Dunkirk and the use of Shepard Tone

August 21, 2017, 2:16 PM UTC

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s much anticipated latest film has proved a smash with audiences, becoming the 13th highest grossing film of 2017 so far despite being released towards the end of July.  

The film’s subject strays from Christopher Nolan’s renowned fantasy and science fiction work and is instead a gritty war movie about the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 during World War 2. In the YouGov office we’ve been struck by how minimal the plot of the film is and with even less scripting, we’ve been wondering how Christopher Nolan created such intensity that leaves the audience on the edge of an anxiety attack?

The lack of script was a very effective choice from Nolan as the viewer was immersed into the action and fear of war. Instead of using scripting to create the growing intensity, anticipation and fear, Nolan used an incredible soundtrack with Hans Zimmer that included a psychological trick that Nolan is a big fan of… Shepard tone.

Shepard tone is created by layering three ascending tones, which are separated by an octave. Combining these tones together tricks your brain into hearing a rising tone which creates and unnerving and anxiety ridden feeling in you. What’s more unnerving is that this tone never reaches a peak, it goes on and on and on (like the infinite staircase illusion) leaving you on the edge of your seat for the entire duration of the film - incredibly clever!

Nolan also uses a constant ticking clock throughout, making the audience feel the pressure that the soldiers are under.

This made us curious at YouGov. Our UK Profiles data tells us that war movies are more popular among males than females, with 34% of males liking the genre compared to only 12% of females. Despite historical war films not being Nolan’s typical genre, YouGov profiles show that 72% of people who enjoy the war genre also enjoy science fiction, a genre that Christopher Nolan is more than familiar with having released box office successes Inception and Interstellar.

Whether war films are your thing or not, Christopher Nolan is definitely a well-liked director amongst Brits with 82% saying they either ‘like’ or ‘really like’ him. He is particularly popular among those aged 18-24, with 91% saying they like him.

We’re now interested in your views; what did you feel about Dunkirk? Did it make you feel as Christopher Nolan intended? Do you normally enjoy the war genre and does it encourage you to find out about past events? Is the director of the film a key influence on why you decide to watch movies?