New story at the Star Tribune:
Not long ago, I was watching “Game of Thrones,” the megahit HBO show set in the fictional world of Westeros, when I heard a sound I knew well: the long, high call of the common loon. I’d heard it a thousand times, on a hundred lakes, and here it was in a scene overlooking the peaceful (but soon to be blood-soaked) castle of Riverrun. The bird was clearly meant to signal a place far away in the wild.
The loon call is a common sound effect. But for me, hearing the loon in the middle of a show is jarring, because it’s so distinct and my own memories of it are so clear. No doubt this is a common experience for any northerner watching any film set anywhere in the wilderness: In a moment of quiet repose, a loon will be there. But rather than immersing us more deeply in the film, it pulls us out.
“Loon is definitely a popular sound,” said Greg Budney, who was the audio curator at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., for nearly 40 years. “It seems like after ‘On Golden Pond,’ [the loon’s] use as a sound effect increased. It appears in all kinds of films, from the African desert to the southwestern U.S.”
The Cornell Lab is where Hollywood goes shopping for bird sounds. Sound designers would call Budney and his colleagues to ask for a call. Sometimes they knew what they wanted. Other times they didn’t.