Using historical sounds as a reference
By Mel Lambert
Currently garnering critical acclaim for its stunning and immersive soundtrack — particularly the IMAX showcase screenings — writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film follows the fate of nearly 400,000 allied soldiers who were marooned on the beaches of Dunkirk, and the extraordinary plans to rescue them using small ships from nearby English seaports. Although, sadly, more than 68,000 soldiers were captured or killed during the Battle of Dunkirk and the subsequent retreat, more than 300,000 were rescued over a nine-day period in May 1940.
Uniquely, Dunkirk’s primary story arcs — the Mole, or harbor from which the larger ships can take off troops; the Sea, focusing on the English flotilla of small boats; and the Air, spotlighting the activities of Spitfire pilots who protect the beaches and ships from German air-force attacks — follow different timelines, with the Mole sequences being spread over a week, the Sea over a day and the Air over an hour. A Warner Bros. release, Dunkirk stars Fionn Whitehead, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy, Tom Hardy and Kenneth Branagh. (An uncredited Michael Caine is the voice heard during various radio communications.)
Marking his sixth collaboration with Nolan, supervising sound editor Richard King worked previously on Interstellar (2014), The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, The Dark Knight and The Prestige. He brings his unique sound perspective to these complex narratives, often with innovative sound design. Born in Tampa, King attended the University of South Florida, graduating with a BFA in painting and film, and entered the film industry in 1985. He is the recipient of three Academy Awards for Best Achievement in Sound Editing for Inception, The Dark Knight and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), plus two BAFTA Awards and four MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Best Sound Editing.
The Sound of History
“When we first met to discuss the film,” King recalls, “Chris [Nolan] told me that he wanted Dunkirk to be historically accurate but not slavishly so — he didn’t plan to make a documentary. For example, several [Junkers Ju 87] Stuka dive bombers appear in the film, but there are no high-quality recordings of these aircraft, which had sirens built into the wheel struts for intimidation purposes. There are no Stukas still flying, nor could I find any design drawings so we could build our own. Instead, we decided to re-imagine the sound with a variety of unrelated sound effects and ambiences, using the period recordings as inspiration. We went out into a nearby desert with some real air raid sirens, which we over-cranked to make them more and more piercing — and to add some analog distortion. To this more ‘pure’ version of the sound we added an interesting assortment of other disparate sounds. I find the result scary as hell and probably very close to what the real thing sounded like.”
For other period Axis and Allied aircraft, King was able to locate several British Supermarine Spitfire fighters and a Bristol Blenheim bomber, together with a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. “There are about 200 Spitfires in the world that still fly; three were used during filming of Dunkirk,” King continues. “We received those recordings, and in post recorded three additional Spitfires.”
King was able to place up to 24 microphones in various locations around the airframe near the engine — a supercharged V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin liquid-cooled model of 27-liter capacity, and later 37-liter Gremlin motors — as well as close to the exhaust and within the cockpit, as the pilots performed a number of aerial movements. “We used both mono and stereo mics to provide a wide selection for sound design,” he says.
King was looking for the sound of an “air ballet” with the aircraft moving quickly across the sky. “There are moments when the plane sounds are minimized to place the audience more in the pilot’s head, and there are sequences where the plane engines are more prominent,” he says. “We also wanted to recreate the vibrations of this vintage aircraft, which became an important sound design element and was inspired by the shuddering images. I remember that Chris went up in a trainer aircraft to experience the sensation for himself. He reported that it was extremely loud with lots of vibration.
To match up with the edited visuals secured from 65/70mm IMAX and Super Panavision 65mm film cameras, King needed to produce a variety of aircraft sounds. “We had an ex-RAF pilot that had flown in modern dogfights to recreate some of those wartime flying gymnastics. The planes don’t actually produce dramatic changes in the sound when throttling and maneuvering, so I came up with a simple and effective way to accentuate this somewhat. I wanted the planes to respond to the pilots stick and throttle movements immediately.”
For armaments, King’s sound effects recordists John Fasal and Eric Potter oversaw the recording of a vintage Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft cannon seen aboard the allied destroyers and support ships. “We found one in Napa Valley,” north of San Francisco, says King. “The owner had to make up live rounds, which we fired into a nearby hill. We also recorded a number of WWII British Lee-Enfield bolt-action rifles and German machine guns on a nearby range. We had to recreate the sound of the Spitfire’s guns, because the actual guns fitted to the Spitfires overheat when fired at sea level and cannot maintain the 1,000 rounds/minute rate we were looking for, except at altitude.”
King readily acknowledges the work at Warner Bros Sound Services of sound-effects editor Michael Mitchell, who worked on several scenes, including the ship sinkings, and sound effects editor Randy Torres, who worked with King on the plane sequences.
Group ADR was done primarily in the UK, “where we recorded at De lane Lea and onboard a decommissioned WWII warship owned by the Imperial War Museum,” King recalls. “The HMS Belfast, which is moored on the River Thames in central London, was perfect for the reverberant interiors we needed for the various ships that sink in the film. We also secured some realistic Foley of people walking up and down ladders and on the superstructure.” Hugo Weng served as dialog editor and David Bach as supervising ADR editor.
Sounds for Moonstone, the key small boat whose fortunes the film follows across the English Channel, were recorded out of Marina del Rey in Southern California, “including its motor and water slaps against the hull. “We also secured some nice Foley on deck, as well as opening and closing of doors,” King says.
Conventional Foley was recorded at Skywalker Sound in Northern California by Shelley Roden, Scott Curtis and John Roesch. “Good Foley was very important for Dunkirk,” explains King. “It all needed to sound absolutely realistic and not like a Hollywood war movie, with a collection of WWII clichés. We wanted it to sound as it would for the film’s characters. John and his team had access to some great surfaces and textures, and a wonderful selection of props.” Michael Dressel served as supervising Foley editor.
In terms of sound design, King offers that he used historical sounds as a reference, to conjure up the terror of the Battle for Dunkirk. “I wanted it to feel like a well-recorded version of the original event. The book ‘Voices of Dunkirk,’ written by Joshua Levine and based on a compilation of first-hand accounts of the evacuation, inspired me and helped me shape the explosions on the beach, with the muffled ‘boom’ as the shells and bombs bury themselves in the sand and then explode. The under-water explosions needed to sound more like a body slam than an audible noise. I added other sounds that amped it a couple more degrees.”
The soundtrack was re-recorded in 5.1-channel format at Warner Bros. Sound Services Stage 9 in Burbank during a six-week mix by mixers Gary Rizzo handling dialog, with sound effects and music overseen by Gregg Landaker — this was his last film before his retiring. “There was almost no looping on the film aside from maybe a couple of lines,” King recalls. “Hugo Weng mined the recordings for every gem, and Gary [Rizzo] was brilliant at cleaning up the voices and pushing them through the barrage of sound provided by sound effects and music somehow without making them sound pushed. Production recordist Mark Weingarten faced enormous challenges, contending with strong wind and salt spray, but he managed to record tracks Gary could work with.”
The sound designer reports that he provided some 20 to 30 tracks of dialog and ADR “with options for noisy environments,” plus 40 to 50 tracks of Foley, dependent on the action. This included shoes and hob-nailed army boots, and groups of 20, especially in the ship scenes. “The score by composer Hans Zimmer kept evolving as we moved through the mixing process,” says King. “Music editor Ryan Rubin and supervising music editor Alex Gibson were active participants in this evolution.”
“We did not want to repeat ourselves or repeat others work,” King concludes. “All sounds in this movie mean something. Every scene had to be designed with a hard-hitting sound. You need to constantly question yourself: ‘Is there a better sound we could use?’ Maybe something different that is appropriate to the sequence that recreates the event in a new and fresh light? I am super-proud of this film and the track.”
Nolan — who was born in London to an American mother and an English father and whose family subsequently split their time between London and Illinois — has this quote on his IMDB page: “This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. Militarily it is a defeat; on the human plane it is a colossal victory.”
Certainly, the loss of life and supplies was profound — wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill described Operation Dynamo as “the greatest military disaster in our long history.”
Mel Lambert has been involved with production industries on both sides of the Atlantic for more years than he cares to remember. He is principal of Content Creators, a LA-based copywriting and editorial service, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also a long-time member of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.