How '1917' Increased the Sense of Threat With "Sound Intensity"

For Sam Mendes' World War I thriller, the sound editing and sound mixing teams — including the only female nominee — were tasked with creating the film's "crescendo," in scenes taking place both in the dirty trenches and in the sky above.
Francois Duhamel/Universal Pictures

Sam Mendes' 1917 follows two British soldiers (George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman) as they race against the clock on a mission during World War I. The intensity didn't come only from it appearing to be one continuous shot — the sound also helped build that tension. "It's constantly shifting, but in a very subtle way. Sometimes the intensity would be building over a 10-minute period; other arcs would play out much more quickly," explains supervising sound editor Oliver Tarney, nominated for sound editing alongside Rachael Tate, while the film's sound mixing nom went to Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson.

In the case of a scene in which the two soldiers are watching two planes in a dogfight, it starts out being clear that "there's no immediate threat to our leads, and we want the audience to understand why they feel it's safe to watch it unfold," he says. To do so, while they were recording World War I machine guns and biplanes, they made sure to get long-range recordings as well as the usual close-up elements. "Those distant recordings are naturally diffuse, floating toward us in a way that's not overtly threatening."

But when the danger increases, "we're leading the audience to perceive the increase in threat at the same time [the soldiers] do. As that sequence reaches its crescendo, the sound intensity has grown exponentially."

Sound mixer Wilson adds that keeping the connection to the characters was crucial during production, which required them to follow the actors through long trenches and across battlefields. "Our two leads were mostly wearing three microphones each, to capture different emphasis of breaths, equipment and footsteps," he says, adding that the crew used minimal electricity on set to help record clean audio, though "we spent almost as much time getting rid of unwanted noise as on capturing those vital performances that make the movie."

They worked tirelessly in preproduction to iron out as many foreseeable problems as possible, but unwanted sound was at times unavoidable. "There was often a constant slush of 10 muddy feet [from the sound crew following the actors] that you didn't want the audience to hear," says Tate, adding that Mendes challenged them to "keep everything we could, every nuanced breath. Through painstaking cleanup over many months, we were able to keep everything but two original lines. And I hate that we had to cover those!"

Across the two sound categories, Tate is the only female nominee, underscoring that women are still underrepresented in sound. She says at least two misconceptions support this trend: Employers sometimes assume women aren't as technically skilled, and many women view sound careers as not particularly accessible for their gender. But she sees this slowly changing. "A new generation of women are taking interest, studying sound engineering and getting a foot in the door at sound houses," she says. "These women have been raised in a different world to the one I started out in — one filled with potential, opportunity and forged by visible examples of successful women in sound. Women, I hope, like me."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.