Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

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


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Director Christopher Nolan (foreground) with Leonardo Di Caprio on the set of <I>Inception</i>

Director Christopher Nolan (foreground) with Leonardo Di Caprio on the set of Inception

According to King, Nolan is “totally into the visceral—he wants the movie to be powerful in every moment on every level and utilize every tool he has to get there.” How does that translate into what sounds you provide for him? “Well with weapons, for instance, there’s no attempt to be particularly accurate about matching the sound of a gun to the actual weapon the character is using. It’s about coming up with the coolest sounds we can. We amp it up a notch for Chris; there’s usually a lot of other sounds and music going on, too, so there’s lots of competition. Chris is very interested in what sound can bring to the table and very open to new ideas; very collaborative.” Although King was able to use some of his own sound library material to cover certain needs, he says, “I think I did more recording for Inception than any movie I’ve ever worked on.”

Among those aiding King in his pursuit of original material were location recording stalwarts John Fasal and Eric Potter (“They’re still running around doing little things for me on this,” King says admiringly at the start of the final) and FX editor Michael Mitchell, whom he describes as “my main effects guy.” King notes that he “also had contacts in the major locales—Paris, East Africa, Sydney—so I hired a recordist in each location to spend four or five days walking around recording the ambiences I needed, and they did a great job. We really wanted to make the locations sound as varied and as rich as possible.” Christopher Flick supervised the Foley, which was performed by John Roesch and Alyson Dee Moore. Ed Novick, who is part of Nolan’s regular audio retinue, spearheaded the production sound. King also worked closely with film editor Lee Smith, “an old friend who was a sound editor before he was a picture editor, and has terrific sound sense—he always comes up with original ideas,” King says. “I provide Lee and Chris with mixes of key sequences as the picture editing progresses so I can get feedback.”

Certainly, there was no shortage of sound challenges in this film, between the abundance of action episodes—chases, fights, multiple explosions, an avalanche, buildings collapsing, etc.—and the occasionally hallucinatory aspects of some of the dream sequences. For instance, in one very unusual scene (which is shown in the trailers and commercials) an entire neighborhood in Paris appears to rise up and curl onto itself as if it’s being peeled off the earth’s surface—something we’ve definitely never seen or heard before. “That sequence could sound like anything,” King offers. “It could be a very sci-fi, synth-y, smooth sound. The shot could totally rely upon music. It could be very frightening or awe-inspiring. Chris’ direction was that he wanted it to sound like massive machinery, like a huge watch mechanism—again, using a relatable sound for an image we’ve never seen.

“Imagine a machine that would be massive enough to move a city like that. That’s the sound that I tried to make. I actually made the sound for that when I was in Australia last fall working on The Way Back [Peter Weir’s next film; King previously won an Oscar for work on Weir’s Master and Commander]. What you hear in the film is composed of all kinds of different sounds: It’s big metal groans and giant, heavy machinery moving, pivoting, clattering. I tried to create a little [sound] suite that would progress as the city rises and folds over.

“Reverb was really important. I think that reverb is sort of the magic ingredient that can make the most surreal sound feel real and of this world—if you put a totally crazy, off-the-wall sound in the right reverb space in a sequence, you can believe that it’s there. It’s the ‘China girl’ [an image used for color timing] of sound: When it’s the correct treatment, you’re less likely to question the appropriateness of the sound. I love the natural feeling of Altiverb, so Eric Potter’s been recording a lot of impulse responses for me in exterior spaces—firing a starter pistol up in the mountains or on a city street and from that creating an impulse response. For instance, in the sequence where the city folds in on itself, Chris wanted to hear this huge echoing sound from the end of the street between the buildings—he wanted a very real-sounding echo, and it’s really hard to create that artificially. Most reverb programs are made for music and there aren’t a lot that are specifically tailored for post-production, and I suppose things like echoes are quite hard to write the algorithms for—not only does the sound repeat, but it’s a multilevel treatment so it changes EQ and frequency during the course of the subsequent repeats. When you go out in the field and record an impulse response, you get a lot of that real decay, and if you’re starting with something that’s pretty close, then you modify it within the program and dial it in a little more to really nail it.”

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