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An inside look at the sound of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk
How the sounds of Oscar-winning movie Dunkirk were created and captured, as told by recording engineer & score mix assistant Alfred Pasquel.

This year's Oscar awards were very good for the film Dunkirk and in specific for the professionals in charge of creating the sounds of this Christopher Nolan presentation.

This meant that it was also a very good year for recording engineer and sound designer Alfredo Pasquel. That's become somewhat of a common occurrence for Pasquel whose work as of late includes Oscar nominees Hidden Figures, Boss Baby, and blockbusters like Wonder Woman and others. Alfredo finds himself shoulder to shoulder with the elite in the film industry these days, vetted by an impressive list of credits. Alan Meyerson (music scoring mixer and recording engineer for Dunkirk) was familiar with Pasquel's work on films such as Kung Fu Panda 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, and Hidden Figures, among others.

Alfredo has a reputation for being particularly skilled in capturing solo performances and the demands of Dunkirk's score demanded someone of his skills. In addition to being an exceptional viewing experience, a Christopher Nolan film is known to be challenging behind the scenes. There are many moving parts, curve balls, and tight deadlines. The constantly changing picture and score meant that Alfredo would often place recorded elements in their spots and then readjust for the evolving film. What may have been a somewhat arduous process resulted in an exceptional and lauded film.

The sound of Dunkirk is as emotional and compelling as the visuals displayed onscreen. The score is an innovative, bold, and forward-thinking music composition. Dunkirk has been recognized many times for its sparse dialogue, intentional by Nolan as a means of communicating isolation and desolation in the battles of World War II. This placed immense attention and responsibility on the score and sound design teams of Dunkirk. The complete score is ninety minutes in length; only seventeen minutes less than the entirety of the film itself.

It is impossible to think of the film possessing the emotional impact it is known for without this exceptional musical component. It's a combination of the music and the engineering techniques that create the unique atmosphere for Dunkirk.

One of these techniques is the "Shepard Tone", an auditory illusion consisting of a superposition of ascending tones separated by octaves. This gives the listener the illusion of a climbing musical scale that perpetually rises without actually going up, thus creating a sense of non-fulfillment. The listener subconsciously desires a harmonious resolution which never materializes. The clock-like percussion spanning the entire film produces a feeling of urgency, like time is running out, combined with the Shepard Tone and diving enemy bombers manifests a pressure cooker of stress and relentless pursuit.

The actual sessions for Dunkirk were recorded in Santa Monica, California (overdubs) and AIR studios, London (full orchestra). Composer Hans Zimmer had written most of the parts prior to Alfredo's involvement. The nature of modern writing/recording is such that technology (via synthesizers & software) allows for the recording of physical instruments to be recorded at different times/different locations and then be assembled afterward. Initial sampled or mock up parts were replaced by world class musicians with Pasquel at the helm.

Alfredo describes, "The nature of the solo performances for Dunkirk had to be extremely clean interpretations and recordings. They were designed to overlap and be stacked with each other. The microphones, preamplifiers, and entire recording chain had to be pristine and very pure as well as the performance and instruments used by the players. I used a couple of very quiet microphones: la Sennheiser MKH800, and Sanken CU-51 run through a GML transformerless preamplifier on the violin and cellos. Hans was directly involved in the recording process as usual. His directions were clear and concise. The melody and counter melody lines that we were recording were meant to have an interlocking arrangement, like the motion of waves in the ocean. When one of the waves is at the top of its crest, the next one is at the bottom of its valley. This coupled with panning and volume rides made a really interesting effect when played all together as a stack; a barrage of interlocking melodies rising and falling across the surround sound image like an open ocean. I was fortunate to work with amazingly talented musicians, every second of my interaction with them was extremely valuable and an experience to be remembered forever. Steve Erdody (cello) is an amazing player with an incredible career that spans decades of virtuoso playing; his tone is like nothing I've ever heard before, his cello and bow must be over a hundred years old and he plays it masterfully. Tina Guo (cello) has such a unique tone and sound. She is famous for her sharp bow attack and fast playing. Ben Powell (violin) is the contemporary sound of Hollywood film scoring; his violin sounds are worth admiration and analysis. Johnny Britt is such a talented trumpet player. I used a vintage RCA 44 ribbon microphone to sample some of the trumpet sounds that you can hear throughout the score."

The public and peer reaction validates the herculean efforts required to produce this masterful film. A host of awards including Oscar wins for "Best Achievement in Sound Mixing", "Best Achievement in Sound Editing", "Best Achievement in Film Editing", and multiple nominations including "Best Picture" complemented the film's worldwide gross of half a billion dollars (and still accumulating) as a hit with everyone. It's a fact that when one is involved in work such as this which receives massive attention, the phone rings continually. The benefits are not lost on Pasquel but he specifies that the road is never one which allows for coasting.

He remarks, "Working with Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer on Dunkirk was an amazing opportunity. I learned so many things and pushed my abilities beyond the limits I thought were impossible to overcome. Having 'survived' a project like this will automatically get you noticed by peers, potential employers, and clients but you also have to play all your cards right and sell yourself in a very strategic way. The entertainment industry is very peculiar on how it recruits its talent. Your abilities will only get you so far; you need to know how to sell the idea of hiring you for a specific job and specializing in a very narrow niche so you become the best at what you do. You not only have to be very talented at whatever you do, you also need to have an extreme work ethic, just like those I worked with on Dunkirk. I'll never forget sitting in the same room with amazingly talented minds like Christopher Nolan and Hans Zimmer discussing the nuances of the story and how the music score was going to potentiate it. I will forever remember these late night meetings of unquantifiable creativity pouring out of these masterminds and how, one step at a time they gave birth to a masterful piece of music. I learned many things, including my true limits and capabilities. Hans and Chris always pushed us beyond what we thought was possible and through their experienced guidance, they took us through a difficult but rewarding journey of creation. Since working with them I've been able to push myself farther and achieve much more than what I thought I was capable in the past. I was also reaffirmed of how music can really cause a physical reaction in the audience. Through psychoacoustics, rhythmic patterns and combinations of notes you can produce a tangible state of relaxation or stress on the audience which is a very powerful tool in storytelling."

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