‘Dunkirk’ Shows This Is Key to Christopher Nolan’s Storytelling


The Big Picture

  • Christopher Nolan’s genius lies in his bold and creative choices in sound design, which immerse the audience in the characters’ world and emotions.
  • Authenticity is a pillar of Nolan’s sound design philosophy, as he strives to achieve sounds in the field to maintain realism and create shared experiences between characters and viewers.
  • Nolan’s use of the Shepard Tone, an auditory illusion, in films like
    intensifies tension and heightens the emotional impact, showcasing the critical role of sound in storytelling.

One of the most underrated elements in modern cinema is sound, yet to appreciate a film fully, pictures and sound go hand in hand. While the advent of sound in cinema has provided an opportunity for a more layered sound use, sound design is yet to get its deserved recognition, even with its enormous contribution to films. In recent Best Picture Oscar winners, like Siân Heder‘s CODA, sound — and the lack thereof — is a powerful cinematic tool, and we can see how this is also true of one of this year’s front-runners for the prize, Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer.

A director known for his mind-bending use of creative elements in his blockbuster movies, Nolan’s films prioritize authentic esthetics that put audiences beside characters, including how they perceive sound. He is willing to go the extra decibel, if necessary, to achieve this, and has never shies away from experimenting with sound. Oppenheimer, whose 13 Oscar nods make it the movie with the most Academy Awards nominations this year, is also deservedly nominated in the Best Sound category. However, long before Oppenheimer wowed us with explosive audio, one of Nolan’s earlier films showcased the director’s knack for sound design — his seminal war film, Dunkirk.


Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Commonwealth and Empire, and France are surrounded by the German Army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Release Date
July 19, 2017


Main Genre

Christopher Nolan Experimented With Sound Design Long Before ‘Oppenheimer’

While many may not remember Oppenheimer for its general sound design, one scene will remain etched in the minds of movie buffs, and anyone who has seen the picture, especially if you saw it in cinemas. This scene, while offering spectacular pictures that Nolan is known for, was complemented by Nolan’s master directing of sound. The scene is where the huge bomb-testing explosion takes place. Conventionally, pictures are accompanied by sound, but in this scene, Nolan places you right next to those conducting the test, who are at a safe distance from the actual explosion tower. According to the film’s sound experts, this distance was about 40 seconds away in terms of how long it would take short wave sounds to reach the bunker from the explosion tower. This explains the total silence for about 40 seconds, even after the bomb had detonated, and we could see its massive, blinding fire fumes. By using this technique, Nolan was able to transport us beside the testers.

With his grand-scale filmmaking, unconventional narrative techniques, and breathtaking visuals, Christopher Nolan did not start experimenting with sound with Oppenheimer; he had already earned a mixed reputation for it, garnering both plaudits and criticism. So much so that the conversation found its way into Tom Shone‘s book, The Nolan Variations. In the book,Nolan expresses his surprise at people’s conservatism concerning sound, emphasizing that it is not just dialogue but the entire arsenal of cinematic tools — picture and sound — that tells a story.

Nolan Uses Sound Design To Immerse His Audience in His Films

John David Washington as the Protagonist, walking through the streets holding a folder under his arm in Tenet
Image via Warner Bros.

While the effect of sound might often be forgotten in cinema, its failure, or perceived failure, may not, and Nolan has faced quite a bit of criticism. One of Christopher Nolan’s primary objectives with sound in his films is to provide viewers with a visceral experience. Just as his visuals have a point of view, so do his sounds. He seeks to place the audience in the characters’ ears, allowing them to share their emotional journey firsthand. This approach is evident throughout Nolan’s films.

In Tenet, where Nolan was criticized for certain incomprehensible dialogues, he asserted that it was a deliberate creative choice. The water scene featuring The Protagonist (John David Washington) conversing with Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) on a noisy boat comes to mind. In the scene, the dialogue’s audibility is less crucial than the audience’s immersion in the chaotic ambiance. The audience already knows that Sator is an arms dealer seeking to offload his cargo. The Protagonist is pretending to be an interested buyer, but Sator doesn’t trust him. The dialogue does not add much to the narrative, but Nolan intends to transport the viewer to the noisy environment experienced by the characters. This sense of immersion pervades Nolan’s films, from the masked pilots’ dialogues in Interstellar and Dunkirk to Bane’s (Tom Hardy) stadium speech in The Dark Knight Rises. Yet, it is in Dunkirk where Nolan deeply ventures into uncharted auditory territory.

Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’ Depicts the Sounds of World War II

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is a movie that Quentin Tarantino has hailed as Nolan’s “apex mountain.” But even with his pronouncement, there is one scene in the film that Tarantino was particularly impressed with. Coincidentally, like Oppenheimer, it is another bomb scene, and a perfect combination of sound and pictures in filmmaking. From its opening sequence, Dunkirk sets the sonic tone, masterfully shaping the audience’s journey. As British soldiers traverse deserted streets, the sound of strewn pamphlets adds an eerie quality — akin to a ghost town. A soldier branches off to an abandoned shop, scavenging an ashtray for a cigarette butt. In the visual close-ups, the audience hears the ruffling of the cigarette butts intimately — the calm before the storm. Abruptly, another of Nolan’s sound wizardry emerges — a gunshot shatters the ambiance, and we hear it with the soldier as if standing beside him.

The element of surprise, a hallmark of Nolan’s films, resonates throughout Dunkirk. Notably, during a scene with British soldiers inside a grounded boat on the shore, unexpected shots at the vessel surprise both the soldiers and the audience. The sound of metal striking metal, rather than typical gunshots, is a creative choice to mirror the soldiers’ experience inside the boat. The visceral impact of it makes you jump out of your seat as if the entire scene is happening right where you are.


Christopher Nolan Wants To Make a Horror Movie (and Hollywood Should Let Him)

“So I haven’t found the story that lends itself to that. But I think it’s a very interesting genre from a cinematic point of view.”

Authenticity is another pillar of Nolan’s sound design philosophy. If a sound can be achieved in the field, that is the path he follows. In Oppenheimer, Nolan eschewed CGI, filming and recording everything practically to maintain authenticity. In a promotional video for the film, Nolan said that he instead used visual effects to showcase some of the microscopic elements of the nuclear explosion as well as filming ”some giant big bangs out in the desert.” Likewise, in Dunkirk, the sound of the sirens on German Stuka dive bombers was recorded in the desert, striving to recreate the original sound based on first-hand accounts. With the original bombers destroyed after the war, the recorded sirens before World War II served as a foundation, enhanced with other layers and desert ambiance.

To deliver the scene to the audience, Nolan uses the soldiers as his point of view. First, it’s an eerie calmness at the mole. Then the distant sirens of the airplanes are heard, and their sound becomes more intense as they approach. As they unleash bombs, you can hear the “Boom! Boom! Boom!” sound as it grows nearer and nearer the soldier whose point of view Nolan has decided to tell the story. The impact of this technique is a shared harrowing experience between the characters and the audience.

Christopher Nolan’s Uses The Shepard Tone to Create Suspense in ‘Dunkirk’

However, the one sound technique that crowns Nolan’s filmography is his manipulation of the Shepard Tone. The Shepard Tone is an auditory illusion that creates the effect of a continually rising or falling pitch. In Dunkirk, Nolan uses this sonic illusion to create an ever-increasing sense of intensity, masterfully heightening tension. In Nolan’s films, this technique weaves its magic throughout, such as in the final kick scene of Inception where Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy, who also featured in Dunkirk) reconciles with his father in the dream, or in Arthur’s gravity-defying struggles.

However, Dunkirk elevates this technique to unprecedented heights. In collaboration with his trusted, renowned composer Hans Zimmer, Nolan employs the Shepard Tone to signify the soldiers’ urgency. The ticking clock merged with an ominous soundtrack from the outset foreshadows doom, escalating tension. Nolan’s obsession with authenticity makes it even more realistic. He recorded his own ticking clock! The result is the Shepard Tone that enhances the spiral of sound in the mix, resembling an ever-rising orchestra. The outcome is palpable tension, gripping the audience and making them cling to their seats during moments like the beach attack by German aircraft or the two soldiers racing against time to deliver an injured comrade to a departing ship.

Christopher Nolan’s remarkable use of sound in Dunkirk and his entire filmography offers invaluable insights into the critical role sound plays in filmmaking. By skillfully manipulating techniques like the Shepard Tone and employing authentic sounds, Nolan demonstrates that sound is not merely an afterthought but an indispensable storytelling tool. His ability to create immersive and intense auditory experiences allows audiences to emotionally connect with the characters and be fully engaged in the narrative. As we wait to see if Oppenheimer gets the honor of Best Sound Design, Nolan proves that sound, when harnessed with creativity and precision, can elevate films to new heights and leave an indelible impact on viewers.


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