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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Emmy Contender: Game of Thrones and the man who made the women, children, and giants scream

By Jennifer Vineyard
Game of Thrones: The Bells

Welcome to Emmy Contenders 2019. This month, SYFY WIRE is speaking to a long list of actors, artists, and artisans whose work earned them Emmy nominations this year. Today we speak with Tim Kimmel, the Emmy-nominated supervising sound editor for HBO's Game of Thrones.

Game of Thrones was finally about to come to an end, but there was still one thing left to do: cry. Well, the Wall did the weeping, actually – as it always did in the books when the outer surface got warm. On the show, Jon was leaving the Wall, a green plant was poking through the ice, and the Wall was starting to melt, to hint at a dream of spring. Two weeks before the finale aired, showrunners David Benioff and Dan Weiss decided to tweak one last effect – nothing big, just the look and sound of a trickle of water. (Early versions had taken the melt to the beginning of a waterfall, but they decided to go just shy of that.)

"It felt a little anticlimactic, because it was such a minor moment," said supervising sound editor Tim Kimmel. "But, as they put it, it was the final decision they had to make after 13 years. So David, Dan, and I were staring at the screen, like, 'Well, I guess that's it.' And then it was hugs all around."

The weeping Wall is a subtle moment compared to the spectacular Game of Thrones battle sequences that garner the most attention (and Emmy nominations). "The Long Night" and "The Bells" were Kimmel's favorites this season — "The Long Night," he said, because of its built-in moments of silence that give the audience a chance to breathe.

One of the quiet moments that Kimmel loves is in the one in which we see Arya sneaking around in the library. Originally, we were supposed to be able to hear the sounds of the battle outside, but Kimmel decided to eliminate those in order to highlight the more subtle sounds inside the room — and even some of those were excised.

"We used to have a sound where the door closes," Kimmel said. "We had multiple sounds for that — like she bumps the door, or bumps the latch, or bumps her head — to draw the attention of the wights. But then we ended up turning it down so quiet that basically there was no sound at all; the wights just sense that she's in the room, that she went in that direction, and they head that way."

One of the most powerful of the show's quieter moments is the one in which the Dothraki caravan disappears into darkness, to be extinguished by wights the viewer can't see. "At one point, we had it so you could still hear screams in the distance, and injured horses dying," Kimmel said. "But the more we got into the scene, the more we realized, 'No. Let's make this quieter. Let's really keep everybody guessing.' And so we pulled it back to just about nothing."

Also carefully calculated was the scene showing the first wave of the wights coming into the battle and clashing with the Unsullied. Here it was needed to convey the size of the wight army. At first Kimmel and his team tried to do that with the sounds of the people the wights were killing. But producer Greg Spence made a suggestion: Take out 80 percent of the vocals of the people getting killed. "And he was right," Kimmel said. "Because as soon as we took those out, you focused more on the army, how overwhelming it was."

This also created some sonic headroom to build sound back up for the second wave of wights. "You want to go loud," Kimmel said. "But if you start at 10, you have nowhere to go after that."

Kimmel recalls that the first cut of "The Bells" was much darker than the final one — there were more women and children dying in gruesome ways.

"It was shocking what aired," he allowed. "But even more shocking was what didn't. They scaled it back, but they still got the point across that Dany was frying everyone." Sound is also a big issue in "The Bells," including the sound of the bell signals surrender and the people are calling for their queen to do so. "There was a lot of back and forth on the voices," Kimmel said. "Do we hear one voice? Do we hear ten voices? Do we hear the whole city starting to call out?"

At first it was decided to have many King's Landing citizens yelling "Ring the bell!" and then later modified to include other exhortations. There was also debate about how much surrender bell should be heard: just the one that we can see in the main bell tower, or more? In the end, it was decided that the main bell should trigger four or five other bell towers to chime in and become a choir of bells."Nobody can miss the fact that they're saying, 'Yes, we surrender,'" said Kimmel.

"Ring the Bells!" Surrender Scene | Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5

To emphasize the tenderness of the reunion between siblings/lovers Cersei and Jaime, Kimmel also scaled back the sound of the Red Keep collapsing into rubble. "We can totally tell that the building is coming down on them," he explained, "but we still did not want to distract from their final moment."

Considerably less tender was the reunion between the Clegane brothers, the Hound and the Mountain, which featured the best head-smash sounds in Game of Thrones history. (R.I.P., Qyburn). "That was one of my favorite quick deaths," said Kimmel, "because it was so quick."

Interestingly, Kimmel has died many times himself. He's the voice of the Lannister soldier at whom Grey Worm throws a spear to break the surrender. He's also the scream of the soldier whose hands are cut off. And he provides the grunts and yells for the giants, including the one Lyanna Mormont fells.

"Because he was a zombie giant, we did a lot more layering of animal stuff and bone sounds to give it a wight quality," Kimmel noted. He's also especially proud of another giant death in "The Long Night": the one in which a dragon kills a zombie giant early in the battle. "It's a long shot," Kimmel noted, "but it's subtle, visually. We covered it with sound, so you hear the giant, but the sound gets cut off as soon as the fire hits it. It's one of those things that a lot of people don't notice, because there's so much going on in the shot, and it's a small part."

"The giants need their own little spin-off show," he added. "Maybe I'll get the call for that."