“Belfast” literally opens with a bang.
Kenneth Branagh’s memoir film about his childhood in Northern Ireland begins with a brief modern-day prologue, then takes us into the world of 9-year-old Branagh-avatar Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill). The date is August 15, 1969, and Buddy is playing with his friends in the streets when an explosion violently signals a new impetus in the “Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants.
The impact of this first scene cannot be underestimated, especially for the way the sound of the overwhelming crowd and the bombardments shock Buddy, and us, in a terrifying world. “Belfast” won the People’s Choice Award at the most recent Toronto International Film Festival, a harbinger of the film’s position as near-locked in Oscar categories across the board, including for its performance in best sound, where the movie has already been pre-selected. for a potential application.
TheWrap spoke to three members of the sound team – sound supervisor James Mather, sound supervisor and re-recording mixer Simon Chase, and re-recording mixer Niv Adiri – about the design of this scene from openness, as well as the freedom given to them. editorializing a bit while making a film based on Branagh’s memories.
TheWrap: We have to talk about the explosion that starts the movie. Can you describe the significance of this moment and how it was mixed in the recording studio?
Simon Chase: When Buddy comes around the corner at the very start of the movie, he’s having a great day and spending time with his neighbors, and then these rioters come into his life. Ken [Branagh] spoke about that day in his life and how he couldn’t determine what the sound was. He couldn’t understand what he was hearing – he thought it was a massive swarm of bees. So we experimented with a swarm of bees in the sound mix but it didn’t really work.
James Mather: We found that what worked really well was the sound of an oncoming train.
Hunt: We wanted a train that whistled and sounded like it was coming, even though it wasn’t there, which confused Buddy. So the train motif, it works symbolically, the way a train went through its life and it’s also a nod to classic movies of the past. There is no train but we used the sound to amplify the confusion Buddy is feeling.
Where did you actually get the train noise we hear in the movie?
Mather: We recorded it at Waterloo station in London. There is a railroad track where you can sit under a big metal bridge and you can get those awesome rail sounds. What we did not record ourselves was the sound of the freight train horn. It is in fact an American freight train. It’s a very classic sound. KLM used them in one of their albums. You know Ken has lived his life in and out of movies. So the exact authenticity of a situation didn’t matter as much as what Buddy was going through and how he felt about it.
Yes, it feels like this moment is somehow being built through silence to chaos. Was everything planned?
Hunt: Yes, just before the explosion, it’s really quite surreal. I’m not sure on a first viewing how clear what is going on is clear. The camera moves around Buddy and we have muted the whole shot and we even hear Buddy’s breath, so right before the explosion there is dead silence. That’s what gives it that impact.
Mather: And visually, you see Jude shivering. He does such a good job. We used his performance as a benchmark all the time. Then every sound – metal, drain cover, smash, impact – it’s all a little bit brighter and grainy and more aggressive and scary because it’s through his point of view. It’s almost impactful. It gives you the ability to play sound effects with much more flair, rhythm and sharpness.
Niv Adiri: It has been discussed a lot and posed like this. I went into the process knowing from Ken that the sound had to be musical and designed to hit those moments. A good explosion is an explosion that comes out of nowhere. It’s the old thing in horror movies, the fear of jumping. It was very interesting to do, even though what is happening on screen is so horrible.
Mather: And Ken loves to do that. He did it in “Murder on the Orient Express”, with the gunshot in the wagon. He really likes this dynamic contrast. And it pushes very hard.
When we hear a bomb exploding, what do we really mean?
Adiri: It’s a combination of things. We are looking at different frequencies and textures. We have included broken glass, broken metal, broken wood. This one was just designed to deliver a big shock. It must have seemed real. And very anchored to bring us into reality.
TheWrap: The film is photographed in black and white to evoke memories from another era. Can sound mixing do the same?
Mather: Yeah, it’s nostalgic. The same way you can associate a scent with something from your childhood. Sound is a sense in the same way. So this is the blend that was created to identify the nostalgia for that time. I remember that there were a lot of black and white shorts, played in theaters, that had the same vibe, the same feeling. This sound mix is very filmic, it has grain.
chase away: That said, you notice how the film mixes realism and sometimes more fantastic presentations of moments in the life of Buddy. It’s all about Ken’s memories. Sometimes Ken would say to us, “I’m not too interested here in what that would have really looked like. For Ken, he had a double withdrawal from the situation: he was 10 years old at the time, so he didn’t necessarily understand what was going on, and now he remembers everything 50 years later. And so there were times when it wasn’t necessary to find the most authentic sound, but to find the one Ken felt resonated with the truth.
Adiri: Exactly. I spent a lot of time in the room with Ken during the final mix. And I heard him say, “It was more like that,” and then tell a story about it. And from its history, we found other ways to think about the sound. It often happens in the movie that you find the perfect sound for that moment.
Hunt: One of Ken’s main memories was the constant helicopters in the sky as they roamed the city. Army helicopters were everywhere and somehow everyone ignores it. It’s just the sound of Belfast at this point and Buddy is more interested in playing with his toy car. But it all happens in the little boy and sitting in his head. And 50 years later, those helicopter sounds are partly responsible for the making of this film.
It would just be a little boring to work with a director who was super literal about everything, wouldn’t it?
Adiri: Oh, we have a lot of them in our careers. But Ken didn’t mind that it wasn’t the right train horn or whatever. It seemed fair to him.
Hunt: Another example of this is the sound of the television in the movie. We keep that sound, like when Buddy watches westerns on TV. Because these things coalesce in Buddy’s head. The image of tough guys walking around on television and tough guys walking around Belfast. This is how he saw them. And on some subconscious level, it still haunts Ken.
Mather: And that’s why it was so great to have Ken with us. We had to pre-mix for a week, then mix for a week. I spoke to the production office and said, “If Ken wants to give us a day or two to get us in order, then he can join us in the middle of the week.” But then come on Monday morning at 9 am, there’s Ken going, “Oh, don’t worry, I’m not going to bother you, I’m just going to sit in the back. “
Adiri: Ken stood in line with us every morning to take his COVID test. He was right there, smiling, happy to see us.
Hunt: The beauty of the relationship we have with Ken is that he is very available to us. He frequently discussed the film with us and received feedback. And he’s so open to ideas. He really cares about bringing every scene to life. What other story threads can we tell through offscreen sounds that may help.
Adiri: I have already made a film for Ken. He’s got this thing, he can bring people together very easily. There are directors who make you feel like an operator. It’s not like that with Ken. He made the decisions in the end, but he wants to hear from everyone. It was really a joy to work for him.
Mather: Simon and I have made six films with Ken. Due to his experience in the theater, he really enjoys the camaraderie of a troupe all together. He’s kind and collaborative and very loyal to the people who make him.
The film features music by Van Morrison but doesn’t really have a score in the traditional sense. How does this affect your sound development work?
Mather: Well, the absence of a traditional score gave us the opportunity to play sound effects with a lot more flair, rhythm and acuteness. We didn’t have to find a hole in the music to put in the sound effect. It’s about making the audience feel every impact.
Hunt: Van Morrison’s music is so delicious and there are some awesome needle drops. But, yeah, for most of the moments, whether emotional or intense, there’s no music there. You’re just left with those other things, the sounds of the city and the sounds of what’s going on. And delicate performance. It’s the right balance that gives it a pretty unique sound.
There is still a rich musical feeling. The characters sing in the film.
Hunt: There are a lot of magical moments. The “Everlasting Love” scene at the end is certainly part of it. Jamie [Dornan] sang a great version, which we were able to use, and the way Niv mixed is fantastic. We went back to the original masters of this song and our music editor Richard Armstrong came up with additional parts and additional trumpets. For Buddy, this moment is so special.
Mather: The Irish love to sing and dance in the streets. And there is such a beautiful lyrical feeling in this movie. Amidst all the anxiety, horror, and stress, the community is so close. They love to sing, dance, drink and have a good time. The premise for me is how they like to be together when everything is falling apart. Music is such a rich vein in their culture. All of these combine to give you that real warmth and joy that they feel. The Irish community is very large, so pretty much everywhere this movie is shown there’s a community of people saying, “This is my life.”
Adiri: Exactly. I would just add that it is not just an Irish experience. I grew up in Israel and came to England 22 years ago. The film resonated deeply with me, especially the scenes with the grandparents. I told Ken this is a very clever and very touching way to write a love letter to your childhood. It’s a movie for everyone who has left home.