Sound for Dunkirk Asbjoern Andersen


Reviews for Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk have been incredible, and for good reason. It’s a truly spectacular film – and so is Dunkirk’s sound. Get the full story on how the film’s rich, dense, and immersive soundscape was created, in this A Sound Effect interview with Oscar-winning supervising sound editor Richard King:


Written by Jennifer Walden, images courtesy of Warner Bros



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During WWII, along the shore of Dunkirk in northern France, 300,000 British troops were stranded as they made a retreat back across the English Channel. Lined up on the beach, they were sitting ducks for German bombers. The larger British ships were unable to reach the men on the shore, so Britain called upon small civilian boats to cross the Channel and help ferry the stranded men back to safety. Even knowing their own lives will be at great risk, brave British citizens answered the call.

Director Christopher Nolan’s dramatic war film Dunkirk, in theaters now, follows their retreat from three perspectives: the beached troops, Britain’s Royal Air Force, and that of a civilian boat captain. They struggle against the advancing Germans, but they also fight against time and tide. The clock is ticking for these troops, and that ticking clock — a main component of Hans Zimmer’s score, is a prevalent aspect of the sound track. While the score grapples with the emotional tension of the film, Oscar-winning supervising sound editor Richard King, at Warner Bros. Sound in Burbank, CA was grappling with the sound of the characters’ experiences. His goal was to build a rich, dense, and immersive sound track that encompassed the raw environments and perilous situations that the characters were in. Here, he shares his experience of creating the visceral sound for the world on-screen.

 

Dunkirk is such a great story and the visuals are amazing. Of course, it’s no surprise that you and your team did an incredible job on the sound…

Richard King (RK): Thank you. I’m really proud of the film. We were all staggered when we first saw the footage. It was pretty inspiring and our job was to have our work live up to those images.

 

How did you get involved with Dunkirk?

RK: I’ve worked with director Christopher Nolan on his past six movies. He shared some of his thoughts and we talked a bit about it after I had read the script. Then he and the crew went off to Europe to shoot. I worked a bit on my own designing sound effects, and then officially worked on the film for about eight months.

 

What was director Nolan’s vision for the sound track? How was he planning to use sound to help tell this story?

RK: First, the goal was to make it exciting, to make it visceral and immediate for the audience. We wanted to put the audience on the beach, on the small boats in the Channel, and inside the Spitfires. We wanted the experience to sound like it would for the men on the beach, and for the people who were involved.

We tried to make all of those locations and situations as fresh and immediate as possible, to rethink all of the sound situations and deliver a fresh approach to war films in general. We didn’t want to follow the usual tropes that have been used in the past.

 

I was inspired by several books, especially Joshua Levine’s ‘Voices of Dunkirk’, which presents a kaleidoscopic view of the events through firsthand accounts. They often had fresh, interesting descriptions of the way certain things sounded and clearly these sounds made an impact on them. There were descriptions of bombs going off, of ships sinking, and of the Stuka sirens on the German dive bombers.

Using these firsthand accounts was my way into creating unique perspectives on situations that we all think we’re familiar with but mostly through other war films.

These descriptions were inspiring because not only were they real, but they provided fresh insight and perspectives on the sound. They talked about sound in unexpected ways sometimes. We wanted to create a sound track that was historically accurate, while at the same time making an awesome, exciting movie. Using these firsthand accounts was my way into creating unique perspectives on situations that we all think we’re familiar with but mostly through other war films.

We didn’t want to use other war films as inspiration. We wanted to use the real event as much as possible for inspiration.

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The sound illusion that makes Dunkirk so intense

On the beach, when the German bombers first attack, there is a spectacular screaming quality to the planes as they dive. What went into that sound?

RK: That sound was specific to the Stuka dive bombers, which had sirens attached to the wheel struts. They were air driven sirens that had small propellers and when the planes dove (which they did almost vertically) the pilot released a brake on these devices and the propellers on the sirens would start to spin. It created a sound that many of the soldiers described as being particularly horrifying. It was a psychological weapon that the Germans put on the planes to freak people out and it worked apparently.

The first thing I like to do is record the real thing, to record the real sound, because often that is the best solution. But there are no Stukas left in the world. There aren’t even plans or drawings showing how the sirens were built. All of that was destroyed by the Allies to inhibit potential German war-making plans in the future.

There are historical recordings of Stukas that date before the war and that sound has been recycled over the generations for movies and TV shows. It’s often used as the classic dive bomber sound, or plane crashing sound, or for an anvil dropping on Wile E. Coyote’s head. Even though that recording is pre-war, probably recorded by German newsreel crews for propaganda purposes, it’s out there in the culture and most everyone has heard that sound.

I wanted our sound to have the same intensity and the same horrific, apocalyptic quality that the Stuka siren seemed to have had.

I wanted to give a nod to that original sound, but I wanted to make a high fidelity version of it. I wanted our sound to have the same intensity and the same horrific, apocalyptic quality that the Stuka siren seemed to have had. It was a long journey figuring out how to make that sound. Eventually, I built an electric-driven siren inside of a 30-gallon steel drum and clamped resonators to it. We took it out into the desert and recorded it. The recordings have the siren sound ricocheting around the hills and that adds another quality to the sound.
 


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    • Flora (plants) and Fauna (animals) are described in these terms:
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We brought the recordings back to the studio and made it fit the planes on-screen along with other sounds to make it even more intense. The sounds we added were like distortion, as if the sound is so loud that it is just ripping through the air. It’s natural distortion — not like something overloading. These were quite large, two-seater planes and they had large dive brakes on the wings that open up while the plane is diving. Those probably added to the screaming sound as the planes dove as well.

We wanted to use a version of what sounded like the original sound for the dive bomber approach, and then as it gets closer, the sound becomes more and more intense. It builds up to the point where you can’t believe that it can get any more intense and then it gets even more intense!

The period descriptions describe the Stuka siren as being so loud that it drowns out the sound of the plane’s engine as it dives. Our version needed to be almost musical but still ‘death-from-above’ sounding, like some screeching, horrible pterodactyl that is descending on them. There was no defense against it. There were minimal anti-aircraft guns on the beach. The soldiers and the ships were almost defenseless against it.



Videos by Eric Potter, showing the actual recording experiments to create the Stuka Siren sound for Dunkirk

 
The Sound of Dunkirk – Oscar Podcast

‘In this two part episode, the artists show how the carefully engineered track builds and maintains tension for the entire running time of the movie, with music playing almost continuously from the opening shot of soldiers walking down the street to the moment Finn falls asleep on the train. They talk about how the mixing time works: they make a complete pass through the film and screen it every week during the final mix; and finally, why director Christopher Nolan feels you don’t necessarily need to understand every word of dialog in his films. Oscar nominees: Alex Gibson, Gregg Landaker, Richard King, Gary Rizzo, Mark Weingarten’

There were great moments of water sounds, like the gigantic waves that lash the ship during the medic rescue. Then during the torpedo strike the water is rushing into the ship. The grounded trawler on the beach had water rushing in with increasing intensity. Also, there are underwater moments, including underwater screams. Can you talk about your water work on the film?

RK: We recorded a lot of underwater screams and fire hoses for the high-intensity water sounds. We also recorded garden hoses for the water streaming into the trawler, as the soldiers are trying to plug the holes with their fingers. We recorded sounds of sloshing water. We recorded giant waves for when they are below deck and get struck by the torpedo and water rushes in.

We spent a lot of time recording boats, the wake of boats, and the movement of boats through water along with boat engines. We scoured Europe for boats because we wanted older diesel boats that they would have used in Europe in the 1930s. Most of the pre-war boats in the States had gas engines and we wanted to have those small diesel motors instead. I have friends in Europe who looked all over for older boats that people have properly maintained. We recorded boats in Sweden, England, and Finland.
Three fighter planes approach a sail boat.
I didn’t go to Europe to record because at that point we were already starting to work on the movie and I needed to be here. The planes were also recorded in Europe. We recorded three different Spitfires and a British Blenheim bomber in England and in Sweden they recorded the German ME-109 fighter.

Another big recording session that the recordists did overseas was recording a loop group inside a de-commissioned English warship, which is part of the Imperial War Museum now. The loop group in England did voices for the guys on the ship before it gets torpedoed. They recorded the loop group yelling to capture that nice reverberant, metallic sound of that ship environment.

We wanted to use a British loop group because this is a story that is very important to the British and is still familiar to the people of Britain.

We wanted to use a British loop group because this is a story that is very important to the British and is still familiar to the people of Britain. This is a proud moment in their history. It’s an incredible testament to their spirit. It seemed like a hopeless situation and yet they didn’t give up. They wanted to get 40,000 soldiers off of the beach and they ended up saving multiples of that. It’s a real testament to British nerve and spirit and determination. It’s a testament to their wit and cleverness, how they figured out how to pull these boats out of nowhere and extract these troops.

Video Thumbnail

Christopher Nolan, on the making of Dunkirk

During a scene on the beach, several troops are holed up in a grounded trawler waiting for the tide to lift it up. German soldiers begin to use the boat for target practice. The bullet impacts there made me jump out of my seat. Can you talk about your work on that scene?

RK: We shot pieces of metal to simulate the boat’s hull and used a silencer/suppressor on the weapon to diminish the gun firing sound. We really just wanted to hear the impact of the bullets.

That was the goal, to make those bullet impacts as startling as possible. One reason that they are so effective is where they occur in the scene. Chris [Nolan] designed the scene so that you really weren’t expecting the bullet impacts. Even after I had seen the movie a hundred times, I’d still jump when that happens. The timing of them is perfect. They happen in pregnant pauses. They’re meant to do to the audience what they did to the guys in the boat, just scare the hell out of everyone.

Then we have the water trickling in. That was the garden hose recordings. The water starts to spray in with more intensity and for that we had recorded some hoses here on the Warner Bros. lot. The water goes from a trickle to a spray as the boat settles deeper into the water. That was a cacophony of trickles that got bigger and bigger as the boat filled up with water. The sound was always there in the background to reinforce the jeopardy that they were in, as the boat was filling up with water. Everything was about racing time in the film and we wanted to accentuate that in whatever way we could with sound.

What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Dunkirk?

We wanted them to feel like this wasn’t necessarily a historical film, but that it could be something that is happening right now.

RK: I’m proud of the film in its entirety. It’s an amazing movie and I think that we really did our best to rethink every single situation and not ever refer to past war films or what we imagine something would sound like. We really tried to create something startling for each moment because the movie is so economical — it’s cut fast, the scenes are short, we are with individual stories for just a short moment before we go to another story, and so each shot had to have sound that immediately put the audience in that moment. We wanted to have something unique for each, to make you feel as though you are in that place for the very first time and that you have never been there before, or been in that situation before. That is what we wanted the audience to feel. We wanted them to feel like this wasn’t necessarily a historical film, but that it could be something that is happening right now. We didn’t want to make it seem like an old-fashioned story. It needed to feel immediate and I feel like we accomplished that.

A big thanks to Richard King for giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the sound of Dunkirk – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!

 

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  • • In Pacific Northwest: Miniature, get a mini-nature collection of ambiences from the Hoh Rainforest, a temperate rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Olympic National Park. Hear Roosevelt Elk clack antlers and bugle as they fight for the chance to mate. Hear Pacific Wrens joyous chirps as they dance on rotten logs. Hear the massive sparseness of forests filled with 200-300 foot douglas fir and spruce. Hear haunting reverberations as ravens caw in groves of titans and the Hoh River’s soothing wash, the perfect sound to lull you off to peaceful dreams.
    • This library offers you a small collection of both quiet and active nature sounds from one of the wettest forests in North America. Some places on the Olympic Peninsula get over 200 inches of precipitation per year, and that abundance of moisture makes for a magical fern and moss filled ecosystem brimming with soothing ambiences.

    2% FOR THE ENVIRONMENT & CARBON NEUTRAL:
    • Two percent of the price of this library is donated to an environmental cause, as an “artist royalty” for the planet!
    • Carbon offset credits were purchased for the Pacific Northwest Series. Field Recording travel for these libraries was carbon neutral!

    KEY FEATURES:
    • Recorded near the One Square Inch of Silence
    • Featuring Roosevelt Elk
    • Hear two full grown Roosevelt Elk clacking antlers and bugling!
    • Distant elk trumpeting deep in the forest.
    • Varied ambiences from the Hoh Rainforest in Olympic National Park
    • Sparse ambiences with minimal wildlife
    • Active ambiences with twittering songbirds
    • One extended 35-minute quiet nature ambience
    • This library is a portrait of the Hoh Rainforest. The rainforest is in a long river valley, so the distant soothing wash of the Hoh River can be heard in all recordings.
    TEXT MARKERS:


    • Named markers are included in each file to help find interesting events in an otherwise uniform waveform!
    • Marker text included in the Soundminer description and BWAV description fields.

    FILE LIST & METADATA:
    • View in Browser or Download CSV
    • Flora (plants) and Fauna (animals) are described in these terms:
    • fauna sparse
    • fauna constant
    • flora sparse
    • flora constant
    • flora and fauna sparse
    • flora and fauna constant
    • Included wildlife: Roosevelt Elk, American Crow, Common Raven, Pacific Wren, Brown Creeper, Barred Owl, chipmunks, and various other distant murmuring songbirds
    BLOG POST:
    • Read the full story on the A Sound Effect Blog – Sounds from the Quietest Place in the Continental US 
    MORE INFO:
    • Read 30+ user reviews for Thomas Rex Beverly Audio
    • Read my Field Recording Mastering Rules and learn more about how these recordings were mastered.
    • Browse the Library Info Master List to compare specs on all my libraries.
    • Browse the Metadata Master List to search my entire catalog.
    • MD5 and SHA 256 Checksums are included for each zip file in my catalog. Use these hashes to check the integrity of your downloaded files. 
    GEAR USED:
    • Sennheiser MKH 8040 Matched Pair in ORTF
    • Sound Devices 702
    • Rycote ORTF Blimp
  • • In Pacific Northwest: Quiet Nature, get a peaceful collection of ambiences from the Hoh Rainforest, a temperate rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Olympic National Park. Hear the massive sparseness of one of the last pristine quiet places in the Continental US. Hear the natural cathedrals of sound created by Douglas fir and spruce. Hear wind gusts pluck autumn maple leaves and waft them to rest on forest floors. Hear massive halls of wet wood that envelop and transport you to a long-lost time when giant trees covered millions of acres of the Pacific Northwest.
    • This library offers you a large collection of quiet nature sounds from one of the wettest forests in North America. Some places on the Olympic Peninsula get over 200 inches of precipitation per year, and that abundance of moisture makes for a magical fern and moss filled ecosystem brimming with soothing ambiences.

    2% FOR THE ENVIRONMENT & CARBON NEUTRAL:
    • Two percent of the price of this library is donated to an environmental cause, as an “artist royalty” for the planet!
    • Carbon offset credits were purchased for the Pacific Northwest Series. Field Recording travel for these libraries was carbon neutral!

    KEY FEATURES:
    • Recorded near the One Square Inch of Silence
    • Sparse ambiences with minimal wildlife
    • Distant twittering songbirds high in the canopy
    • Mornings and afternoons in 300 ft forests
    • Eerie nights in old-growth titans
    • Barred Owl hoots
    • Sporadic drips and light soothing wind
    • One long unbroken natural soundscape. Thirty-five minute of natural silence!
    • This library is a portrait of the Hoh Rainforest. The rainforest is in a long river valley, so the distant soothing wash of the Hoh River can be heard in all recordings.
    TEXT MARKERS:

    • Named markers are included in each file to help find interesting events in an otherwise uniform waveform!
    • Marker text included in the Soundminer description and BWAV description fields.

    FILE LIST & METADATA:
    • View in Browser or Download CSV
    • Flora (plants) and Fauna (animals) are described in these terms:
    • fauna sparse
    • fauna constant
    • flora sparse
    • flora constant
    • flora and fauna sparse
    • flora and fauna constant
    • Included wildlife: Barred Owl, Pacific Wren, Hairy Woodpecker, Ruffed Grouse, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Varied Thrush, chipmunk, Douglas Squirrel, and ultrasonic insects. Overall, wildlife is very sparse during fall in the Hoh River valley.
    BLOG POST:
    • Read the full story on the A Sound Effect Blog – Sounds from the Quietest Place in the Continental US 
    MORE INFO:
    • Read 30+ user reviews for Thomas Rex Beverly Audio
    • Read my Field Recording Mastering Rules and learn more about how these recordings were mastered.
    • Browse the Library Info Master List to compare specs on all my libraries.
    • Browse the Metadata Master List to search my entire catalog.
    • MD5 and SHA 256 Checksums are included for each zip file in my catalog. Use these hashes to check the integrity of your downloaded files. 
    GEAR USED:
    • Sennheiser MKH 8040 Matched Pair in ORTF
    • Sound Devices 702
    • Rycote ORTF Blimp
  • • In Pacific Northwest: Active Nature, get an expansive collection of active ambiences from the Hoh Rainforest, a temperate rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Olympic National Park. Hear lonely frogs croakings and syncopated drips from moss covered branches. Hear high twittering songbirds’ joyous chirps twittering from canopy perches. Hear the soothing rush of the Hoh River from close and distant perspectives as it divides the valley and flows to the Pacific. Hear the Magical Dripping Tree, a majestic big-leaf maple covered head to toe in fog soaked moss. Hear massive drops from canopy mosses make rich plopping transients, pinging and enlivening the space of the old-growth forest.
    • This library offers you a large collection of active nature sounds from one of the wettest forests in North America. Some places on the Olympic Peninsula get over 200 inches of precipitation per year and that abundance of moisture makes for a magical fern and moss filled ecosystem brimming with soothing ambiences.

    2% FOR THE ENVIRONMENT & CARBON NEUTRAL:
    • Two percent of the price of this library is donated to an environmental cause, as an “artist royalty” for the planet!
    • Carbon offset credits were purchased for the Pacific Northwest Series. Field Recording travel for these libraries was carbon neutral!

    KEY FEATURES:
    • Recorded near the One Square Inch of Silence
    • Active ambiences with energetic wildlife, canopy moss drips, and close running water
    • Energetic twittering songbirds
    • Distant frogs croaking
    • Lush and lively moss drips from the Magical Dripping Tree
    • Normally, rain would be next to impossible to record rain in the middle of a forest. However, these moss drips enabled me to capture a rich rain-like density of drips when it wasn’t actually raining!
    • This library is a portrait of the Hoh Rainforest. The rainforest is in a long river valley, so the distant soothing wash of the Hoh River can be heard in all recordings.
    TEXT MARKERS:
    • Named markers are included in each file to help find interesting events in an otherwise uniform waveform!
    • Marker text included in the Soundminer description and BWAV description fields.
    FILE LIST & METADATA:
    • View in browser or Download CSV
    • Flora (plants) and Fauna (animals) are described in these terms:
    • fauna sparse
    • fauna constant
    • flora sparse
    • flora constant
    • flora and fauna sparse
    • flora and fauna constant
    • Included wildlife: Pacific Wren, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Belted Kingfisher, ducks, Common Raven, American Crow, Ruffed Grouse, Hairy Woodpecker, Brown Creeper, frogs
    BLOG POST:
    • Read the full story on the A Sound Effect Blog – Sounds from the Quietest Place in the Continental US 
    MORE INFO:
    • Read 30+ user reviews for Thomas Rex Beverly Audio
    • Read my Field Recording Mastering Rules and learn more about how these recordings were mastered.
    • Browse the Library Info Master List to compare specs on all my libraries.
    • Browse the Metadata Master List to search my entire catalog.
    • MD5 and SHA 256 Checksums are included for each zip file in my catalog. Use these hashes to check the integrity of your downloaded files. 
    GEAR USED:
    • Sennheiser MKH 8040 Matched Pair in ORTF
    • Sound Devices 702
    • Rycote ORTF Blimp
  • Water & Oceans Pacific Northwest: Storm Waves Play Track 35+ sounds included, 171 mins total $39

    • In Pacific Northwest: Storm Waves, get an expansive collection of storm waves from Rialto Beach, a driftwood filled shoreline of Olympic National Park. Hear massive 25 ft swells breaking and sea foam froth sloshing on rounded pebbles. Hear violent slurping as water is sucked out after each massive wave. Hear wave resonance tuned to perfection by driftwood logs a millennium old. Hear distant storm buoys droning their ominous warning and bats circling with ultrasonic clicks. Hear a coastline gradually eroded by Pacific waves. A place where massive spruce stumps are still rooted in the beach, desperately holding to the earth as the soil is stripped from their roots. Press a contact mic to one of those stumps and hear the heartbeat of the oceanThe vibrations from crashing waves move through rocks and roots to create stunning resonances in the wood!  I hope this library gives you a chance to hear the ocean in a way you haven’t heard it before. Enjoy listening to a large collection of storm waves from one of the most iconic beaches in North America.

    2% FOR THE ENVIRONMENT & CARBON NEUTRAL:
    • Two percent of the price of this library is donated to an environmental cause, as an “artist royalty” for the planet!
    • Carbon offset credits were purchased for the Pacific Northwest Series. Field Recording travel for these libraries was carbon neutral!

    KEY FEATURES:
    • Massive 25 ft swells
    • Rocky coastlines and pebble-filled beaches
    • Driftwood resonances
    • Contact microphones on dead spruce stumps rooted in the beach
    • Frothy impacts
    • Roaring bass
    • Storm buoys droning their ominous warning
    • A thirty-minute clip of the slowly approaching tide. This clip is broken into three, ten-minute clips with no fade ins/outs so it can be used in parts or as one long seamless clip!

    TEXT MARKERS:
    • Named markers are included in each file to help find interesting events in an otherwise uniform waveform!
    • Marker text included in the Soundminer description and BWAV description fields.
    FILE LIST:
    • File List: View in Browser or Download CSV 
    BLOG POST:
    • Read the full story on the A Sound Effect Blog – Sounds from the Quietest Place in the Continental US 
    MORE INFO:
    • Read 30+ user reviews for Thomas Rex Beverly Audio
    • Read my Field Recording Mastering Rules and learn more about how these recordings were mastered.
    • Browse the Library Info Master List to compare specs on all my libraries.
    • Browse the Metadata Master List to search my entire catalog.
    • MD5 and SHA 256 Checksums are included for each zip file in my catalog. Use these hashes to check the integrity of your downloaded files. 

    GEAR USED:
    • Sennheiser MKH 8040 Matched Pair in ORTF
    • Aquarian Audio H2a-XLR hydrophone (used as contact mic)
    • Sound Devices 702
    • Rycote ORTF Blimp
  • Whooshes Tiny Transitions 2 Play Track 320-670 sounds included From: $29.20 From: $21.90

    “Tiny Transitions 2” is the successor to the very popular Tiny Transitions sound effects library.

    If you already knew the first library you know what to expect: even more, even better and more versatile to bring instant sonic support for all kinds of small animations, motion graphics, pass-bys, menues, projectiles and more.

    Re-load your ammo belt with not-so-intrusive production elements that come in very handy for any Sound Designer, All-In-One Film Editor or Web-, App- and Game-Developers.

    All the small motion elements that you need in your everyday work for games, apps, commercial, films or general motion designs.

    You get 350 ready to use designed sounds+ a composite selection of 320 cleaned and edited source soundsthat were used to design the Tiny Transitions. These sounds are mostly different props that are scraping or sliding on different surfaces and also some vocalized whoosh attempts.

    If you don't need the extra source sounds you can grab the “Designed Sounds only” pack.

    All source sounds were recorded with Sonosax SX-R4+ with a Sennheiser MKH8050+MKH30 M/S rig, a Sound Devices MixPre-6 with a MK8060+ATE208 M/S rig and a Sony PCM-D100. All sounds come with embedded Metadata.

    Metadata embedded by “The Audioville – India”

    25 %
    OFF
    Ends 1531000800
 
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4 thoughts on “Behind the spectacular sound of ‘Dunkirk’ – with Richard King:

  1. Richard was the sound effects supervisor on one of my early films, called down twisted. even then you knew richard was immensely talented. sadly it was the only time i worked with richard.

    albert pyun

  2. The film was amazing. But… In the IMAx theater in NYC the sound was so loud you couldn’t hear what the people were saying at times. Could have used sub titles or just turned it down. Many people complained but the theater didn’t seem to care. I heard this was the case in other theaters as well.

  3. I wanted to see Dunkirk, for Nolan is a fine director. Then I read this article and that was that-just saw it, or rather, heard it. Incredible, awe inspiring, terrifying – sound design on the highest level. I am working for the next few days, day and night, but my next day off next week and I will be listening again. And I’ll buy it on DVD when it is released for this is one to treasure and to learn from, masterly.

    Bernard Clarke

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