Interview by Jennifer Walden, photos courtesy of Universal Pictures
Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins chose to shoot WWI film 1917 — in theaters Christmas Day — in a series of complex long takes that, with light editing, feel like one continuous shot. The story follows two British soldiers, Schofield (George MacKay) and Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman), as they traverse the trenches of No Man’s Land in order to deliver a message warning of an upcoming ambush.
The direction for the visuals provides a feeling of immediacy — like the audience is running alongside these characters, immersed in their experience. This created unique challenges on the sound side — both for composer Thomas Newman and for two-time Oscar nominated supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney.
Here, Tarney talks about how he created quiet moments where the audience can take a breath, how he used loop group actors and real soldiers to build up the space around Schofield and Blake, how Foley was used to pull the audience into the experience, and how their attention to period detail (from weapons to words) makes this WWI story feel authentic.
Above all else, [Sam Mendes] wanted to make sure that our creative focus would be on enhancing the original performances he captured on-set.
When did you get involved with the sound on 1917? What were some of Director Sam Mendes’ initial concerns or areas to focus on sound-wise?
Oliver Tarney (OT): I first met our Director nearly a year before filming began. The story was always going to be the most important thing to Sam. Above all else, he wanted to make sure that our creative focus would be on enhancing the original performances he captured on-set.
Aesthetically, what was your approach to sound on 1917? The continuous-shot approach creates this feeling of immediacy. How did you enhance that with sound?
Once the film went to post, sound and music were the only tools that could have any effect on the rhythm and pace.
OT: The continuous-shot approach meant that we never cut away to a different location, so we didn’t have that as a device to change the tempo or energy. Once the film went to post, sound and music were the only tools that could have any effect on the rhythm and pace. This is a very dynamic film, with the big set pieces playing as you might expect, but we had to design the scenes in between to engage sonically in a more subtle way than you might normally. If we’d kept the intensity up all the way through there would’ve been the risk of overload. It was a fine balance of keeping the energy up, and allowing time to recover from the big events.
Get a great, 11-minute look behind the scenes of the making on the film in this featurette
In terms of the weapons and explosions, how did you want these to make the audience feel and how were you able to elicit that feeling using sound?
We didn’t want to process the recordings too much so there’s a raw and unsophisticated honesty to these sounds.
OT: The lead performances were so natural it would have felt incongruous to have had overtly Hollywood sounding weapons. We were fortunate enough to secure recording sessions with original WW1 guns and planes. We didn’t want to process the recordings too much so there’s a raw and unsophisticated honesty to these sounds. It helps to remind us this was a unique era – the turning point between men lining up at either side of a field to fight and the efficient, industrialized battles of modern warfare. In 1917, it was still a case of young, inexperienced men being sent into No Man’s Land with just a rifle and bayonet. This vulnerability is in stark contrast to the huge power and weight of the artillery shells.
What about bullet-bys? How were you able to get the most out of these sounds in Dolby Atmos?
OT: Given the continuous-shot approach, we wanted to keep anchored to the lead characters so we found it better to keep things front focused, but there are a few sequences that took advantage of the wider Atmos stage. The biplanes passing over No Man’s Land, and the flares burning over the town were definitely enhanced in Atmos.
We had time to try some worldizing too, such as the song that Schofield hears towards the end of the film. We set up a speaker and microphones at various distances in the woods to capture the natural reflections of the vocal bouncing off the trees.
How important was it to the director that the weapons were era appropriate? And did you do any field recordings of weapons, or vehicles?
OT: The production team were incredibly helpful on that front. Sam was keen for everything to be accurate, and we had recording sessions for all the weapons used, along with the British and German biplanes.
We had time to try some worldizing too, such as the song that Schofield hears towards the end of the film. We set up a speaker and microphones at various distances in the woods to capture the natural reflections of the vocal bouncing off the trees. Those recordings worked great in the final mix blended with the original song.
How were you able to use loop group to maximum effect in 1917?
OT: To try to maintain a sense of authenticity, we decided to split the loop group between actors and real soldiers. The actors would provide the artistic flourish, and the soldiers could provide the procedural military realism that we were looking for. We even had some medics record the triage scene at the end of the film — the rhythm and orderly fashion they did this with was perfect.
To try to maintain a sense of authenticity, we decided to split the loop group between actors and real soldiers.
The session was held outside, and recorded with a wide 5.0 mic array. This gave the recordings a great natural acoustic that matches so well into production. The 5.0 crowd tracks added an ‘in amongst the action’ feeling that a normal stereo recording often struggles to achieve.
In the months before the session, we researched WW1 culture: the jargon, the military terminologies and procedures, ranks, drills, battles, poems, songs, jokes, press clippings, letters — as much as we could find. We then wrote lines, ideas, key words, situations, and full conversations; these were then referenced in the session so that the performers were free to perform but also draw on these materials, producing accurate and believable recordings.
When things are full-on all the time, they lose their impact. How were you able to build in sonic breaks for the audience?
We approached certain sequences with a vignette type quality, choosing unobtrusive sounds for ambiences so the audience would have a chance to recover from a large event whilst still keeping the foreground details focusing on the lead characters.
OT: We approached certain sequences with a vignette type quality, choosing unobtrusive sounds for ambiences so the audience would have a chance to recover from a large event whilst still keeping the foreground details focusing on the lead characters. A good example of this is after the mine collapse, the next few sections have a stripped backed ambience. We’re learning about the relationship between Schofield and Blake, almost oblivious to the deserted environment they are traveling through. Even the hobnail boot Foley is blended with a much mellower alternative. The intensity is taken right down; then we start building up detail and tension again as they approach the farmhouse, ready for the next event to happen.
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Rachael Tate (dialogue and ADR supervisor) kept working on surgically removing the crew feet until the boom mic tracks became useable. Being able to use the boom really helped link the characters to the terrain they were in.
Did you have to do a lot of ADR? What were your challenges in working with the production dialogue in post?
OT: The camera crew feet captured on mic was the main challenge. Stuart Wilson (production sound mixer) did an amazing job given the circumstances, and his lav mics were incredibly well recorded. The only problem was they played on their own so we were missing some of the real world, off-axis variation that boom mics give you. Throughout the process, Rachael Tate (dialogue and ADR supervisor) kept working on surgically removing the crew feet until the boom mic tracks became useable. Being able to use the boom really helped link the characters to the terrain they were in. Other than the occasional line change, there are minimal ADR cues in the film — a remarkable achievement by Stuart and Rachael given the way it was filmed.
Did Foley play a significant role in 1917? What were some of the most important sounds that Foley covered?
OT: Foley was hugely important to the film. With the camera moving almost always, and the large backgrounds in-shot, the Foley anchors you to the main characters at all times.
Stuart [Wilson] would stay in touch throughout the shoot and would give me a heads up if the production was finishing up at a location. The first work we did on the project was visit the trench that opens the film. Michael Fentum (sound designer) and I spent the day getting wild-track Foley in the mud and clay.
The first work we did on the project was visit the trench that opens the film. Michael Fentum (sound designer) and I spent the day getting wild-track Foley in the mud and clay.
When there’s so much visual detail, as there is in the first trench, it made a massive difference to make sure the focus was always on our two leads as they made their way through. We did the same with the chalk trench at the end of the film.
I really like blending wild-tracks shot on location with Foley shot in a studio. To me, that’s the best of both words — a mix of the weight, natural variations, and reflections you get with wild-tracks combined with the accuracy and nuance that Foley artists Andrea King and Sue Harding achieved with their performances on the Foley stage.
How was working on 1917 a unique experience for you?
OT: Given the nature of the film, the whole project was different from anything we’d worked on before. It’s always exciting to be given a new challenge, and we’re incredibly grateful to Sam [Mendes] to have been invited to join him on this journey.
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