How I Became a Sound Designer: Paula Fairfield

Posted on: Mar 09, 2023

Sound designer Paula Fairfield outside in a desert area with a dragon in the background.Photo courtesy of Paula Fairfield

By Tahlia Norrish

You might not know her name, but you’ve certainly heard her work. Paula Fairfield is the auditory mastermind behind some of the most iconic story worlds in film and TV, including Lost, Game of Thrones and Mother! Along the way, she’s collected 11 Emmy nominations, won three, and undoubtedly has a couple more ahead of her.

Here we speak to Paula about her journey to sound design and the lessons she’s learned along the way.

Can you walk us through how you got into sound design?

I ended up in an art school, and at the time, it was one of the most radical art schools in the world. I grew up in rural Nova Scotia [Canada], so I had no exposure—I don’t even know why they accepted me, to be honest, but it changed my thinking. I started in design, moved to photography, and then ended up doing a photography major and an art history minor. But while I was there, I discovered video and became really interested in sound.

Then I moved to Toronto and worked as an artist. I made five little films, video art installations, and ran a media art center with some other artists. It still exists today [in] a place called Charles Street Video—it’s still the most progressive artist-run center for media in Canada. We had one of the first digital audio workstations at the time.

My focus became more and more [on] sound, so I decided to pursue it and made a short movie. I rented a Pro Tools system and taught myself. I cut it, mixed it—I did everything. Then I wandered into Sound Dogs Toronto, and they had just lost their effects guy. They took a chance on me—which was crazy—but I had taught myself Pro Tools, and there weren’t a lot of editors who were using it yet.

I worked in Canada for a bit, but started working on more movies and TV shows, so I decided, crazily enough, to move to LA to jump in and learn.

How would you describe a sound designer’s job?

I always say to producers or people who are hiring me, “This is my job: a) To bring voice to your vision, and b) To go to the ends of the earth to bring back all the crazy, weird treasures, and prepare a beautiful buffet for you to feast on. You pick what you like.”

When we’re working with a filmmaker, we’re bringing voice to their vision. And that’s something we always have to remember. It’s not your vision. It’s their vision.

Sometimes, I fall in love with stuff [I make] and think, “Oh my God, this is so good!” And sometimes, you get a lukewarm response. Then you have to remember: [you’re] giving voice to their vision. You have to listen to the sound they like better, and while it may not sound better technically, there’s an essence in that sound that’s missing from the sound you just did. And if you can figure out what that is, they’ll accept the rest of your design.

As sound people, we have to be like private eyes and investigate with a magnifying glass all the clues they give us.

You’ve said that “sound is the most powerful,” but “most misunderstood” of mediums. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?

In this noisy world, think about how many sounds we’re storing every day and how those sounds are attached to emotion. [With sound] I can make you grab your ears in pain or sh*t your pants, depending on my mood. It’s literally that powerful.

[Sound] has viscerality, it has memory, and it has narrative. And the thing is, all of this is unbeknownst to people. Nobody pays attention to it because it’s such a visual society.

Our body is mostly water tuned to frequencies. So, of course, we’re super sensitive to sound. That’s where my fascination is.

Of the production team, who do you collaborate with the most?

It really depends on the show [but] often, the sound supervisor, post producer, or both. At moments, I’ll talk to the showrunner, director, or producer. In big projects, you get a couple of meetings with them, but you’re mostly working in your team.

I also collaborate a little with the picture department, especially the assistants. They’re really important for me because my work tends to be tied to the visual effects department. I always make good friends with the assistants.

I’m always off-site, and that’s a little unique. More people now work remotely, but I’ve not been around teams for eight and a half years. Certainly, when you’re starting out, you’ve got to get on the stages. You’ve got to network in person.

Sound Designer Paula Fairfield working on set for a production.

Photo courtesy of Paula Fairfield.

Sound design seems to have two very distinct elements: the creative and the technical. How do you approach these two threads?

I’m not afraid of technology at all. I love it. I see the power and beauty in what you can do with it. Whatever I discover over here—this technical thing—now feeds the creative.

Also, I only promise myself one thing: I will try to do better today than I did yesterday. I’m learning all the time. I’m totally self-taught. In fact, last fall, I did a film score mixing workshop just to see how much of a skill set I had. And I was surprised that although I maybe didn’t know all the technology or I couldn’t describe something like an engineer, I’d arrived at a good point anyway, and that was actually very validating.

You’ve worked on some of the world’s biggest series—most recently The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon. How did this all come about?

Within the last 10 years, this little show called Game of Thrones came along and changed my life. That show propelled me to up my game.

I’d heard about [Game of Thrones] in season 1 and was curious because I had done Snow White and the Huntsman, which was a similar genre. I liked it a lot. I like the sonic textures. I like the palettes of it.

When post-production [for GoT] moved to the States, I was interested, but it went to a specific group. Then, just before season 3, I was in a grocery store looking for peanut butter—I remember that so specifically—and I had a phone call from this person who I knew was from the studios, and he said, “What’s your availability?”

At that time, I was going through some deep personal stuff. My father had just passed from cancer, my brother had passed a few years prior, and three months after I got offered Game of Thrones, my sister passed away. One of the first scenes I did was the plaza scene, and if you listen to that scene, it has the full range of emotions: happy, sad, heartbroken, vengeance, anger … I could do nothing but express everything in my being. That’s where I learned how powerful it is to put emotion into the work. I can tell you for the first few years [in] every episode what emotion I was processing.

The dragons saved me in many ways. It made me a better sound designer, but [they] also saved my soul, in a weird way. That’s how art can help you, you know? It’s kind of profound, to be honest.

Given everything you’ve done, what’s left for you to conquer?

Ironically, I’ve taken a 30-year detour. I’m just getting back to making my own work. I’ve got the skill set, I have the gear, I’m self-sufficient, [but] it’s scary as hell. It’s very vulnerable—making your own work. But I’ve decided, just for myself, to cross this hurdle and explore it.

The concept is these sonic journeys based on themes and doing a series of albums. I’ve promised myself to release an album by the end of the year, and it’s 75% there in terms of demo-ing. I need to find a visual artist to work with [on] a concert with a visual to encourage people to dream sonically. That’s what I’m hoping to do. But it’s terrifying!

What advice would you offer an aspiring sound designer?

When you’re starting out, you really do need to meet everybody to figure out all the different parts, so when you decide to specialize—or supervise—you have a working understanding of every job. [Filmmaking] is a team sport. I say it’s a state of gracious collaboration.

And, ironically, as a sound designer, you have to really listen. That’s the biggest key to becoming a good sound designer: listening to the person whose voice you’re creating.

Thanks to Paula for chatting all things sound design with us. Be sure to keep an eye (and ear) out for Paula’s next film, “Mufasa: The Lion King,” in 2024. Directed by Barry Jenkins, the CGI animated feature stars Aaron Pierre as a young Mufasa and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as a young Scar. 

BA (Hons) Fine Art, NSCAD University
Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts, NSCAD University

Career timeline 
2014 – : Founded her own company Eargasm, Inc
2005 – : Sound Designer
1995 – 2005: Sound Effects Editor

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