By Patrick Birk
Sam Mendes’ 1917 tells the harrowing story of Lance Corporals Will Schofield and Tom Blake, following the two young British soldiers on their perilous trek across no man’s land to deliver lifesaving orders to the Second Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment.
The story is based on accounts of World War I by the director’s grandfather, Alfred Mendes. The production went to great lengths to create an immersive experience, placing the viewer alongside the protagonists in a painstakingly recreated world, woven together seamlessly, with no obvious cuts. The film’s sound department had to rise to the challenge of bringing this rarely portrayed sonic world to life.
We checked in with supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney and ADR/dialogue supervisor Rachael Tate, who worked out of London’s Shepperton Studios. Both Tarney and Tate are Oscar-nominated in the Sound Editing category. Their work was instrumental in transporting audiences to a largely forgotten time, helping to further humanize the monochrome faces of the trenches. I know that I will keep their techniques — from worldizing to recording more ambient Foley — in mind on the next project I work on.
A lot of the film is made up of quiet, intimate moments punctuated by extremely traumatic events. How did you decide on the most key sounds for those quiet moments?
Oliver Tarney: When Sam described how it was going to be filmed, it was expected that people would comment on how it was made from a technical perspective. But for Sam, it’s a story about the friendship between these two men and the courage and sacrifice that they show. Because of this, it was important to have those quieter moments when you aren’t just engaged in full-tilt action the whole time.
The other factor is that the film had no edits — or certainly no obvious edits (which actually meant many edits) — and was incredibly well-rehearsed. It would have been a dangerous thing to have had everything playing aggressively the whole way through. I think it would have been very fatiguing for the audience to watch something like that.
Rachael Tate: Also, you can’t rely on a cut in the normal way to inform pace and energy, so you are using things like music and sound to sort of ebb and flow the energy levels. So after the plane crash, for example, you’ll notice it goes very quiet, and also with the mine collapse, there’s a huge section of very little sound, and that’s on purpose so your ears can reacclimatize.
Absolutely, and I feel like that’s a good way to go — not to oversaturate the audience with the extreme end of the sound design. In other interviews, you said that you didn’t want it to seem overly processed.
Tarney: Well, we didn’t want the weapons to sound heroic in any way. We didn’t want it to seem like they were enjoying what they were doing. It’s very realistic; it’s brutal and harsh. Certainly, Schofield does shoot at people, but it’s out of necessity rather than enjoying his role there. In terms of dynamics, we broke the film up into a series of arcs, and we worked out that some would be five minutes, some would be nine minutes and so on.
In terms of the guns, we went more naturalistic in our recordings. We wanted the audience to feel everything from their perspective — that’s what Sam wanted with the entire film. Rather than having very direct recordings, we split our energies between that and very ambient recordings in natural spaces to make it feel more realistic. The distance that enemy fire was coming from is much more realistic than you would normally play in a film, and the same goes for the biplane recordings. We had microphones all across airfields to get that lovely phase-y kind of sound. For the dogfight with the planes, we sold the fact that you’re watching Blake and Schofield watching the dogfight rather than being drawn directly to the dogfight. I guess it was trying to mirror the visual, which would stick with the two leads.
Tate: We did the same with the crowd. We tried to keep it more realistic by using half actual territorial army guys, along with voice actors, rather than just being a crowdy-sounding crowd. When we put that into the mix, we also chose which bits to focus on — Sam described it as wanting it to be like a vignette, like an old photo. You have the brown edging that fades away in the corners. He wanted you to zoom in on them so much that the stuff around them is there, but at the level they would hear it. So, if there’s a crowd on the screen further back from them, in reality you wouldn’t really hear it. In most films you put something in everyone’s mouth, but we kept it pared right back so that you’re just listening to their voices and their breaths. This is similar to how it was done with the guns and effects.
You said you weren’t going for any Hollywood-type effects, but I did notice that there are some psychoacoustic cues, like when a bomb goes in the bunker, and I think a tinnitus-type effect.
Tarney: There are a few areas where you have to go with a more conventional film language. When the plane’s very close — on the bridge perhaps — once he’s being fired upon, we start going into something that’s a little more conventional, and then we set the lingo back into him. It was that thing that Sam mentioned, which was subjectivity, objectivity; you can flip between them a little bit, otherwise it becomes too linear.
Tate: It needed to pack a punch.
Foley plays a massive part in this production. Assuming you used period weaponry and vehicles?
Tarney: Sam was so passionate about this project. When you visited the sets, the detail was just beautiful. They set the bar in terms of what we had to achieve realism-wise. We had real World War I rifles and machine guns, both British and German, and biplanes. We also did wild track Foley at the first trench and the last trench: the muddy trench and then the chalk one at the end.
Tate: We even put Blakeys on the boots.
Tarney: Yes, we bought various boots with different hobnails and metal tips.
That’s what a Blakey is?
Tate: The metal things that they put in the bottom of their shoes so that they didn’t slip around.
Tarney: And we went over the various surfaces and found which worked the best. Some were real hobnail boots, and some had metal stuck into them. We still wanted each character to have a certain personality; you don’t want everything sounding the same. We also recorded them without the nails, so when we were in a quieter part of the film, it was more like a normal boot. If you’d had that clang, clang, clang all the way through the film…
Tate: It would throw your attention away from what they were saying.
Tarney: With everything we did on the Foley, it was important to keep focus on them the whole time. We would work in layers, and as we would build up to one of the bigger events, we’d start introducing the heavier, more detailed Foley and take away the more diffuse, mellow Foley.
You only hear webbing and that kind of stuff at certain times because it would be too annoying. We would start introducing that as they went into more dangerous areas. You want them to feel conspicuous, too — when they’re in no man’s land, you want the audience to think, “Wow, there are two guys, alone, with absolutely no idea what’s out there. Is there a sniper? What’s the danger?” So once you start building up that tension, you make them a little bit louder again, so you’re aware they are a target.
How much ADR did the film require? I’m sure there was a lot of crew noise in the background.
Tate: Yes, there was a lot of crew noise — there were only two lines of “technical” ADR, which is when a line needs to be redone because the original could not be used/cleaned sufficiently. My priority was to try and keep as much production as possible. Because we started a couple of weeks after shooting started, and as they were piecing it together, it was as if it was locked. It’s not the normal way.
With this, I had the time to go deep and spectrally remove all the crew feet from the mics because they had low-end thuds on their clip mics, which couldn’t be avoided. The recordist, Stuart Wilson, did a great job, giving me a few options with the clip mics, and he was always trying to get a boom in wherever he could.
He had multiple lavaliers on the actors?
Tate: Yes, he had up to three on both those guys most of the time, and we went with the one on their helmets. It was like a mini boom. But, occasionally, they would get wind on them and stuff like that. That’s when I used iZotope RX 7. It was great having the time to do it. Ordinarily people might say, “Oh no, let’s ADR all the breaths there,” but I could get the breaths out. When you hear them breathing, that’s what they were doing at the time. There’s so much performance in them, I would hate to get them standing in a studio in London, you know, in jeans, trying to recreate that feeling.
So even if there’s slight artifacting, the littlest bit, you’d still go with that over ADR?
Tate: Absolutely. I would hope there’s not too much there though.
Tarney: Film editor Lee Smith and Sam have such a great working relationship; they really were on the same page putting this thing together. We had a big decision to make early on: Do we risk being really progressive and organize Foley recording sessions whilst they were still filming? Because, if everything was going according to plan, they were going to be really hungry for sound since there was no cutting once they had chosen the takes. If it didn’t go to plan, then we’d be forever swapping out seven-minute takes, which would be a nightmare to redo. We took a gamble and budgeted to spend the resources front heavy, and it worked out.
Tate: Lee Smith used to be a sound guy, which didn’t hurt.
I saw how detailed they were with the planning. The model of the town for figuring out the trajectory of the flair for lighting, for example.
Tate: They also mapped out the trenches so they were long enough to cover the amount of dialogue the actors were going to say — so the trenches went on for 500 yards. Before that, they were on theater stages with cardboard boxes to represent trenches, walking through them again and again. Everything was very well-planned.
Apart from dialogue and breaths, were there any pleasant surprises from the production audio that you were able to use in the final cut?
Tate: In the woods, toward the end of the film, Schofield stumbles out of the river and hears singing, and the singing that you hear is the guy doing it live. That’s the take. We didn’t get him in to sing and then put it on; that’s just his clip mic, heavily affected. We actually took his recording out into the New Forest, which is south of London.
A worldizing-type technique?
Tate: Yes, we found a remote part, and we played it and recorded it from different distances, and we had that woven against the original with a few plugins on it for the reverbs.
Tarney: We don’t know if Schofield is concussed and if he’s hallucinating. So we really wanted it to feel sort of ethereal, sort of wafting in and out on the wind — is he actually hearing this or not?
Tate: Yeah, we played the first few lines out of sequence, so you can’t really catch if there’s a melody. Just little bits on the breeze so that you’re not even quite sure what you’re hearing at that point, and it gradually comes to a more normal-sounding tune.
Tarney: Basically, that’s the thing with the whole film; things are revealed to the audience as they’re revealed to the lead characters.
Tate: There are no establishing shots.
Were there any elements of the sound design you wouldn’t expect to be in there that worked for one reason or another?
Tarney: No, there’s nothing… we were pretty accurate. Even the first thing you hear in the film — the backgrounds that were recorded in April.
Tate: In the field.
Tarney: Rachael and I went to Ypres in Belgium to visit the World War I museum and immerse ourselves in that world a little bit.
Tate: We didn’t really know that much about World War I. It wasn’t taught in my school, so I really didn’t know anything before I started this; we needed to educate ourselves.
Can you talk about the loop groups and dialing down to the finest details in terms of the vocabulary used?
Tate: Oh, God, I’ve got so many books, and we got military guys for that sort of flat way they operate. You can’t really explain that fresh to a voice actor and get them to do it properly. But the voice actors helped those guys perform and get out of their shells, and the military guys helped the voice actors in showing them how it’s done.
I gave them all many sheets of key words they could use, or conversation starters, so that they could improvise but stay on the right track in terms of content. Things like slang, poems from a cheap newspaper that was handed out to the soldiers. There was an officer’s manual, so I could tell them the right equipment and stuff. We didn’t want to get anything wrong.
That reminds me of this series of color photographs taken in the early 1900s in Russia. Automatically, it brings you so much closer to life at that point in time. Do you feel like you were able to achieve that via the sound design of this film?
Tarney: I think the whole project did that. When you’ve watched a film every day for six months, day in and day out, you can’t help but think about that era more, and it’s slightly embarrassing that it’s one generation past your grandparents.
How much more worldizing did you do, apart from the nice moment with the song?
Tarney: The Foley that you hear in the trench at the beginning and in the trench at the end is a combination between worldizing and sound designer Mike Fentum’s work. We both went down about three weeks before we started because Stuart Wilson gave us a heads up that they were wrapping at that location, so we spoke to the producer, and he gave us access.
So, in terms of worldizing, it’s not quite worldizing in the conventional sense of taking a recording and then playing it in a space. We actually went to the space and recorded the feet in that space, and the Foley supervisor Hugo Adams went to Salisbury Plain (the chalk trench at the end), and those were the first recordings that we edited and gave to Lee Smith. And then, we would get the two Foley artists that we had — Andrea King and Sue Harding — to top that with a performed pass against a screen. The whole film is layered between real recordings and studio Foley, and it’s the blend of natural presence and the performed studio Foley, with all the nuance and detail that you get from that.
Tate: Similarly, the crowd that we recorded out on a field in the back lot of Shepperton, with a 50 array; we did as much as we could without a screen with them just acting and going through the motions. We had an authentic World War I stretcher, which we used with hilarious consequences. We got them to run up and down carrying their friends on stretchers and things like that and passing enormous tables to each other and stuff so that we had the energy of it. There is something about recording outside and that sort of natural slap that you get off the buildings. It was embedded with production quite seamlessly really, and you can’t really get the same from a studio. We had to do the odd individual line in there, but most of it was done out in a field.
When need be, were you using things like convolution reverbs, such as Audio Ease Altiverb, in the mix?
Tarney: Absolutely. As good as the recordings were, it’s only when you put it against picture that you really understand what it is you need to achieve. So we would definitely augment with a lot — Altiverb is a favorite. Re-recording mixer Mark Taylor and I, we would use that a lot to augment and just change perspective a little bit more.
Can you talk about the Atmos mix and what it brought to the film?
Tarney: I’ve worked on many films with Atmos, and it’s a great tool for us. Sam’s very performance-orientated and would like things to be more screen-focused. The minute you have to turn around, you’ve lost that connection with the lead characters. So, in general, we kept things a little more front-loaded than we might have done with another director, but I really liked the results. It’s actually all the more shocking when you hear the biplane going overhead when they’re in no man’s land.
Sam wanted to know all the way through, “Can I hear it in 5.1, 7.1 and Atmos?” We’d make sure that in the three mixes — other than the obvious — we had another
plane coming over from behind. There’s not a wild difference in Atmos. The low end is nicer, and the discrete surrounds play really well, but it’s not a showy kind of mix in that sense. That would not have been true to everything we were trying to achieve, which was something real.
So Sam Mendes knows sound?
Tarney: He’s incredibly hungry to understand everything, in the best way possible. He’s very good at articulating what he wants and makes it his business to understand everything. He was fantastic. We would play him a section in 5.1, 7.1 and Atmos, and he would describe what he liked and disliked about each format, and we would then try to make each format have the same value as the other ones.
Patrick Birk is a musician and sound engineer at Silver Sound, a boutique sound house based in New York City.