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Oscars 2018: ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Blade Runner 2049’ Boast Groundbreaking Sound Design

Christopher Nolan's World War II actioner and Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi sequel experiment with new soundscapes, blending sound design and score to propel the narrative experience.


Melinda Sue Gordon

To help convey the “visceral realism” of “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan oversaw an intense soundscape covering land, sea, and air timelines for the legendary evacuation of more than 300,000 British and Allied troops under German bombardment. And for “Blade Runner 2049,” Denis Villeneuve spearheaded a musical blurring of sound and score that carried both emotional and atmospheric weight in driving the “more human than human” narrative.

Thus, in each case, sound works both overtly and subliminally to immerse us in war and dystopia, sharing equal importance with the stunning visuals provided by Hoyte van Hoytema and Roger Deakins, respectively. In the end, it makes no difference if we can’t distinguish sound from music, as they merge into a singular experience.

The Sounds of Survival

“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 Richard King, the Oscar-winning sound designer of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception.”

Nolan and composer Hans Zimmer came up with the synthesized ticking of the director’s pocket watch that plays throughout, and King provided the real-world soundscapes for mounting excitement, panic, and jeopardy.

Most of the sea action occurs in the 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,” King said.


Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

For the thrilling aerial action, 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,” King 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.”

For sound mixer Gary Rizzo, they didn’t distinguish between land, sea, and air soundscapes. They treated it as survival story. “And sound is one way you manage the progression of the peril all the way through. And there’s a lot of peril,” he said.


Courtesy of Warner bRos. Picture

The priorities included managing the transitions between sequences and not overplaying or underplaying the intensity. And never more so than with the thrilling spitfire dogfights featuring Tom Hardy.

“The spitfires have a race car vibe and when they fly by there’s such an intensity to their guts,” said Rizzo. “They were a vehicle like none other of their era. They are one of the primary characters in the film. But there is peril in the cockpit, conveyed by the rattles. I think a lot of that authentic mid-range, metal rattle helps sell how scary that circumstance would’ve been to the average person and how heroic these guys were.”

Sound as Music

For the first time, Villeneve had the schedule and budget to prep sound design for “Blade Runner 2049.” He liked the idea of picking up the thread of the original movie, in which Vangelis’ synthesized score was utilized for strange atmospheric sounds as well. “There were a lot of ambiences that sounded very musical, and, at the same time, music that sounds like sound design,” the director said about his sequel.

Sound designer Theo Green came to the shoot in Budapest and recorded a library of sounds, including rain and snow. However, there wasn’t sufficient rain, so he grabbed more in L.A. during post. And snow proved challenging at times. “There were so many iterations of how the snow should sound,” he said. “But we played with the idea of hearing individual flakes falling at the end, and one of the ways we achieved that was by filling a bath with globs of shaving foam.”

For the brutalistic-looking Spinner driven by Ryan Gosling’s K, Green experimented with an old spinning top that hummed. But that was too cutesy so Green went with the more bizarre bullroarer, an aboriginal string instrument, that blended with the engine. He used the top for the sound of the Spinner’s pilot fish drone.

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

Warner Bros.

For the rattling sound inside the Spinner, Oscar-winning sound editor Mark Mangini (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) used his wife’s 2003 Honda Element. He induced it to rattle by playing subsonic frequencies inside to get it to vibrate crazily.

Villeneuve told Mangini to think like a composer and imagine no music. “That’s because he wanted sound to do the heavy lifting,” the sound editor said. “The approach that I took was to create musical textures that would underpin just about every scene in the movie. For example, every time we’re in Wallace’s office, we wanted to create a Zen feeling of calm, so I created these musical bells.”

However, nearly everything began as an acoustic recording in keeping with Villeneuve’s analog bent. For sound mixers Doug Hemphill and Ron Bartlett, it was about deciding which told the best story: sound or score (a collaboration between Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch). “If sound effects did, we would lay off the music, if music did, we would re-balance the sound effects,” said Hemphill. “But we blended sound effects with music throughout the whole film.”

"Blade Runner 2049"

“Blade Runner 2049”

The mixers had intended on using some sonic Easter Eggs from “Blade Runner,” but ran into legal issues. The best was Vangelis’ dramatic drum hit. “I’ve been a drummer/percussionist since I was five, so I quickly got to work in my own studio at home,” Bartlett said, “and recorded all these drums and layered them up and made these big bass drum hits, and started replacing them all throughout the movie.”

When it came to K’s walk through Vegas, though, Villenuve stripped away most of the sounds. He wanted to highlight K’s footsteps. Fortunately, he liked Bartlett’s bass drum hit as a bridge between the two movies.

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