Designing a Dragon Roar
The Coachella Valley’s Desert Hot Springs is dragon country. There’s a vortex of summer fires, dry earth, endless sun, dust-strewn wind, and warm aquifers. It’s part purgatory, part paradise, and it’s where the sounds of the dragons on the television series Game of Thrones were created.
The show’s Emmy-winning sound designer, Paula Fairfield, lives here in a red-roofed home with a sound studio she built by hand. Inside, she concocts every snarl and growl for Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons, as well as the noises for the show’s other fantastical beings. “I do the dragons, the White Walkers, wolves, mammoths, giants,” she said. “Sometimes I do dreams, the three-eyed-raven stuff.” The show hired linguists to create Dothraki and Valyrian, and Fairfield said the White Walkers also had their own language, called Skroth, before producers decided they should sound more like a “force of nature” and asked her to imagine what that would mean.
Fairfield’s first big break as a sound designer was working on Lost, where one of her tasks was creating the noises for the polar bears on the island. “I remember coming across an article where they were trying to decipher what the polar bear was saying,” she said. “I was laughing my fucking ass off. People were trying to play it backwards as if there were hidden messages!” Fairfield was so amused, she decided to play along. “So then I started putting in little hidden messages.”
When she got the call for the Game of Thrones job, she was at the grocery store looking for peanut butter; the series had already been on air for two seasons. “They asked me if I might be interested in this little show,” she said. She started in season three, when the dragons were becoming important characters. Each year, as they grow up, they have to sound bigger and mightier than they did the year before. “They have to maintain some of their sonic qualities,” Fairfield said. “You have to be able to recognize them. And yet you have to believe that they have gone from this big” — she gestured to the size of a cat — “to the size of an airliner.”
Usually, the sounds are a conglomeration of animals. She’s recorded farm animals near her hometown in Nova Scotia, along with Canadian moose and bison to add personality to the winged creatures. “My style is tiny snippets and bits and pieces of things. It’s like making a jigsaw puzzle and trying to blend it all to make it sound like it’s one animal,” Fairfield said. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘Oh, what plugins do you use?’ And it’s like, ‘Sorry, it’s pure editing.’”
A meaningful part of Fairfield’s process is imagining her own narrative for each scene. Daenerys’s largest dragon, Drogon, Fairfield sees as “the reincarnation of her hot husband from season one.” Their bond affects how he vocalizes. “They have a sexual relationship, always,” Fairfield said, “so he is purring, and he’s hanging with his lady.” The other two brothers? “I call them Beavis and Butt-head,” she said. “They are goofs.”
While looking for recordings of reptiles, Fairfield stumbled on a track of tortoises having sex and was intrigued by the moaning of the male tortoise. “I took the moaning sound and put it in Drogon’s mouth and fiddled around with it a little bit, and it became this beautiful purring sound,” she said. “The funny thing about it is that every time people hear it, they giggle. They don’t know, but there’s something about it, because there’s a primal energy there.”
Fairfield has spent a lot of time contemplating what draws people to a sound. “Sex sounds are crazy,” she told me. “I had done some Coke Zero ads last year, and the direction was they wanted people to lick their TV screen. So I did the luscious Coke sounds and all that, and then I put sex sounds in just for the hell of it, and it was crazy. Even my mother was like, ‘I don’t even like pop, but it makes me thirsty, and I don’t know why.’”
The Game of Thrones job came at a difficult time in Fairfield’s life. Her father had just passed away, and her sister was dying. Her marriage was disintegrating. She tells people it was the dragons that saved her. She moved from Los Angeles to Desert Hot Springs with her three dogs, who became both her closest companions and the muses for the reptilian trio on the series. Angel, her large, 14-year-old police-trained Malinois, was especially integral to her work. “She was such a hard dog in her youth. Difficult and powerful — you had to be careful,” Fairfield said. “But there would be these sweet moments; she would come up, and in my ear I would hear this subtle little whistle. It would just melt me.” It’s partly Angel’s whistle you hear during the dragons’ most vulnerable moments. “It’s this animal that’s usually screaming and growling and blowing fire,” said Fairfield. “To hear this moment of sweetness and intimacy is really a powerful thing.”