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The Realism of 'Dunkirk'

Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed and popularly embraced World War II film, Dunkirk, has many grand and epic moments, as you’d expect. But really, the three story arcs that dominate his artfully fractured narrative are all intimate and personal sagas, so the sound crew, led by supervising sound editor Richard King, was charged with capturing not just the overwhelming cacophony of all-out war, but also the frightening intensity of each perilous, life-threatening moment endured by the major characters. There is almost no backstory and not much dialog. It’s basically a two-hour white-knuckle ride into and out of the jaws of death—on land, on the sea and in the air.

“The goal in my mind was to put us in the place of those characters,” says King, who has won Oscars for his sound work on two previous Nolan films, The Dark Knight and Inception. “I wanted people to be able to really feel what it was like on a stormy day on the English Channel, or in the cockpit of a Spit- fire during a dogfight, or on a miserable, cold, windy beach. I looked for and found inspiration in the images and the way Chris told the story; his pacing and the way [film editor] Lee Smith cut it . There are big set pieces, but they all seem to revolve around the main characters. I wanted to make the audience participants in those massive events, and in the smaller more personal events, as well. Chris wanted to make it a first-hand experience for the audience.”

King says his job actually began before shooting even started. “The script gave me a good idea of the sort of sounds we’d need, so we started recording things here [in the L.A. area], with John Fasal and Eric Potter and others, but also a lot overseas. For the recording of the planes, we were looking for owners and pilots who would be willing to really push the planes, and that was difficult. There are only a couple of hundred Spitfires left in the world that still fly, and collectors and museums own them all; they’re obviously valuable historical artifacts. But we did find a couple of owners and pilots who were keen to push them, so we got that underway.

“We also wanted to find pre-War boats that had diesel engines, which were what was used commonly in Europe; here, pre-War, most boats had gasoline engines. So I had a number of people searching all over Europe for one- and two-cylinder diesel engines that had that unique, quaint chuggida-chuggida sound. John and Eric recorded some anti-aircraft guns. We recorded a lot of material, and then even more as we were editing and making decisions. Oh,

and surf!” he quickly adds with a chuckle. “We recorded so much surf.” Most of the recording was done using Sound Devices rigs—“which are pretty much the standard at this point,” King notes, “and a wide variety of microphones for different applications. In the Spitfires, for instance, some of the mics had to be wired up into the engine compartment. They pulled all of the engine cowlings off, and I had studied diagrams of the plane and had ideas of where I thought we should try to place mics. They ended up placing anywhere from 22 to 25 microphones throughout the plane, including running them up to the supercharger and the air in- takes, and each of those mics sounded quite different, so I was able to

‘tune’ the sound of the plane based on what was happening in the shot.” The FX predub was done in the box using Pro Tools, and then the main re-recording mix happened on Stage 9 at Warner Bros., on a Neve DFC, with Gary Rizzo handling dialog and Gregg Landaker taking on FX, Foley and music. King notes, “This was Gregg Landaker’s last mix; he retired after this one. Not because of the movie!” King laughs. “It was long-planned, and after a much-storied career of a number of Oscars and wonderful films, this was his swan-song.”

This is a film where, sonically, everything feels as if it’s been turned up to  “11,” and certainly Hans Zimmer’s relentlessly propulsive score is a large part of the equation, too. “How the music was done was unique in my experi- ence,” King says. “The score didn’t come in at the end. There was an evolu- tion from the very beginning of their cut, and then throughout; just like with the sound effects. It was all experimentation and trying different things and pushing, pushing, pushing to amp up the intensity and really try to make an unbreakable thread from the beginning to the end in all the sound realm. Chris wanted the movie to go at breakneck speed to reflect imminent danger at all times—if you stop for a moment, you’re certainly doomed! It’s constant movement forward. So the idea of the pulse, and music as the heartbeat of the movie, was something he was interested in really early.

“There were certain times Hans and I had to keep up with each other, in terms of the intensity, because I was also pushing everything to try to make the sound have as strong an impact in the moment, too. It all came together quite miraculously in the end. It was a bold and challenging idea, and Chris made it work and he inspired all of us to make it better.”