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‘Dunkirk’: How Christopher Nolan Created Unique, Rhythmic, and Very Loud Sounds of War

From 30-gallon drums to trade-secret recordings, Oscar-winning sound editor and designer Richard King takes us through recreating Dunkirk.

“Dunkirk”

Melinda Sue Gordon


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To help convey the “visceral realism” of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” the director needed an intense soundscape for the legendary evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops under German bombardment.

In fact, Nolan needed three distinctly rhythmic soundscapes for this tick-tock, overlapping, World War II actioner that covers land, sea, and air. Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer came up with the sound of a ticking watch that plays throughout, and sound editor/sound designer Richard King provided the real-world soundscapes for mounting excitement, panic, and jeopardy.

“Chris wanted a sense of velocity and everything’s happening so fast with the enemy approaching at their own speed, so there’s a time limit,” said King, Oscar winner for “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception.”

“Rather than observing it off in the distance, Chris really wanted to make you feel how horrible that would be, and to try and help the audience appreciate that,” King said.

“Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

The sound editor pointed to a moment when Dawson (Mark Rylance) looked out of his boat window and saw the British minesweeper capsize. “The look of horror on his face. Even though it’s way off in the distance, Chris wanted to re-imagine everything and to pull every trick out of our hats to make it visceral and immediate… like a physical shock,” he said.

The Stutka Siren Land Assault

It was all about putting us in that cold, forbidding, windy, storm-tossed English Channel beach in France, with constant shelling from dive bombers and Howitzer tank fire.

“There’s always the sense that the Germans are out there,” said King. “When there’s not a dive bomber overhead, there are booms and even a few practical explosions way off in the distance that were choreographed.”

“Dunkirk”

Melinda Sue Gordon

But the most important sounds were the loud sirens from the Stutka dive bombers. Audiences have heard variations on the sound many times, to the point that it’s crossed from iconic to cliche. Nolan wanted the sonic effect to reflect reality.

“In actual fact, the sound was specific to Stuka dive bombers and was created by wind driven sirens on the wheel struts,” said King. “It was used as a psychological weapon early in the war. As there are none existing in the world to record, and the existing recordings are pre-war, probably recorded on wax discs by German newsreel crews (adding a lot of analog distortion and signal degeneration due to 70 years of copying) it had to be created.”

King was inspired by period descriptions when coming up with the sound. He built and recorded a siren in a 30-gallon steel drum, and then added some trade-secret effects to the recording that gave it the right intensity.

“Chris wanted it to be terrifying,” he said. “This would’ve been one of the first times these soldiers would’ve heard that sound. One soldier said, ‘It was the most hellish, terrific noise you could ever encounter.’ The piercing, screaming sound was louder than the engine.”

That Sinking Feeling at Sea

The challenge was to convincingly put us on a small boat on a stormy day in the English Channel.

“Again, the images are so great, it was quite stormy when they shot and no one had a harness on, walking on the spray-covered deck in street shoes,” King said. “We wanted to highlight the precariousness of it all. The incredible bravery it took for them to embark on this trip to try and help.”

“Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

Most of the action occurs in Dawson’s 43-foot boat, the Moonstone, which needed to sound small. “We used the distinctive quality of the motor as part of the rhythmic portion of the soundtrack,” said King.

Meanwhile, the sinking ships were unique events, and each moment was made to be punchy and startling. For instance, when the destroyer was hit at night by a torpedo, the ship began to list and slowly capsize. The sound had to give a sense of the weight of it coming down on those who were trapped, with the panic of people screaming underwater.

“We kept adding layers of sound for complete chaos and confusion in the dark. It’s like the death of a big animal,” King said.

Spitfires to the Rescue

Hoyte van Hoytema shot amazing aerial footage of three vintage RAF Spitfires, using specially constructed and mounted 65mm Imax cameras. The challenge was to come up with sounds that equalled to the imagery.

“There’s no CGI,” said King. “It’s all actors in planes, and the dogfights were so exactingly choreographed that the sound had to be perfect. We didn’t have to try to ‘help’ the image; in fact, we had to work very hard to live up to it!”

“Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

They recorded several spitfires, and King came up with a simple and effective way to vary the engine rpm in almost a musical way. The planes don’t have a wide rpm range, so they had to slightly exaggerate for dramatic effect.

“To this we added an elaborate underscore of rattles and vibrations, matching the visual vibration of the machine,” he said. “I wanted to make it seem like the actors were ‘wearing’ the Spitfire, as it responds to their every small stick or throttle movement.”

It was being in the moment as they’re experiencing it. For instance, when a German bomber flies over Tom Hardy’s Farrier, it makes his plane shake. “You were in the cockpit with him and the image shimmered because of the vibration,” he said. “He seems very cool, calm, and collected, but the sounds around him convey the speed, risk, and danger.”

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