Looking at Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk—or any film the director has made—one can imagine the difficulties the films must pose for his sound team. With images so epic and so spectacular, sound must follow suit, finding a way to equal what is seen on the screen—which is often remarkable, given Nolan’s preferred way of working, capturing as much in-camera as possible.
Working with Nolan since The Prestige, sound editor Richard King has become well-acquainted with the demands of a Nolan picture, winning two of his three Oscars for Nolan collaborations (The Dark Knight and Inception) along the way. While the British filmmaker is revered as a protector of cinematic spectacle and the theatrical experience, he is also a “great collaborator,” King says—someone who gives his crew “a lot of rope” and allows them to bring their creativity to the table.
With Dunkirk, King was tasked with tracking down and recording all kinds of period boats and planes, capturing massive waves and heaps of sand to bring the tense experience of a pivotal World War II moment to audiences, as 400,000 Allied soldiers stand on the beach and on the mole, waiting to be saved. Below, the sound editor discusses the triptych nature of the film’s storytelling—transpiring across land, sea and air—and his approach to immersing an audience in experience.
What got you interested in taking on Dunkirk?
I was thrilled when I got wind of this. I love history, and feel especially connected to the 20th century, and World War II. I was thrilled that I got a chance to be involved in that story. At least in pre-production, I could see that he was very keen to do it with historical accuracy, so it just seemed like a wonderful excuse to learn more about it. I knew that with Chris, there would be enormous amounts of opportunities for sound to play a part in telling the story.
What is Nolan like as a collaborator?
He knows what he wants—I guess that’s the thing. Sometimes the route there is an evolution, coming to the precise methods, but I think he knows where he wants to get to from the beginning. He give you a lot of rope, a long leash, but I think he wants to see what can come out of the creative stew that transpires during production and post-production. He’s very good about saying when I’m on course and telling me when I’m not on course, and then giving some words of guidance about how to change course, if I’m not.
He’s a great collaborator in that he allows the people that work for him to be creative. The micromanaging comes much later in the process, when we’re very close to the end. We tend to work then on the sections that are still fuzzy for him, that aren’t quite telling the story the way that he wants it told.
What is the starting point for a sound editor on a film of this scale?
I did a lot of sound recording. We recorded all the planes, which we did after they finished production. The planes they used weren’t available, so we procured our own spitfires and a Blenheim bomber and a Messerschmitt. A lot of the armaments, we recorded—things that I knew we would need in the thick of things. I did that when they were close to the end of their shoot. We did a lot of experimenting with recording large volumes of water moving for the ships sinking, those sequences.
I read the script before they started shooting and had made a list of nuts-and-bolts stuff that I knew that we would need. So, when we started the film in earnest, we had the basic building blocks of those elements, and it was a matter of then moving on from there to fine-tune things.
We recorded a lot of boats, mostly in Europe, but we did one recording here of one boat which we ended up using for the Moonstone. There are a lot of boats in the film so we needed a lot of different kinds of period, old, diesel, small diesel engines. It was basically getting the material, getting the ingredients ready for preparing the meal later on.
Can you explain the broad strokes of your approach when it came to the film’s triptych nature—land, sea and air?
The goal was to put the audience in those three locations, and to make it as visceral and tangible as we could make it. The air sequences were especially frenetic because the duration of that storyline is much shorter than the other two, so every minute is like an hour for them. There’s constantly things happening—the planes are constantly changing speed, or maneuvering, or shooting at someone. That was about excitement.
I’ve done a lot of boating, I’m a sailor, so I know what it’s like to be out in the ocean, and we tried to make it real for the audience—not intellectually, but emotionally and subconsciously, by trying to get that feeling of wind on your face, accentuating the movement of the boat so you really felt like you were on the pitching channel sea.
Then, the beach was either terrifying or a boredom, it seemed to me, for the participants. They’re either getting bombed or shot at, or they were waiting. With that location, we tried to accentuate the feeling of sand blowing on the beach because it seemed miserable and windy and cold and dank. It just looked like a horrible place to be stuck, and we wanted to play that up.
Also, the looming German army, which is like a great monster that you know is coming. You’re not quite sure how far away they are, but you can hear hints of them in the distance, howitzers and mortars. We wanted to keep that sense of it there, all the time.
How did you manage to craft a sonic experience that is as epic as the images the sound plays against?
I had a lot to live up to because the images and the performances that he captured, were so incredible, and with very few visual effects. Usually in a movie, the first version I get, there’s a lot of green screen, and there’s clearly things that are missing. With Dunkirk, it was all there. I knew I had a high bar to reach.
My crew and I worked very hard to live up to that. It is an epic, and I wanted the sound to be epic. I wanted the circumstances that the characters find themselves in to be as terrifying and as exciting as possible. These are huge events.
Imagine a ship sinking. They close all the bulkhead doors to avoid sinking, but there’s all kinds of water pockets below decks, all kinds of rushing air that’s trying to escape from the ship as it’s sinking. There’s massive volumes of water pouring in. The hull of the ship itself is rending and creaking and groaning, like a huge animal dying. The planes had these beautiful Rolls-Royce 12 cylinder V12 motors that were engineering marvels of the day, and apparently wonderful to fly. I tried to make the aerial footage as believable and as visceral as I could make it.
The airplane engines don’t have a huge RPM range, right? We had to find ways, moment by moment, to radically accentuate those throttle maneuvers so they were hyper evident—and all the rattling inside the cockpit. Even though they were great planes, this was 70 years ago, so they were crude by today’s standards. It’s also not a cockpit designed for a casual pilot—it’s a bare bones thing, very loud inside, very uncomfortable. We developed this symphony of rattles and vibrations, constantly changing and conveying the speed.
Did you have a mental library of the sounds requisite for this project before taking it on, or was there research involved?
I’m certain that I bought every book on Dunkirk. I really wanted to educate myself about what it was like. There’s a couple of great books that are basically the stories of Dunkirk told by the participants. It’s told in this kaleidoscopic fashion, so there’ll be a page from a guy who was on the beach, and a page from a pilot, a page from somebody in the channel—12 or 15 individuals who all had completely different experiences of the event.
Interestingly, they often mentioned having sound memories. They had memories of the way a bomb sounded falling in water, or the way the [planes] sounded when they dove. I found those really interesting, and got some great ideas from them. Things I wouldn’t have thought of, I stole. But also, just the notion that sound can put you in a place. After decades, these soldiers remembered these events and the sounds stuck in their minds. It was a way for me to find my way into the story. If that was a remarkable sound for them, I wanted to make that a remarkable sound for the audience.
What were the biggest challenges you faced on what must have been a very challenging project?
There were a lot. Figuring out how to make the planes do what they needed to do was challenging. We put a GoPro camera with a little mic on it inside one of the spitfires that we recorded, so you could see out the cockpit window, and see what the plane was doing. [The pilot] would bank and almost turn the plane upside down and do dives, but the engine didn’t change at all. It was amazing.
We spent about 10 minutes thinking, “Well, that might be an interesting way to go,” just because people won’t expect that. But it was damn boring, because you’re sitting in a plane and they’re doing all these incredible maneuvers. It was a little bit of a trick to figure out, using digital processing and plug-ins and stuff, how to make them throttle up and back like hot rods.
The challenge was really making everything as real and visceral without making it sound Hollywood. We didn’t want it to sound like any other war movie anyone had ever heard or seen. The challenge was in re-inventing a lot, and we tried to break every rule that we could think of, in order to make the experience fresh for people and not make them gloss over a section, because, “I know this. I know this bit; I’ve seen this before.” That’s what Chris started to do when he shot it.
It was an extraordinary experience for the people involved, and we wanted to honor them and do it justice by showing the audience just how perilous and terrifying it must have been. That involved re-thinking every single scenario and not copying other movies. We really tried to do something that was completely original and new and fresh, and not pay homage to any other film. We really just tried to make something that was a stand-alone thing.