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SYFY WIRE Emmy Contender

Game of Thrones worked with snoozy, farting bears to bring dragons to life

By Jennifer Vineyard
Game of Thrones Season 8

Game of Thrones' Paula Fairfield, whose team won the 2019 Emmy for outstanding sound editing, finds it ironic that people can care so much about mythological creatures that don’t exist — Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion, for example — while the endangered real-world animals go ignored.

Those real creatures, whose voices have been used to help create the imaginary beasts, are also disappearing from their worlds, Fairfield says, and maybe you can hear it: “The painful sound of Rhaegal is the painful f***ing truth of what we’ve been doing.”

Fairfield chatted with SYFY WIRE about the new animals she brought in for the show’s final season, their heartbreaking fates, and what dragon lovers can do to help these slowly vanishing creatures.

How did you first get started going to U.S. and Canadian conservation and wildlife preserves to capture animal sounds?

Paula Fairfield: So I was watching Ellen, and Eric Stonestreet was on. He had just been to the White Oak animal preserve in Florida, and he had met the rhinos. And I was like, “Oh, wow.” Because I had never thought about it and didn’t know there were places like that. I hadn’t really thought about all these great conservation places. I knew my uncle and his partner had this place, the Cochrane Ecological Institute, where they rehab wildlife native to Canada, but I hadn’t thought about the exotics.

So I reached out to White Oak, told them a little bit about what I was doing, how I was interested in capturing some animal voices, because I was always collecting stuff for the dragons, to make them bigger and better. And when I saw the rhinos and heard their voices, I was like, “Oh my god!” I recorded for two days. They introduced me to the wide selection of animals they have, I learned about their programs, and I learned about what we’ve done to this world and to these beautiful creatures. Humans are horrible monsters. We really are. And it was heartbreaking to hear the stories of what’s happening, especially to rhinos.

White Oak has quite an extensive rhino collection, and in fact they have three of the five kinds: white, black, and Indian. The critically endangered black ones have super pointy noses because they rip leaves from trees. The near-threatened whites have a less pointy nose and a bit of a wider mouth, because they rip from trees and eat from the floor. The Indians, they have a wider mouth, because they’re like vacuum cleaners, eating off the floor. And they look like they’re wearing physical armor. It’s so weird because when you touch them, their skin is quite soft.

And it’s so funny and endearing when they run, but they also tiptoe around. They’re so light on their feet. It’s humbling, and you can feel power in their presence. When you’re flying with Jon on Rhaegal, you’ll hear this big, burly-chested, roly-poly sound that makes you feel the size of the dragon, and that’s the rhinos.

What other animals did you record at White Oak?

I recorded cheetahs. I recorded some of their fabulous birds, including the Mississippi Sandhill Crane — my goodness, that’s a huge bird. They’re majestic, they stand around 6 feet tall, and their screech is something else. You could hear it all over the place. I put a couple of mics up, left them for a few hours, and came back to retrieve them and found some really good calls from them that way. I attempted to record the okapi, which are shy, beautiful creatures, but they tend to communicate sub-harmonically. It’s out of the hearing range for other animals.

Game Of Thrones 8x06 Jon Confronts Daenerys Drogon Melts Iron Throne Season 8 Episode 6

What new sounds did you capture at your uncle’s place with Canadian animals?

What happened this season was that two orphaned bear cubs, Charlie and Maskwa, came to my uncle’s conversation rehab. Immediately the Alberta government got involved and did not want them to rehab the bear cubs because they were very young when their mother had been killed. They got into a huge legal brawl with the government because the government wanted them to be released back into the wild immediately. It was hunting season, so they would have been killed.

So there was a big fight, and a lot of people got involved, there were petitions, and it helped — they got an injunction to allow the bears to hibernate during the winter, and then release them the following year, when they might be able to survive on their own. In order for the bears to hibernate, they built a hibernaculum for them, which is kind of a little place for them to chill out. And we installed a wildlife recorder inside of it, and let it go all winter long. We got some really cool stuff — lots of snoring, lots of shaking, lots of sniffing, even some bear heartbeats when one of the bears got up close. They were sleeping during the day, but then at night they were having snacks, getting up and tumbling, all this stuff. It was a hysterical scene sometimes because there were coyotes nearby, and the coyotes woke the bears up, and you could hear them groaning, like, “Damn the neighbors!”

And their bellies were growling, so they had some snacks, and there were even some excellent bear farts. It’s hilarious.

How did these animal vocalizations become the basis of the sounds for the final season?

We spend way more time with the dragons than ever before. And we get up close and personal with Rhaegal, which had never happened before. The emotional palette was huge, especially for Drogon in particular with the heartbreaking scene when he’s screaming to the sky, he’s crying as he’s nudging Dany, all that stuff. And Rhaegal gets killed, and Viserion gets killed ... again. Poor dude.

Euron Kills Rhaegal - Dragon Death Scene | Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 4

It’s a lot of stuff, so I was trying to find cool sounds to continue and expand their vocals. So the rhinos entered into Rhaegal’s sound because I didn’t want him to sound exactly the same as Drogon. He got rhinos, bison, a few things like that. When Rhaegal gets killed, you hear this hideous screech, a combination of pain and surprise all at the same time. The screeches are from the Mississippi Sandhill Crane. And when Drogon mourns Dany, his sniffs, moans, and groans come from the orphaned bear cubs. If you think about the sounds they made with their own mother, when she was dead, it’s a beautiful metaphor.

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there. Cochrane was forced to release the bears in June, and within 12 days the young male, Charlie, was shot and killed. I think about his beautiful little voice we have on these recordings, and for f***’s sake, what the hell are we doing? These gorgeous creatures, their voices are disappearing. We are killing them constantly. We have complete and blatant disregard for their presence in our world. It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

George R.R. Martin has helped redirect fan love towards the direwolves towards a wolf sanctuary. How can dragon lovers help?

You can go to White Oak. You can take a gorgeous two-hour safari through their grounds. If you spend any time with these endangered animals, you can be nothing but humbled by being in their presence. These places supported the show by allowing the animals to be in it. And all of these conservation and rehab places, they’re funded with grants and donations, and they’re struggling. If you care, then help support the work that’s going on. At the very least, inform yourself. I think anybody who loves the dragons is an animal lover, or else you wouldn’t have allowed yourself to believe that they exist, and allow their story to live in your heart. And we can make a difference.

The last thing you had to cut in the studio was Drogon flying away. What was that like for you? And where do you think Drogon took Dany’s body at the end?

I remember I stopped and I went, “Oh my god. That’s it. That’s it.” And also one of the last things I worked on was his screech to the sky, because I went back over that a little bit, just to adjust for music and other things. I had already completed the burning of the throne. I think the most jolting was the last wing slap. It was like, “Oh no! Come back!” [Laughs] And I hope that Drogon knew where to take Dany. One of the Red Woman’s pals who can bring people back. Maybe they did that, and then he went off and found a nice girlfriend or boyfriend for himself, and just lived a nice life. I wish him happiness.