Music News

Oscar winners: The making of Oppenheimer’s score and The Zone of Interest’s sound design

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer was the big winner at the 96th Academy Awards ceremony, winning seven Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, including the coveted Best Picture award.

In the categories of sound, audio and music, Oppenheimer won Best Score, The Zone of Interest won Best Sound, and Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell’s What Was I Made For? from the Barbie soundtrack won Best Original Song at the ceremony.

There’s a neurosis to the sound that fits the highly strung intellect and emotion of Robert Oppenheimer. Ludwig Göransson

Best Score: Oppenheimer

Oppenheimer starrs Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist credited with being the "father of the atomic bomb" for his role in the Manhattan Project – the World War II undertaking that developed the first nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer’s score was composed by Swedish composer, conductor, songwriter and record producer Ludwig Göransson, who previously worked with director Nolan on the 2020 film, Tenet.

The score was performed by the Hollywood Studio Orchestra and recorded over five days at the scoring stage at Warner Bros Studios. At its peak, the orchestra included 40 string players, eight horns, three trombones, three trumpets, one tuba and one harp.

The film revolves around Oppenheimer's perspective, aiming for the audience to experience what he feels, sees and inhabits. Therefore, the music had to evoke all of his emotions as depicted on screen.

In a departure from typical post-production practices, Göransson began participating in weekly meetings three months prior to filming, composing 10 minutes of music per week for Nolan. This allowed Nolan to commence filming with two to three hours of music as reference.

Oppenheimer is a visual masterpiece,” said Göransson in a video released by Universal Pictures. “The movie was really pushing the boundaries in so many different fields so I wanted to see how we could do that with music as well.”

In the early stages of the film's production, Nolan shared the script with his visual effects supervisor, Andrew Jackson, visually depicting events such as quantum mechanics and nuclear reactions. The visual effects team started producing experimental footage of particles, waves and chain reactions, which Göransson then used as inspiration for his score.

“One of the things that was really inspiring was when Chris invited me to come and see the visual effects that they were creating,” he said. “What they did sparked a lot of ideas in my head and that’s where the idea for the montage came from. I had this pattern and it’s played by violins, but I wanted it to go faster and faster and faster the whole time.

“Then the tricky point is, how can we record this live? They go from a tempo change from 180 BMP to 350 BPM within two minutes. It would have been easy just to have stopped every two bars – we did that too – but you don’t get that magical flow that you only get with live musicians playing together in a room where 40 people are doing their own temporal adjustments in their heads. So you can still hear some friction and that energy really affects the recording. We worked on the piece for a week – every day – trying to play it over and over and over again, and the results are marvellous.”

I had no preconceptions about the music for the film; all I gave Ludwig was the idea of basing the score around the violin. Christopher Nolan

During post-production editing, Nolan and editor Jennifer Lame utilised Göransson's preliminary work for the initial cut of the film, eliminating the need for a temp score. Every Friday throughout the editing phase, Göransson screened the film with Nolan and Lame, adjusting his score accordingly. The entire score process took approximately nine months for Göransson to complete.

“I had no preconceptions about the music for the film,” said Nolan. “Sometimes you have an idea about the soundscape for the world and the rhythm of it and sometimes you don’t, and for this, all I gave Ludwig was the idea of basing the score around the violin.”

“There’s so much in the performance of the violin,” agreed Göransson. “In seconds you can go from something beautiful to something completely horrifying. There’s a neurosis to the sound in a way that I think fits the highly strung intellect and emotion of Robert Oppenheimer really well.”

Nolan continued: “We wanted a handmade feel using real instruments, but also synthesisers that Ludwig can manipulate so expertly. We would take his experiments, put them to picture, edit them and try different things, show it to Ludwig and he would go and bring more things to the table. Ludwig's work in the film really achieves an enormous amount of the effect of drawing the audience into the emotional dilemmas of the characters. He’s really put together a remarkable score.”

Göransson cites an early scene in the film as an example: “They’re visiting almost for the first time and the way I was thinking about the music there was almost to think you’re on a different planet and that’s also why the musical tonality changes from this organic palette to more of an ‘alienistic’ score.”

Göransson revealed that he used a lot of synthesisers, but made clear that the heartbeat of the music is organic. “Chris called me one day and said, ‘Hey, can you write me a 30 minute courtroom trial piece of music?’ and I was like, ‘Okay,’' he recalls. “Chris had the idea of scoring that scene like an action movie and I thought that was something very interesting.

Best Sound: The Zone Of Interest

The Zone of Interest won the Oscar for Best Sound, which was accepted by production sound mixer Tarn Willers and sound engineer and designer, Johnnie Burn.

The Zone of Interest is a historical drama film written and directed by Jonathan Glazer, co-produced between the UK and Poland. The story is loosely based on the 2014 novel by Martin Amis.

Starring Christian Friedel and Sandra Hüller as the Nazi commandant Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig, it focuses on the pair as they strive to build a dream life for their family in a home in the ‘zone of interest’ – next to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“Normally, my role as a production sound mixer is primarily to get the dialogue – get rid of everything else, the extraneous sounds,” explained Willers in an Oscars Sound Nominees Showcase video.

The Zone of Interest was almost the opposite of that, where my remit was to capture as much detail as possible in what is seemingly a mundane environment of a family at home. A lot of the dialogue that was there was kind of incidental chitchat.”

my remit was to capture as much detail as possible in what is seemingly a mundane environment of a family at home. production sound mixer Tarn Willers

Glazer opted against visually portraying the atrocities within the concentration camp, preferring that they be conveyed through sound alone. He referred to the film's sound as "the other film" and, arguably, the core of the film.

In pursuit of this vision, Burn meticulously assembled a 600-page dossier comprising pertinent events at Auschwitz, witness testimonies and a comprehensive map of the camp to accurately gauge distances and echoes of sounds. Burn dedicated a year to crafting a sound library, encompassing noises from manufacturing machinery, crematoria, furnaces, boots and period-authentic gunfire.

The sounds emanating from behind the camp walls include the piercing screams of prisoners, the aggressive shouts of guards, and the ominous reverberation of the gas chambers and crematorium.

“Jon was insistent on hearing every detail of every action of every moment because of the way he shot with 10 cameras,” explained Willers on his process on set. “He wanted the actors to be free to move around and work in this environment at the same time as one another. So not only did we have to capture an actor or two actors in a particular place, there might be two or three others in the next room doing something else, and we had to capture it all simultaneously.

I think what we did was we provided Jonny with one more colour in his palette. production sound mixer Tarn Willers

“We had to mic up the environment; my two assistants spent almost two weeks running miles of cable into the house. We divided rooms and corridors into sections and gave each section a mic position according to where the actors might or might not move around within the house or the garden. The mics were hidden out of view.

“John was very keen that the actors were not seeing any filming paraphernalia while they were performing and we were running anything up to 20 tracks at a time for audio,” he added. “In doing this, I think what we did was we provided Jonny with one more colour in his palette.”

Best Original Song: What Was I Made For?

Winning Best Original Song was Billie Eilish and Finneas O'Connell’s What Was I Made For? from the Barbie soundtrack.

The song was commercially successful worldwide and reached number-one in Australia, Ireland, Switzerland and the UK, peaking at 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. It received five nominations at the 66th Annual Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year, and won for Song of the Year (which became the first song from a movie since My Heart Will Go On from Titanic, sung by Celine Dion, to win in this category) and Best Song Written for Visual Media.

we ended up writing almost the entire song that night. Billie Eilish

The songwriting process began with the film’s director Greta Gerwig showing Eilish and O'Connell a rough cut of the film at Warner Bros. Studios. In an interview with Billboard, Eilish stated that the single was the first song that she and O'Connell had written after a prolonged writer's block.

“In January Greta showed me and Finneas a handful of some unfinished scenes from the film; we had no idea what to expect at ALL,” Eilish wrote on Instagram. “We were so deeply moved that the next day we were writing and COULDN'T shut up about it and ended up writing almost the entire song that night. To be real with you this all seemed to happen in a time when I really needed it. I'm so thankful for that.”


Best sound

  • Winner: The Zone of Interest

  • The Creator

  • Maestro

  • Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

  • Oppenheimer

Best original score

  • Winner: Oppenheimer

  • American Fiction

  • Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

  • Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Poor Things

Best original song

  • What Was I Made For? - Barbie (Billie Eilish, Finneas O'Connell)

  • The Fire Inside - Flamin' Hot (Diane Warren)

  • I'm Just Ken - Barbie (Mark Ronson, Andrew Wyatt)

  • It Never Went Away - American Symphony (Jon Batiste, Dan Wilson)

  • Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People) - Killers of the Flower Moon (Scott George)

Best picture

  • Winner: Oppenheimer

  • American Fiction

  • Anatomy of a Fall

  • Barbie

  • The Holdovers

  • Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Maestro

  • Past Lives

  • Poor Things

  • The Zone of Interest

Best actress

  • Winner: Emma Stone - Poor Things

  • Annette Bening - Nyad

  • Lily Gladstone - Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Sandra Huller - Anatomy of a Fall

  • Carey Mulligan - Maestro

Best actor

  • Winner: Cillian Murphy - Oppenheimer

  • Bradley Cooper - Maestro

  • Colman Domingo - Rustin

  • Paul Giamatti - The Holdovers

  • Jeffrey Wright - American Fiction

Best supporting actress

  • Winner: Da'Vine Joy Randolph - The Holdovers

  • Emily Blunt - Oppenheimer

  • Danielle Brooks - The Color Purple

  • America Ferrera - Barbie

  • Jodie Foster - Nyad

Best supporting actor

  • Winner: Robert Downey Jr - Oppenheimer

  • Sterling K Brown - American Fiction

  • Robert De Niro - Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Ryan Gosling - Barbie

  • Mark Ruffalo - Poor Things

Best director

  • Winner: Oppenheimer - Christopher Nolan

  • Anatomy of a Fall - Justine Triet

  • Killers of the Flower Moon - Martin Scorsese

  • Poor Things - Yorgos Lanthimos

  • The Zone of Interest - Jonathan Glazer

Best adapted screenplay

  • Winner: American Fiction

  • Barbie

  • Oppenheimer

  • Poor Things

  • The Zone of Interest

Best original screenplay

  • Winner: Anatomy of a Fall

  • The Holdovers

  • Maestro

  • May December

  • Past Lives

Best international feature

  • Winner: The Zone of Interest

  • Io Capitano

  • Perfect Days

  • Society of the Snow

  • The Teachers' Lounge

Best animated feature

  • Winner: The Boy and the Heron

  • Elemental

  • Nimona

  • Robot Dreams

  • Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse

Best documentary feature

  • Winner: 20 Days in Mariupol

  • Bobi Wine: The People's President

  • The Eternal Memory

  • Four Daughters

  • To Kill a Tiger

Best cinematography

  • Winner: Oppenheimer

  • El Conde

  • Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Maestro

  • Poor Things

Best film editing

  • Winner: Oppenheimer

  • Anatomy of a Fall

  • The Holdovers

  • Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Poor Things

Best visual effects

  • Winner: Godzilla Minus One

  • The Creator

  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

  • Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One

  • Napoleon

Best costume design

  • Winner: Poor Things

  • Barbie

  • Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Napoleon

  • Oppenheimer

Best production design

  • Winner: Poor Things

  • Barbie

  • Killers of the Flower Moon

  • Napoleon

  • Oppenheimer

Best make-up and hairstyling

  • Winner: Poor Things

  • Golda

  • Maestro

  • Oppenheimer

  • Society of the Snow

Best animated short

  • Winner: War Is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko

  • Letter to a Pig

  • Ninety-Five Senses

  • Our Uniform

  • Pachyderme

Best documentary short

  • Winner: The Last Repair Shop

  • The ABCs of Book Banning

  • The Barber of Little Rock

  • Island In Between

  • Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó

Best live action short

  • Winner: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar

  • The After

  • Invincible

  • Knight of Fortune

  • Red, White and Blue

    Image credits:

    Oppenheimer: Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

    The Zone of Interest: Courtesy of A24

    Barbie: Via Warner Bros Pictures