All Quiet on the Western Front takes a look at the battles of World War I from the side of the German army. Young Paul and his comrades experience first-hand how the initial euphoria of going to war to support their homeland quickly turns to desperation and fear as they try to stay alive.
The film was directed by Edward Berger and is based on the bestseller of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque. The film’s soundtrack helps take viewers to the front line, where heavy artillery and hand-to-hand combat leaves scores of French and German soldiers dead in their muddy trenches and smoky fields.
Here, member of the sound team share their experiences in creating the unforgettable sounds of World War I.
Production sound mixer Viktor Prasil
Viktor Prasil served as the film’s production sound mixer and employed a range of recorders that included the Aaton Cantar X3; Sound Devices 688 and MixPre-10 II; and Sony PCM-D50. Microphones included DPA 6061 and 4061 lavaliers, while boom mics included Schoeps CMIT-5U (primary), MK41 and MK5; Sennheiser MKH60 and MKH416 (both for the gunfire and explosions); and the Holophone H3-D for multichannel audio.
“What was essential to shoot the movie was the preparation,” he recalls. “For this kind of film, you have to plan everything in advance. Once the bombs start going off, it's too late. So we started prepping many weeks before the shoot. We set up radio mics into the helmets. We found out that the metal army boots are super noisy, so we made 200 pairs of rubber soles. We built an acoustic wall behind which we put trucks with water for scenes in the rain. We also made portable sound-absorbing blankets for the interiors with a long echo.”
In trench and battlefield scenes, each of the main soldiers wore two radio mics - one in their costume and one in their helmet.
“There is a lot of creative work with the sound of the soldiers' breathing,” Prasil explains. “This particular breathing, roaring and crying draw the viewer right into the action. Helmets were absolutely essential for us to achieve this! We placed Lectrosonics SMDWB transmitters in the helmets, for which we made special pockets in the inside of the helmet, so that if the helmet fell on the ground or the actor took it off, the transmitter would not be visible. As a microphone, we used one of the thinnest and smallest lavalier microphones - the DPA 6061. This one was equipped with wind protection and properly matted to be as unobtrusive as possible. It was also important to find the right spot to place the microphone. Because one inch was the difference between making the microphone visible to the camera or making it sound like a bucket.”
Prasil says the team knew from the beginning that they wanted to do a lot of wild tracks.
“We couldn't record them all ourselves, so we chose scenes from the shooting schedule where we would need an additional sound mixer,” he recalls.
Throughout the entire shoot, they recorded an enormous number of wild tracks with actors, stunts and extras.
“We recorded fighting in the trenches or a hundred extras shouting and running at us on the battlefield or all the picture cars we had. We wanted to deliver as much sound to post production as possible. We knew that some of it would have been difficult to record again or even not possible at all. It was over 40GBs of edited audio files in mono, stereo and five-channel. Some of them at 192kH/32dB. Plus, (director) Edward Berger has a huge passion for sound and he helped us a lot. He directed the extras, and even did the Foleys himself. His contribution to the sound was huge.”
Sound designer Frank Kruse
According to sound designer Frank Kruse, work on All Quiet on the Western Front began with the script and research of the sounds of World War I.
“Since this was the first real industrialized war, we wanted to find a sound that would also represent the industrial ‘war machine’ that was manufacturing an endless stream of bombs, grenades and metal machinery while young soldiers were turned into ‘expendable’ killing machines,” he recalls.
Since mud, dirt, the wet and cold was omnipresent at the front, they team wanted to employ metaphorical sound to heighten the moments of fear while staying away from synthetic sounds.
“We recorded contact and protected regular mics being dragged though dirt and soil at high sample rates, which were then pitched down and turned into an extreme close-up sound,” says Kruse. “It should feel as if your head would be pulled underground, with the earth rubbing against your eardrums. The recordings were turned into a surround layer and panned to cycle around the cinema as Atmos objects, as an element of stress and overwhelming confusion. You can hear this in the opening battle scene, when Heinrich the soldier is behind the tree stump and the background battle is blurred out.”
He also points to the recycling of the uniforms sequence in which an abstract throbbing and pounding is heard beneath the sound of the sewing machines.
“We worked closely with the composer and picture editor to refine the timing of the images in order to create this transition, which we wanted to borderline between sound effects and music when over the close-up of the sewing machine. The sound of the needle turns into the sound of machine gun fire and that turns into the chain drive of the truck…I sent layouts to picture editorial as AAFs so our editor [could] move elements around easier in Media Composer.”
Another interesting sequence that was inspired by their research involved the nighttime bunker collapse.
“Since there are almost no actual recordings of that time, written letters from soldiers describing the sounds and terror at the front were of great help. The descriptions of grenades and explosions, down to the sounds of dying horses and de-composing bodies left between the fronts were so much more emotional than any scientifically-correct sound would have been.”
In the nighttime scene, where Paul and Kropp are on guard, audiences hear an ambiences made from metal dangling in the wind and distant screams of horses that echo across the battle field.
“We prepped a lot of abstract reverb and echoes in sound editorial,” Kruse explains. “The sequence has an extremely high dynamic range until the bunker collapses, but I have theatrical speakers in my studio (Meyer Sound Acheron series), which enable a high dynamic range without unwanted compression or distortion, so the whole track-lay translated very well to the mixing stage to give Lars a good starting point. We usually have our version of EQ, compression, reverb and panning applied during editorial to give Lars Ginzel a good starting point for object panning. We have worked together as a team many times, so there was a good workflow in place. We knew about each other’s way of working.”
Sound designer Markus Stemler
According to sound designer Markus Stemler, one of the film’s more challenging scenes takes place in the middle of the film, when the German troops attempt to storm the French trenches and then get surprised by French tanks.
“WW1 really was a revolution in terms of military technology,” says Stemler. “Tanks and flamethrowers saw the battlefield for the first time. They still might have had lots of technical issues, but their psychological impact on the enemy alone was just enormous. It was important to mirror that aspect into the sonic appearance of these weapons and make them sound highly threatening from the soldiers’ subjective point of view. We prioritized emotional reality over perfect historical accuracy, so to speak. It felt appropriate for certain moments, while in other areas, a lot of focus was put on authenticity. The Foley team at Studio Warns, for example, was able to use the original uniforms that the costume department had generously provided for them.”
He credits production sound mixer Viktor Prášil with getting fantastic recordings of both the flamethrowers and tanks on-set.
“We already had some great sound material to start with. For the tanks we then recorded additional heavy-metal elements in our warehouse to use as a layer on top of the engines. It helped pointing out their extreme armored housing that could easily stand bullet hits and also add a strong sense of weight for when they cross the trenches, with terrified soldiers below them.”
For all these recordings, Stemler says he goes with a simple mono setup, using a Sennheiser MKH8050 or Schoeps MK41 and a SoundDevices MixPre running at high sample rate.
“It is most important for me that the equipment is set up very quickly, light weight and solid so you can go for spontaneous ideas without much hassle.”
Re-recording mixer Lars Ginzel
Lars Ginzel served as the film’s re-recording mixer and says he wanted to point the attention towards one of the quiet scenes in the film.
“In fact it’s the moment after Paul get’s stabbed in the back right after the ceasefire came into force. We hear how the battle activity dies away and how the outside becomes more and more still, while the French soldier walks out of the bunker. Paul is left alone in the dark with the creaking of the wooden structure around him and the music starts. Then, when he walks up the stairs, wounded and with little to no strength left, we gradually lose the steps as they become less present at first, so there is a brief moment of just music while Paul is climbing the last steps and stepping outside.
“When Paul and the camera step outside the bunker we start to hear his breath again. Low, but up close, and the crackling of a near by fire, and a gentle breeze of wind is starting. There is a lot of movement in that little wind, and it adds a lot of detail to the particles we see in the image. It’s a very peaceful moment, like it should be. And in my opinion all these nuanced movements of the different layers of wind sounds are key to creating this impression and to really make the audience feel the fresh air, after having been in the bunker and all the fighting and battles before.”
The mix took place at The Post Republic in Berlin, and even though the whole film was mixed within Avid’s ProTools, Ginzel says he had a Euphonix/Avid System 5, which was used as a Eucon controller.
“While more modern controllers like the S6 allow for way deeper integration with ProTools, the System 5 still has those fantastic motorized Joysticks, which make my work - especially in Dolby Atmos - so much easier. They are just the most intuitive tools for all kinds of panning and movements, and simply the positioning equivalent to motorized faders.”