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Oscar 2017: It’s Hans Zimmer’s ‘Dunkirk’ vs. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ for Best Original Score

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch experimented with abstract and elemental scores that have generated lots of Oscar buzz.

“Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture


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For Hans Zimmer, it began with Christopher Nolan’s pocket watch on “Dunkirk” and a creative flourish at the keyboard immediately following his first viewing of Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049.” The result was the creation of two very different but experimental scores in collaboration with Zimmer’s protege, Benjamin Wallfisch (“It,” “Hidden Figures”), which are both Oscar frontrunners. (A third composer, Lorne Balfe, also contributed to the “Dunkirk” score, but only two composers can be submitted to the academy’s music branch for Oscar consideration.)

“I love these days how we are truly breaking down the walls between sound design and music,” Zimmer said. But to help convey “the visceral realism” of “Dunkirk’s” legendary evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops under German bombardment, the score needed to be in perfect sync with picture and sound. And this was complicated by playing with time and the need for three distinct rhythms for action covering land, sea, and air.

“Chris made it about pure cinema with hardly any dialogue and the first thing he told me was that the music had to be objective with no emotion,” added Zimmer. “But how do you keep this tension building? You can’t just go into a constantly building arc. You have to go and relay all that pipe and have a different shape to the whole thing again.”

HUNGARY OUTMandatory Credit: Photo by BALAZS MOHAI/EPA/REX/Shutterstock (8854591b) Hans Zimmer Hans Zimmer in concert at the Papp Laszlo, Budapest, Hungary - 01 Jun 2017 German composer Hans Zimmer plays the piano as he performs during his concert.

Hans Zimmer in concert

MOHAI/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Land, Sea, and Air

Nolan gave Zimmer his pocket watch and the incessant ticking formed the basis of the score.  But since it’s not a musical instrument and Zimmer needed to shift tempos, he resynthesized the sound from scratch. He then came up with a 100-minute piece of music, which provided the foundation for Nolan to work with and keep constantly refining it.

Zimmer also took the lead from Richard King’s sound design so they would be in sync. To accompany the varying rhythm of the motor for the 43-foot boat, the Moonstone, the composer crafted a lot of electronic sounds with a group of soloists. “It was finding rhythmic bits of that motor and using those as my percussion or using those as my backing track,” Zimmer said. “Just subtly, we’d move things around so that the clacking of the motor and the music would be at the same tempo.”

“Dunkirk”

Melinda Sue Gordon

When it came to the spitfires, the machine driven sounds in the air became Zimmer’s most overtly electronic moments. “I let Richard lead me…it was entirely his solo. And like a great musician, I became a great listener. It’s like being in a band.”

The sequences on land were the easiest to score because Zimmer constantly crossed over into the sounds of explosions and crashing waves. “It’s very hard to tell in the score who does what at any one moment,” he said. “It was a unifying element.”

The “Nimrod”

However, there was one emotional component in “Dunkirk” with the reworking of Edward Elgar’s “Nimrod” from the “Enigma Variations” as a coda. “Chris called me up one day and it took him a few moments to say it because he was worried what my reaction would be. But I knew what it meant to England and it belonged in ‘Dunkirk.’

They turned to Wallfisch to help with “Nimrod” and he too immediately understood its powerful aura of English nobility. “How can we use that sentiment without being sentimental?” he asked. “The first thing I did was slow it down.  It’s almost like you’re in a dream of subtly evolving harmonies. “When you strip away the orchestration and reduce it just to a string orchestra and focus on the harmony and chord progression, it still retains its emotional impact.”

“Dunkirk”

Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

Going Beyond Vangelis with “Blade Runner 2049”

The creative collaboration between Zimmer and Wallfisch on “Blade Runner 2049” was co-equal (following the departure of Jóhann Jóhannsson because of “creative differences” with Villeneuve). After Zimmer created a haunting theme (which became “The Mesa”), the composers then delivered a 15-minute suite that formed the basis of the score, which, through refinement, blended into the soundscape provided by sound designer Theo Green.

“They showed me the movie, we got to the end of the movie, my hands fell on the keyboard, and whatever came out of the movie came out of my fingers and Denis responded to that instantly,” Zimmer said. “It was the opposite of ‘Dunkirk.'”

Blade Runner 2049

“Blade Runner 2049”

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For Wallfisch, it was an opportunity to go beyond Vangelis’ legendary electronic score while acknowledging its legacy. “We explored the world in a way that made it sound like it was 30 years later,” he said. “These were complex themes about the human soul and the music needed to be elemental.”

It also needed to be primarily electronic. “For example, the main theme, which is connected to the wooden horse, is a very simple four-note tune connected to the idea of the four acids in the DNA sequence,” said Wallfisch. “It took a while to find that theme, but, once we had, so many things came together in the score.”

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

Another theme about the creation of replicants was highlighted by double bass played very high. “We used sounds pushed too far out of their comfort zone,” Wallfisch said.

However, “The Sea Wall” theme featured during the climactic battle was the most challenging. They had to scrap the original piece because it was too predictably action-oriented. “What Hans suggested was to extend our Horse theme for nine minutes and it glued the whole thing together to give it a sense of fate and inevitability,” said Wallfisch.

The Beast

Yet there was no escaping the DNA of the original “Blade Runner” score, created by Vangelis with the CS-80 synthesizer, a 300-pound beast that sounds very acoustical. It just so happens that Zimmer owns one of the rare ones still around.

“Blade Runner 2049”

“I took it out of storage, plugged it in, and it worked,” Zimmer said. “There was this old beast that I hadn’t touched in 10 years, but I could shut my eyes and I knew how to play it. It wheezes and there’s a lack of precision and it has its own mind. It was strange. And on the last day, it just died. But it was encouraging us not to leave the language behind.”

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