As the final season of the beloved HBO fantasy epic Game of Thrones bashes and burns its way to a conclusion, many fans are already fearing life without their favorite characters. But just as much as I’ll miss Tyrion’s drunken one-liners and Arya’s shape-shifting vengeance, I’ll also miss my other Sunday pastime: birding within the Seven Kingdoms and across the Narrow Sea.
Only a few birds appear on-screen in the show, such as when Bran “wargs” into ravens and when the Petyr Baelish gifts the lord Robin Arryn a white-morph Gyrfalcon, calling it “the greatest and rarest of birds” in Season 6. Some of the show’s birds are live animals, like the Gyrfalcon. Others are inserted using CGI, like the raven flock seen flying before this season’s momentous Battle of Winterfell or the gulls following the Iron Fleet in the first episode of Season 7.
But there’s much more action happening on the soundtrack. Many keen-eared birders have noticed North American birds singing in the background of Game of Thrones episodes. Nate Swick of the American Birding Association debuted the #BirdsofWesteros Twitter hashtag in 2016 and has since identified more than a dozen species across Westeros and Essos, from the the Brown-headed Nuthatch to the Prothonotary Warbler (see the bottom of this piece for a Field Guide).
I am an inveterate critic of the misuse of bird sounds in TV and movies, constantly prepared to bristle at a Bald Eagle with the voice of a Red-tailed Hawk or at European birds calling in a scene set in North America. Game of Thrones, while set in a fantasy world, uses bird song more accurately than most programs set in our reality. Common Nighthawks call only at night. Prairie Warblers sing in prairie-type habitat. The frozen North is largely quiet, while tropical areas like Dorne are filled with chattering songbirds. Someone clearly took care to get it right.
Much of that consideration comes from the show’s supervising sound editor, Tim Kimmel, who has worked on Game of Thrones since 2013 and won an Emmy in 2015 for Outstanding Sound Editing for the fifth-season episode “Hardhome.” Kimmel’s IMDB credits are a mile long and he works with the prestigious Formosa Group post-production company, which means he knows all there is to know about how birds get into the background of TV shows.
Kimmel was excited to talk about birds sounds in Game of Thrones—a manager at Formosa told me it was their favorite interview request yet—and answer some of my long-held questions about how bird sounds get into the background of TV and movies. I have to admit that I was positively floored at some of his revelations. They sometimes invent new bird sounds! They watch for birds in the background and add sounds in for them! I don’t want to spoil too much (this is Game of Thrones, after all) so read our exchange:
Audubon: Much of Game of Thrones occurs outdoors, in a variety of landscapes. How do you select which background nature sounds accompany which locations or scenes?
Kimmel: The first step in our process is to spot the episode with the producers. We will discuss the feel of the locations, and what they are hoping sound can do to help these locations—i.e. feeling we are near the water, or deep in the forest or mountains, or farther up north. A lot of that gets accomplished with the sound of some wildlife, most commonly birds. It is always a fun process to see how you can change the feel of a location with a specific bird or two properly placed. [You can] make a location come to life, or make it feel dark and eerie. We will at times have to cheat it a little with some bird that might not actually be specific to said location, but sounds like it could belong. On Game of Thrones, we get a little more leeway with that, as it’s fantasy. We have taken birds and messed with their calls to sound like a new species chirping away in the background.
A: It sounds like some bird sounds are added later, like the two birds that fly up in the background at the 20-second mark of this scene in Dorne from Season 6. How do you select those sounds? Do you or does someone on your team watch for birds in the background that might need sounds?
K: Most, if not all, bird sounds are added later. Usually the birds that are recorded on set during production are not ones we want to hear, as they are native to the shooting location but not the location we are trying to establish. For the birds that we do not see, we try to choose birds that help sell the location—tropical birds for areas near water or farther south, gulls near large bodies of water, loons near smaller bodies of water, winter-like birds when farther up north, etc. For the birds that we do see, we do our best to try to recognize what that bird is, if we can, to put the proper sound in. If not, we do our best to use something that seems to match. The birds seen onscreen are sometimes added by VFX (computer graphics), and other times they happen to fly around, like the ones in the scene mentioned. The decision-making behind this process is either done by myself (supervising sound editor) or by a sound effects editor (on Game of Thrones, Bradley Katona). Our goal is to make it feel as real as possible, help it all blend and feel like you are there.
A: Birders are fascinated by the mysterious (to us) process by which bird sounds get into the background of TV and movies. Do sound teams have their own recordings? Are there databases offering files? If so, how detailed are you able to get, as in: general “Birds Singing” or something specific like “Birds singing in Maine in May”?
K: We have a massive library of sounds, recordings from many different sources. Some of them are very detailed in their labeling—kind of bird and where it was recorded. Others, very vague—’park birds’ or ‘forest birds.’ All of these recordings are in a searchable database so we can quickly try to find what it is that we are looking for. As we go through the locations to try to establish what kind of birds we want to use, we generally do simple searches, say “owl” for a Northern scene, and we get a wide variety of owl sounds, from many different types, plus different recordings have different style vocals for each species. We spend a lot of time listening to these recordings to pick out exactly which call works within that scene/location. A lot of it goes by feel, finding the right sound to match the mood of the scene, that fits the location. Sometimes we go through a couple of sounds before we find one that fits, and sometimes we have to comb through a lot of recordings before we find it.
A: Does the opposite ever happen, where there are birds singing naturally in the filming of a scene that need to be reduced or removed for the final show? I’m thinking for instance of the gulls heard in some of the Iron Islands scenes.
K: In general, we do our best to remove (or at least reduce) all birds recorded on location. It is always best to have as much control of all elements during the process, so the vast majority of the time the birds you hear on a TV show or film are added after the fact. Luckily, there are more and more tools available every year that make it more feasible to strip out bird sounds, even when they occur in the middle of the actor’s lines. In the last step of the sound process—the mix—we are taking all elements and mixing them together to form the soundtrack. If a producer doesn’t like a specific sound, like a bird call, if it is something we are adding in from our library, we can get rid of it. But if we had not stripped it out of the dialogue, then we end up stuck with it. It is a very detailed process that, if we do it correctly, most people watching the show will not realize everything that went into it because it will feel natural.
A: Once you pick a sound, do you try to verify its accuracy in terms of the species or the type of habitat it prefers?
K: The process of adding birds has always been a fascinating one for me, as a sound person. My bird knowledge is minimal, so it is common for me to have to do some research on the internet to see what birds are native to certain locations. We try to be as accurate as we can when creating these locations, but sometimes that is not possible. We can have a producer asking for a specific bird that they like the sound of, even if it does not generally live there naturally, but the mood of the sound fits the scene. Game of Thrones has been a great learning experience, as we have had to expand our bird knowledge to find new and interesting sounds to create a wider sound palette for the show.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Field Guide: Birding Westeros and Essos By Ear
Compiled by the author and Nate Swick (@NC_N8)
Blue Jay and Common Loon singing at Bear Island before Jon Snow, Sansa Stark, and crew approach Lyanna Mormont. Season 6, Episode 7.
American Crows calling from Winterfell. Season 6, Episode 9.
Filmed at Ballintoy Harbour, Northern Ireland. Some gulls heard in the background of the scene where Euron Greyjoy is named king.
CGI Herring Gulls attend the sailing of the Iron Fleet. Season 7, Episode 1.
Brown Thrasher, Mallard singing when Jaime Lannister meets Blackfish Tully at Riverrun. Season 6, Episode 7.
Vale of Arryn
Northern Parula when Petyr Baelish gives Robin Arryn the Gyrfalcon. Season 6, Episode 4.
Herring Gulls calling during the Unsullied attack on Casterly Rock. Season 7, Episode 3.
Blue Jay when Jamie Lannister has taken Highgarden and is about to off Olenna Tyrell. Season 7, Episode 3.
Gull sp. calling in the scene where Brienne of Tarth beats Ser Loras Tyrell at Storm’s End. Season 2, Episode 3.
At Kings Landing: Brown-headed Nuthatch, House Sparrows, Prothonotary Warbler, Chipping Sharrow, Red-eyed Vireo, Gray Kingbird, Common Chiffchaff.
At Dragon Pit: Pileated Woodpecker, Grasshopper Sparrow, Spotted Towhee, Tufted Titmouse, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk.
White-winged Dove, Northern Cardinal, Bald Eagle, Alder Flycatcher.
Gulls in Pentos. Season 1, Episode 1.
Blue Jays in Meereen. Season 6, Episode 3.
Prairie Warbler, Common Nighthawk in the Dothraki Sea. Season 6, Episode 1.
Mallard and Killdeer when Jorah Mormont and Tyrion Lannister get captured by slavers. Season 5, Episode 6.