Royal Mail’s design head on distilling the Game of Thrones universe to the size of a stamp

The new set of stamps were announced today (3 January)

Royal Mail’s latest special stamp series – 15 depictions of HBO’s Game of Thrones – saw the mail service challenge its creative prowess to the max, forgoing fan art to encapsulate the high production values of the show with intricate, composite photorealism.

When Royal Mail commissions a limited edition set of stamps, it’s not a quick process. Its head of design and editorial, Marcus James, began work on the new year’s release – 15 first class stamps to mark the British contribution to the success of Game of Thrones – in December 2016. They will finally go on sale on 23 January.

Designed by GBH London with digital post-production from Smoke & Mirrors, 10 designs each portray one of the series’ main characters. Both alive and deceased protagonists are included in the set, while a sheet of five additional stamps feature ‘non-humans’ , including the Night King, Direwolves and the Iron Throne itself.

A cursory look at the creations would indicate HBO simply provided Royal Mail with screenshots from the past seven series. However the reality is much more complicated in terms of what the postal group wanted to accomplish aesthetically.

“When the brief arrived on my shoulders, as it were, it was about creating a series of images that convey the very stylized high production values and excitement of Game of Thrones,” said James. “I wanted to … put those characters in context of very pivotal moments in the series.”

Mark Bonner, creative director at GBH London, added that James' team’s desire was to encapsulate key moments from the characters’ story arcs in epic miniature.

"We wanted to use uncompromising portraiture and strong eye contact to really confront the viewer and summarise complex sequences of action in one elaborate image," he said.

The “moments” to be depicted, such as Tyrion Lannister’s Wildfire pyrotechnics and Jon Snow’s undying protection of the Wall, were debated among Game of Thrones fans at Royal Mail and GBH. The brand and agency consulted series owner HBO on the final scenes to portray but “there was a unanimous view that the scenes we picked were the right ones to choose”, recalled James.

Composing these scenes was trickier than superimposing a portrait onto a background.

“Most designs are made up of a huge amount of careful crafting,” explained James. “They are made up of many, many different elements that have been carefully reconstructed and woven together to create what looks like a moment. “But in actual fact you won't have seen that specific moment because [we’ve] brought multiple elements and backgrounds together into that tiny stamp frame.

“I describe [the designs] as false memories in a way.”

Bonner added: “The foundation of each image was a very rough collage of content painstakingly taken frame by frame from episodes in the show, PR images and assorted official content. In some cases, angles meant we needed to recreate elements, such as part of Castle Black for the Jon Snow stamp, which were out of frame or unclear in the original shot from the show.

"Execution was finalised by Danny Holden at Smoke & Mirrors. In fact, several of the images are actually made from more than 500 different layers."

Aside from the photorealism that remains true to that which Game of Thrones fans know and love, Royal Mail was also determined to authentically portray the mastery of colouring that the series is known for cinematically.

“When you watch the series you can see the different characters and scenes all their own colour hue,” said James. “We were really keen to play on that and when you look at the stamps as a series they all have a very definite colour that reflects mood of that moment in the show.”

As such, Snow’s stamp features icy blue tones, Daenery’s fiery red and Tyrian’s luminescent green. The stamps also strongly reference the colours of ice and fire, in a nod to George RR Martin’s original stories, Bonner explained.

Creatively working with a pre-existing “visual language’ isn’t a novelty for Royal Mail’s design team, which has recently created stamps in collaboration with Star Wars and the estate of Beatrix Potter. Nevertheless, encapsulating a series as detailed and grandiose as Game of Thrones wasn’t easy, even for the most experienced of stamp designers.

“TV campaigns or poster campaigns have big canvases that can be packed with detail,” said James. “The challenge with stamp design is it really is so tiny.”

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