You may not have heard of Paula Fairfield, however – but she is the sound designer on Game Of Thrones, and the sound on the show has just earned her and the sound team a Primetime Emmy nomination.
I was lucky enough to get the chance to talk with her, and in this his exclusive A Sound Effect interview, she takes you behind the scenes on what it’s like to do sound for the show, what inspires her – and what she sees as the key to great sound design.
Hi Paula, congrats on the Primetime Emmy nomination! How did you get involved with Game Of Thrones, and what’s it like working on a production with such a global reach?
In November 2012 – as I was in the grocery store looking for peanut butter (!) – my cell phone rang. It turned out that Todd AO was assembling a new team for season three of Game Of Thrones and I was asked if I would be interested in sound designing for the show. It was a strange moment… my dream job called me in the grocery store!
I had done work on Snow White and The Huntsman a few months earlier and fell in love with that genre/period. Armor and horses and torches and catapults and crossbows and dirt and swords and castles – a “viscerality” full of sonic textures. And then there are the mythical creatures in mythical worlds! What’s not to love about dragons and dire wolves and whitewalkers and mammoths and giants and warging and gigantic ice walls?
I think everyone who has the privilege of working on GOT is excited that so many people share our passion for what we are creating. There is some criticism of the show for its violence, but I really feel that the things that happen in the world of Thrones is not that far off from the horrors of our own world. And sometimes we need the detachment that fantasy and art provides us so that we can look at the world around us and how we treat each other a little differently.
What’s your role on the sound team, and what’s the workflow like on an episode?
I am the sound designer on the show. My work is focused of the more fantastical elements of the show; the dragons, the wolves, the whitewalkers, giants, mammoths, whytes, ravens. I also do the dream sequences, warging, the gigantic ice wall and help out with other large sequences when necessary.
As for workflow, GOT is unique in that we get to see the entire season in rough cut before we start working. Of course there are little (and very rough) or no VFX, but we get to see all the arcs of the show for the entire season. So we essentially approach it like a 10-hour feature film, and then start chipping away at it, chunk by chunk.
We essentially approach it like a 10-hour feature film
From here I start focusing on various scenes that are mine, and work in conjunction with sound supervisor Tim Kimmel and producer Greg Spence to shape these sequences as visual effects progress in tandem. It’s very collaborative and a lot of fun. During the mix, the executive producers work with us all to finish the sequences in all their detail and polish. For all of its complexity, this process runs very smoothly, thanks to the dedication and talent of everyone involved.
More than 70 people have been working on some aspect of the sound for GOT over the years – with this many people involved, how do you ensure a consistent sound for the show? And how has it evolved from the first season to the current one?
Well, it’s interesting. The first two seasons each had a different sound crew – the first year in Dublin, the second in Los Angeles. The third year a number of people moved on to other projects and they configured the crew that still exists as we go into season 5. There are also a number of post sound people, particularly ADR, who are working out of London and some of them have been a constant.
For my part, I looked very carefully at the seasons prior and all the design work that had been done, and then worked hard to make sure that the work I did – particularly during season three – flowed naturally and organically out of season two. I think everyone approached their part on the show similarly so that the crew changes were seamless.
A lot of what I design is evolving naturally because of the story
The other interesting thing is that a lot of what I design is evolving naturally because of the story. The dragons grew substantially between seasons 2 and 3, and again between seasons 3 and 4.
[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead] Each season must build naturally on what’s been established before and yet the dragons are growing by leaps and bounds and are capable of things (eating goats and babies) they were incapable of when they were babies in season 2. Same for the wolves. The giants and whitewalkers are revealed in glimpses in season 2 and 3 – an appearance here or there – and then in season 4 we see the giants and their mammoths in the attack on the wall, and the home of the whitewalkers with its king and baby sacrifices. [/Spoiler alert off] It’s a unique challenge but I have a blast doing it.
How do you typically source sounds for the show?
It depends on what I am designing. I look for little moments that I can make unique. I establish a framework or sonic shape for the scene and then start to decorate it with all the things that will fill the scene (or element) with character. Each sound that’s chosen will add its own flavor or color, and for every sound I pick I might preview 1000.
I trawl my library and make recordings and often also purchase new sound recordings, especially when I don’t have immediate time or access to record myself. I find bits and pieces from all kinds of places and sources and then I work at integrating them together into the new sonic entity that I am building. I am always fascinated by new available tools and choosing to explore one might change what I choose to use in the design.
What are some of your favorite sounds you’ve made for the show – and how did you go about creating them?
It’s really hard to pick. One of the best things about the show is the extraordinary range and variety in its story-telling. The dragons are always fun and challenging and have had the most opportunity for dramatic expression.
[Warning: Minor spoilers ahead] In both the Plaza scene in Season 3 and the Dungeon scene in the finale of season 4, I was asked to essentially “make people cry” – to help convey the emotion in the scene through the dragons, to convey the soulful connection between the dragons and Dany. [/Spoiler alert off] Again, a crazy challenge but one we all step up to on the show. I bury fun little sounds in to the design that hint at the character and personality of each dragon.
I was asked to essentially “make people cry” – to help convey the emotion in the scene through the dragons, to convey the soulful connection between the dragons and Dany
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What’s the key to great creature sound design, in your view?
I think the key to any good sound design is to bring the viewer to the threshold of believability. Post sound in general is essentially that and the irony is that the better we do our jobs, the more invisible our work is.
It’s why our jobs and contribution to every film project is so sadly underestimated … so few people really understand what it is that we do. Add to that the fact that post sound is pretty much the last stop on the production train before deliverables, and by the time the train gets to our station, it is often low on both money and time.
The key to any good sound design is to bring the viewer to the threshold of believability. And the irony is that the better we do our jobs, the more invisible our work is.
In terms of creature sound design, as visual effects technology is evolving at lightning speed, the bar is being raised in what sound designers are being asked to do and much of it comes down to detail and nuance. The combination of great visual effects and great sound design is incredibly important to the storytelling process in order that the viewer remain immersed in the story rather than being distracted by how it is being told. “I can’t believe the dragons are not real” is just about the best line any of us working on this show can hear.
What inspires you when it comes to sound design?
I love deep emotive and playful sound design, things that are unexpected. Those moments when you watch a film, or hear a piece of music, or see a beautiful painting, and you feel a connection. When you can’t help but gasp at the recognition of something familiar yet new, when you are moved or touched for even a fleeting moment and know you are not alone. And you laugh, or you cry, or you cover your eyes and ears.
Sound has the power to both literally and figuratively touch us, especially with emerging technologies in immersive sound. The possibilities in that really inspire me to play.
With the sound for the fourth season of Game Of Thrones completed, and the fifth yet to begin production, what are you currently working on?
I recently completed work on Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City 2” and have just begun “Hands of Stone”, the Roberto Duran biopic by Jonathan and Claudine Jakubowicz and La Piedre Films. It is an absolutely beautiful film in so many ways and I am extremely excited to work with these filmmakers.
Cover image credit: hbonordic.com
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