Speaking with Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield, I told her I was tempted to call her the real mother of dragons. “It’s happened before!” she replied. But after hearing the Emmy winner talk about the big, scaly showstoppers, that unoriginal comparison feels even more unavoidable. From the design studio she built in her desert home near Palm Springs, Fairfield puts together every roar, flap, and hiss we’ve come to know and love in Daenerys’s three dragon children: Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion.
Fairfield joined Thrones in Season 3 and talks about “inheriting” the trio of dragons when they were “more kind of like toddlers.” She then lovingly crafted stories and personalities for each dragon to help get to the heart of their sound. She sees Drogon as a kind of lover to Daenerys, and endows his noises with more sensual tones—whereas the “bros,” as she calls Rhaegal and Viserion, are like “Beavis and Butthead.” One task she faces every year is to use sound to convey how much larger in size Dany’s children are growing. At this point, she says, Drogon is “one big motherfucker.”
But this season, Fairfield faced a particularly difficult challenge—one, she says, that gave her stress-induced nightmares. After helping him grow for several years, Fairfield had to transform the dragon Viserion into the terrifying, blue-flame-breathing, undead ride of the Night King. (Or, as Fairfield likes to call it, “the icy dragon.”) To pull it all off, Fairfield called on some die-hard Game of Thrones fans, along with jackhammers and blowtorches, to help voice zombie Viserion’s first flight. Here, she takes us behind the scenes of the dragons, wights, polar bears, and crumbling Wall she gave voice to in Season 7.
DRAGON VS. DRAGON
Though Fairfield is careful to explain that she knows nothing about what will happen among all the dragons in Season 8, she, like the rest of us, expects that at some point we will see Viserion square off against his brother, Drogon. That means she had to make sure that while undead Viserion still sounded like a dragon, he was distinct enough from his siblings that, blue flame and tattered wings aside, we would have no trouble differentiating them. “Drogon and Viserion,” she explained, “those two pieces of fire, the way they move, the screams they make, everything has to be completely and immediately identifiable.”
THE SCREAMS OF THE UNDEAD
Fairfield decided that Viserion’s new blue fire cry should be filled with “the tortured screams of the dead army.” (Fairfield reports that when she ran that idea past showrunners D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, they responded: “Well, okay then.”) Like any sound designer worth their salt, Fairfield already had a massive catalogue of screams from her work in the horror genre—but she wanted even more. After gathering some shrieks from the guys on the Game of Thrones sound crew, Fairfield turned to a group of the show’s fans who have become rather well-known for screaming their heads off.
A group of Chicago residents gather every Thrones Sunday in the Burlington Bar in Logan Square to record themselves gasping, sighing, and hollering at every twist and turn of the HBO series. Sean Loftus, a filmmaker, Burlington bartender, and all-knowing book reader, started filming the crowd’s reactions way back when the Mountain popped the head off Oberyn Martell. That video went viral, and while HBO started sending cease and desist letters to other bars holding viewing parties, the Burlington crowd got a special care package from Weiss and Benioff—who are fans. Their filmed reaction to the explosive Season 6 finale has racked up 3.7 million views.
Having met a few of the Burlington regulars at the Con of Thrones fan convention earlier this year, Fairfield asked Samantha (Sam) Adolfo (jack of all trades artist and obsessive Game of Thrones nerd), Morgan Drase (lead singer of Chicago band Radio Shaq), Dustin Drase (musician, husband, Ice Dragon), Amelia Chambers (writer and purveyor of vintage clothing), and Loftus to, according to Adolfo, “get a little drunk, and then scream as if you’re being tortured. It’ll be therapeutic!” She didn’t tell them why she needed the screams, or even that her request was for Game of Thrones.
As musicians, the Drases were set up with plenty of recording equipment. As Dustin describes it:
To start, each of us recorded screams individually, starting with a
slow whimper and then building up to a full screeching wail. We didn’t
know what she needed or what she would eventually end up using, so
over the course of about two or three hours, we recorded as many
variations of screaming as we could. To add a bit more creative
variation, we also each did a take after reading one of Brian Eno’s
infamous “Oblique Strategy” cards.
Fairfield traveled to Chicago to watch the season finale in the Burlington Bar with her hand-picked screamers, none of whom knew what role their shrieks would play in the finale. You can see her, in a ballcap and glasses, stealing glances at the Burlington crew as they watch Viserion make his first flight.
When the episode ended, Fairfield leaned over to Adolfo and said: “You were Viserion.”
“I had assumed we would be melting small folk or tortured small folk or small folk on fire…you get the idea,” Morgan Drase says. “When the episode was over, I was confused because there were no small folk in the final scene. Paula told me we were the dragon, and I lost it and just started texting my band mates: ‘IM A MOTHA FUCKIN ICE DRAGON’”
A BAG OF BONES
Speaking of flesh, viewers were quick to notice that poor Viserion’s flesh is already rotting off his body. “Viserion’s not deteriorated enough to yet be a flying bag of bones,” Fairfield notes. “We may see that next year. He’s more like some bone.” But to create the beginnings of a skeletal effect, Fairfield used, well, actual bones. She spent the first part of 2017 buying up 40 pounds of “skulls and femurs and rib bones and jaw bones,” many of which she got from Etsy.
She then strung them up in her studio with bungee cords to ensure the bones could dangle freely, creating something she calls “The Boneyard.” Ten microphones placed around the bones—along with glass bottles and a number of other elements—captured the sounds you hear for “the snap up and down of the wings of the ice dragon.” The Boneyard also came in handy as Fairfield was putting together the lumbering undead polar bear who attacked Thoros of Myr in “Beyond the Wall.” As she puts it: “It’s just like gigantic bag of bone kind of deal.”
THE ICE CHAMBER
In order to breathe a bit more life back into that bone effect, Fairfield was able to run the audio files she already had for the dragons through a brand-new piece of software called Reformer, from Krotos. She says she wasn’t sure how she would have done all this if Reformer hadn’t been released in July. (Fairfield delivered her last audio file to HBO on August 4.) Reformer is a new approach to sound design which “allows you to texture sound by running other sounds through it.” So to give Viserion his icy feel, Fairfield took the regular dragon movement sounds and ran them through what she calls “the ice chamber,” comprised of“rocks, glass, styrofoam, polyurethane pieces,” and more. “The main one you hear,” she adds, “is that really fast movement where he does that fly by.”
A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE
Viserion’s movements and unholy cries are one thing, but what about when his blue flame hit the ice of the eastern Wall? Part of the sound you hear there is shattering, but also “a pitched down jackhammer” to give the sense that Viserion’s flame is “banging away and had some power to it.” The sizzle and pops of the fire meeting the wall are meant to evoke a welder’s torch, stretched and manipulated. Perhaps answering questions fans had about whether Viserion blew hot or cold, Fairfield explains: “He’s just going at it and slicing with this. It’s kind of like liquid nitrogen. It’s so, so cold. So imagine if that’s what it was, but it’s so cold it’s hot. That kind of thing.”
THE BIGGER THEY ARE. . .
Viserion may have been the dragon giving Fairfield nightmares, but he wasn’t her only concern this season. Season 7 had more dragon scenes than all the other years combined—and a massive budget to go with them. Better effects and room for close-ups meant that Fairfield had to inject much more personality and depth into the dragon sounds. And in order to deliver on the “power” and “size” of a beast like Drogon, Fairfield also added some bass to her existing dragon files. Manipulated Tibetan chants and some bison captured on her uncle’s wildlife preserve also gave Dany’s favorite child more of an intimidating bass tone this season.
THE LITTLE THINGS
Fairfield sounds almost sad when she talks about having to leave behind the cuter, “chittering” sounds the baby dragons used to make. But she found a way to add that chitter back into the mix when putting together the texture of these more detailed adult dragons. Think of the sound of Jon Snow’s hand on Drogon’s scales, or the expressive shake Drogon often gives the spines running down his neck. As a little inside joke for herself, Fairfield used the sound of dragonfly wings to give added texture to Drogon’s body. “You hear the thorns prominently this year—they’re flapping around as they’re flying and stuff. There’s a little chitter in there that hearkens back in a way to their vocal chitter from the third season.”
One of Fairfield’s favorite dragon moments may surprise you; it has nothing to do with fire or zombies or battle. Instead, she cites the scene from “Beyond the Wall” when “the bros are waking up on the cliff in the morning, and they’re burping and they’re kind of hissing and getting up, getting ready to go take care of business up north. That funny scene with the dragons—what a beautiful thing we were able to do this year ,because we had more money for dragon scenes. And those scenes are everything. I mean, they are as much fun as—to me, anyway—as the dragons flying around blowing shit up.”
THE WIGHT STUFF
Fairfield has been building her catalogue of undead howls and shrieks since Season 4, when those zombie skeletons attacked Bran. (R.I.P. Jojen). She recalls trying to figure out the sonic representation of “what you’re seeing, which is a deteriorated body with skin hanging off and bones rattling around and holes in things.” Fairfield distorted human screams and “literally” cut holes in them in order to give the wights their eerie shrieks. “I mean, that sequence was horrible,” she says of the screaming wight captured by Jon and friends north of the Wall. She describes the sequence as our first “quality time” with a wight. “It’s like some horrible Tasmanian devil or something. I mean, it’s relentless, like having a horrible bug in your house.” The White Walkers, she points out, don’t have voices, but she’s endowed all of their movements with as much icy crunch as she can.
WHAT DIDN’T MAKE IT
Though much of Fairfield’s highly detailed sound design made it into the final cut, she says that because her work occupies the same “tonal space” as Ramin Djiwadi’s booming score, the two are constantly vying for attention in any given episode. That means sometimes her sounds get cut, and sometimes his score does. “It always sucks for me to see how much they’ve lost sometimes, and I’m sure he feels the same way. That I’m mucking up all his beautiful music with these things. But the combination of the two is really beautiful. The battle of fire and ice is the battle of music and sound.”
SHATTERS, WHEN THE WALL FELL
But for all the bears, dragons, wights, and more that Fairfield handled this year, the biggest character she designed for, literally, was the Wall. When Viserion’s screaming blue flame took down the icy structure, Fairfield seeded in gunshots and cannon blasts to articulate every “nasty crack and pop.” This is the kind of epic, grand-scale moment that was designed to be watched on the big screen. But Fairfield says, “I always try to provide a certain level of detail that will pop even if you watch it on your laptop, so you still feel like there’s some major shit going down.” To get that detail, she said she followed Viserion’s every move with a magnifying glass as the blue flame etched fissures in an institution that has stood in Westeros for thousands of years. Holding her own against Djiwadi’s booming score, Fairfield’s eye and ear for detail means that when the Wall came crashing down, we all felt every tiny crack in the best defense mankind had against the army of the dead.