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Credit: Paula Fairfield

Emmy Contender: Game of Thrones' sound designer uses massive animal bones to make dragon calls

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Sep 5, 2018, 4:15 PM EDT

Think of her as the real mother of dragons. Emmy-winning Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield has spent many a sleepless night in her Desert Hot Springs studio dreaming about Daenerys Targaryen's majestic, mythical creatures. She wants to make them real for us.

Fairfield's sound sculptures shape how we connect to Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion — we hear their voices, the flapping of their wings, the blasts of their fiery breath. We share their elation when they fly, we mourn when one dies, we cringe in horror when we hear an undead dragon's shriek. Fairfield is also responsible for Westeros' direwolves, giants, White Walkers, and a variety of undead creatures, including a rampaging polar bear. Even the formidable Wall — cracking and crumbling and ultimately crashing down under the relentless force of Viserion's blue fire at Season 7's end — gets a "voice," of sorts.

"My driving thing has always been the suspension of disbelief, and creating a threshold of believability," Fairfield told SYFY WIRE. "You give the creature a purpose, you create a personality, and in that performance, it allows the viewer to connect."

To understand Fairfield's process creating what she calls "sound prints" for her mystical menagerie, it helps to start with the stories she tells herself to deepen the mythology.

Viserion's blue fire, she decided, was an expression of the tortured souls of the Night King's dead army. The two giants who attacked the Wall during an earlier siege, she imagined, were actually gay lovers, so when one died, the other had to avenge him. And Drogon, she decided early on, was the reincarnation of Daenerys' late husband Khal Drogo, so the relationship between the Khaleesi and her favorite dragon was a sensual one. (To accentuate that, Fairfield built a composite of primal sounds for Drogon's snarls, growls, hisses, and purrs, the sources for which included dolphins, seals, farm animals, and the moans and groans of a mating tortoise.)

So when Drogon met Jon Snow in Season 7, Fairfield felt there had to be a level of sadness to it. "Just imagine, if this is the trapped spirit of Khal Drogo in Drogon, how he must feel," she said. "For me, the story was that he met this man who is in pursuit of his queen. And he's not happy about it, but in a weird way he's saying, 'Okay. I give my blessing.'"

But how many viewers are likely to have told themselves that? Didn't Drogon's reaction imply some recognition of Jon's Targaryen heritage? "I know it may sound kind of nutty!" Fairfield says with a laugh. "Of course, you know, the Targaryen story is the meaning. But then beyond that, there's this other thing happening between them, and so I just tried to deepen the moment with another layer of sound, and it's a layer that was natural, given what I've already followed in the development of the dragons. Watch the scene again, and you'll see what I mean."

Does this mean no more mating tortoises for Drogon's voice? Is he completely giving up on his love for Khaleesi? Not necessarily.

"He's still her dragon," Fairfield points out. "He's still her protector. There's still a great love between them. Have you ever noticed that she looks at him as though she sees him that way? Although their love can never be."

As Drogon has increased in size, so have his bass tones. Buffalo snorts and slowed-down Tibetan chants have helped enhance Drogon's low belly rumbles, giving him a weightier presence. "Buffalo make these low rumbling sounds, and their breathing is super cool," Fairfield says. "The trick is blending all of these animals so they seem to come from one throat."

And there are also sounds to express Drogon's physicality — his scales, his thorns, his skin, the way in which his wings push through the air. For these effects, Fairfield used the sound of dragonfly wings and parchment paper as well as muted explosions and sonic booms.

Although Drogon reached full size this season, Fairfield anticipated needing new dragon sounds for action scenes in Season 8. So she recently recorded three different kinds of rhinos at Florida's White Oak Conservation Center. "I also recorded some big, beautiful whooping crane sounds," she says. "It's fun because it's a new palette to play with."

As is fitting for a story about the last creatures of their kind, Fairfield loves capturing the voices of endangered animals from U.S. and Canadian conservation facilities and wildlife preserves, including those that rehabilitate injured animals. "We live in a world where our animals are disappearing at a rapid rate," she said. "So it's powerful for me to listen to their beautiful voices and use them in this space. Some of them are very startling and unusual."

In the world of Game of Thrones, we're now down one (living) dragon, after Viserion was killed and then reanimated. Figuring out how his voice and other sounds of his physicality would change was one of her biggest challenges this season.

"You want something to make your skin crawl," Fairfield says. And in addition to Viserion, she also had to give voice to a reanimated polar bear, the wight bear, which was in a far more deteriorated state. This made her wonder what would happen if your vocal cords were frozen solid, but you still had the power to scream: "There could be this weird rattling, some clacking in there — like a glottal, bony shriek."

Fairfield amassed a collection of about 40 pounds of dry animal bones from the desert to create what she calls her boneyard. She strung up some of the bones up with bungee cords, creating giant mobile "chimes." She put other bones inside of bags and smashed them, with a microphone capturing every rattle and crunch. "I grabbed a lot of interesting sounds and textures that way," she says.

You can hear some of the bones in Viserion's movements and screams, as well as those of the resurrected polar bear. Human voices augmented them as well, with Tibetan chants for the bear, and the terrified screams of a select group of dedicated Viserion fans (to enhance the concept that the dragon was channeling the souls of the undead wights). "These people watch the show together in Chicago," Fairfield says, "and they put their reactions up on a YouTube channel. They're all artists and musicians, and they have recording studios, so I asked them, 'Can you give me some tortured screams?'"

The bigger challenge was Viserion's blue fire. What does blue fire sound like? She knew it would have to be different from the sound of a regular dragon breathing orange fire — especially if it became necessary to differentiate between the two in Season 8.

"My first thought was, 'When do they all meet?'" she said. So she started researching different sounds which might seem both icy and powerful, among them the sounds of infrasonic and subsonic weaponry. She also came across singing quartz crystals, so-called because of their unique tonal qualities. They give off pitched "singing" or "tinkling" sounds when rubbed or rolled together or turned into bowls. "They have a high frequency," she says. "They're used for healing and shamanistic practices, because it's all about frequencies in our bodies and how we're tuned."

Using a special microphone for recording very high frequencies, she managed to grab some of the crystal sounds that we can hear in the blue fire, along with other elements such as jackhammers, blowtorches, and cannon blasts.

"In my mind, this blue fire would be so freezing cold that it would seem hot," she says. "It's more freezing than freezing. It's the worst of the worst. It's a restrained power, but enough to take down that solid-ice Wall."

The Wall — 700 feet tall, 300 miles long — is supposed to be supported by magic. And perhaps we hear a remnant of that when it comes down because, once again, Fairfield has employed Tibetan chants for texture. But there's also another sonic ingredient, a Shepard tone, a superposition of sine waves that creates a hallucinatory audio effect. "They're just endlessly falling tones," Fairfield says. "I see it as like falling into the pits of hell."

Although Fairfield tries to anticipate sounds she'll need, she has no idea what's going to happen next season. "If the Night King ups his game, I'll have to up mine, too," she says. "But I love the challenge. And next season we'll go out with a gigantic bang."