Paula Fairfield is the Emmy-winning sound designer of Game of Thrones. She has also served in the same capacity on Lost and the upcoming Jack Ryan. In a wide-ranging interview, we discuss the art of her craft, what it’s like coming down the home stretch of GoT, virtual reality, #MeToo, and of course, dragons.
You’ve been with Game of Thrones since Season 3. What is like to see this journey come to an end?
It’s bittersweet, that is for sure. I think we all feel great pride marching into this final season. I know on set everybody gave it everything and we’ll be doing so in post(production) as well. I’m excited for the season and of course, sad that it’s ending. You don’t want to overstay your welcome. We’ve seen shows that do that and it’s always a shame. I think going out on a high note and saying all there is to be said, for now, is very smart of them. But it’s with great sadness, for sure. Even the break was weird. Because we got a taste of what life would be like without Game of Thrones. This past winter, normally we’d be working on the season and it was bizarre not to be.
On some level it has to feel like a bit of a once in a lifetime show.
I’ve worked on a couple of iconic shows. I also worked on Lost, which at the time was huge. You know, time passes, Game of Thrones comes along and breeds another new life. There will be more. God knows they’re trying. Something will come that will startle us all and make us look at the world in a different way. That’s always the hope. That’s why we in this industry work so hard to try to get to that place.
Have you talked about working on the prequels?
I haven’t. They just announced the theme of what one of them could be. They are still looking and exploring (the idea). I’m open to whatever. I love working on challenging things, with fabulous people, telling great stories. If it’s on the prequels, great. If it’s something else, then that’s great too.
Do you know what you’ll be doing next?
I started working recently in the VR (virtual reality) realm with the uber-talented Michael Conelly from Blackthorn Media. He was on the FX team that did Life of Pi and Snow White and the Huntsman. Just beautiful, exquisite visual effects. We are teaming up to create this immersive VR narrative experience called Caliban Below. It’s the work I’ve always wanted to do. Film and TV are great, but from a sonic point of view are very limited. VR holds the hope of manipulating sound in a way we’ve never been able to do before. It’s a beautiful Gothic piece. Along the lines of the kind of work that I’ve done and love to do. There’s a beta of it up now on Steam. We’re in the process of doing a new version of it shortly that will be updated visually and have the first beginnings of the beautiful sound space I’m venturing off to create. There are new areas to conquer and VR is the land of the unknown.
It sounds like it could break new ground.
It is kind of pioneering. It’s not a game. It’s an alternative way of interactive storytelling with a VR experience. I’m super stoked. We are planning on a launch of a new version in the fall. It’s going to be amazing.
One of the things I’ve noticed in talking to people who work on the technical side, whether it’s FX, makeup, or sound, is they always talk about being part of the storytelling. Which maybe the average viewer doesn’t associate with the technical side. Can you talk about why that’s so important to you?
Oh. it’s everything. For sound it’s an interesting thing. I don’t know how else to do it. If there isn’t a story (provided), I’ll make one up. Sound is infinite and intangible. It’s evocative and very subjective. I have a library of over a million and a half sounds. But it’s nothing compared to what’s possible. So, for me, it always starts with story. It comes from my background as an artist, with training in conceptualization and alternative narrative structures. When I approach work, I approach it that way. I need story to hang my choices and decisions on. I’ll create a path even if there isn’t one. If there is one, like in the case of Thrones, there’s the responsibility of these fantastical creatures steeped in mythology. They are mysterious, or omnipotent, or these crazy, wild beasts. You want to give them a richness of experience.
I imagine roaming into VR gives you even more options.
I feel like I’m home again. VR right now is like the mobile phones of the 70s. These big, clunky things. But the promise is what the future holds. I love being in this space because I am a technical person as well as a creative person. To be able to play with these tools and develop new ones to open up the work. I started out on film and then we went to multi-track and digital, and now we are going to the next phase.
Speaking of fantastical creatures and storytelling, that brings me to Game of Thrones, and of course, dragons. You got them as toddlers and then as adolescents and now as fully grown. How did you decide on what sounds to give them as they developed?
What’s crazy is I don’t think anyone thought about that when they started. I didn’t get them when they were born in season 2, I got them when they were like 2-year-olds. I had done a lot of creatures before, working on horror films. Also, I’m a dog-lover and I have dogs. I watched them interact. So, I started with having the knowledge of having multiple dogs, paying attention to their various inflections. When I was looking at the beautiful visual FX and how they articulated the faces (of the dragons), I would take every opportunity to look at their movement. Their wings, their feet, their bodies. In the beginning they were cute and small, and I could get away with little chitters and things like that. There were some sounds that came out with Drogon’s screeches and calls that became a bit of a hallmark. But then the second season, I realized they were going to be twice the size. Then I started to realize the journey I was on. So, in the early years it was easier to find sounds for their wings and body movements, but as they got bigger and bigger, I had to go to other sources.
It gets complicated, I imagine.
Well, each year their necks would get longer. Their chests would barrel out. So, I would need to find a new set of sounds. Every year you have to re-engineer the sound of the body. This last year was crazy because they were so damn big. They fly over, they shake the ground. I had to blend different sounds to make the noise of the wings. There’s air pushing down. There’s air pushing up as they rise and fall. And then there’s the voices. each year you see a new facial expression. The most difficult scenes are the quiet scenes. Because there’s nothing to hide behind. The tender moments (with the dragons) are the hardest, but also the most fun. You want to make it feel like you could reach out and touch them. I don’t think there’s any other show where that has been a set of creatures who had to grow up over the course of 6-7 years.
Most of the time when you see dragons on film or TV, they are rather one note. Often just monsters. You had to create personalities. They are different with Daenerys than they are with anyone else. I can also see what you are saying by looking at the interactions of dogs. It made me think of when the dragons would play on the show.
These dragons are like puppies we have grown up with over the course of the show. I did assign personalities to them. Drogon, for me, because of his name, I looked at him as the reincarnation of Kal Drogo. Whenever he’s with her, he’s soft and sensual, and vulnerable, and sweet. I had a dog, who has passed since, who was fierce as hell, but every once in a while, she would come up to me and she would slightly whimper or cry in my ear. It was almost imperceptible, and it melted me every time. She could also bite my face off. One of my favorite scenes is when Drogon’s been away burning sheep and babies and comes back to see Daeny on the roof, and the other two are locked up. If you listen when he comes down, you will hear these little nasal whistles, and those are my dogs nasal whistles.
It’s the same sort of thing, right? He’s this beast, but when he’s with her, he’s so happy to see her. So, I wanted a sound that made him vulnerable. And I got to put my dog in the show (laughs). By the way, you mentioned the other two flying around and playing. I named them Beavis and Butthead (laughs). If you look at them, as heartbreaking as it is when they get locked up in the dungeon and they are playing, and they are goofy. Or when they are ripping the goat apart. Those things are all funny to me. And that’s where storytelling comes into play.
I honestly think of all the horrible things that have happened to characters you like on the show, none were more emotionally impactful than the death of Viserion. Did that hit you in the chest too?
Oh my god! I got the whole season in post. I don’t like to see the scripts. I’ll look if I need to or ask questions. But the only time I’m going to see it remotely like a viewer is the first time I see it. I’m a fan. I like to binge the whole season. Remember when they were shooting Drogon? I thought I was going to have a heart attack. And when Viserion…I couldn’t speak for I don’t know how long, and all I thought was oh my god, I have to do that (create the sounds)? I love these creatures like they are real. It was incredibly emotional.
I think if you ask most people who watch GoT, they’ll tell you the dragons are their favorite characters.
That’s the great thing about Thrones. There’s so much to love. To have these creatures weave in and out of the story, it’s a highlight when they show up. For me too. As a viewer I love it. As a person working on it, I adore it. We live in a really tough world right now, and you can go to a place where dragons exist and are sometimes really sweet.
One of the great things about the show is how if you removed all the fantastical elements, you’d still have a show. It’s basically a medieval political thriller like Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett. Only you get dragons too.
A lot of people get into from the point of view of psychological interfamily trauma. I have met a ton of people who are into it on that level. Where they are working through their own challenges and they identify with certain characters. It’s fascinating to see how people come to the show.
You had mentioned before that when it’s quiet in the show, that’s more challenging. The thing is Thrones is often a quiet show. It’s just that when things get big, they get really big.
My focus tends to be the stuff that’s louder or creature-driven. But you have so many intimate dialogue scenes. The team that works on those scenes, man do they sculpt. They have some of the most beautiful dialogue scenes on TV right now and they always make it sound like you are standing right next to them. There are some long battle scenes this year, but there’s a story being told within them. And a lot of that is done with sound. We have such a talented team. Whether it’s crazy loud or really delicate, it always sounds amazing.
In speaking with other people who work on the tech side, I’m often taken by the fact that there are things that you want attention drawn to, but also those that you want seamless. Otherwise they could be distracting and take the viewer out of the scene.
That’s true. We often say when we are doing our job best, we are invisible. I’ve always said my job is not the suspension of disbelief, it’s one step more. It’s the threshold of believability. I want you to see the dragon. I don’t want you thinking that I put 25 animals in that dragon sound. We work very hard to hide (laughs). At the same time, you can use sound to subtly direct the viewers’ attention to something in particular. If you put a sound in a quiet room, that tells you what to notice. That’s part of storytelling.
Working on a show with such a rabid fan base, I imagine the level of responsibility you feel is pretty sizable.
I’m so thrilled that people love it so much and you don’t want to disappoint them. For me, I do a lot of research and think a lot about the choices I make. I know in talking to the other artists on the show, they do the same. And it really shows on the screen. Everything there is to move this gigantic story forward.
Where are you at with the final season now?
The sound work doesn’t start until the end of October. They are still working on the visual FX, which are quite huge. I’ve only seen a little tiny bit, but it was amazing.
You also recently did some work on Jack Ryan to. How did that come to you?
It was a great experience. I was working with Carlton Cuse from Lost. The show is very cool. Very different. No dragons (laughs). I’m excited for people to see it. I did episodes 3, 4, 7, and 8. Tom Clancy’s not my go to, but I enjoyed it just the same. The locations and story are really interesting. It’s exciting series and I know they already got picked up for a second season.
You also worked on one of the craziest movies I’ve ever seen in mother! What in the world was that like?
Aronofsky is a really interesting artist. As is Craig Henigan who is a sound supervisor and one of the mixers on it. He’s an old dear friend of mine. I have a very strong art background. Highly conceptual. For me, it was a fun place to play in. Very difficult in some ways. Sonically unique. No doubt about that.
You’ve won an Emmy before and you are up again this year for Game of Thrones. How important is it to you to be nominated and perhaps win?
I think at this point the prize is the show I get to work. It’s important, the acknowledgement. It’s nice, certainly after so many years working. And being a woman in Hollywood. That struggle is real and continues to be real. I find myself now at this point in my career, feeling the responsibility to stand up proudly for all the women who do what we do. It’s been a very tough road for me. I love what I do, so I was not stopped ever, and I kind of cut my own path. I look forward to the next wave of women coming up, to having an easier time. That here’s more room at the table and more collaboration. I stand proudly for women to say we are here and we can do this. It’s important. Last fall was difficult for every woman who’s been in this industry for any period of time. To watch the #MeToo movement unfold. We all have our own stories. This has shaped our careers in one way or another. The responsibility for those of us who have been in the industry for a while and managed to find a way, to help kick the door open and make more room at the table for the next generation. If there’s some recognition, I think it helps empower other women. I don’t love to, but I’ve been doing more speaking for that reason. Women need to look up and say yeah, there’s a place for me.
I can imagine that it’s not so different then how for a long time it wasn’t believed that women should go into science and technology.
My dear friend, it happens to me still to this day, and will continue. But nothing creates an epic “hold my beer” moment than someone telling me I can’t do something (laughs). I think a lot of women are feeling this nowadays. My anger now becomes fuel. While you’re over there patting yourself on the back, I’ll be over here learning these skills. Because I can do it, I will do it, and I am doing it.