Yesterday during an advance screening of “Atomic Blonde,” the roar of “Dunkirk” from the theater below could be heard — and felt — above and beyond an ass-kicking Charlize Theron. Christopher Nolan’s World War II movie is loud — but when does soundscape become bombast?
“It was VERY loud. Too loud in fact,” wrote a Reddit user in a popular post titled “PSA: A warning about Dunkirk.” “It might be the loudest movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean like a gun shot here or an explosion there, I mean sustained loud noises for minutes at a time. For large sections of the movie the soundtrack and the effects merge in this cacophony of noise and it becomes difficult to differentiate between any of the sounds. On a number of occasions it actually distracted me from what was taking place on screen. If you have trouble with prolonged loud noises you might consider waiting to see this until you can control the volume.”
The post elicited 512 comments and sparked a lively discussion with others sharing similar experiences, which was mirrored by comments on Twitter and Facebook: “Dunkirk” is an impressive piece of filmmaking, but sound kept them from being able to fully engage.
Overly Loud/Muddled Sound Mix is to Christopher Nolan as Lens Flares were to JJ Abrams. Time to tone it down a bit. #Dunkirk
— Michael Tucker (@michaeltuckerla) July 24, 2017
This isn’t the first time Nolan’s films have heard this complaint. With Nolan’s last film, “Interstellar,” many complained the dialogue was drowned out. This doesn’t surprise Nolan; he’s the first to acknowledge that his approach to sound mixing is unconventional for big Hollywood film and has the potential to “catch people off guard.”
“There are particular moments in [“Interstellar”] where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is,” said Nolan in response the “Interstellar” criticism back in 2014.
“I don’t agree with the idea that you can only achieve clarity through dialogue. Clarity of story, clarity of emotions — I try to achieve that in a very layered way using all the different things at my disposal — picture and sound. I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film.”
Experiential is a key word for Nolan. While doing Q&A for “Dunkirk” last week at Lincoln Center, Nolan talked about grounding the viewer in the subjectivity of the soldiers, facing near-certain doom, trapped on beaches of Dunkirk. Sound was a big part of the way Nolan captured the feeling and intensity of the near-constant barrage of German gunfire and bombs.
“Chris wants that dense, like punk-rock kind of vibe,” said Richard King, supervising sound editor/sound designer on “Dunkirk,” in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Not trying to present an idea of how something is, but try to convey the actuality of it within the realms of how we could do it.”
To achieve a “visceral realism” (Nolan’s term) of war, the multi-layered sound design is purposefully loud, blending sound effects and music into one. Nolan says he wrote the “Dunkirk” script according to the musical principle of continual momentum. Utilizing an audio illusion called the Shepard Tone, which creates the sense of a constantly rising pitch, Nolan creates a mounting sense of anxiety and intensity in the audience through sound design.
Early on, Nolan recorded the ticking of a watch – which can be heard almost from beginning to end of the film – and gave it to his composer Hans Zimmer to start building tracks.
“What I needed from Hans was tracks that, right as we got into the edit suite, we would lay out [and start] fusing sound effects and music and picture in one very unified rhythmic structure,” said Nolan at the same Q&A.
Nolan went on to explain that the reason the “Dunkirk” script was only 76 pages (“Dunkirk” is an hour shorter than his previous two films) is he believed that it was the longest he could sustain the film’s intense grip on the audience. However, not everyone enjoyed this layered and relentlessly mounting soundscape.
“If Nolan really believed in images — in his images — he wouldn’t use such overwhelming music or seat-rumbling bass like a high-budget Wm Castle,” said New Yorker critic Richard Brody on Twitter.
The reference is to William Castle, a producer and director, who was known for his theater gimmicks like attaching vibrating motor under theater seats for his 1959 sci-fi thriller “The Tingler.”
While Brody likely saw the film optimally presented at an advance screening for press, the other side of this discussion is if most Americans actually saw and heard the film the way Nolan intended.
Nolan is possibly the most technically rigorous filmmaker working today. He is painstakingly precise and deeply involved in every technical decision of how his film is shot, mixed, and presented. He’s even been known to visit a handful of premium theaters like Chinese Imax Theatre, the Arclight Cinemas Dome in Hollywood, and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York to make sure the film has optimum screening conditions. In the case of “Dunkirk,” Warner Brothers backed Nolan’s dream of showing the film in 70mm and 70mm IMAX in 125 premium theaters across the country.
The issue, of course, is the other 3,500 screens, which don’t always share Nolan’s need for perfection.
“We made the decision a couple of films ago that we weren’t going to mix films for substandard theaters,” said Nolan in an interview with IndieWire last week. “We’re mixing for well-aligned, great theaters.”
Nolan applauded theaters owners for responding to the challenges he’s thrown their way, but reiterated he’s more concerned with the theaters doing it correctly.
“At a certain point, you have to decide if you’ve made the best possible version of the film and you’re trying to account for inadequacies in presentation,” said Nolan in the same interview. “That’s chasing the tail. It doesn’t work. I will say, with our sound mixes, we spent a lot of time and attention making sure that they work in as predictable a way possible.”
Nolan and his sound team tries to keep more of the sound information in the main channels, which are less variable than the subchannels in most theaters. The result in greater consistency theater to theater. Yet, in his interview with IndieWire, Nolan also bemoaned that it’s hard to have consistent presentation in theaters with the disappearance of an attentive projectionist from theater booths. His advice to audience members?
“It’s important to complain if you don’t like something you hear because theater owners need to step up,” said Nolan.
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn and Bill Desowitz.