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 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