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‘1917’: Creating the Sounds of World War I, With Hidden Mics and Real Soldiers

"1917," the Oscar favorite for sound editing and mixing, utilized new techniques and equipment to achieve an innovative soundscape.

George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

“1917”

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

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In planning the sound design for “1917,” supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney and his team dug into the trenches to follow Schoefield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) on their perilous journey to deliver the letter about the impending German ambush beyond No Man’s Land.

“There were two factors we needed to consider when designing the soundscape,” said Tarney. “The first was how to best help the audience inhabit the same world as Schofield and Blake by only revealing the world as it was revealed to them; the second was the additional level of responsibility that we, along with music [by Oscar-nominated composer Thomas Newman], were tasked with in affecting the overall pacing and dynamics of the film.”

In other words, the sound ran in parallel with cinematographer Roger Deakins’ choreographed dance with the camera. And yet without the ability to cut to a different location to reset, the team had to be careful not to overwhelm the movie with sound.

“We worked hard at making sure there were always multiple layers of detail in the work we were doing,” Tarney said. “We had to make sure the audience wouldn’t get fatigued. We built in a softer soundscape after each of the larger events so that we could build the tension up.

Cast and crew members on the set of "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

“1917”

Photo Credit: François Duhamel

“A great example,” he continued, “is after the mine explosion, the Foley and backgrounds are all made up from subtle elements to ensure the viewer could ease back into focusing on the relationship between the two lead characters. It was a challenging discipline to adhere to, but I think the results play really well in the film.”

For the German weapons, they focused on recording them from multiple ambient locations rather than up close, allowing us to hear the threat as Schofield would.

“He doesn’t instantly know where the gunfire is coming from, and we wanted the viewer to feel that terrifying uncertainty too,” said Tarney. “With the biplanes we did a similar thing with microphones placed all over the airfield rather than concentrating only on close pass-bys. Those plane recordings had that lovely, slightly ‘phasey’ sound as the noise of the engines ebb and flow in and out the wind. It was utilizing a shallower depth of soundfield that helped sell this idea we were there with Schofield and Blake. The foreground elements were often bold and focused, but anything that we didn’t want the audience to believe Schofield and Blake were reacting to, even if close to them, we would choose softer elements for.”

“1917” maintained the nuanced performances of its leads by preserving all original production dialogue through painstaking analysis and clean up by dialogue editor/ADR supervisor Rachael  Tate. “Every breath, every word, was cleaned and kept as shot, with only two ADR lines shot ‘for tech,'” she said. “This is very unusual for an action film, and especially unusual when you factor in the four or five crew members constantly walking, the cranes, the camera truck, the in-camera effects, and the physical nature of the central performances.”

“1917”

Universal Pictures

To create World War I military authenticity for crowd recording in the trenches and on the front lines, Tarney and Tate meticulously researched museums, the preserved trenches, and military cemeteries in France and Belgium. They gleaned the enormous sense of scale of the battles and the tragic loss of life. The crowd’s voicework was divided between actors and hired soldiers. They shot almost everything outside in a field and made use of actual World War I stretchers.

Tarney and Tate also read books, poems, letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings for intel about military terminology, how soldiers felt waiting to go over the top, and their reliance on humor and camaraderie to get through it. Tate created pages of conversation starters, callouts, and drills. “Rather than hand out complete lines to read, the performers were able to take a key phrase or situation and expand on it in a natural way,” she said. “The crowd recordings bedded seamlessly into the mix, adding life and context to the world the boys were traveling through.”

In the opening sequence, the soldiers are miles from the nearest battle. Many have never even seen action and have no idea what awaits them in No Man’s Land. “We shot the men reading letters and poems to each other, doing drills, idly chatting and joking around, recordings that would paint a world in limbo,” added Tate. “The soldiers in the closing trench are altogether very different. They are imminently facing what for many will be an inevitable charge into death. They are truly petrified. Some crying, some praying. Our crowd recordings reflect the stark differences between these two groups of people at either end of their war experiences.”

George MacKay as Schofield in "1917," the new epic from Oscar®-winning filmmaker Sam Mendes.

“1917”

Photo Credit: Universal Pictures

Production sound mixer Stuart Wilson had to find equipment and develop new techniques to capture Schofield and Blake’s breathing and footsteps through deep trenches, in and out of buildings, and over battlefields. In working out where to place personal mics, he got the costume department to build them into the uniforms and helmets, utilizing a series of antenna and large amounts of wiring across the expansive sets to keep a strong signal going. It also became an extensive task to get rid of everything in post, including the muddy crew feet during the No Man’s Land crossing, or running alongside Schofield during the flare scene in Ecoust, or during his climactic run at the end.

“I approached the biggest shots like a site-specific installation,” Wilson said. “We knew exactly where the camera would be, where the actors would be, and where the booms could be. There were rehearsals, where the choreography was worked out, then take after take of shooting so we were able to refine the recording and the mix. You prepare as much as you can, but once the shot starts it’s like a piece of theater and you can’t stop it, so if the unexpected happens you just have to roll with it and improvise in mixing all the sources, which is really fun.”

In No Man’s Land, the camera was rigged on a wire cam, with four massive lifting cranes at the corners and computer-controlled winches to control the wires’ movement. Although there was no dialogue in the five-minute sequence, the setup was too noisy to get clean audio with breathing and footsteps over many different surfaces. “We swapped out [the winches’] generators for the quietest ones they could get and hired in acoustic barrier sheeting,” said Wilson. “The result was one of my favorite shots of the film, barely a word is spoken, yet it is gripping and the connection with the characters is completely held.” And, like the biplanes passing over No Man’s Land or the flares flying over the village, the mix also benefited from the wider soundstage provided by Dolby Atmos.

“1917”

Universal Pictures

Another quietly gripping moment occurs when Schofield encounters troops in the woods, and the soldier sings “Wayfaring Stranger.” Deakins’ camera circles around 360 degrees before resting back on Schofield, as he sits and enjoys the soothing song. “This was a magical scene, and our singer nailed it every time with a very touching performance of the song,” Wilson said. “It was all recorded live, and as the camera moves forward with Schofield, we discover the voice of our singer as he approaches. I recorded him very clean to capture the subtleties in the voice, then Oliver Tarney played that back in a forest and re-recorded it with microphones at various distances to pick up the way it echoed off the trees.

“My favorite films are those where the style of all the elements work together in harmony,” he said. “That way the whole can be more than the sum of the parts. Our achievement is that the sound plays its proper part in that as well as extending the experience beyond the screen.”

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