1917

by Stuart Wilson, Production Sound Mixer

Sam Mendes sent me a script in June 2018 with the plan to shoot in April 2019. It’s unusual to be asked ten months in advance for a film shoot but it is a measure of Sam’s meticulous planning which was key to the methodology of such an ambitious project.  

The starting point was Sam’s vision for the film. He felt the drama could be best served by playing in one continuous shot.

The film is all about movement—a journey. It’s given us an unusual challenge because the actors travel so far in a single continuous shot. They could be moving over half a mile, talking all the way. In deep trenches or in and out of buildings. The camera sees 360 degrees, while moving around the actors, so equipment and crew have to be hidden away.

I set about working out technically how to achieve Sam’s vision in terms of capturing the sound, the voices, the actors’ performance, without getting in the way of the process.

My first thought was to carry my recorder, documentary  style, and follow in the blind spot behind the camera, but in planning it out shot by shot, it emerged that:

1. I’d be adding another set of unwanted footsteps to the sound
2. It may not always be physically possible so I’d need a Plan B anyway
3. For the whole choreography to work, it was essential that a number of key crew could hear the dialog live, wherever they were stationed and I would need to be able to broadcast the live mix to the Director, Camera Crew, Special FX, Script Supervisor, Video Assist, etc.—who could be half a mile away over a hill.

A documentary approach wasn’t going to work for this one!

The essence of Sam Mendes’ film is the performances. The writing, design, rehearsals and choreography of the cast and the camera are all geared toward those magic moments when the actors perform in front of the camera. There needs to be as few distractions for them as possible and, within the limits of the process, the actors—their characters, have to be given the space to inhabit the drama of their situation. If the technical process might get in the way or limit the actors’ freedom to be in the moment of the drama, then it wouldn’t work for the film.

The sound coverage for the most complex shots became like site-specific installations. We installed antenna networks so we could receive the actors’ microphones continuously over the large areas. We had antennas hidden in sandbags, in trees, in piles of mud on top of the trenches, on munitions boxes, etc. I got the Drapes Department to make us some bags from the same material as the army sandbags and used these, as well as leaves and artificial grass smeared in mud to disguise equipment (speakers, receivers, antennas, etc.). Hundreds of feet of fibre-optic cable were used, which was new to me. It’s great what can be achieved with it, but it’s expensive, fragile, and temperamental. The cable can fail if the connectors are not absolutely clean (not easy when it’s raining and everything is covered in mud!).
 


We would all be relying on wireless links so I had to establish from the start with the Camera, Video, and RF departments that we would all use the lowest power possible for our transmitters. We concentrated any amplification on the receiver end.

I managed to see most of the locations four months before filming so I could examine what could be beneficial or detrimental to the sound before any construction took place.

This was an exceptionally collaborative production and I was fortunate enough to have previous experience working with key crew; Production Designer Dennis Gassner, DOP Roger Deakins, Camera Operator Peter Cavaciutti, Location Manager Emma Pill, and the Costume Designers Jacqueline Durran & David Crossman, so that all helped enormously. (Trinity camera rig op was Charlie Rizek, who was new to the team.)


In pre-production with the camera team and their rigs, we made some useful improvements to the noise of their gyroscopes and a company called Cobham built us a special fan-less version of their high-powered miniature video transmitter which really made a difference.

I lobbied all departments to prepare to be able to work without electricity so we wouldn’t require the noise of a generator on location.

In the end, we did need one generator for some equipment, but there would not be spare power for nonessentials as I wanted it to be as quiet as possible and that meant keeping it small. We found one which looked promising, it was well-silenced and newly built on the back of a Land Rover 4x4. It was in use on another film when we were in prep so I went to that set to have a listen for myself and chat with the sound mixer there. I concluded that it would be workable as long as we kept it at least one hundred yards from the action and we got it reserved for our dates.

There was a period of rehearsals and “proof of concept” work with camera, sound, and cast which gave us a good dummy-run at achieving the distances we would face for the shoot. We were able to try things out and develop a way of working to suit Sam’s process. Any testing or rehearsal is useful. Even putting lav mics on actors when their costumes are not finalised, you always learn something.

I have to thank Sound Mixer Tim White and Boom Op Peter Davis for stepping in on my behalf to this early rehearsal period and solving a lot of the issues.

We had the luxury of being able to plan. We knew where the camera would be, where the actors would be and could plan where to install and hide the infrastructure to be able to capture the sound and relay the mix to everyone else involved in the elaborate choreography of the piece.

Planning made it all possible but once the sequence starts, it’s like a theatre show and you can’t stop, if something is not as expected that’s where the jazz comes in and it’s a buzz to improvise.

It was important that the cast could feel like they were in the drama as much as possible so crew around the camera had to be minimal and agile. Some of the sound crew wore army uniforms so they could blend into the background when the camera moved around in their direction.


For the drama, we had to feel ‘locked-on’ to the lead characters with a continuous connection. This is principally the dialog and breathing of the actors. The next dimension was to extend beyond the frame into the supporting cast and crowd who all have been given authentic roles within the story. We placed additional microphones on and around the set to capture sound of the other soldiers’ activity and recorded in stereo along the axis of the camera to expand the soundscape out beyond the frame.

There was a section where the camera was rigged on a wire cam. These are often used in sports stadiums with four massive lifting cranes at the corners, computer-controlled winches and generators by each one, to control the movement of the wires. In sports, equipment noise is not much of an issue and this setup was too noisy for us to get clean audio. The providers pointed out that there was no dialog in this five-minute section, so maybe it wasn’t a problem. I had to explain to them that, even though there was no dialog, there was still breathing and there were footsteps over many different surfaces. The breathing was as important as dialog because it conveyed the state of the terrified characters as they ventured into no man’s land.

The breathing was subtle and full of detail, conveying a lot about what our heroes were going through as they inched forward out of the relative safety of the trenches into the exposed landscape of no man’s land, diving into shell holes, stumbling past fallen comrades and on toward the enemy lines The sound of their breath conveys so much and keeps us connected to the characters’ experience.

Breathing is very difficult to recreate in a dubbing studio because the actor is trying to consciously do something which was unconscious at the time. It’s never as convincing as the original performance. We swapped out their generators for the quietest ones they could get and we hired in acoustic barrier sheeting for the winches.

The result was one of my favourite shots of the film, barely a word is spoken, yet it is gripping and the connection with the characters is completely held.

I have to pay tribute to lead actor George MacKay’s as a result of his great collaborative spirit, he didn’t have to replace any of his dialog as all the recordings of his live performance were usable. On one shot we had him wearing four radio mics at the same time or two body-worn recorders when he went down the river and underwater. It’s very difficult to get wireless transmission through water so body-worn recorders were used as well, in case of any wireless dropouts.

We filmed a lot on a location called Salisbury Plain. It’s a huge area of land owned by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) where we’d been given permission to film. It felt like a special opportunity. Hardly anyone lives there. Beautiful rolling countryside that looks the same as it did one hundred years ago. It was quite surreal as if we’d been dropped in the middle of wilderness, as a film crew, free to use it to stage our story.

For sound, it was fantastic and because it’s controlled by the MoD, we were even able to put a ‘no-fly zone’ in place. If there was an aircraft, they’d find out what it was and get it diverted. Come on—for a Sound Mixer—that’s the stuff of dreams!

The only downside is when we could hear live shelling going on in the “impact zone” where the real army were training. We were lucky most of the time and it didn’t impact our sound recording too much.

I had the best crew who made it all run smoothly, six of us full time and eight on the biggest days.

Hugh Sherlock, a former gymnast, equally adept in a choreographed dance with the camera as in using a sewing machine to make transmitter pouches.

Tom Fennell, long-term collaborator and expert in radio mic concealment and costume negotiations.

David Giles, a sound mixer in his own right, ready to back me up and take on the challenge of sending and receiving any audio anywhere.

Tom Wilkin making sure the key crew could hear what they needed to at any point.

Michael Fearon, all-round flexible support assistant.

Rob Piller, Fibre-optic Specialist, and running repairs.

Thomas Dornan, Sound Trainee, ready to have a go at anything with a bright future ahead.

It’s the first time I’ve managed to work with the brilliant Sound Editing team of Oliver Tarney, Rachael Tate, and their crew. They’ve really managed to make the best of the location sound and bring it onto another level with the sound design work. It was a real gift to work with a director that understands the power of sound in performance. In this way, we are party to something one-off and intimate. We tell a precise emotional story and not a general one. Sam pushes everyone to do their best work and that can be hard but when you get there, it’s all worth it. It was a big challenge technically but incredibly rewarding to be part of such a truly collaborative experience.

I used Danish and German microphones, Italian wireless and fibre-optic equipment, a Swiss mixing board, French recorders, British boom poles, and  German headphones—all in all—a very European kit!

Aaton Cantar X3 recorders
Sonosax SX-ST mixing board
Wisycom wireless equipment (plus two Lectrosonics)
DPA & Schoeps microphones
Panamic boom poles
Ultrasone headphones
Clark antenna mast


The Wisycom gear was fantastic. Very well designed and built. Fibre-optical links, high gain antennas. True diversity on every receiver.

An aluminium antenna mast bolted onto the van from a company called Clark Masts was an essential piece of kit, an extra yard of telescopic mast was worth more than adding 250mW to the power output and messing up everyone else’s signals.