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Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’

Because of the overwhelming success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan is viewed in popular circles as a premier “popcorn movie” director, delivering crowd-pleasing action flicks for summer crowds.

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Joseph Gordon Levitt as Arthur in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film Inception.

Photo: Melissa Moseley

Because of the overwhelming success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan is viewed in popular circles as a premier “popcorn movie” director, delivering crowd-pleasing action flicks for summer crowds. But even the least discerning movie-goers can’t miss the darkness and weirdness that courses through both of those films (especially the latter), as well other Nolan works, including The Prestige, Insomnia and especially his brain-twisting early masterpiece, Memento. Nolan has become a brilliant visual artist, but he has also always been skilled at depicting the strange interiors of the human psyche, and that would seem to be his main motive for making the films he does.

In Nolan’s latest thriller, Inception, he gets to delve into the human mind in a different way: The contemporary sci-fi story—details of which have been closely guarded prior to the film’s July 16 release—revolves around a character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who is adept at entering, sharing and even manipulating other people’s dreams, and then extracting information from those deep subconscious states for nefarious commercial exploitation. In Nolan’s inimitable way, he blurs the line between dreams and reality, memory and imagination. The film contains a number of depictions of often fantastical dreams (aided by a combination of CGI and some specially designed sets), which Nolan treats as current reality rather than as strange, hazy, barely recollected visions we faintly recall the next morning.

“You don’t question the reality of a dream while you’re in it,” explains supervising sound editor and sound designer Richard King, who is making his third film with Nolan after The Prestige and The Dark Knight (for which he was awarded a Sound Editing Oscar). “So that’s how we approached the soundtrack. You don’t always want to point out the fact that they’re in a dream while still being true to the story that’s unfolding and the visuals we’re seeing. A slight shifting of reality is appropriate, but we didn’t want to make it too obvious.”

When we spoke in May, King was in his cutting room at Warner Bros. Studios, about to begin a seven-week final on the film at the enormous Stage 9, with re-recording mixers Lora Hirschberg (FX and music) and Gary Rizzo (dialog, Foley and backgrounds), who go back to Batman Begins with Nolan.

“We are actually quite far into the mix already,” King says. “Chris [Nolan] came away from The Dark Knight feeling strongly that it didn’t seem right to put a huge amount of effort into temp mixes, then basically throw all that work away and start over again with the predubs. So he challenged us to develop a procedure to begin the final mix where the temp left off and move forward from there. Lora, Gary, Tony Pilkington [WB engineer], Andrew Bock [first assistant sound editor] and myself put our heads together and came up with a plan—and we certainly didn’t invent this, but it’s the first time I’ve done it on this scale—that all the sounds remain virtual throughout the mix. The temp dub was first [virtually] predubbed in Pro Tools by Mike Babcock and myself, then we had an eight-day temp mix in late March with Lora and Gary, and since then we’ve been conforming those virtual mixes as the picture and visual effects evolve, only rendering a print master as needed for screenings. So as we move into the final, everything will essentially have been predubbed in the box, and the first day of mixing will be like the next day of the temp. We’ll be starting at a place where we know the movie sounds great and Chris is happy, and then have seven weeks to really hone in and perfect it.

“So far we’ve done two temp updates and all the automation conforms worked fine. Lora and Gary did some of their mixing on Stage 9’s [AMS Neve] DFC and some on an [Avid] ICON—we brought two ICONs on the stage for them and I have an [Avid] ProControl surface that I use to fly in sound design elements. During the temps, Lora and Gary wrote as much automation as possible to the Pro Tools sessions rather than on the DFC so we’d have more control over the automation conforms.

“Warner Bros. engineering, particularly Tony Pilkington, built this very complicated machine that gave us the creative tools we needed to meet Chris’ expectations. Additional IO cards were installed in the DFC, and the Pro Tools machines were all upgraded with Intel computers. There are seven Pro Tools rigs playing back sound effects and backgrounds, one for dialog, one for Foley and a dedicated Altiverb machine to offload our reverbs from the playback machines. We had a total of 28 5.0 sound effects predubs playing back around 1,000 tracks for every reel. There are five reverb sends and one LFE send per machine. The 5.0 predubs and returns show up at the DFC on predub return faders. The music is submixed in Pro Tools and is playing back off one system. Music editors Alex Gibson and Ryan Rubin will always have the temp material available while we’re finaling so Chris can reference it if necessary. It’s absolutely the way to work because you’re always going in a linear forward motion rather taking little side trips.”

Director Christopher Nolan (foreground) with Leonardo Di Caprio on the set of Inception

Photo: Melissa Moseley

According to King, Nolan is “totally into the visceral—he wants the movie to be powerful in every moment on every level and utilize every tool he has to get there.” How does that translate into what sounds you provide for him? “Well with weapons, for instance, there’s no attempt to be particularly accurate about matching the sound of a gun to the actual weapon the character is using. It’s about coming up with the coolest sounds we can. We amp it up a notch for Chris; there’s usually a lot of other sounds and music going on, too, so there’s lots of competition. Chris is very interested in what sound can bring to the table and very open to new ideas; very collaborative.” Although King was able to use some of his own sound library material to cover certain needs, he says, “I think I did more recording for Inception than any movie I’ve ever worked on.”

Among those aiding King in his pursuit of original material were location recording stalwarts John Fasal and Eric Potter (“They’re still running around doing little things for me on this,” King says admiringly at the start of the final) and FX editor Michael Mitchell, whom he describes as “my main effects guy.” King notes that he “also had contacts in the major locales—Paris, East Africa, Sydney—so I hired a recordist in each location to spend four or five days walking around recording the ambiences I needed, and they did a great job. We really wanted to make the locations sound as varied and as rich as possible.” Christopher Flick supervised the Foley, which was performed by John Roesch and Alyson Dee Moore. Ed Novick, who is part of Nolan’s regular audio retinue, spearheaded the production sound. King also worked closely with film editor Lee Smith, “an old friend who was a sound editor before he was a picture editor, and has terrific sound sense—he always comes up with original ideas,” King says. “I provide Lee and Chris with mixes of key sequences as the picture editing progresses so I can get feedback.”

Certainly, there was no shortage of sound challenges in this film, between the abundance of action episodes—chases, fights, multiple explosions, an avalanche, buildings collapsing, etc.—and the occasionally hallucinatory aspects of some of the dream sequences. For instance, in one very unusual scene (which is shown in the trailers and commercials) an entire neighborhood in Paris appears to rise up and curl onto itself as if it’s being peeled off the earth’s surface—something we’ve definitely never seen or heard before. “That sequence could sound like anything,” King offers. “It could be a very sci-fi, synth-y, smooth sound. The shot could totally rely upon music. It could be very frightening or awe-inspiring. Chris’ direction was that he wanted it to sound like massive machinery, like a huge watch mechanism—again, using a relatable sound for an image we’ve never seen.

“Imagine a machine that would be massive enough to move a city like that. That’s the sound that I tried to make. I actually made the sound for that when I was in Australia last fall working on The Way Back [Peter Weir’s next film; King previously won an Oscar for work on Weir’s Master and Commander]. What you hear in the film is composed of all kinds of different sounds: It’s big metal groans and giant, heavy machinery moving, pivoting, clattering. I tried to create a little [sound] suite that would progress as the city rises and folds over.

“Reverb was really important. I think that reverb is sort of the magic ingredient that can make the most surreal sound feel real and of this world—if you put a totally crazy, off-the-wall sound in the right reverb space in a sequence, you can believe that it’s there. It’s the ‘China girl’ [an image used for color timing] of sound: When it’s the correct treatment, you’re less likely to question the appropriateness of the sound. I love the natural feeling of Altiverb, so Eric Potter’s been recording a lot of impulse responses for me in exterior spaces—firing a starter pistol up in the mountains or on a city street and from that creating an impulse response. For instance, in the sequence where the city folds in on itself, Chris wanted to hear this huge echoing sound from the end of the street between the buildings—he wanted a very real-sounding echo, and it’s really hard to create that artificially. Most reverb programs are made for music and there aren’t a lot that are specifically tailored for post-production, and I suppose things like echoes are quite hard to write the algorithms for—not only does the sound repeat, but it’s a multilevel treatment so it changes EQ and frequency during the course of the subsequent repeats. When you go out in the field and record an impulse response, you get a lot of that real decay, and if you’re starting with something that’s pretty close, then you modify it within the program and dial it in a little more to really nail it.”

Larry Zanoff captures bullet impacts in the field for the Inception soundtrack.

Photo: Andrew Bock

King and his team also had to get creative when it came to sculpting the sound of the transitions from sleep to dreams—“a little bit of an audible cue that we’re transitioning somewhere,” King says. “We hooked two oscillators to a couple of giant subwoofers in a few different locations and recorded the result. We used Hennessy Street, which is a [Warner Bros.] back-lot street, to get a sense of an urban locale; inside one of the big WB soundstages; and also in a canyon in the mountains north of L.A. Then, using the oscillator, we dialed it from 10 or 12 Hz up into the audible hearing range—and not only does it start to activate and shake and rattle things in the interior spaces, but you hear this wave of sound that comes from nowhere that becomes quite massive as the sound comes up into 18, 20, 25Hz range. Eric and I found we could almost play the oscillators like a musical instrument.

“We had two oscillators and two subwoofers, and we recorded the result [to a Sound Devices 744] with a variety of mics placed from 50 to 100 feet away so we’d hear the full propagation of the long, low wave. Using the two oscillators, we were also able to beat frequencies against one another—one’s at 21 Hz and another’s at 22—and then we brought them back into sync and swept them apart again so we get really interesting acoustic anomalies that are almost like flanging, but with the natural acoustics of the environment in which we recorded. Then we’d vary the elements of the [sound] from transition to transition and location to location—for instance, with the exterior versions, you totally buy that it’s on a street even though you’re hearing this completely unnatural sound because it’s recorded ‘in situ.’ It’s a great effect because it doesn’t sound like something that’s being added on after the fact. I then used Melodyne [plug-in] to create chords from this material so when we need it to, it can evolve into a more complex sound.

“We also utilized ‘worldizing’ on a great, old mono recording that [composer] Hans Zimmer deconstructed, pitching and stretching different frequencies to varying degrees. We re-recorded it on a street, in a building and a soundstage on the WB lot, and in a canyon to give it a natural, lifelike feeling. It’s an otherworldly sound, but sounds like it’s existing in the world the characters are inhabiting. It’s quite strange, but cool.”

In fact “strange but cool” sounds like a good way to describe a lot of what goes on in Inception, where scenes “run the gamut from the nearly normal to the extremely surreal,” King says with a laugh. “Enough of it is reality to make it recognizable, but then something very odd is happening—the physical behavior of something may not seem quite right or things aren’t moving at the right speed.”

Naturally, the sound has to mirror the action onscreen to a degree so if, for example, an explosion near a Paris café slows down visually, “the debris field becomes a more important element and you’re seeing more detail,” King says. “So you want to make it sound as lethal and scary as possible; things are flying by us and you want to give that some definition. We recorded a lot of objects being shot by a microphone; these are carefully placed and, as mentioned before, put in a ‘realistic’-sounding environment. To be real and truly threatening, it has to be believable.”

Hans Zimmer contributed a typically engaging and propulsive score that combines orchestral music, percussion, sampled material and loops. “We’re always very much aware of what each other is doing,” King comments, “and shape what we’re doing accordingly. The great thing about the way Chris works is he likes to get temp versions of the score from Hans early on so there never is a temp mix using cues from other movies. Instead, I can hear the evolution of the score and Hans can hear the evolution of the sound effects as the track evolves. We maintain an ongoing dialog, and when we see each other at screenings and so on, we share our thoughts. I think his score for Inception is really powerful. He’s very bold in his approach; I admire him a lot. And he has a true collaborator in music editor Alex Gibson, the ‘man on the ground’ as it were.”

For his part, Nolan knows what he wants, but he gives his crew the latitude to be creative in helping him achieve his singular vision. “Chris wants the audience to be excited and moved,” King says. “He’s making these elaborate, thoughtful, complex movies, but they also absolutely work on an action-movie level.

“He’s a very challenging director who never stops pushing, thinking, trying different approaches—he never stops trying to make the movie better. As hard as all of us who are working on the film are striving for perfection, he’s working harder than all of us.”

Blair Jackson is the senior editor of