Christopher Nolan's 'Inception'

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


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Larry Zanoff captures bullet impacts in the field for the <I>Inception</i> soundtrack.

Larry Zanoff captures bullet impacts in the field for the Inception soundtrack.

King and his team also had to get creative when it came to sculpting the sound of the transitions from sleep to dreams—“a little bit of an audible cue that we’re transitioning somewhere,” King says. “We hooked two oscillators to a couple of giant subwoofers in a few different locations and recorded the result. We used Hennessy Street, which is a [Warner Bros.] back-lot street, to get a sense of an urban locale; inside one of the big WB soundstages; and also in a canyon in the mountains north of L.A. Then, using the oscillator, we dialed it from 10 or 12 Hz up into the audible hearing range—and not only does it start to activate and shake and rattle things in the interior spaces, but you hear this wave of sound that comes from nowhere that becomes quite massive as the sound comes up into 18, 20, 25Hz range. Eric and I found we could almost play the oscillators like a musical instrument.

“We had two oscillators and two subwoofers, and we recorded the result [to a Sound Devices 744] with a variety of mics placed from 50 to 100 feet away so we’d hear the full propagation of the long, low wave. Using the two oscillators, we were also able to beat frequencies against one another—one’s at 21 Hz and another’s at 22—and then we brought them back into sync and swept them apart again so we get really interesting acoustic anomalies that are almost like flanging, but with the natural acoustics of the environment in which we recorded. Then we’d vary the elements of the [sound] from transition to transition and location to location—for instance, with the exterior versions, you totally buy that it’s on a street even though you’re hearing this completely unnatural sound because it’s recorded ‘in situ.’ It’s a great effect because it doesn’t sound like something that’s being added on after the fact. I then used Melodyne [plug-in] to create chords from this material so when we need it to, it can evolve into a more complex sound.

“We also utilized ‘worldizing’ on a great, old mono recording that [composer] Hans Zimmer deconstructed, pitching and stretching different frequencies to varying degrees. We re-recorded it on a street, in a building and a soundstage on the WB lot, and in a canyon to give it a natural, lifelike feeling. It’s an otherworldly sound, but sounds like it’s existing in the world the characters are inhabiting. It’s quite strange, but cool.”

In fact “strange but cool” sounds like a good way to describe a lot of what goes on in Inception, where scenes “run the gamut from the nearly normal to the extremely surreal,” King says with a laugh. “Enough of it is reality to make it recognizable, but then something very odd is happening—the physical behavior of something may not seem quite right or things aren’t moving at the right speed.”

Naturally, the sound has to mirror the action onscreen to a degree so if, for example, an explosion near a Paris café slows down visually, “the debris field becomes a more important element and you’re seeing more detail,” King says. “So you want to make it sound as lethal and scary as possible; things are flying by us and you want to give that some definition. We recorded a lot of objects being shot by a microphone; these are carefully placed and, as mentioned before, put in a ‘realistic’-sounding environment. To be real and truly threatening, it has to be believable.”

Hans Zimmer contributed a typically engaging and propulsive score that combines orchestral music, percussion, sampled material and loops. “We’re always very much aware of what each other is doing,” King comments, “and shape what we’re doing accordingly. The great thing about the way Chris works is he likes to get temp versions of the score from Hans early on so there never is a temp mix using cues from other movies. Instead, I can hear the evolution of the score and Hans can hear the evolution of the sound effects as the track evolves. We maintain an ongoing dialog, and when we see each other at screenings and so on, we share our thoughts. I think his score for Inception is really powerful. He’s very bold in his approach; I admire him a lot. And he has a true collaborator in music editor Alex Gibson, the ‘man on the ground’ as it were.”

For his part, Nolan knows what he wants, but he gives his crew the latitude to be creative in helping him achieve his singular vision. “Chris wants the audience to be excited and moved,” King says. “He’s making these elaborate, thoughtful, complex movies, but they also absolutely work on an action-movie level.

“He’s a very challenging director who never stops pushing, thinking, trying different approaches—he never stops trying to make the movie better. As hard as all of us who are working on the film are striving for perfection, he’s working harder than all of us.”

Blair Jackson is the senior editor of Mix.

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