For Richard King, designing the sound for director Christopher Nolan’s WWII war epic, Dunkirk, “was quite a journey,” which began with reading books to get into the history. In particular the book, Voices of Dunkirk, provided first hand accounts of participants in the event. The research gave him “a global understanding of what happened” and “a sense of what it must have been like.”
King was struck that many of the memories included sound. The participants were young, fresh troops that had never really experienced battle, who were put in the situation of saving themselves. Even though their stories were written after the war, their lasting impressions included how things sounded – like a bomb going off in the sand or the terrifying Stuka sirens that emitted an unearthly shriek as German dive-bombers attacked. All the audio was examined for accuracy and dynamics. For the movie audience, King wanted the sound to have a fresh, unexpected approach and new interpretation of the historic event in order to insert the audience into the situations on screen.
The sound designer credited Lee Smith for the amazing picture editing of the film’s three story lines that come together and then diverge without being too disjointed or confusing to the viewer. Different audio palettes were created for each of the stories. According to King, his focus was less about transitioning from one situation to the other, “more about expressing what their perception of time would have been.” The yacht crossing the channel had a very specific design. The “chuga-chuga” of the diesel boat engine was rhythmically incorporated into the music. The rhythm was subtly altered in each yacht scene to increase tension. Both the director and the sound designer had the experience of sailing a small craft on the ocean, so other sounds heard on a small wooden boat at sea during rough weather were also used. King noted, “That is what captures the reality.” The beach had its palette of constant surf and wind. It both boring and terrifying for the soldiers stuck there with nothing to do, but wait. “This monster” of war was approaching from the distance, heralded by the “boom-boom” sounds of mortars and howitzers getting closer and closer, punctuated by the occasional Stuka attack on the beach.
In the air, each moment happens quickly. Everything in the plane was fast and frenetic; the sounds constantly changed. The vibrations of the engine and the RPMs of the plane gave the sense that it is actively flying, banking, diving. King commented, “I really tried to make it seem that the pilots were wearing the plane. Each moment is something is going on.” The Stuka siren, which had to be accurate, was one of the more difficult effects to recreate. That was a search almost to the end of the mix. Early pre-war 1930s recordings of the sound existed, but they were too old and compressed to be used. The sound had to be unexpected and not too familiar. It had to increase in intensity until it was almost unbearable. And it had to be “scary as hell,” as scary as it must have been in real life. In that way the audience would be brought right into the situation that the soldiers on the beach were facing. “These German bombers had sirens attached to the wheel struts. They howled, they screamed when the planes dove. It was used as a psychological weapon by the Germans. There are none in the world or even plans on how to have one built. There’s no way to record that sound,” explained King. “Yet we wanted them to be subjective. We could record with modern equipment and bring it really close as if a plane was diving and pulling up just above you, so we added a lot of analogue distortion to give it this bird of prey feeling.”
King is proud of his team’s accomplishments on the film and how the work “hangs together as a piece.” He credited production sound mixer, Mark Weingarten for capturing tracks in difficult conditions, foley artists, John Roesch and Shelley Roden for their attention to details like the British soldier’s hobnail boots, and supervising music editor, Alex Gibson, for the seamless coordination between music and sound. He acknowledged Nolan for giving them the time to try different things for “literally every single sound.”
“We examined every sound for how we can do this better. What rule can we break? What sound that we’ve heard in war movies that we cannot use or use a different sound and make it startling?” King concluded, “We really tried to nail each sound down to the footsteps…all the way up to the big events like the ship sinking and the planes crashing. I feel like we pulled it off.”