Game of Thrones sound designer Paula Fairfield found herself explaining the basic function of her job at a Saturday morning Con of Thrones panel called “Bringing Westeros to Life.”
As part of Game of Thrones sound team — which includes the people responsible for music, dialogue, and sound effects like clanging swords and footsteps — she’s the one who does “the weird shit, all the fantastical stuff.” She invents the noises for dragons, direwolves, White Walkers, giants, and all the other strange Game of Thrones magic. Those noises come together to create languages that join the various other languages in the series.
Fairfield’s job is at its most challenging during the climactic sequences, like season 5’s battle at Hardhome, which pitted Jon Snow and the Wildlings against a White Walker army for the first time and involved every sound person on staff. For these scenes, she told an audience of about 400, “It’s hard sometimes, because there’s always a battle between sound and music. I love working with Ramin Djawadi, and it’s a fucking crime that guy has never won an Emmy or been nominated for that score. It’s delicious and spectacular, but it’s a pain-in-the-butt with me because I have to do every little detail, and then its decided afterward which will better sculpt the story.”
As the panel was focused on elements of world building that might not immediately grab audiences’ attention, Fairfield shared the stage with Game of Thrones language creator David J. Peterson. (The pair were also the only Con speakers who currently work on the show.) Peterson crafted the entire Dothraki language from scratch in just six weeks before he even got the job.
The Valyrian language was even harder, as he had to build it from almost nothing, but still make sure that it followed the grammar of the two famous phrases “Valar Morghulis” (“All men must die.”) and “Valar Dohaeris” (“All men must serve.”), as well as all of the Valyrian names that readers know from George R.R. Martin’s books.
He got the job on the show by sending 300 pages and 80 MP3s of supplementary material about the Dothraki language and how it related to Dothraki culture, which he told the Con of Thrones audience was a deliberate trick: “I wanted them to see this stuff and be like ‘If we don’t give this guy this job he’s gonna kill himself.’”
The only tweak that he made to the language after the fact was in reaction to a now famous line of dialogue in the pilot: “[David Benioff and Dan Weiss] came up with the idea of there not being a word for ‘thank you’ in Dothraki. It was based on something I had written, a Dothraki language fun fact sheet, and one fact was that there are dozens of words for push and pull and carry but no word for please. I never said anything about a word for ‘Thank you.’ There was. There was a word. But they added that line so I erased the word for thank you.”
This cultural approach to language was what got him the job in the first place, and he expanded on the philosophy saying “There are, of course, things that are going to be common to all human beings. The word for fear is one of the oldest words in every language. But once you step beyond that, there’s this whole other world of lexical expression that differs language by language and culture by culture. So I have to break down, ‘How does this culture work? How am I going to talk about it?’ That’s why it’s wonderful to have the books. I could use those as anthropological research.”
For example, in season 3, Daenerys tricks the slave master Kraznys by feigning a trade of Drogon for the Unsullied army. She reveals at the last moment that she actually can speak the Valyrian that he’s been using to insult her, and has Drogon roast him alive. Both Fairfield and Peterson called this one of their favorite scenes, because it hinges on language and because this was the first set of dragon noises Fairfield made. Peterson says the scene works better in the show than it does even in the books, as it’s more surprising. He also explained a tiny, incredibly nerdy detail of how he wrote the scene to be even more satisfying to the truly observant:
“She speaks High Valyrian and he speaks the version that’s spoken in Astapor. One of the key differences is a vocabulary thing, stemming from the slave trade. The High Valyrian word for ‘name’ survived but the Ghiscari word for name now just means ‘slave name’ and so one of the things I had Daenerys do to make it very, very clear that she understood everything he had been saying this entire time was, I had her use the Ghiscari word for ‘slave,’ rather than the High Valyrian word. It’s a little twist just to make sure it’s like ‘yes, I speak Valyrian and yes I understood every insulting thing you said about me and I want you to be thinking about that as you’re being burned alive by a dragon.’”
In many ways, Fairfield’s job is similar. She’s making something of a language for all the magical beasts of Westeros, and especially for Daenerys and her dragons. In her mind, Dany’s favorite dragon Drogon is the reincarnation of her dead husband Khal Drogo. “They have a very sensual, almost sexual relationship. It’s very different than the other two dragons which I call Beevis and Butthead,” she explained, and that’s reflected in the way she makes sounds for them.
Before the Sack of Astapor, there are long stretches of Drogon screeching in horror with the belief that his “mother” is giving him away. “Not to be super dramatic,” Fairfield began, “But for me it was an incredible gift. My dad had passed away in July 2012 and my sister in January 2013. Halfway through that six months I got the call for Game of Thrones. And I’ve always said, the dragons saved me… That scene was everything I was feeling. The cries were from my soul. That’s how I felt. That happens a lot I think in the show, we put pieces of ourselves in it.”
Another favorite scene for her, in the second episode of season 5, features noises recorded from her dog: “Drogon’s been disappearing and he finally comes to the top of the castle and he comes down to her. I wanted something very beautiful and intimate, something you could lean into — despite this huge dragon face — like she does, without fear.” She described the moment as Drogon “coming to see his woman.”
This noise, recorded and then stretched from what she described as her dog’s “nasal whistle that was half cry, half whistle” became Drogon’s signature purr. This year, her dog, who died shortly before the season started filming, will provide the vocals for “a beautiful wolf scene.” (Place your Nymeria bets now please!) Peterson put one of his pets into the show too, replacing the Dothraki word for “friend” with the name of a cat that died recently of kidney failure.
As for how the White Walkers became Fairfield’s purview and not Peterson’s, she said, “It became very clear that it would be demeaning for the White Walkers to speak a language. They’re beyond that. They’re omnipotent, and they control the forces of nature.” In her mind, the chill they put over the world of the show when they approach constitutes their “voice.”
Neither was allowed to share much about season 7, but Fairfield, whose role has grown alongside the budget for special effects, did hint, “You underestimate what you do for us and for the show. Your love for the show fuels us creatively but it also opens the purse strings up. And they’re all the way open now for season 7.”