With movies like The Matrix, Moulin Rouge and 21 Grams rounding out her IMDb page, alumna Deborah Riley (Bachelor of Design Studies, ’93) could be forgiven for not being able to name her one ‘big break’.
“It is difficult to isolate one event,” said Ms Riley.
“The Matrix was my first experience in a film art department and Moulin Rouge stands out as being a hugely rewarding project on many levels.”
Ms Riley’s early success on these key films saw her selected as the Art Director for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games closing ceremony where she was responsible for the construction and delivery of all props and sets, including those for the Parade of Icons, a kitsch procession of Australiana.
This role, above others, afforded her a skill set in epic scale productions that would become essential on later projects.
“It was a brilliant training ground where I learned how to work on a huge scale and not allow it to overwhelm me.”
Today, huge scale production design is all in a day’s work for Ms Riley, who has been the Production Designer for epic TV series Game of Thrones since season four – the grand castles, the sprawling courtyards, the well-appointed chambers, everything audiences are in awe of about the show is Ms Riley’s responsibility.
She manages a production team in excess of 100 people who dedicate over eight months of each year to create just one season of the show, shooting in multiple countries including Croatia, Iceland, Spain and Northern Ireland, across more than 150 sets, most of which are custom built.
Now in its fifth season, and with Ms Riley and her colleagues having begun production on season six, Game of Thrones is considered one of the most successful television shows of all time, achieving significant critical and commercial acclaim and reaching tens of millions of people in 193 countries each week.
“I will always remember where I was and how I felt when I found out I had the job on Game of Thrones,” said Ms Riley.
To suggest working on the show is a career highlight seems a given, but since starting on Game of Thrones, the highlights are coming thicker and faster.
In 2014 she was awarded a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction for a Contemporary or Fantasy Series, and earlier this year took home the Art Directors Guild Award for Excellence in Production Design for her work on Game of Thrones.
Despite the awards and a career that many people would only dream of, Ms Riley counts a sentimental moment with her family as the greatest highlight to date.
“Earlier this year, I spoke at The Smithsonian on visual storytelling with reference to the show,” said Ms Riley.
“It was a brilliant experience as it felt like everything that I had done prior had led to that moment, and my mother and aunt travelled all the way from Brisbane to Washington DC for the event.
“The Smithsonian held a reception afterwards in the rotunda of the Natural History Museum and my mother, my aunt and I were all teary, we were so overwhelmed.
“It was a wonderful night.”
In a recent interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Ms Riley discussed how she felt she had arrived in the film industry almost by accident, largely thanks to her design and architecture studies at UQ.
“When The Matrix came to Australia, they were looking for more crew and I managed to join because I knew how to draft and how to build things, and that’s precisely the skills you need when you first start in the art department,” she told the magazine.
Ms Riley also studied stage design at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and suggests the education combination is crucial for those considering a similar career.
“There are a lot of courses in film design, yet I would still recommend a background in architecture,” she said.
“NIDA was integral to my training, but it is my knowledge and interest in architecture that I refer to every day.”
Of course, to make it in Hollywood, you still need a little something extra.
“As for how this translates to a lasting career in film, a lot of dedication and perseverance is involved,” said Ms Riley.
“Be optimistic, though – it is not for everyone, but on a good day there is nothing like it and all of the struggle disappears in a heartbeat.”
Experience a day in the life of alumna Deborah Riley and her colleagues in this featurette documentary on the production of Game of Thrones season five.