‘Belfast’: Why Sound Designers Used the Roar and Whistle of a Train to Depict a Violent Mob

Bringing a 1969 Northern Ireland to life required ingenuity for the crew of Kenneth Branagh’s awards favorite

Focus Features

“Belfast” opens, literally, with a bang.

Kenneth Branagh’s memoir film of his childhood in Northern Ireland begins with a brief modern-day prologue and then thrusts 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 street when an explosion violently signals a new pulse in the “Troubles” between Catholics and Protestants.

The impact of this early scene cannot be underestimated, especially for how the noise of the encroaching mob and the bombing shocks Buddy, and us, into 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 a near-lock in Oscar categories all down the line, including for achievement in Best Sound, where the film has already been shortlisted for a potential nomination.

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 crucial opening scene, as well as the freedom they were given to editorialize a bit while making a movie based on Branagh’s memories.

TheWrap: We need to talk about the explosion that starts the movie. Can you describe the importance of that moment and how it was mixed in the recording studio?

Simon Chase: When Buddy comes around the corner at the very beginning of the movie, he’s having a great day and hanging out with his neighbors, and then these rioters come into his life. Ken [Branagh] talked about that day in his life and how he couldn’t place what the sound was. He couldn’t work out what he was hearing – he thought it was a massive swarm of bees. So we did experiment with a swarm of bees in the sound mix but it didn’t really work.

James Mather: We found what did work really well was the sound of an oncoming train.

Chase: We wanted a train that was whistling and sounded like it was arriving, though it’s not there, which confuses Buddy. So the train motif, it works symbolically, the way that a train ran through his life and also it is a nod to classic movies of the past. There is no train but we used the sound to amplify the confusion that Buddy is feeling. 

Where did you actually get the train noise that we hear in the film?

Mather: We recorded it by Waterloo Station in London. There’s a train track where you can sit under a big metal bridge and you can get these great clanging rail sounds. What we didn’t record ourselves was the sound of the freight train horn. That is actually 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 films. So the exact authenticity of a situation didn’t matter as much as what Buddy was experiencing and how he felt about it. 

Yes, it feels like that moment sort of builds through silence up to the point of the chaos. Was that all planned out?

Chase: Yes, just before the explosion, it’s really quite surreal. I’m not sure on a first viewing how clear it is what’s even going on. The camera is moving around Buddy and we were quieting down the sound through that whole shot and we are even hearing Buddy’s breath, so just before the explosion, there’s dead silence. That’s what gives it that impact.

Mather: And visually, you see Jude shudder. He does such a good job. We were using his performance as our reference point the whole time. Then every sound – metal, drain cover, smash, impact – all that stuff is a little bit brighter and grittier and more aggressive and frightening because it’s through his point of view. It’s almost percussive. It gives you the opportunity to play sound effects with much more flair and rhythm and acuteness.

Niv Adiri: It was much-discussed and laid like that. I came into the process knowing from Ken that the sound had to be musical and designed in a way to hit those moments. A good explosion is one that comes out of nowhere. It’s the old trick in horror films, the jump-scare. It was very interesting to do, albeit what is happening on the screen is so horrible. 

Mather: And Ken loves doing that. He’s did that in “Murder on the Orient Express,” with the gunshot in the train carriage. He really likes that dynamic contrast. And he pushes it really hard. 

When we hear the explosion of a bomb, what are we actually hearing?

Adiri: It’s a combination of things. We look at different frequencies and textures. We included glass shattering, metal breaking, wood splintering. That one was just designed to deliver a big shock. It had to feel real. And very grounded to bring us into the reality.

Jude Hill in “Belfast” (Focus Features)

TheWrap: The movie is photographed in black and white to evoke memories of a different era. Can the sound mix do a similar thing?

Mather: Yeah, it’s nostalgic. In a similar way to how you can associate a smell with something from your childhood. Sound is a sense in the same way. So the mix that was created to identify the nostalgia of that time. I remember there used to be a lot of black and white shorts, played in the cinema, which had the same vibe, same feel to them, as this does. This sound mix feels very filmic, it’s got quite a grain to it.

Chase: That said, you notice how the film blends between realism and sometimes more fantastical presentations of moments in Buddy’s life. That’s all about Ken’s memories. Sometimes Ken would say to us, “I’m not too interested here in what it really would have sounded like.” For Ken, he had a double remove from the situation: He was 10 at the time, so he didn’t necessarily understand what was going on, and now he’s remembering it all 50 years later. And so there were moments where 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 this,” and then telling a story about it. And from his story, we found other paths to think about sound. It happens a lot in the movie that you find the sound that works just right for that moment.

Chase: One of Ken’s main memories were the constant helicopters in the sky, just as they’re walking around the city. The army helicopters were everywhere and everyone is just kind of ignoring it. That’s just the sound of Belfast at that moment and Buddy is more interested playing with his toy car. But it’s all going into the little boy and sitting in his head. And 50 years later, those sounds of the helicopters are partly responsible for making this film.

It would just be kind of boring to work with a director who was super literal about everything, wouldn’t it?

Adiri: Oh, we get plenty of that in our careers. But Ken didn’t mind that it wasn’t the right train horn or whatever. It felt right to him. 

Chase: Another example of that is the sound of the TV in the film. We keep that sound going, like when Buddy’s watching the Westerns on TV. Because these things are merging in Buddy’s head. The image of the tough guys walking around on TV and the tough guys walking around Belfast. Thats how he saw them. And on some subconscious level, it’s still haunting Ken.

Mather: And that’s why it was so great to have Ken with us. We were due to pre-mix for a week and then due to mix for a week. I spoke to the production office and said, “If Ken wants to let us have a day or two to get ourselves in order, then he can join us midweek.” But then, come Monday morning at 9 a.m., there’s Ken, saying, “Oh, don’t mind me, I won’t get in your way, I’m just going to sit in the back.”

Adiri: Ken was queueing with us every morning to get his COVID test. He was just there, smiling, happy to see us. 

Chase: The beauty of the relationship we have with Ken is that he’s very available for us. He were frequently discussing the film with us and getting feedback. And he’s so open to ideas. He’s really keen on bringing every scene to life. What other threads of the story can we tell through offscreen sounds, that can help.

Adiri: I did one film before for Ken. He’s got this thing, he can very easily bring people together. There are directors out there who make you feel like you’re an operator. It’s not like that with Ken. He made the decisions in the end, but he wants to hear everybody’s opinion. It was really a joy to work for him.

Mather: Simon and I have made six films with Ken. Because of his background in theater, he very much loves the comradeship of a troop all together. He’s gracious and collaborative and very loyal to people who return that. 

The film features music by Van Morrison but doesn’t really have a score in a traditional sense. How does that affect your jobs with developing the sound?

Mather: Well, the lack of a traditional score gave us the opportunity to play sound effects with much more flair and rhythm and acuteness. We weren’t having to find a hole in the music to put the sound effect in. It’s about making the audience feel every impact. 

Chase: The music by Van Morrison is so delightful and there are a few great needle drops. But, yeah, for a lot of the moments, be they emotional or intense, there isn’t music there. You’re just left with those other elements, the sounds of the city and the sounds of what’s going on. And the delicate performances. It’s making those balance right that gives it quite a unique sound.

There is a rich musical feeling, though. Characters do sing in the movie.

Chase: There are a lot of magical moments. The “Everlasting Love” scene at the end is definitely one of those. Jamie [Dornan] sang a beautiful version, which we were able to use, and the way Niv mixed that is fantastic. We went back to the original masters of that song and our music editor Richard Armstrong came up with extra parts and extra trumpets. For Buddy, this moment is so special.

Mather: The Irish love to sing and dance in the street. And there is such a beautiful, lyrical feeling about this movie. Among all the anxiety and horror and stress, the community is so close. They love to sing and dance and drink and have a good time. The whole premise for me is how they love to be together as everything is getting thrown apart. Music is such a rich vein of their culture. All those combine to give you that real warmth and joy that they feel. The Irish community is spread far and wide, so pretty much wherever this film plays, there’s a community of people who go, “That’s my life.”

Adiri: Exactly. I’d just add that it’s not only 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 mentioned it to Ken, it’s a very clever, very touching way of writing a love letter to your childhood. It’s a film for anyone who left home.