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Paula Fairfield Discusses the Intricacies of Sound in ‘Game of Thrones’ (Interview)

Paula Fairfield Discusses the Intricacies of Sound in Game of Thrones (Interview)

During Con of Thrones in Dallas, I had the opportunity to join in on a round table press conference with Paula Fairfield, the sound designer of Game of Thrones. Fairfield talked about what goes into the process of building the sounds of the series and how much this experience has meant to her.

Question: How’s it been working on the final season of Game of Thrones?

Paula Fairfield: Well, that answer is probably going to be disappointing because I haven’t started yet. The anticipation is insane. I will say that I was just in Europe and I did visit the set and it was phenomenal to see everybody and all that. But I probably won’t start till November, believe it or not. Yeah, they stop shooting in July, but the visual effects are so….See, just the fact that the visual effects are that enormous scares me. Because my work is tied to visual effects.

Q: Have they given you a basic outline of what’s to come?

PF: Nothing. No, it’s actually really good. Someone was asking me if I’d read the books and I said, “No. I haven’t.” And I also don’t read scripts. I have no interest in that. And the reason why is…I only have one opportunity to ever watch this like a viewer. So that’s the first time I see it. For everybody who works in post, it’s one of these things where I’m crawling frame by frame by frame, backwards, forwards, backwards, forwards, and I’m thinking about the show in a very different way than a viewer will think. But I love the show too, so I wanna see if like you do. Like be excited and surprised and all that. The only opportunity I get is the very first time I watch it. And if I know everything about it, then I don’t get that same kind of bump off of, you know, the thrill of watching. Even as rough as it is. Doesn’t matter that all the visual effects aren’t there and stuff.

I remember when I first saw this season last year, and what I saw was an animatic, very, very primitive animatic of the dragon blasting the wall. And, I mean, it was like a cartoon. Like literally kind of a moving storyboard. But I just went, “Oh, no.” Because I didn’t know. I had no idea what was coming. And I love that, right? So I like [gasps] and I was in tears. I was in tears at 704. By the way, I don’t know the titles, but I know them by numbers. Which I believe is “Spoils of War,” the loot train. So I was in tears seeing Drogon get hit. Like literally, I was sobbing. And then I see Viserion get it and, I mean, I was inconsolable. And my heart was racing. I want that bump too. That’s how you all feel when you’re watching it. I want that too. So I don’t want to read a script. I don’t do that with any movies I work on.

Last year, when working on the whole Viserion thing, and the ice dragon portion and all that kinda stuff, trying to imagine. My wildest, craziest thought about the dragons is that there will literally be a battle of fire and ice. I think we can all agree that that is a very big possibility. But I also know that no matter what I think is the craziest possible thing, they will go way farther than that. And so, that scares…the s— out of me. Because I have to figure out what I’m gonna do with it. What I’m gonna create and how I’m gonna make that as impactful and satisfying and crazy as it needs to be. What I try to do, all last season I tried to imagine what would happen next season to make sure that I create enough lines of things that I can draw on to begin the process next year. That’s the most I can do because I don’t know what they’re gonna do. And I’m excited.

I’ve heard Emilia Clarke’s been interviewed on a couple of things, and we know that there’s some big heavy-duty stuff coming. I have as much anticipation as you all. With an extra little twist because I’ve gotta actually execute some of this stuff. (laughs) Every year I have to up my game as they up their game. I’ve been stretched as far as I can…and I’ll do it again. It’ll be glorious and fabulous and devastating all at the same time. Because it’s the last season, of course. How sad are we all?

Paula Fairfield Discusses the Intricacies of Sound in 'Game of Thrones' (Interview)
Game of Thrones/HBO

Q: For past seasons, about how long does it take you?

PF: It varies. It’s like three to four months. Maybe five months. It’s not as long as people think…. It’s a very intricate dance to get everything done because there’s so much going on. I mean, they’ve got so much happening. There’s a constant influx of visual effects updates. Always. The domino effect of all of that is really kinda crazy.

Think about the costumes. You lift up one of those skirts, you have intricate petticoats underneath. They may never be seen by a camera, but the detail is all there. That’s for every department. There’s no skimming, no fake facades. I mean, I’m sure there’s some stuff, but they do stuff, obviously, to make….They use plaster to make it look like stone, but the plastering itself is so gorgeous, you have to touch it a few times to figure out it’s actually not. And it looks real on set. There’s a sense of a much larger, more developed thing beyond and that’s its richness. That’s one of the specialties of Game of Thrones, and that kind of level of detail is in every department. And I think there’s a certain kind of consistency in the trajectory and the journey, and there’s nobody kind of wandering off….Everybody has a very clear direction. And all of the work ends up being funneled very purposefully.

[Season 7] premiered at the end of July…and we finished August 4. We were crossing over and finishing up. So the very last episode, which was gigantic, and really huge for me. Because that whole wall coming down and dragon and stuff was all me. I was really happy with it, but it was really daunting. It was crazy. And very, very, very loud.

Everyone working on this show feels a responsibility to the fan-base. When you have a dedicated viewership like Thrones, you wanna give them a delicious treat every single week. And don’t wanna disappoint. And the thing is, the pressure was more so last year because for the first time, I’d gone to Con of Thrones and realized how impactful it was for people. I was saying to someone today that in this horrible, messed up world we live in, I felt like I wasn’t making much of a contribution…And then I came to Con of Thrones last year and was like, “Oh my God.” This impacts people. And is meaningful. People find themselves in this show. It just blew my mind. I was like, “Wow.” And it made me want to work harder, to give more, so that everyone watching could find something, a little something. Or feel something, or emote, or whatever. Be thrilled by something. You just want to rise to that level of responsibility.

Q: Was there anything fun this year sound-wide that came our of left field and we would have no idea that was the sound behind it?

PF: So the blue fire. I saw that and I had this crazy idea. So Viserion is being ridden by the Night King and blasting, and you see all the blue faces. I looked at that and…I had thought of this idea months and months before. When I saw the blue fire, I was thinking that…somehow they were either channeling, or the Night King on behalf of them, the screams and the fire were basically the tortured souls of the dead army. That was the concept for that sound. And I had written Dan and David and they were like, “Yeah, okay. Sure, go for it.” I’m sure they thought I was out of my mind. And I thought I was out of my mind too, but I liked the idea of it.

I tell myself stories, like something to hold on to, to kind of figure things out. And when I was at con last year, there was a group of artists who I met. So we had this idea and we were supposed to shoot ADR loop recording and never got the opportunity, but when I met those guys…I had seen their Youtube videos and knew they could emote and yell and roar, unbridled. So I texted them and said, “Hey, do some tortured soul screams.” And they did. They went for it. They were up all night one night. I said, “I can’t tell you what it’s for, but will you do it?” And they did that. It is kind of at the core of that sound, which is super cool in a way because it sets up some interesting threads and possibilities next year. Again, I don’t know, but it opens some doors of possibility. But it was super fun to do.

I have…this theory in my own sound. It’s something I have played with…over the years, that the original sound, no matter how far you manipulate it–unless you really mess it up–will maintain its soul print. So will stir something deeply inside you. You won’t know what it is, but it will touch you somewhere in a very primal way. And I felt like this, having that as an essence is part, will do that. So I put this together and hearing people’s response to it was very interesting. I think it actually does work. There’s something haunting about it, and weird, and off, and you don’t know what it is. And it’s disturbing too on some level. But that’s what’s at the core of that sound.

Paula Fairfield Discusses the Intricacies of Sound in 'Game of Thrones' (Interview)
Game of Thrones/HBO

Q: Are there any other sounds like that from the past seasons? That people wouldn’t know what you started with? I know you’ve mentioned your dogs before.

PF: So my dogs are in….My one dog, who has passed. So the Nymeria sequence. I had this beautiful dog, Angel. In the second episode of Season 5, when Drogon’s been off burning babies and sheep and comes back to her, and there’s this scene that’s very intimate. And you hear these beautiful little nasal whistles. That was my dog, Angel. I got that idea from her because…she was my little baby dragon. She was a fierce, crazy-ass dog. Not very affectionate, but very loyal. Very beautiful. But every once and a while, she’d come up and get close to me… and it was like a nasal whistle. And it would melt me every time. So I took that sound and put it in there because I get to do that.

This past January, and I had just started working on the Nymeria scene, my dog passed. She was 15 and we had a great life, but I was very sad. But the Nymeria scene came. So that scene, every single vocal of every single dog is part of her personality. And I wrote Dan and Dave and said, “This is my love letter to Angel.” And they knew the stories of her and all the sounds. She figured in to a lot of funny little places. She’s in a lot of Drogon’s stuff and obviously in the wolves. That particular scene was so beautiful because all the dogs come in and they’re circling. There’s some cool stuff. And then in Nymeria’s voice. So that was incredible. She lives on. She’s a part of the show now. That and the Drogon scene. I love showing that because I did a recent thing where I had done dragons through the years and i did a bunch of clips of every season to show how they’ve progressed. And that’s one of my favorite scenes. That scene, the one of the two dragons in the basement…the plaza scene. I have a few big favorites of mine.

I was actually half-afraid to do this, but I wanted to do it to see. But when I put all the sequences from the years side by side, you can always hear, from the time he was a toddler to now, you can hear the essence of him and his voice. You can recognize him as Drogon. And I’ve always seen the dragons as like your puppy dog. We have grown up with these puppy dragons…and I think that’s why there’s so much love for them. And our dogs and cats, whatever our animals, they do communicate with us. They communicate with each other. I’ve learned so much. And at one point, had three dogs. It was interesting though….When you have two or more, then you see them communicating with one another. You see their personalities so distinctly and how they engage with both them and with you. You know, what goes on in their world. I’ve tried to bring my love of that, and my witnessing of that in my life, into the show. Because we are essentially watching our baby puppy dragons grow up.

Paula Fairfield Discusses the Intricacies of Sound in 'Game of Thrones' (Interview)
Game of Thrones/HBO

Game of Thrones returns for its final season in 2019.