Mother of Dragons(ounds)

Original Art by  Michael Zhang

Original Art by Michael Zhang

This episode was written and produced by Colin DeVarney

Game of Thrones is a global phenomenon that has redefined the fantasy genre. Viewers from around the world gather every week to anxiously watch what will happen next. The actors, writers, directors, and visual artists have all received well-earned recognition for their role in the show. But some heroes’ work goes largely unnoticed.

Paula Fairfield is the sound designer behind the more fantastical elements in Game of Thrones. She’s given a voice to dragons, direwolves, white walkers, and more. But the story behind these voices goes much deeper than you might think. Hear how Paula’s personal journey played a part in creating some of the most iconic fantasy sounds of the day, and how Game of Thrones helped restore her spirit.


The Waning Moon by Chad Lawson
King by kïngpenguïn
Spring by Cathedral
The Family That Lived Here by Steven Gutheinz
Little by kïngpenguïn
Emperor by kïngpenguïn
I Should Be Sleeping by Chad Lawson
Spare Me - Instrumental by Faded Paper Figures

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, and hosted by Dallas Taylor.

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View Transcript ▶︎

[GoT intro music]

You’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz. I’m Dallas Taylor.

Whether or not you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, you’ve certainly seen the unreal amount of hype that surrounds it. And for good reason… the epic fantasy series has redefined the genre, and has achieved widespread mainstream success. The actors, writers, directors, and visual artists on the show have all received well-earned recognition. However, there are some heroes behind the scenes whose work goes largely unnoticed.

[GoT music out]

[Show SFX]

Paula Fairfield is the sound designer on Game of Thrones. Her main role is to create the more fantastical sonic elements of the show. More specifically, she’s responsible for creating the voices of the dragons, white walkers, direwolves, all of the creatures. Whether you’re a fan of the show or not, her story is definitely worth your time.

[SFX out]

A quick word of warning. This episode contains numerous references to events in the show. Naturally, this means there will be spoilers. If you haven’t watched the show yet and would like to go in without any spoilers, save this episode and come back to it after you’re caught up. ...and if you don’t plan on watching the series, you should still listen to the episode. It’s really good. Here’s Paula.

Paula: I was literally in the grocery store looking for peanut butter when I got a call about it asking my availability for this show that needed a sound designer for a bunch of weeks and was I interested. As soon as they said the word, I was like, yeah.

[music in]

It was a particularly odd period of time for me. Unfortunately, the place I was in was a very dark one.

My brother had passed of cancer a few years prior. This was in November and my father had just passed in July, also of cancer.

My sister was dying and ended up passing in the following January, a few months later. It was a very particularly dark point in my life and yet here was this beautiful gift that arrived. I remember after my sister passed and I was recluded from the world because everything I had known had turned upside down.

But my job was to play with dragons and the scene I did at that moment was the plaza scene where, if you remember, this is where it appears she's going to give Drogon away…

[music out]

[GoT clip - S3E4]

...and you hear the full range of emotion there. I remember thinking how beautifully tragic and ironic it was that my job was to literally play with dragons.

These dragons have saved me in a way because they have become this vessel for me to work through my own pain, my own stuff...There's a telling of story and a receiving of emotion in these pieces that was not in me as a sound designer before all this happened.

[GoT clip plays in full, then bumps out]

[music in]

My job is all the fantastical so it's the dragons, the white walkers, the wights… all the fun stuff basically.

My job ironically is to come up with some of the craziest stuff that I can think of… with sound designers, our job is to really go to the ends of the earth and bring back all the delicious treasures.

And in picking those and curating some of these elements, I've spent a great deal of time thinking about how to tie it in to story... and grounded and is as real a thing as possible. Is this possible? How could this be possible? How can I sell this as a thing?... If you don't believe it, it's going to take you out and the more you believe, the more immersed you get...

Part of my job with this was to give emotion to the dragons.

[music out]

[Dragon clip]

First of all, visually, these creatures are magnificent. The visual effects does such a great job on it and give me so much stuff to play with and I look and scan every frame of everything they give me for opportunity. To play with stuff and see what I can make... It occurred to me that you get to know them like when you have puppies or kitties in your home and they grow up around your family and in your lives and that, I think, is part of the beauty of these creatures. Of course, they're dragons too but there's a familiarity with that. That's a gorgeous thing. They're sidekicks to the story and they're magnificent.

[music in]

I had the opportunity of going to White Oak Conservatory in Florida and also an animal rehabilitation sanctuary outside of Banff in Canada and I've had the privilege and honor of recording creatures at both of these places and… one of the main things I recorded is recordings of these two young orphaned bear cubs… and they have been hibernating for the season there and they built a hibernaculum for them and we placed a recorder with them so I have them snoring and snacking and farting and shaking.

Also with White Oak, recording rhinos and giraffes and a bunch of these gorgeous creatures and… when Rhaegal passes, when he gets killed and shot out of the sky… there are three very large screeches that I wanted to convey both his pain and his shock… with the calls of a Mississippi sand crane.

[music out]

[GoT clip - S8E4]

[music in]

...it started to occur to me the beauty of taking endangered and critically endangered species to create mythical beings and in this case, the metaphor is painful because this mythical being, this dragon is dying and it's expressed through the calls of an endangered species… we love these dragons and they are born of the voices of animals that are disappearing from our earth.

I want pure expression of the rawest emotion possible and we have a hard time doing that as humans. Animals don't. They have no agenda… They don't have shame.

[music out]

One of the funniest things I pulled was I call it the unremorseful bear fart. It's like in this recording, this bear farts and like enjoys it thoroughly afterwards. There is no remorse. You know what I mean? It's like a funny moment, a funny way of thinking about it because it's absolute pure emotion…

[GoT clip - S7E5]

With Drogon, because he was named... after Khal Drogo and her husband that she loved so that was his namesake... it felt like Drogon was the reincarnation of her lover which works really well when you watch the scenes that there is this different relationship.

And I've built and put stuff in to that end, whereas for instance, if you look at the end of season four, when Drogon is off killing sheep and babies and he disappears for a bit and she is worried and locks Viserion and Rhaegal up in the dungeon.

[GoT clip - S4E10 plays under]

What came to me during that scene was they're the goofy bros like they had no idea. It was like hey, they go down on the dungeon. It's like, look bro, goats. Whoa, and they go racing down and then mama's putting some bling around their neck. Whoa, and then she walks away. It occurs to them what's happening and then you hear one of the most blood curdling, heart wrenching screams at the end of that when they realize what has just happened...

[GoT clip - S4E10 plays in clear then bumps out]

The intimate scenes are, the hardest to do because you've got nothing to hide behind. One of my favorite scenes of all actually is when Drogon has been away and comes at the beginning of season five and he comes to see her. He lands on the roof of the castle and comes down and he's gigantic at this point. She hasn't seen him for a long, long time.

[GoT clip - S5E2]

His vocals in there are very beautiful. They're very stripped down and they're naked and there's not a lot to hide behind.

[GoT clip - S5E2 plays and bumps out]

I love them but they're really hard the level of detail goes up exponentially because you're right up close and personal and the range between the most subtle and the most crazy sounds is there… it's like I can hardly pick out all of the different elements anymore and that's the point. One of the interesting parts of this has been the exercise of removing the parts of a sound that make you be able to recognize which animal it's from.

Very interesting. What makes a dog sound undeniably dog? [SFX: dog bark/whimper] What makes pigs sound undeniably pig? [SFx: pig oink]... There are little telltale inflictions, not the main body usually but the inflections for instance beginning and end or in the middle depending on how the infliction goes. That is a dead giveaway. Those pieces get tastefully trimmed away, so I never want you to go, "Oh, that sounds…", and I'm even hesitant to even say Mississippi Sandhill Crane for these creatures because I don't really want to you watch that scene and think that.

...but now that you've experienced it and feel it, it's fun for people to go back and look, but the point is to never point those out or to not be able to hear them or see them because as soon as you do, it's going to shatter the magic of it.

[music in]

Paula’s work has left an undeniable mark on Game of Thrones, just as much as the show has left its mark on her. She’s created the voices for the some of the most fantastical and iconic creatures in recent cinematic history. To design these sounds, Paula has sampled animals from all over Earth, but sometimes the perfect sound was found right in her own home. More after this.

[music out]


[music in]

Paula Fairfield is the sound designer on Game of Thrones. She’s the one responsible for giving a voice to the dragons, white walkers, direwolves, and all of the fantastical creatures on the show. She found inspiration in the voices of endangered animals from around the world. But some of her sound sources were found much closer to home.

One of the great joys of my life and one of the only things I had in my darkest moment besides Game of Thrones was my dog, Angel.

She was my little dragon. She was a beautiful, beautiful Belgian Malinois that I... found her one day at the pound and she became this creature that shepherded me through the darkest moments of my life. She passed a couple of years ago… and then I had the opportunity to do The Return of Nymeria scene.

When she returns to visit Arya with her wolf pack and every voice in that is my dog, Angel.

[music out]

[GoT clip - S7E2]

It was my love letter to her. I got to do it. I mean, as long as it works in the scene, the source has to come from somewhere. For me it was a big scene because it was my way of saying goodbye to her.

[GoT clip ends]

...but she is in many, that favorite scene of mine of Drogon coming down, you hear… this intimacy.

The intimacy comes from my dog… She was a fierce, fierce, fierce alpha dog. She was fantastic. A lot of people were afraid of her but not me. She was this beautiful soul and one of the things she would do that would melt me is she would come up and nuzzle me. She would make this sound that it's like a nasal whistle but it sounded like her tiniest, quietest cries.

She would just do it in my ear and it would melt me, this beast that could bite my face off but wouldn't do that. That nasal whistle, you'll hear it if you will watch the scene, you'll hear this beautiful little high pitch thing, which to me was about intimacy. It was about this creature coming up and doing this to Dany. This human that he loved…

[GoT clip - S5E2]

...that connection was there and you could feel it... I mean, it's got to come from somewhere and what better place than an animal that I love more than anything.

[GoT clip ends]

There's a shot when the Night King is… riding Viserion and blowing the wall down and cracking it and destroying it and there's a reverse shot when we're just looking at the dead empty faces of the undead army. And I had this thought about Viserion being the conduit for that army that he was screaming with all the might of the tortured souls of the Dead Army that it was all going in to that blue fire and it was all coming down that they were all witnessing but they were also like tearing it down through Viserion in weird ways.

The problem is that most humans won't scream from their tortured soul freely, so, it was hard but I had gone to Con of Thrones and encountered this group of artists from the Burlington Bar who do a reaction watch series… and because they have shown the range of their emotion during their videos that if I tapped them, as I got to know them and stuff when I went back and I was trying to think about where we get some screams.

I asked them if they would scream for me from their tortured souls but I couldn't tell them what it was for, and so, they did.

[GoT clip - S7E7]

[music in]

All good things must come to an end and you want to go out on a high note… I feel so gratified and satisfied by the work that we have all done and the story that we have been able to tell together… I mean, the eruption. I mean, the sheer volcanic nature of Game of Thrones this year, to me, is a moment in time. The show is ending a tradition of people from all over the place sitting down together at the same time no matter where you are watching something simultaneously.

The greatest gifts come to us wrapped in the hardest packages. If you can persevere and stretch past your comfort zone, walk through the fire, the rewards come. It's incredible. I have learned that and… if not for the dragons, I might not even be here.

I don't mean to sound dramatic but there are times in everyone's life, when you come to that moment, where it's like, "I don't know if I can go on". And because of my dog and because of Thrones, those two things kept me going. They were such an enormous gift. I could never have imagined how great a gift it was but I held on to them for dear life… and… to be able to say thank you and to put everything on my best self and hardest work can stretch even farther than I have ever stretched before to be able to do this in this piece is my absolute honor and privilege… I cried, I screamed, I laughed, I was angry, and you heard me.

[music out]

[music in]

Twenty Thousand Hertz is produced out of the studios of Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film and games sound incredible. Matter of fact, the Defacto team even works on Game of Thrones trailers. You can see those, as well as tons of other sound-designy stuff, at defactosound.com.

This episode was written and produced by Colin DeVarney, and me, Dallas Taylor, with help from Sam Schneble. It was edited, sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney. An enormous thank you to Paula Fairfield for bringing this show to life and sharing her story with us. Now that Game of Thrones is over, she’s moving onto a project of her own…

I've been given an opportunity to collaborate with the University of Greenwich in London and a company named L-ISA.

They have created this installation setup which is a fully immersive sound set up with like 24 or 26 speakers and have asked me to make a piece for it and so I am going to do this piece that I've wanted to for a long time which is called Ocean of Tears and it's basically an underwater poem about grief.

It's been a long time since I've stepped out and dared greatly in the arena to do my own work. SoI'm going to do a little bit of that now.

The music in this episode is from our friends at Musicbed. Check them out at Musicbed.com.

Finally, you can chat with me and the whole 20k team through facebook, twitter, or by writing hi at 20k dot org.

Thanks for listening.

[music out]

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