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Hearing Backwards: Reversed Sounds and Music in TENET


Tenet’s unique exploration of time travel required innovative filming, editing, and sound design techniques.


Christopher Nolan is known for his use of experimental sound design, and his latest sci-fi action-thriller film, Tenet, is no exception. In the film, some characters move backwards through time via a process referred to as “reverse entropy” or “inversion,” while interacting with other characters who move forwards through time. If you haven’t seen Tenet, it’s a difficult concept to understand, and even having seen it, the effect is disorienting both visually and sonically.


At Audio Design Desk, we believe that sound is half of what we experience in a movie. Christopher Nolan’s innovative treatment/display of time in Tenet begs the question: how does sound design change in a story where time moves backwards?


*SPOILERS AHEAD*


Inversion


Let’s take a look at one of the films most epic scenes: the fight at Oslo Freeport. In this scene, Tenet’s unnamed Protagonist (played by John David Washington) fights a masked soldier whose entropy has been reversed. This inverted soldier, who is later revealed to be the Protagonist in the future, moves backwards through time. What sets Tenet apart from other time travel movies, however, is that the inverted Protagonist’s movements and actions are all made in reverse. Instead of firing his weapon, he pulls bullets and shells scattered across the scene back into the barrel of the gun, sealing bullet holes in the process. When it comes to hand-to-hand combat, the inverted soldier performs somersaults and takedowns in reverse, creating jarring, confounding images that require extensive planning to film.


Christopher Nolan is known to dislike CGI and avoid using computer effects whenever possible. Tenet, like his other films, makes use of a large budget to capture practical effects on-camera. For this reason, John David Washington and his time traveling doppelgänger had to learn the fight choreography both forwards and backwards! The scene was shot both ways, takes were selected, and several were played backwards to create the visual effect of inversion.


Behind the scenes photo of the mind-boggling Oslo Freeport fight scene.


In order to support the image, Tenet’s sound design team (including Richard King, who has worked on several of Nolan’s films, including Inception and Dunkirk) had to shape the scene’s sound effects in a way that complemented the images. One of the most disorienting and visceral aspects of the Oslo Airport is the unnatural sound design, which was accomplished by reversing much of the scene’s sound effects.


Gunshots turn into suction-like sounds, beginning with a low rumble and ending in a bright metallic clink. The Protagonist’s punches and grabs seem to constantly miss, lacking the smack and impact that we are used to hearing in fight scenes. And a confusing flurry of boot squeaks blur the soundscape whenever the inverted Protagonist scrambles to secure his footing.


The Protagonist studies a glass-gripped bullet that has simultaneously already been, and not yet been, fired.


Even in the hand-to-hand combat, the sound designers made subtle use of reversed sound effects. One of the most interesting moments comes in the hallway, when the inverted Protagonist lands an elbow strike to the Protagonists’ face at 58 seconds into the clip. You can hear that the sound effect is played in reverse, giving it a muffled, rustling thud. YouTubers have undertaken the task of uploading reversed versions of scenes from Tenet, so we have a chance to hear what the scene sounds like when played backwards. Sure enough, the elbow strike is a traditional punch/hit sound effect, as we can hear in this reversed clip at 1:53.


To get a deeper look at the way sound design operates in Nolan’s unique spin on time travel, check out our sound breakdown of the first Oslo Freeport fight scene. In the first half our video, we point out the many ways in which Tenet’s sound design intentionally disorients and confuses the viewer. In the second half, we show how to create a reverse gunshot sound effect in Audio Design Desk, using multiple sounds that come with Audio Design Desk’s sound library. It’s a little more complicated than just flipping the waveform of a gunshot, but the result can be achieved in just a minute.



Christopher Nolan has been known to use distinct sound effects to brand his films. Inception’s famous Horn of Doom (also known as ‘BRAAAAAM’) and the incessant ticking of a pocket watch in Dunkirk are so memorable that their imprint outlasts our memory of plot details or even characters’ names. In Tenet, there is an equally vivid sound effect which seems to be a combination of an inhalation, a scream, and an electronic, almost metallic stutter effect. Like the Horn of Doom and the ticking clock, the Tenet Screech doesn’t match up to any particular on-screen source, but rather is used to create tension and evoke an emotion: my own response to the uncomfortable sound is one of fear. The Tenet Screech, seemingly part human, part machinery, blurs the line between foley and sound design, meshing the real and the unreal to complement this reality-distorting film. You can hear it in this clip between six and nine seconds.


Music


Composer Ludwig Göransson.


The music in Tenet also made use of sounds played in reverse. In an interview with GQ, composer Ludwig Göransson explained his process for recording the music. In order to support this idea of time reversal, Göransson recorded percussionists playing rhythms he had written, reversed the recordings, and then re-recorded the percussionists as they emulated the sounds of the reversed recordings. These ‘performed reversals’ were both used as they were, as well as reversed again to create tracks that played forward rhythmically, but had an eerie, surreal effect. Göransson also used technology to manipulate the Protagonist’s theme. He explains that he had the orchestra play the melody backwards, then flipped the recording in post to once again give it an otherworldly effect.


The word ‘tenet’ is what’s known as a palindrome: it reads the same forwards and backwards. Ever-intent on supporting Nolan’s vision, some of Göransson’s music for the film plays the same forwards as backwards. In this video, you can hear back to back versions of the film’s trailer and prologue music first played normally, then in reverse. The results are almost identical.


Travis Scott created his song, “The Plan,” for the ending credits, but his voice appears multiple times throughout the film’s score, sounding more like an instrument than a voice. You can hear the sample of Travis Scott’s voice clearly in the track “Trucks in Place,” which also makes musical use of a wailing, distorted emergency siren. Göransson’s use of sound effects, voices, and instruments from different sources differs greatly from typical film scores, but is perfectly aligned with the aesthetic of Tenet.


Göransson also played on the film’s use of oxygen masks (in Nolan’s version of time travel, breathing needs mechanical facilitation) by incorporating reversed samples of Christopher Nolan’s breaths in the score. The creepy in/exhalation became the motif of the film’s villain, Sator. In Tenet’s experimental sound score, the lines between music, sound effects, and sound design become blurred.


The Protagonist dons an oxygen mask while traveling backwards through time.


The technical achievements and successful experimentation of the score are enough to merit celebration, but the track “Posterity” shows another unmistakable skill of Göransson’s: development. For almost nine minutes, Göransson builds the piece on a single rhythmic motif that repeats incessantly, elaborated by synths and instruments of varying pitch and intensity. Göransson, borrowing from minimalist composers, smartly stretches any changes over long periods of time, hypnotizing the listener into a repetitive yet ever-changing trance. Orchestral strings mesh with synthesizers, and various permutations of guitars punctuate the incessant rhythms, giving the track a both grandiose and anxious feeling.


The score’s genius is in its mix of electronic, extensively manipulated sounds with recognizable instruments. There is something about the use of guitar, Göransson’s main instrument, in particular that pushes Tenet’s soundtrack past the realm of film score and towards a more free expression of emotion through music. The guitar appears not only as an identifiable, twangy strum, but also as the original source of many of the score’s manipulated, synth-like sounds. Transcending the electronic and the acoustic, it ties the score into a cohesive work of art.


Final Thoughts


Tenet pushes many filmmaking boundaries, both visual and auditory. The film’s sound design goes above and beyond to create tension and disorient the viewer, and the score eschews traditional melodic film-scoring for highly rhythmic and experimental explorations of technological manipulation in music. Tenet’s sound design doesn’t exist solely to support the narrative. In many ways, it transcends the narrative of the film and forces us to question the role of sound design in the genre as a whole.


If you have a passion for sound design and want to try it yourself, download Audio Design Desk (ADD) today. With over 25,000 included sounds, full integration and compatibility with audio plug-ins, Digital Audio Workstations, and film editing softwares, ADD is the best entry point into the world of sound design. Veterans and amateurs alike have praised the software for its intuitive workflow and unparalleled ability to save sound designers’ time on projects. You can learn the software quickly by watching the abundant in-house tutorials on the website. Download Audio Design Desk today and join a community of artists who use it to make their films, commercials, and media sound great!

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