Season eight of Game of Thrones will be its last. And given the viewership numbers of the premiere, both legal (17.4 million according to Nielsen) and pirated (54 million illegal downloads according to data firm Muso), it will go out on top.
And what can fans expect this final season of the juggernaut epic fantasy? Fan forums online are bursting with theories. Paula Fairfield, a sound designer for Game of Thrones, talked to Nerds and Beyond at Wondercon 2019 in Anaheim, CA. She told us what fans have to look forward to, but was careful to avoid spoilers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fairfield says that this year will be bigger than all previous seasons combined.
Nerds and Beyond: How have the challenges in creating this show evolved over the years?
Paula Fairfield: The show has grown in size and in scope. The scope of my work encompasses all the fantastical elements: the dragons, the white walkers, the whites, the wolves, the dreams, all that. So my work is very much tied to visual effects. As the show has gained in popularity, their visual effects budgets have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. This season is bigger than all seasons put together. It’s insane.
Nerds and Beyond: It’s hard to imagine it getting any bigger!
Fairfield: It really is hard to imagine it. 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. Because we see the whole season at the beginning. Some of the stuff we’re attempting to pull of — 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 mean I remember season seven and seeing the blue fire and ice dragon and being haunted by that. And the crazy thing is, as crazy as I think, no matter how crazy I am, I can never be as crazy as they are. I could not in my wildest dreams imagine what they’ve imagined this season.
Fairfield talks about the challenges of making distinct voices for the dragons.
Fairfield: So I try to anticipate. I had to think about for instance, the fires [from dragons] would have to be different, but then this white dragon had to sound sort of like the other whites and the polar bear, but it also has to sound like a dragon.
The other interesting thing about this: we have a group of three dragons that have grown up together over time. I mean that’s never been a thing before. When I got them, they were toddlers and they’ve grown into these crazy ass Boeing 747s that we see today. And so Drogon in particular, he’s the main dragon, he had some very big scenes in there, the plaza scene being one of them. If you go back and listen, you hear his essence then and still in his big bad boy persona now. That is something 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 it maintains the essence of him, much like we do as we grow up and our voices change and our bodies change. But often we have certain little things that are the same. We acquire things as we go, but there is something that is us from when we are younger that sticks with us through life.
Fairfield explains how her three dogs have inspired, and sometimes even served as, sound effects for the dragons and direwolves.
Fairfield: And I have dogs, so at one point I had three dogs even, and I’ve been fascinated how they live together, cohabitate, inform one another, how their relationships change over time, and 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 so we have that kind of relationship. So in some ways these are the puppies that have grown up in our living rooms all these years. And they’re bad and mischievous sometimes and they’re fun, you know, so it’s been a really neat, unique thing to be a part of.
So I had a Nymeria. She was this crazy dog, was wild, but she would come up to me and she would sit, and I could hear this almost cry-whimper and it was so beautiful. In fact, in the 502 episode, there’s a beautiful sweet nasal whistle that you’ll hear coming from Drogon which is so intimate and so beautiful, and it’s my dog!
And then I will say this: that the Nymeria (Arya reunion) scene this year with the wolves — she passed two years ago, about a month before that Nymeria scene I had to work on — that Nymeria is all of her.
Nerds and Beyond: She inspired it? Or it was her actual voice?
Fairfield: It’s all her voices. And it’s my love letter to her.
Nerds and Beyond: That’s beautiful.
Fairfield: It’s my poem to her. And she always inspired the direwolves. But in that scene, the growling warning and all that stuff — it’s her vocals so that personally was just for me. So it’s the quieter scenes.
Sometimes the producers tell her specifically to make people cry.
Nerds and Beyond: Those must be harder.
Fairfield: Yeah, it’s harder, and I have scenes where a producer outright says, “You must make everybody cry.” That really is a big part of it, to try to evoke that emotion. But it’s an interesting thing to be tasked with. I love it.
Nerds and Beyond: So doing fantasy, even though it’s completely fictional, do you try to evoke a place or era?
Fairfield: For my job, i don’t think about that with the dragons. But there was a time in film and television where we talked about suspension of disbelief. But now I say my job is actually more than that. I’m not interested in suspension of disbelief. That’s a given. I’m interested in the space past that a step or two, which is the threshold of believability. I don’t use any synthetic sounds in my work at all.
Fairfield says she uses all organic sounds for her work. One dragon sound has an origin you may find surprising.
Fairfield: I use all organic stuff. Because I believe personally (and I’ve experimented with this so that’s where the belief comes from) when I use a sound and I mess with it and twist it and recontextualize it, its primal essence somehow sticks with it. It’s kind of partially because we’re a sonically illiterate world. While we’re musically literate, we listen to music all the time, we don’t really pay attention to our environment. We take in so much information every moment of every day, but people are unaware of that. And that’s power for me. Because I can play with it. I can mess with that.
I’ve talked about it in other interviews where Drogon in season three, he’s flying around and he lands on the ship and she goes to pet him and he purrs. He has this purring sound. That purr I found, it’s basically two very large tortoises having sex. That’s the main sound. I wanted to find something really interesting, and my producer was asking me for something unusual, and so I found this sound and 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. Something. It registers on a completely different level.
Because with sound we have a viscerality I can make you feel something with sound. I can make you grab your ears in pain or relieve your bowels with using different sounds, and that’s a very unique thing. It’s the only medium that is like that, and it’s really powerful. And then this idea of primality — the kinds of things you can do with that when people are unaware. It’s part of the game of making you believe something.
So those are the kinds of things I play with. And I will think about context and era within that. I might search for interesting sounds that come out of that that are evocative somehow but you may not necessarily know that, because they are deeply embedded and enmeshed in a way that it’s presented as this beautiful meal, where you don’t taste all the ingredients. You recognize some of the flavors, but it’s the whole thing that’s created something new.
Finally, Fairfield leaves us with her hopes for the final season.
Fairfield: I just cannot wait for everyone to see it. I think it’s a beautiful farewell from everybody with such deep love from everybody on the show, and I hope that everybody is so invested in the show which warms my heart, and loves it whether your favorite character wins or not… loves it and loves the farewell. I know it’s gonna be a shock for everyone’s system in a weird way, but I’m super stoked just to see how everybody reacts to it. It’s gonna be fun!