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The Sounds of World War I

Sound Design of Peter Jackson’s “They Shall Not Grow Old”

Restored and colorized WW1 footage from Peter Jackson’s documentary They Shall Not Grow Old.

The voices of aged World War I veterans guide us through their lives leading up to “The Great War,” on through their training, as grainy, silent, flickering black-and-white footage accompanies the sound of a stuttering film projector.

Then, just 24 minutes in, as a band of soldiers traverses the muddy trenches of Germany, one young warrior stares right down the barrel of the lens, and suddenly the war comes to life. The image becomes color, the soldiers move at normal speed, and the audience now hears, over their voices, what they hear. “When that kicks in,” says veteran re-recording mixer Phil Heywood, “you just think, ‘Oh, man, here we go!’”

They Shall Not Grow Old (Warner Bros.) is Peter Jackson’s extraordinary World War I documentary, a collaboration of his own Wingnut Films and England’s Imperial War Museum. Built out of silent film footage supplied by the museum (mostly from 1916, and restored, retimed and colorized by Stereo D, along with Wingnut’s Park Road Post in Wellington, New Zealand), Jackson sought to bring the silent footage to life. That included creating a soundtrack from which, of course, none existed.

“That was the initial steer from Pete [Jackson]: all of the authenticity and realism we could make to give the effect that there was a sound recordist there on the day,” says co-supervising sound editor Martin Kwok, who worked alongside fellow supervisor Brent Burge. An extraordinary amount of research went into the soundtrack, much of it from military historians at Wingnut, Pete Connor and Chris Pugsley, as well as another in the UK, Andy Robertshaw.

The dialog for Grow Old is two-part: historical narration and ADR/loop group recording. The former holds the core of the story, from which Jackson and picture editor Jabez Olssen built their narrative. Jackson was provided 600 hours of interviews done by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s, with more than 120 WWI veterans. The initial cut of the film—the original plan and budget—was 34 minutes, but Jackson soon realized there was far more story to tell, resulting in a constantly developing edit, eventually to 98 minutes.

The real thing: Recording live fire of one of the New Zealand Army’s 105mm guns at Waiouru Military Camp.

“We weren’t handed over a locked voiceover cut to begin with,” explains Kwok. “We saw the voiceover grow and grow, before the picture cantilevered out to meet it. The movie is 98 minutes long, and there’s 88 minutes of dialog. It runs almost from woe to go, which was something I’d never experienced before, from a dialog point of view, having no air gaps.”

The work was twofold: audio cleanup and an immense amount of editing. The repair end, addressed after a first pass at Pro Tools edits, was itself threefold, most of which supervising dialog editor Emile de la Rey addressed with a then-new release of iZotope RX 7. “The interviews were recorded in various places at various times,” he explains. “If they’re sitting in the garden, there might be traffic in the background, or if they’re in the kitchen, there might be a doorbell or the wife talking, or even room tone. And each interviewee—70 voices—had ten reels of tape.”

While the veterans handled the narration, part of bringing the silent footage to life was putting words in the mouths of the soldiers seen onscreen. Jackson early on decided to use forensic lip readers to try to identify precisely what was, in fact, coming out of their mouths. De la Rey reviewed all of the huge list of suggested script lines, along with the associated scenes/footage, and made recommendations for any tweaks he thought might help the lines sync best for the most natural appearance with the soldiers’ mouth movements.

Loop group director Nigel Stone, a frequent Wingnut Films collaborator in London, worked with British loop house Louis Elman Associates to assemble a voice actor pool of 12 to 20 experienced ADR voice actors, who then recorded the remarkable number of lines in a little over two days.

While true ADR was used, when possible, for loop group work, de la Rey still had to use common ADR editing craft to try to fit lines into onscreen mouths as best as possible, sometimes by time-stretching to get a good fit. “Grab bag” group lines, offered by the actors, were sometimes carefully combined with library crowds from other Wingnut films, such as Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit series, as well as some from an old CineSound 1/4-inch tape library Jackson had purchased and has been slowly restoring. “Those helped create the glue between the really modern-sounding ADR and the restored footage,” de la Rey states. “It’s pretty hard to dirty up new ADR material.”

To assist in managing the new cuts as the film grew in length, the team made use of a piece of software called Conformalizer, created by sound effects editor Justin Webster. “We were able to, as quickly as possible, make those conforms between picture and sound happen, so that we could get back to the creative part without getting caught up in the technical breakdown of piecing the track back together,” says Kwok. “Conformalizer was essential in that regard.”

Co-Supervising Sound Editor Martin Kwok

As with the dialog and ADR, Jackson’s charge to the effects editors was the same: “Authenticity was absolutely paramount,” states Brent Burge. “Often, we’re not recording the sound that’s actually onscreen. We’re recording something else to make the sound sound like what you think you would hear.”

For Grow Old, Jackson made available his large and comprehensive personal collection of WWI artifacts: weapons, personal gear, uniforms and vehicles. “He has a collection of props and historical items that he was happy for us to record, for just that reason, which is not usually the case. Here, it was, ‘No, no, that’s what they’re there for.’”

Based on the research provided by production, Burge broke the effects into two categories: “Foley, which can be shot-by-shot specific, and momentary effects, such as guns going off, things we could see onscreen.”

For ambience, typically only those items seen onscreen would be tracked, Kwok says. “You wouldn’t hear, say, horses and milk carts in a village scene unless they’re seen. If we’re inside villages, and it’s about an artillery setup, those elements are the predominant sounds. We wanted to provide a sense of realism and authenticity that Pete was looking for, but not to clutter it.”

The sounds of the marching soldiers’ hobnail boots were recorded—as were most items—by Foley artist Craig Tomlinson and his team on a variety of surfaces. “We would also introduce other tricks, such as slowing them down or pitching them up slightly, to get a real sense of difference,” Burge says, then giving the steps body by adding some library march sounds from Jackson’s CineSound library.

Recording the breach action of one of director Peter Jackson’s historic 18 Pounder Guns outside his storage facility in Wellington, NZ. From left, firearms specialist Aaron Huriwaka and supervising effects editor Mel Graham.

Indeed, some sounds received a little bolstering, Burge explains, “because some of the props, such as the soldiers’ kits, things they carried with them, are just absolutely banal and don’t make that much noise. So we had to embellish certain things, but not much, mainly to create a sense of difference between the battalions, the British and the Germans.”

Small arms, such as the 0.303 rifle used throughout by the Allies, were recorded from Jackson’s collection, as were carts carrying guns on tracks across specific surfaces seen onscreen. “Pete also had some older guns with different breaches, so we could record the sounds of men loading and unloading shells as we would see them do onscreen.”

The team was also fortunate to be able to, on Jackson’s urging, visit an army base in New Zealand to record shells being fired, setting up recording stations both at the gun locations and on the “receiving end.” Those sounds were combined with historical recordings of such guns at work.

“We wanted it to be authentic, not modern-sounding,” Burge notes. “The recordings done back then weren’t really representative of the sounds that soldiers were hearing. So we added more impact, the bottom end, as well as concussive top end, from these new recordings to give it more realism.”

One piece of weaponry that Jackson was keen to represent properly was shrapnel bombs. “The men refer to them in the voiceover a number of times, and Peter gave us a good detailed explanation of what they were,” Burge explains. “They were shells that would explode in mid-air, and then the shrapnel would fire down onto whomever was unfortunate enough to be underneath. That wasn’t something that we could record, so we had to work out a way of building them,” creating a crack in mid-air, followed seconds later by concussive sounds of shrapnel spraying down on the ground—all building on Jackson’s own instinct of what the weapons sounded like. The effect is terrifying.

The ongoing sound of background battle was also key, particularly representing the distance the soldiers in any given scene were from the front. The battle sound was constructed in layers, duller-sounding with less detail when the boys are simply seen in camp opening their mail, “And, as the men get closer, we would then add more particular layers of battle, such as armaments, artillery and guns.”

FX Editors Justin Webster and Brent Burge in Waiouru, NZ

While it was initially expected that longtime Jackson collaborator Mike Hedges would mix the film, delays in production ended up with Hedges on another project, so another veteran, Australian Phil Heywood, came aboard. “I landed in New Zealand on a Sunday, went straight to Park Road into a screening, and the next morning hit the ground running,” he recalls, finishing the project 2.5 weeks later. “It was like going through your own little war—the only difference was we had the luxury of being able to walk away; the people onscreen didn’t.”

Heywood mixed the film in Theater 3 at Park Road Post, the smaller of three state-of-the-art mixing stages. “Park Road is the best sound facility in the Southern Hemisphere,” he states. The two larger rooms, he notes, are outfitted for mixing in Dolby Atmos, though Theater 3 is not. (Grow Old was mixed initially in 5.1 and 7.1 by Heywood, and its Atmos mix created later).

All three stages feature Euphonix System 5 consoles, with Heywood preferring to work in EUCON mode. “It allows you to use the desk like an extension of Pro Tools, instead of mouse clicking. I’m a fader man. We mix completely in the box, and this allows me to use the desk, but use the Pro Tools EQ, not the Euphonix EQ.”

The mixing approach was a constant dance, walking a fine line to keep the voiceover narrative at the center of the listening experience. “The mix balance that needed to occur within not only the crowd layers and loop group layers, but ambience, effects and Foley and music,” Kwok explains. “It all had to work with and around the central narrative.”

One of the most remarkable things about the soundtrack is the consistency with which the voiceover plays—nearly all of the speakers sound as if they were recorded around the same time and in the same place, something both de la Rey and Heywood aspired to achieve.

Foley artist James Carrol provides the sound of soldiers’ shoveling.

“It took a while to get that!” Heywood states. “The idea was to keep it smooth, so one guy sounded the same as the next. I just EQ’d each line as I went, line by line, and I’d sweep through the EQ frequencies. If something was bugging me, say, at 350 Hz, I’d just sweep it up and use the EQ like a notch filter and notch out whatever I didn’t like. And I’d EQ three or four in a row, until it was smooth across them.”

Background battle was neatly handled, with Heywood giving the proper distance effect to each scene as needed. “One of the things Peter told us was, ‘The barrages never stopped.’ And if you don’t place it in the proper distance, you just have a constant battle going all day, and, in a film sense, it’s boring. So you need to give it a directional sense so that we know where the main battle’s coming from. Even when the soldiers are just relaxing, you can still hear it, but it has to be mixed so that you know there’s no direct threat where they are at the moment.”

Essential to the mixing process was the ability to allow the busy Jackson to pop in, hear playback and offer notes, and then be able to make any and all adjustments on the fly, immediately. Says Burge, “With Peter, it’s always a pretty wild ride in the mix. Things can change on a dime. And you have to be really forward, have everything in place, and ready to go. If he asks for something slightly different, you have to be able to just do that on the stage. There’s no, ‘I’ll get to that tonight, Peter.’ We try to have everything available so he can sign off on it then and there.”

The weight and gravity of the process, without exception, wasn’t lost on any member of the team, especially as the re-recording wrapped up in New Zealand. “In a normal situation, you’re having fun throwing things around the room, doing a surround mix,” Heywood states. “But this is quite different. No one ever thought of it as fun. Because it wasn’t fun. This was a horror journey, really. The sound had to be horrible. It was the reality of war, the tragic reality of what these young men were going through. And we were all here, every one of us, to honor and respect them.”