The Game of Thrones title sequence introduces every episode and changes depending on the locations visited in that particular episode.
The title sequence consists of a three-dimensional map of the world, with the continents of Westeros and Essos located on the inner surface of a sphere. At the center of the sphere is a light source, effectively a sun surrounded by an astrolabe-like arrangement of rotating rings. The details of the title sequence change each week depending on the locations visited. The following description is how the sequence appears in the first episode of the series, "Winter is Coming".
The sequence opens with a close-up of the sun and the astrolabe surrounding it. Relief details are visible on the astrolabe, showing a volcano destroying a city while a dragon watches on and several people escaping in a boat, a reference to the Doom of Valyria. The camera then pans to a wide-shot of Westeros and Essos before zooming in on the city of King's Landing, in particular the sigil of House Baratheon on what appears to be a large gear in the middle of the city. The gear begins turning, moving other cogs, and then three-dimensional buildings start rising out of the ground, such as the Red Keep and the Great Sept of Baelor.
Once the city is assembled, the camera moves north across Westeros to Winterfell, which similarly rises out of the ground while a gear bearing the sigil of House Stark rotates. The camera pays particular attention to the godswood of Winterfell and its heart tree as it rises out of the ground before panning up to the sun and astrolabe. There is then another close-up of the detail on the astrolabe, this time showing the Stark direwolf, Lannister lion and Baratheon stag engaging the Targaryen dragon in combat, a reference to Robert's Rebellion.
The camera returns to Winterfell and then pans north to the Wall, where more gears start turning and Castle Black emerges from the ground, while the pulley lift emerges from the face of the Wall. The camera pulls all the way back to King's Landing before moving across the Narrow Sea to the Free City of Pentos, which similarly emerges from the ground while gears rotate.
The title sequence ends with a return to the relief detail of the astrolabe, now showing the animals representing the various noble houses of Westeros bowing to the triumphant Baratheon stag. The Game of Thrones logo then appears over the astrolabe, with the heads of a dragon, wolf, lion, and stag emerging from the side of the logo.
The title sequence was inspired by the maps of Westeros that precede each novel in the series (and maps in fantasy novels in general). The creators decided to place the map on the inner surface of a sphere with an astrolabe-sun object at the center. The camera would then visit different parts of the map, while illustrations on the astrolabe covered some of the backstory to the series. The turning gears and cogs were meant to be reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions.
As for why it is specifically an astrolabe with moving parts, producer Greg Spence explained that Angus Wall at Elastic came up with "a vision of a mad monk, in a tower somewhere," who was somehow keeping track of all this action, "and creating as he went. He would then fashion little automatons out of the materials that would be available in his world. They would be stone, or tin, or wood, and everything would feel very hand-crafted."
In an interview during Season 5, producer Greg Spence explained several rules about which locations appear in each episode's opening sequence. These rules explain why the map doesn't always match up exactly to what appears in the episode.
First, as a rule, every episode's map must contain King's Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, and "wherever Daenerys is at the moment" - even if Daenerys does not appear in that episode. The reason for this rule about Daenerys is because her locations outside of Westeros help show the vast sweep of the entire world, which is larger than just the one continent Westeros. If the camera simply panned up from King's Landing, to Winterfell, and then the Wall, it wouldn't really show much of the world at all. As Spence said:
- "The way the main title, and the way that the camera travels, and crossing the Narrow Sea into Essos is important to us, because it communicates the expanse of the show, and it helps to remind the audience of the entire world in which the show takes place. I think if we tried to limit the main title to just places that appear in the episodes, or we're literally tracing each character, it would be more confusing and less successful at its primary task, which is really orienting people to the world."
Winterfell also appears in every episode, even though during seasons 3 and 4 it was never physically visited. Again, this is to ground the most important parts of the world within the narrative: King's Landing is the capital city, the Wall is meant to hold back the return of the White Walkers, and Winterfell is the home of all the Starks.
Second, they don't always have the time and resources to create specific animations for every minor location - thus the capital of a region is often used as a stand-in to represent the overall territory. For example, at the beginning of Season 5 the Eyrie appears in the title sequence, even though Sansa and Littlefinger left it at the end of Season 4. Instead, they are at Runestone, a major castle in the Vale. Even so, Spence explained, they didn't make a separate animation for Runestone, because it would only appear in that one episode and wasn't that important to the storyline as a whole, so it didn't justify the time and expense in creating an entirely new animation. Therefore, the Eyrie appears in that title sequence to represent the Vale as a whole, because it is the capital.
These budget constraints are also why they haven't made animations for many important locations which only appear once or twice: they have to skew their choices towards locations which they know are going to reappear more than once, so the money invested in producing each animation will get as much use as possible.
Pentos only appeared once in the first four seasons (and through Season 5 has been the rarest location), but it appeared in the first episode due to the rule that they need to show where Daenerys is.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, they can only show a limited number of locations in the 90 second duration of the opening sequence. The title sequence is never going to be delayed longer, in part due to the finite length of the opening theme song. The length of each animation is also fixed: they are never going to speed up or slow down the Winterfell animation. Added to this is the time it takes for the camera to zoom in and out, and pan across the globe, which can vary depending on which locations are in a single episode. The combined result is that through Season 5, no opening sequence has ever contained more than six locations, because there physically isn't enough time to fit more in (they might have more than six at a later point, if two are close together).
This became particularly notable in Season 5: up to that point, Daenerys (and her associated storyline) was the only major character not in Westeros (barring Stannis's one-episode trip to Braavos in Season 4). Starting in Season 5, however, other characters start traveling to the eastern continent, particularly Arya Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Varys. Meanwhile, the TV series also physically visited Dorne for the first time, at the extreme southern end of Westeros - meaning it would take even longer for the camera to pan down to it. Also consider that each title sequence, as a rule, must show the Wall - which is on the exact opposite lengthwise side of the entire continent.
For example, in episode 5.2, besides the four constant locations (King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall, and Daenerys in Meereen), the other major locations were Arya in Braavos, Tyrion in (the outskirts of) Pentos, the Eyrie for Sansa in the Vale, and the introduction of Dorne. This amounted to eight locations, and all at the far corners of the map, so there just wasn't enough time to zoom to each of them. Thus, the new Dorne animation could not debut in this episode, and the Pentos animation didn't reappear either. Greg Spence explained that they simply have to weigh how many motions the camera can physically make in a limited amount of time, and make tradeoffs relative to how important a location is in a given episode.
Similarly, in episode 5.3, in addition to the core four locations, both Sansa and Brienne went to Moat Cailin, Arya was in Braavos, and Tyrion arrived at Volantis. While Volantis is an important location within the narrative and characters have discussed it throughout the TV series, it has only physically been visited in this one episode, and they don't know if it will ever be physically revisited - meaning it didn't justify the expense of creating an entirely new Volantis-animation that would only get used once. It also would have involved a large amount of panning by the camera, because Braavos is the northernmost Free City and Volantis is the southernmost.
The title sequence sometimes changes depending on the locations visited in each episode. The known variations so far are as follows:
- Episode 1: The capital city of King's Landing, the castle of Winterfell, the Wall and the free city of Pentos all make their first appearance. All featured locations appear in episode 1.
- Episodes 2, 3, 4 & 10: Pentos is replaced by the Dothraki city of Vaes Dothrak, where tents rise up out of the ground as more gears whirr and rotate. King's Landing, Winterfell and the Wall continue to be featured in the sequence. King's Landing does not appear in episode 2. Vaes Dothrak does not appear in episodes 2, 3 or 10.
- Episodes 5, 6, 7 & 8: The castle of the Eyrie is added to the map between King’s Landing and Winterfell, with the castle rising out of the top of its mountain. King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and Vaes Dothrak continue to be featured in the sequence. The Eyrie do not appear in episode 7. The Wall does not appear in episodes 5 or 6. Vaes Dothrak does not appear in episodes 5 or 8.
- Episode 9: The Eyrie is replaced by the castle of the Twins, which unpack themselves and then lift the bridge of the Crossing across the Green Fork of the Trident. King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and Vaes Dothrak continue to be featured in the sequence. Winterfell and Vaes Dothrak do not appear in episode 9.
- Episode 11: The castle of Dragonstone is added to the map between King’s Landing and Winterfell, which rises up from the ground on the island of the same name. King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and Vaes Dothrak continue to be featured in the sequence. The Wall and Vaes Dothrak do not appear in episode 11.
- Episodes 12 & 13: The castle of Pyke of the Iron Islands is added to the map between Dragonstone and Winterfell, rising from the sea with each keep connected by a swaying bridge. King's Landing, Dragonstone, Winterfell, the Wall and Vaes Dothrak continue to be featured in the sequence. Dragonstone does not appear in episode 13. Winterfell does not appear in episode 12. The Wall and Vaes Dothrak do not appear in episodes 12 or 13.
- Episodes 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 & 20: Dragonstone is replaced by the blackened ruin of Harrenhal by the shores of the lake of Gods Eye and Vaes Dothrak is replaced by the eastern city of Qarth. King's Landing, Winterfell and the Wall continue to be featured in the sequence. Pyke only appears in episode 15. Winterfell does not appear in episodes 14 or 19. The Wall does not appear in any of these episodes. Harrenhal and Qarth do not appear in episode 19.
- Episodes 21 & 22: Qarth is replaced by the slave city of Astapor. Dragonstone returns, replacing Pyke. Winterfell is now clouded in smoke to reflect its sacking at the end of Season 2 . King's Landing, Harrenhal and the Wall also continue to be featured in the sequence. Winterfell and the Wall do not appear in episodes 21 or 22. Dragonstone and Astapor do not appear in episode 22. The Dreadfort appears in episode 22 but does not appear in the title sequence.
- Episodes 23 & 24: Dragonstone is replaced by the castle of Riverrun which rises from the tributary of the Trident. King's Landing, Harrenhal, Winterfell, the Wall and Astapor continue to be featured in the sequence. Harrenhal, Winterfell and the Wall do not appear in episodes 23 or 24. Riverrun does not appear in episode 24. Dragonstone appears in episode 23 but does not appear in the title sequence. The Dreadfort appears in episodes 23 and 24 but does not appear in the title sequence.
- Episodes 25, 26, 27 & 28: Astapor is replaced by the city of Yunkai. King's Landing, Harrenhal, Riverrun, Winterfell and the Wall continue to be featured in the sequence. Harrenhal does not appear in episode 28. Riverrun does not appear in episodes 27 or 28. Winterfell does not appear in episodes 25, 26, 27 or 28. The Wall does not appear in episodes 25 or 28. Yunkai does not appear in episodes 25 or 26. Dragonstone appears in episodes 25 and 28 but does not appear in the title sequence. The Dreadfort appears in episodes 26 and 27 but does not appear in the title sequence.
- Episodes 29 & 30: Dragonstone and The Twins return replacing Harrenhal and Riverrun respectively. King's Landing, Winterfell, the Wall and Yunkai continue to be featured in the sequence. King's Landing and Dragonstone do not appear in episode 29. Winterfell does not appear in episodes 29 or 30. Pyke and the Dreadfort appear in episode 30 but do not appear in the title sequence.
- Episodes 31, 32, 33, 34 & 35 : The Twins are replaced by the castle of the Dreadfort and Yunkai is replaced by the slave city of Meereen. King's Landing, Dragonstone, Winterfell and the Wall continue to be featured in the sequence. Dragonstone does not appear in episodes 31, 34 or 35. The Dreadfort does not appear in episodes 31, 33, 34 or 35. Winterfell does not appear in episodes 31, 32, 33, 34 or 35. The Wall does not appear in episodes 32 or 35. Meereen does not appear in episodes 31 or 32. The Eyrie appears in episode 35 but does not appear in the title sequence.
- Episodes 36 & 37: Dragonstone is removed from the map and the free city of Braavos is added between The Wall and Meereen. King's Landing, the Dreadfort, Winterfell, the Wall and Meereen continue to be featured in the sequence. The Dreadfort and Braavos do not appear in episode 37. Winterfell does not appear in episodes 36 or 37. The Wall does not appear in episode 36. The Eyrie and Dragonstone appear in episode 37 but do not appear in the title sequence.
- Episodes 38, 39 & 40: The Dreadfort is replaced by the castle of Moat Cailin. King's Landing, Winterfell, The Wall, Braavos and Meereen continue to be featured in the sequence. King's Landing and Meereen do not appear in episode 39. Moat Cailin and Winterfell do not appear in episodes 39 or 40. Braavos does not appear in episodes 38, 39 or 40. The Eyrie appears in episode 38 but does not appear in the title sequence.
The Simpsons episode "Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart" features a homage to the Game of Thrones title sequence, with famous buildings in the town of Springfield rising through the ground as characters watch on, dressed in Game of Thrones-style costumes. The Wall is replaced by the monolithic "Couch" at the end of the sequence.
- Game of Thrones - A Q&A with Creative Director Angus Wall of Elastic. May 12, 2011, WRITER: Will Perkins, INTERVIEW: Ian Albinson, LAST UPDATE: June 29, 2011 at Art of the Title
- Secrets Behind 'Game of Thrones' Opening Credits (Video) - An interview with the creators of the title sequence 1:24 PM 4/19/2011 by Tim Appelo at HollywoodReporter.com