MI6 caught up with Academy Award winner Norman Wanstall to talk about creating the sound effects for the early James Bond films...

Norman Wanstall Interview (3)
5th March 2008

What is one of your most memorable moments from working on the James Bond movies?
Without doubt my most memorable moment occurred on Dr No. The scene at the end when Bond is disguised in Dr No’s laboratory provided the biggest sound-effects challenge I faced in all the six Bonds I worked on.

Bond ends up on a gantry where a technician is turning a wheel that controls the nuclear power, and it was obvious that a sound would be needed to rise and fall in pitch in sync with the turning of the wheel. Moreover, the sound would have to rise to fever pitch when Bond grabs the wheel and causes chaos by turning it way up into the danger level. With the technology available I knew of no machine that could be used for the purpose, and without doubt it was the most worrying time of my career. In the end, after weeks of fruitless research, I made one desperate plea to the electronic maintenance man at Pinewood Studios. Could he make a machine? He said it couldn’t be done but he would look into it, and for weeks I heard nothing.

We were now approaching the dubbing period and I knew I was in serious trouble, but then I suddenly received a call asking me to come to the recording theatre. There I found the maintenance man who was sitting beside a gadget that could only be described as laughable, with odds and ends of metal, wire, valves and switches all held together on a wooden board. My heart sank when he said it was the best he could do and I was tempted to walk away, but without saying anything further he switched the machine on and turned a small knob attached to the front. I couldn’t believe my ears when the sound that came out was exactly what I’d been looking for and the pitch was completely controllable. I had no words to say to the man. I was literally overwhelmed with gratitude. To my everlasting relief the nuclear sound was born, and the rest, as they say, is history!


Above: Dr No at the controls of his reactor

Above: Connery talks to Fleming on the set of Dr No's control room

It was a perfect example of the way everyone in the Sound Department at Pinewood reacted to those early Bonds. The films created an exciting new challenge and everyone wanted to play their part.

Can you tell us what it felt like to be nominated for a Oscar... and the win?
To be nominated for any award is very humbling. Technicians, by the very nature of their work, do not think in terms of awards. As soon as they start on a production their main concern is to do the very best job possible and hopefully contribute in some way to the favourable outcome of the film. I have never heard any technician discuss the possibility of work being nominated, so it was with total disbelief that I reacted to the cable from the States asking who was responsible for the sound-effects on Goldfinger.


For a while I didn’t take the possibility of a nomination seriously, because as far as I was concerned I was just a young technician doing his job and Oscars belonged on another planet. In any case none of us had heard of a Sound-Effects Oscar because we were unaware that it had recently been introduced by the Sound Editors’ Guild in the States.

As matters progressed the nomination was finally confirmed and I began to realise that the whole thing was for real and I was actually being invited to Hollywood to attend the ceremony. I suddenly felt very proud that an independent body of judges had considered my work worthy of special mention, because respect from one’s peers is hugely important when working in such a competitive industry as the movies. Cubby was full of encouragement and agreed that my wife could go with me, which was a very important factor because to my mind this would be her reward for tolerating the long hours I worked on those early Bonds.

I remember feeling very calm because I knew it would be an amazing experience and there was zero chance of my having to go up on stage, but then Peter Hunt pointed out that there was only one other nominee and I realised the chances of winning were 50/50. It was all too much to take in really, and I’m certain no-one in my position would have considered for a moment that they would be returning to the UK with an Oscar.

Once we arrived in the US of course we were treated with great respect by everyone, and I realised we were involved in an experience of a lifetime. When we arrived for the actual ceremony everything seemed totally un-real, with every famous face one had ever known turning up in limousines.

I realised by this time that there was a remote chance I’d have to say a few words in front of millions of people, so I nervously put a few ideas together in my mind. I don’t mind admitting I had moments of panic. Nevertheless as the ceremony got underway I felt incredibly calm, because there was no way a 29-year-old film technician from London was going to be called up onto that stage to receive an Oscar, so I basically just sat back to enjoy the show. Even when Angie Dickenson came on to announce the Sound-effects nominees I felt very relaxed, but when she called out my name and the orchestra struck up with the theme from Goldfinger, I suddenly felt a great surge of pride. Fortunately, once I reached the stage and looked out at the audience the strong lights turned everything into a blur, so any nerves I might have had immediately disappeared and I was able to say my few words with confidence.

I fell hopelessly in love with Angie Dickenson of course. But then what man of twenty-nine wouldn’t!


Can you tell us a little about working with Peter Hunt's and any fond memories of your time together?
I worked with Peter Hunt on nine projects altogether, which is a pretty large chunk of anyone’s career. I joined Peter at a time when he was beginning to make a name for himself and the partnership worked extremely well. I was young, keen and dedicated to the job and Peter respected the fact that I was always prepared to go the extra mile.

He responded by giving me the chance to assemble scenes in his absence, and of course he gave me the biggest career boost possible by promoting me to sound-effects editor on Dr No. He took a huge gamble there, but I think his confidence stemmed from an incident that occurred on the film HMS Defiant. The producers wanted to show the first cut of the film to some very important people, but they were nervous of all the sea battle sequences because they were basically shot without sound. Knowing that I’d assisted the great Winston Ryder Peter turned to me for help, and within a couple of days I’d mixed some hastily assembled tracks together and the battles all came to life. The producers were ecstatic but Peter took none of the credit, and from then on I believe he felt I was ready for bigger things.

Peter deserves a lot of credit for the success of Dr No, because he made the decision very early on to keep the film moving at a fairly rapid pace and thus established a style for the ones that followed. There is a myth that’s arisen over the years that Peter devised a style of ‘jump cutting,’ but that isn’t true at all. What he had was an eye for eliminating un-necessary pauses, and if he could lose a few frames without the eye noticing he would do it to perfection. He never ventured into the jump-cutting style pioneered by Jean-Luc Godard, whose ideas I must admit I used once or twice in Joanna.

Owing to the success of the early Bonds, Peter became very important in the eyes of Saltzman and Broccoli, but when Guy Hamilton came on the scene there was a clash of personalities and the two men didn’t get on at all. Even my relationship with Peter became a bit strained from then on, and after You Only Live Twice was completed we went our separate ways. He fulfilled his dream of becoming a director and I my dream of becoming an editor.

Without doubt the most memorable moment in our relationship occurred when a guy came into our cutting room moaning and groaning about how difficult it was to succeed in the film industry. As he finally left the room his parting words were….. “It seems to me the only way to get on in this business is to be Jewish, homosexual or a Mason!” As the door closed Peter and I fell about laughing because I was none of those things whereas Peter was all three!

Beyond Bond, what has been your favourite project and why?
I know I’ve already mentioned Ipcress File and Joanna as being special projects in my career, but there was one small film I shall always consider to be my favourite because I had a completely free rein as editor and was also given the job of writing the commentary. Just prior to my leaving the industry a friend asked me to edit a documentary he’d produced about Alvaro Domecq y Dies, a member of the famous Domecq Sherry-producing family. The film was called Rejoneodore, and illustrated the career of Alvaro who not only bred bulls for the bullring, but also was one of the few bullfighters in the world who fought bulls exclusively from horseback. The film was financed by some gentlemen in Jersey and a musician based there wrote a brilliant Spanish guitar score, but the director pulled out and there were all kinds of problems and in the end I was left to pick up the pieces. For the first time in my career I had complete control and I felt very proud of the end result, but for some reason the film vanished without trace and I’ve always wondered why. I also remember a young Martin Campbell came on to keep an eye on things, and it’s interesting to see how his career has taken off since those early days.

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Many thanks to Norman Wanstall. Select pictures courtesy Norman Wanstall.