Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

Jul 9, 2010 2:36 PM, By Blair Jackson


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Joseph Gordon Levitt as Arthur in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film <I>Inception</i>.

Joseph Gordon Levitt as Arthur in Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ sci-fi action film Inception.

Because of the overwhelming success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan is viewed in popular circles as a premier “popcorn movie” director, delivering crowd-pleasing action flicks for summer crowds. But even the least discerning movie-goers can’t miss the darkness and weirdness that courses through both of those films (especially the latter), as well other Nolan works, including The Prestige, Insomnia and especially his brain-twisting early masterpiece, Memento. Nolan has become a brilliant visual artist, but he has also always been skilled at depicting the strange interiors of the human psyche, and that would seem to be his main motive for making the films he does.

In Nolan’s latest thriller, Inception, he gets to delve into the human mind in a different way: The contemporary sci-fi story—details of which have been closely guarded prior to the film’s July 16 release—revolves around a character (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who is adept at entering, sharing and even manipulating other people’s dreams, and then extracting information from those deep subconscious states for nefarious commercial exploitation. In Nolan’s inimitable way, he blurs the line between dreams and reality, memory and imagination. The film contains a number of depictions of often fantastical dreams (aided by a combination of CGI and some specially designed sets), which Nolan treats as current reality rather than as strange, hazy, barely recollected visions we faintly recall the next morning.

“You don’t question the reality of a dream while you’re in it,” explains supervising sound editor and sound designer Richard King, who is making his third film with Nolan after The Prestige and The Dark Knight (for which he was awarded a Sound Editing Oscar). “So that’s how we approached the soundtrack. You don’t always want to point out the fact that they’re in a dream while still being true to the story that’s unfolding and the visuals we’re seeing. A slight shifting of reality is appropriate, but we didn’t want to make it too obvious.”

When we spoke in May, King was in his cutting room at Warner Bros. Studios, about to begin a seven-week final on the film at the enormous Stage 9, with re-recording mixers Lora Hirschberg (FX and music) and Gary Rizzo (dialog, Foley and backgrounds), who go back to Batman Begins with Nolan.

“We are actually quite far into the mix already,” King says. “Chris [Nolan] came away from The Dark Knight feeling strongly that it didn’t seem right to put a huge amount of effort into temp mixes, then basically throw all that work away and start over again with the predubs. So he challenged us to develop a procedure to begin the final mix where the temp left off and move forward from there. Lora, Gary, Tony Pilkington [WB engineer], Andrew Bock [first assistant sound editor] and myself put our heads together and came up with a plan—and we certainly didn’t invent this, but it’s the first time I’ve done it on this scale—that all the sounds remain virtual throughout the mix. The temp dub was first [virtually] predubbed in Pro Tools by Mike Babcock and myself, then we had an eight-day temp mix in late March with Lora and Gary, and since then we’ve been conforming those virtual mixes as the picture and visual effects evolve, only rendering a print master as needed for screenings. So as we move into the final, everything will essentially have been predubbed in the box, and the first day of mixing will be like the next day of the temp. We’ll be starting at a place where we know the movie sounds great and Chris is happy, and then have seven weeks to really hone in and perfect it.

“So far we’ve done two temp updates and all the automation conforms worked fine. Lora and Gary did some of their mixing on Stage 9’s [AMS Neve] DFC and some on an [Avid] ICON—we brought two ICONs on the stage for them and I have an [Avid] ProControl surface that I use to fly in sound design elements. During the temps, Lora and Gary wrote as much automation as possible to the Pro Tools sessions rather than on the DFC so we’d have more control over the automation conforms.

“Warner Bros. engineering, particularly Tony Pilkington, built this very complicated machine that gave us the creative tools we needed to meet Chris’ expectations. Additional IO cards were installed in the DFC, and the Pro Tools machines were all upgraded with Intel computers. There are seven Pro Tools rigs playing back sound effects and backgrounds, one for dialog, one for Foley and a dedicated Altiverb machine to offload our reverbs from the playback machines. We had a total of 28 5.0 sound effects predubs playing back around 1,000 tracks for every reel. There are five reverb sends and one LFE send per machine. The 5.0 predubs and returns show up at the DFC on predub return faders. The music is submixed in Pro Tools and is playing back off one system. Music editors Alex Gibson and Ryan Rubin will always have the temp material available while we’re finaling so Chris can reference it if necessary. It’s absolutely the way to work because you’re always going in a linear forward motion rather taking little side trips.”

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