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‘Game of Thrones’ Sound Designer Paula Fairfield on The Final Season and Dragons

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by Aiyonna White, Contributor

This year at Wondercon, I had the opportunity to interview the amazing artists behind your favorite T.V. shows, films, and video games. Paula Fairfield is the Emmy-award winning Sound Designer for “Game of Thrones.”

Q: “Game of Thrones” has been on many years. How have the challenges changed or evolved during that time?

FAIRFIELD: Well it’s interesting. I mean I think at the beginning… you know the show has grown obviously in size and scope. My work is very visual effects heavy because the scope of my work or the other fantastical elements, the dragons, the white walkers, the whites, the wolves, the dreams, all that stuff. So my work is very much tied to visual effects. As the show has gotten bigger and gained more popularity, their visual effects budgets have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. This season is bigger than all seasons put together. I mean it’s insane. And so the scope of my work gets bigger.

Q: It’s hard to imagine it getting any bigger.

Fairfield (center) with other panelists at Wondercon

FAIRFIELD: It really is hard to imagine it and I couldn’t imagine it until I saw it. I mean I was stunned. I just couldn’t believe what they set out to do, and this was at the beginning because we see the whole season at the beginning, even very rough. But I was just like Oh my God you know? And some of the stuff we’re attempting to pull off, and we are, and it’s awesome. I think we all were shaking a little bit at the beginning of the season because the task ahead has been so daunting. More so than any other. I remember season seven and seeing the blue fire and ice dragon and thinking Oh dear God. And being haunted by that. Because I was like, What do you do? And I also was trying to anticipate what might happen this season. Maybe ice dragon and a regular dragon might show up together. Maybe, but we don’t know. I had to think about that as a possibility for instance. So the fires had to be different, the way they vocalize all that. But then also, this new white dragon has to sound sort of like the other whites and the polar bear and all that you know what I mean? So it had to be from the same palette but also had to still sound like a dragon. But also what happens with the fire? So it’s a lot for me, as always, trying to think ahead and anticipate. The crazy thing is that as crazy as I think, I can never be as crazy as they are. So I could not even in my wildest dreams imagine what they imagined this season. And so it’s been daunting to keep everything in the same palette. And then, the other really interesting thing about this which is really unusual, is that we have in this show a group of three dragons who grow up over time. That’s never been a thing before. And then when I got them they were toddlers and they’re grown into these crazy ass Boeing 747s that we see today. So to have their vocal palates, how they sound be recognized, Drogon in particular, he’s the main dragon. He had some very big scenes in three, the plaza scene being one of them. If you go back and listen and you hear his essence they’re now still in his big bad boy persona now, and that is something that I’ve worked really hard to maintain. So when you hear Drogon come in from a distance, the first call you always know it’s him. You know that screech and that screech has had to change over time a little bit but maintain the essence of him, much like we do as we grow up and our voices change and our bodies change and all that. We often will have certain little things that are the same. We acquire things as we go. There’s something that is us from when we were younger and that sticks with us through life. I have dogs. At one point I had three dogs even. I’ve been fascinated by how they live together, cohabitate, inform one another, change. Their relationships change over time. It’s really fascinating watching animals do that and essentially I’ve got to create performances for these creatures that mimic that. And it’s familiar in a way. Most of us have pets or animals or people, so we have that kind of relationship. So in some ways, these are the puppies that have grown up in our living rooms for all these years. They’re bad and they’re mischievous sometimes and they’re fine, you know. So it’s been a really neat unique thing to be part of.

Q: Do you have an episode that you’re most proud of?

FAIRFIELD: You know, it’s funny. Last year’s finale was pretty challenging to get that dragon happening and that wall coming down, that whole thing. And I love that. I loved working on the wall and doing all that. It was insanely challenging. But it was cool. I love the quiet scenes which are really the hardest things to do because you don’t have anything to hide behind. So the quiet scenes with the dragons. Probably one of my favorite scenes is the second episode in Season 5 when Drogon’s been gone burning babies and sheep and then comes back to see Dany on the roof. That beautiful, intimate scene with them is so gorgeous. I love that scene. And I similarly love the scene where Jon met Drogon for the first time. That interaction is so sweet.

And I like the big bombastic stuff too. I will say this, the new Nymeria scene this year with the wolves… so I had a Nymeria. She was also a dragon and she has been an angel. In fact the 5-0-2 Episode I love so much because there’s a beautiful sweet nasal whistle that you’ll hear coming from Drogon which to me is so intimate. It’s so beautiful. And it’s my dog because she was this crazy dog, wild but she would come up to me and sit and I could hear this like almost cry whimper and it was so beautiful. So she’s in that. But she passed two years ago, about a month before that Nymeria scene I had to work on and so that Nymeria scene is all of her. All her voices.

Q: So she inspired it or it was her actual voice?

FAIRFIELD: It’s all her voices and it’s my love letter to her. It’s my poem to her. She always inspired the direwolves but in that scene, the growly warning, all that stuff and it’s all her vocals and so that personally was just for me.

What I love is what everyone loves and I like the big stuff too. But it’s some of the sweetest, quietest stuff that is just a joy.

Q: You might be making more of an impact on the quieter scenes, an emotional impact.

FAIRFIELD: It’s harder. And you know, often I have scenes where the producers outright say to me, you must make everybody cry. Viserion stuff, it was an outright You must make everyone cry. And I worked really hard and tried.

Q: Is there any way you tried to evoke a place or time even though it’s a completely fictional world?

FAIRFIELD: If I was doing a direct period piece obviously I would do research into that. For this there aren’t… I’m not getting backgrounds and stuff so I don’t have to worry about that. I mean obviously the sound effects editors cutting the backgrounds and whatnot can’t have any modern stuff. You got to have all the medieval stuff and all that. But for my job, I don’t think about that. What I do think about is this concept I was talking about it earlier in the panel, which is that there was a time when we all talked in film and T.V. about the suspension of disbelief. I say that now my job is actually more than that. I’m not interested in that. That’s pretty much a given. I’m interested in the space past that, which is the threshold of believability and so and I don’t use any synthetic sounds in my work at all. I use all organic stuff because I believe personally and I’ve experimented with this… when I use a sound and I mess with it and twisted and re-contextualize it, it’s primal essence somehow sticks with it. It’s kind of partially because we’re sonically illiterate. Our world, and while we’re musically literate, we listen to music all the time, we don’t pay attention necessarily to our environment. It’s a very visceral world that we live in, sonically visceral world we live in, and it’s also a way that we take in so much information every moment of every day. People are unaware of it. That’s power for me because I can play with that. I can mess with that but what I’ve done with experimenting is that I found that even when I take a very primal sound, you know like I talked about it in other interviews where Drogon in Season 3, one of the first plays I did with this, in the first episode comes and he’s flying around he lands on the ship and she goes to pat him and he purrs. He has this purring sound. It’s basically two very large tortoises having sex. It’s the males sound. And I wanted to find something that was really interesting and my producer was asking me for something unusual.

And so I found this sound I played with it a little and put it in and it’s really funny because whenever people watch it they giggle a little. They don’t know why. But there’s something about it. The thing is it registers on a completely different level and that’s what’s so fascinating with sound is that we have this viscerally. Which I can make you feel a sound I can make you grab your ears in pain or you know. Relieve your bowels with using different sounds. That’s a very unique thing. It’s the only medium that is like that and it’s really powerful. And then this kind of idea of criminality. The kinds of things that you can do with that when people are unaware. So it’s part of the game of making you believe something and so those are the things I play with and I will think about context and era and stuff within that, and I might search for interesting sounds that come out of that that are evocative somehow. But you may not necessarily know that because they’re deeply enmeshed in a way that it’s presented as just a beautiful meal where you don’t taste all the ingredients, you recognize some of the flavors right? But it’s the whole thing that’s created something new.

Q: Any questions you wish they’d been asked?

FAIRFIELD: I cannot wait for everyone to see it. I think it’s a beautiful farewell from everybody with such a deep love from everybody on this show. And I hope that everybody who’s so invested in the show loves it. Whether your favorite character wins or not, loves it in the way and loves the farewell. I know it’s going to be a shock for everyone’s system in a weird way but I think I’m super stoked just to see how everybody reacts to it. It’s gonna be fun.

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