to continue as a production facility, and things coordinated perfectly for it to become the official studio tour.
This question is jumping ahead to a hypothetical future, but with House of the Dragon series now out, are there plans to incorporate that into the studio tour as well?
I know I would love to see that, so I guess we will all have to wait and see!
Do you feel like the film industry has affected tourism in Northern Ireland? Do you see a lot of foreign visitors arriving at Linen Mill Studios, or is it primarily a domestic base?
Its impacted tourism massively. When HBO came over here with this story they wanted to tell, they picked Northern Ireland because of its unique landscape. Northern Ireland Screen (Screen NI) put some investment in that production taking root in Northern Ireland and it was such a massive production that it had an impact on a country-wide scale. Lots of local people ended up being extras in the show. A lot of our tour guides here were extras in the show, so they come with their anecdotes as to what Game of Thrones was about for them.
From that impact, in addition to the success of the production, what came out of that was a kind of organic film tourism stream. So different operators set up filming location tours and would take people to various parts of Northern Ireland to those filming locations. Tourism Ireland did some research into this – pre-COVID the statistic was that in 2019 one in six people came to Northern Ireland because of Game of Thrones. That’s a massive statistic.
Now we’re here (we’ve only been open since February) we can tell that story on a similar scale that the production was on and continue the show’s legacy.
Northern Ireland has attracted many productions which then created this film tourism, of which we’re the next iteration. It’s nice that it takes root here because the story was so much about this environment as well. It gave it its character and fits perfectly.
That’s crazy, one in six is motivated to visit by Game of Thrones!
It’s huge. Film tourism has been increasing over the years, but I haven’t seen it take hold quite so successfully as that associated with Game of Thrones.
I was going to ask how you become a Tour Guide, but it seems like you almost need to have experience on the show to become one at this point.
It’s not one of the stipulations of joining the team. We get every member of the team acquainted with Game of Thrones and the story that we’re trying to tell. It’s just made an awful lot easier by people who come with that prior experience. We need all sorts of different tour guides to complement a rounded visitor experience.
Banbridge isn’t as well-known as Belfast, but do you still feel that a lot of visitors make the voyage down there, especially for the Studio Tour?
Absolutely. And we’re uniquely placed 30 minutes from Belfast and about 90-minutes from Dublin. So, we’re in a great spot. What we’ve found is a lot of our visitors are, perhaps, coming to Dublin, then they’re going on to Belfast, and they stop by the Game of Thrones Studio Tour on the way.
And so, with that, we have different sorts of ticket offers and ticket bundles. We even now provide transfers from Dublin city, Dublin Airport, and Belfast city.
Are there also plans to take people doing the tour to other filming locations within the country, for example, the Dark Hedges or Ballintoy?
There’s a range of tour operators who have set up those location tours. We’re concentrating on telling the in-studio version of the Game of Thrones story. But it does link with that wider story – there certainly are connections there.
You mentioned telling the studio story, and I’m curious, is it more about revisiting the world of Westeros and walking through, or is it more about how a show is made and how things are put together, like the VFX and the behind-the-scenes magic?
It’s a good question, because I’d say that we do both. The way the tour is laid out, you are journeying through Westeros and moving from north to south through different parts of the area.
Within that, it’s intersected with the production elements as well. Such as, how motion capture is used, what goes into costume design, what goes into the design of weaponry, and the influences that affected that design thinking. Both stories are told.
For Game of Thrones fans, that immersion is there in detail. It’s also there in the scale of the sets that we’ve put on the tour. For somebody who’s less familiar with that story – and we all have our favourite TV show and film – Game of Thrones is perfect to hang that on. It was a true cinematic TV production and it’s a great example to tell the story of how a TV show is made. For somebody who doesn’t know the Game of Thrones story inside out, it’s got that production side as well. Who doesn’t like knowing how TV is put together?
Agreed! In terms of explaining how all those things work, is it done through text, or is it a lot of visuals and video elements as well?
All sorts. There are many ways to deliver that story and visitors want that engagement in different ways depending on their personal preferences. Some of it is showing, rather than telling; seeing the set, seeing the props, seeing the original costumes.
There’s a lot of show and tell. We are telling the story of the show, and these are the actual props and costumes used in it. You can read a lot of detail and there’s a digital guide as well, which will give you even more layers of interpretation.
I also mentioned our Tour Guides and many of them have been extras in Game of Thrones, so, they come with their anecdotes. And I’ve never seen a team so good at imparting that knowledge and engaging with both people who know the show inside out and want to talk about every detail, as well as those who are less sure of every single episode. They take everyone on a journey.
You mentioned the props are originals. Does that mean everything or are there also replicas that have been taken and repurposed?
It’s original. All the props and costumes you see here are the original items used for the show production. And you know, my favourite part of the is Winterfell Hall because that’s such a fantastic centrepiece.
And one of the interesting facts about Winterfell Great Hall is it hasn’t moved from the position it was in when it was used for filming. This visitor experience and attraction have been developed on the studio’s footprint and things have been designed around that. Winterfell has pretty much ended up where it was from its filming days. It just adds authenticity to where you are and what you see.
Have any famous faces stopped by for the tour?
We’ve had quite a few, and some of the cast helped us launch it back in February – Kristian Nairn (Hodor), Nathalie Emmanuel (Missandei), and Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark) among others – who were here for the opening day and met our first visitors too. And we’ve had cast and crew since then, such as Ian McElhinney (Barristan Selmy), Ian Beattie (Meryn Trant), Tommy Dunne (weapons master), Michelle Clapton (costume designer), Pamela Smyth (make-up artist), just to name a few.
Must be nice to put a real person in the on-screen image.
Absolutely. And there was so much local talent used both in front and behind the camera, so it’s great to tell that story. You know what TV and filmmaking are like – it’s a lot of hugely talented artists and craftspeople who all come together to tell one story and create one aesthetic. It’s great to get those individuals in and add their contributions to that bigger story.
Out of all the originals and props that are there, is there a favourite that you have?
I love the Armoury set, and we’ve got a line-up of all the different weapons used in Game of Thrones. I think that’s quite exciting stuff, just to look at where the design influences came from, and what kind of civilizations or different weaponry around the world at different times came together.
I’m curious, would the armoury include details from the prop designers saying, “we were influenced by this civilization” and breaking down the design process they went through?
Yes. One of the crew members that visited was the Weapons Master, Tommy Dunne, who is an amazing craftsman. We have been able to record Tommy speaking about the inspirations behind his work and weapons. We just recently spoke to Tommy again about his inspiration behind the making of the Catspaw Dagger, which as many fans of the show will know is now featured in House of the Dragon.
With Tommy’s work, you get to see those influences, those different parts of the world, those civilizations that they came from, and how they influenced his thinking.
When everything was being set up, were you involved at the very beginning in designing how the experience would be run?
No, I joined the team much later than that. But it’s a fascinating process. And having been involved in that part of that development before (Brad had organised similar experiences at the BBC before taking on the Game of Thrones Studio Tour), I can say it’s exciting. I think one of the hardest parts in designing this was not what to include but deciding what had to be left in the archives. I think that Game of Thrones lends itself to that creativity to such a high degree that you can do so many things and it can manifest itself in so many ways.
We talked just then about the balance between providing that detail and immersion into the Game of Thrones lore, but also providing a balance with the story of this fantastic, successful production and the behind-the-scenes element of it as well. It’s about putting that creativity into an editorial framework. Who knows what the next phase will be and what will be added to it as we progress.
I was curious to see if it was influenced by other tours. Like Weta Workshops in New Zealand or the Harry Potter Studio Tour in London.
It’s similar, certainly, to Leavesden Studios and The Making of Harry Potter. It’s a similar footprint and I like that experience. It tells its unique version of filmmaking.
Is there a narrative element to the tour? As you go through it, is it weaving a tale at the same time?
Well, we start people off with a little bit of theatrics. But the visitor journey really from that point is journeying through Westeros, with sections between those areas of Westeros which tell the behind-the-scenes elements.
There’s an indirect progression of the series as you go from start to finish as well. It is a denouement, as it were, at the end of the tour that reflects the end of the series story as well. It’s not heavily influenced by that, but certainly fans of this show will see the nuances as they walk through it all.
I was wondering if there are animatronics on display because obviously, the Dragons are such a fundamental part of the show.
We talk about how those dragon effects are created and how they’re used and how actors will act against something that’s not there – motion capture, green screen, all that type of thing. This is in addition to a little bit on how animatronics might be used to explain how all these different technologies and design processes come together.
Is there a lot of concept art as well included in the tour?
Yes, there is. We talked a little bit about walking through Westeros and the series progression as well. But we try to start from the beginning of production: the concepts and how a director will begin that journey for other production departments. There’s lots of concept material. We’ve got so many that we started to put together a behind-the-scenes of Linen Mill Studios as well, and that story and the specific scenes that were filmed here.
Do people dress up for the tours as well? Have you seen guests wearing cloaks and such?
We’ve had some fantastic cosplayers visit and it’s so interesting to see. I’ve talked quite a bit about the detail and design consideration that’s gone into the tour and the original props and artifacts and such. But, you know, the same can be said for people who are coming and visiting the show in their costumes. The absolute same dedication and crafts put into some of the cosplays that you see – hats off! So, we’re getting quite a few and we expect to get many, many, more as time goes on.
Have you had people asking to have their wedding there yet?
Oh, we have had several people ask! It’s something people are interested in.
Final question. Have you read the books?
I’ve only just started. I must confess that I watched the show before I went to the source material, but the visuals are so inspiring that I’m going back now to read the books.