At Audubon, Nicholas Lund interviews Tim Kimmel, supervising sound editor of Game of Thrones, on the role of birds and bird calls in setting the perfect mood in scenes across the Seven Kingdoms. Bonus: a birders’ guide to Westeros and Essos.
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.
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.