Oscar-winning Sound Designer Johnnie Burn on why being a runner is still the best route to success and how he creates the unsettling unorthodox worlds for Yorgos Lanthimos, Jordan Peele and Jonathan Glazer.

Oscar-winning Sound Designer Johnnie Burn believes there’s no shortage of people wanting to come into the industry but that postgraduates often have a preconceived notion of what to expect that may not align with commercial pressures.

“Having a degree is a great way to get in but anyone who wants to succeed still has to maintain the attitude that there’s a lot to learn,” he says. “The learning you have from college will take you through the later part of your career much more quickly but unless you go and make tea, no one else in the company going to have that respect for you because they’ve all done it.”

Burn, who created the sonic world for films including Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, and Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone Of Interest, runs Academy Award and Bafta-nominated audio postproduction house Wave Studios, having grown it with Co-Founder Warren Hamilton from a basement in 1999 to a team 30 people on four floors in Soho. The business also operates facilities in Amsterdam and Manhattan with an LA arm on the list to open.

“We do have initiatives to mentor young talent and take people in as runners all the time, often to give them a start in the industry whilst they figure which part of the craft attracts them. Some go on to become part of our own team,” he adds.

Burn himself is an advocate of the traditional runner route as still the best way of achieving success. “Absolutely, I would rather begin with someone who is keen and bright and probably someone who loves film,” he advises. “Get out there and take a piece of film that you admire and try to do it yourself. Think about not just the technical aspect of the recording was made but how sound is used to steer a narrative.”

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Paying dues

Burn’s career is a typical tale of determination, long hours and passion gravitating from tea boy to apprentice, but it might not have happened if a childhood trauma had not temporarily deafened him.


Johnnie Burn

“When I was 17, I wedged a water bottle under a running tap at my parent’s house,” he relates. “I was just going to leave it for a minute but I went for a run and forgot. When I got back, the bottle was only half full but when I touched it, it blew up into shards of plastic. I suddenly went deaf. I went to my bedroom which was filled with music kit and electronic gadgets. I turned them on, but I couldn’t hear a thing. I could only feel the wobbling of the speaker. I was convinced I’d permanently damaged my ear drums.

“About 20 minutes later my hearing came back but it focussed my mind and made me realise what I liked. I did a term of a business degree at university but I knew then that my passion lay elsewhere. I dropped out to get a job as a runner.”

His first big break came as a runner at the audio facility on the cusp of the digital revolution. He began splicing tape with a razor in the old style then got a chance to work on machinery like the digital synthesiser, Synclavier.

“I was interested in hip hop in the ’80s and I made bits of music myself but this was the most amazing version of all the stuff I had in my bedroom. So when everyone left at 6pm every night, it was mine to play with. I basically slept at work for six months without anyone knowing,” Burn relates. “I stayed up as late as possible playing with all the kit. One day a client from an advertising agency came in to record an actor’s voice for an Abbey National commercial but our sound engineer was off sick. I was there with a cup of tea and said I knew how to do it. And they let me. That led to other work with the client’s agency and basically got my foot in the door.”

Soon afterwards, he met Jonathan Glazer an up-and-coming director of music videos and commercials. Together they worked on numerous projects including the famed promos for Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity (1996), Unkle’s Rabbit in Your Headlights (1998), and the Guinness ‘Surfer’ ad (1999).

Having set up Wave Studios, Burn became the go-to sound mixer for dozens of music videos, collaborating with artists such as Madonna, Prince, George Michael, David Bowie, and The Spice Girls.

Then in 2003 he became, quite literally, the voice of Skype.

Back then, Skype was a tiny start-up and its Scandinavian founders had moved to London into the street next door to Wave. “Because they’d seen Guinness Surfer they asked myself and music producer Peter Raeburn to make them a ring tone and a log-in sound. We went round to their tiny room and they described this idea of an internet phone call. Peter suggested we should just say ‘Skype’ and so, back in the studio, we recorded 20 people saying the name which became the iconic sound. The Skype phone ring is me going ‘ring’ and I also mouthed the hang-up noise.”

Making movies

In 2004, Burn caught his second big break. “Jon [Glazer] called and said he had a film coming up.” Birth (2004) starring Nicole Kidman was Glazer’s follow-up to feature debut Sexy Beast and led to 2013’s Under the Skin, on which Burn acted as sound designer, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer.

“Jon had hidden cameras and mic in a van as Scarlet Johansson drove round Glasgow pretending to be lost and interacting with the public,” Burn relates. “I was in the back of the van with Jon and others looking at camera feeds on large screens and listening in.”

To present Johansson’s alien look at life on Earth, Burn also hid a mic on the end of an umbrella so he could yawn and stretch his arms without attracting attention but still get the mic close to people in the street.

“I captured this mesh of sound which just sounded so unusual it felt like it could be the world as it would seem to a being from a different planet. We were deliberately harvesting sounds from the real world that had anomalies and sounds you would not naturally put on film.”

It was this work that, years later, attracted director Jordan Peele to ask Burn to create the unsettling soundscape for Nope.

Burn is also part of the group of artists working with auteur Yorgos Lanthimos and has sound designed The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, The Favourite and Poor Things.

On The Favourite, we took a rough cut of the film and reenacted everything we saw on set including doors opening, footsteps down corridors and wind down chimneys but with Poor Things everything was so surreal the challenge was to record normal sound and present it as strange.”

For the sound of the ship’s engine, Burn used a heartbeat “because a diesel engine would have been boring,” he says. “The birds we hear in the woods are not the birds you would find in that environment. It’s all about world building with Yorgos so that the audience is not aware of the manipulation when in fact they are being treated to something quite odd.”

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Sound of sorrow

Then of course there is The Zone of Interest, the chilling fable about looking anywhere else but at the atrocities committed next door.

“Jon and I saw it as two films: the one we see and one we hear. His script didn’t mention specific sounds. We only ever hear the camp, we never go inside it but we had to figure out how to have the camp only in sound. I panicked at the beginning since to have it all hinging on an enormous layer of sound felt an incredible responsibility. We wouldn’t know if the film was actually going to work until late in postproduction.”


The Zone of Interest won Academy Awards for Best International Film and Best Sound

The solution was to research the Auschwitz archive. Burn scoured witness testimonies that had used descriptive language to describe what they had experienced and drawings left behind by survivors.

He sourced correct sounds for the planes, motorbikes and guns of the era, understanding that the guns they used at Auschwitz were ones from the First World War because the more advanced weapons were at the front.

For the ‘family drama’ we see on screen, Burn hid dozens of mics around the house which was built to the exact specification of the camp commander’s house by Production Designer Chris Oddy.

“Normally in a film you want to capture the dialogue but here it was about capturing the sound of people in a house, their footsteps, teacups rattling. We did a sound mix of the film without any sound of the camp and then went through a process of adding the sounds of the camp. That process lasted over six months with Jon and Editor Paul Watts working in London, and myself at my studio in Brighton working from the library I’d built from the research that I’d made.”

A test screening with heads of department and distributors A24 led to some significant tweaks to the soundscape. “We had scenes which sounded quite pastoral with the sound of the crematoria only on in a couple of shots. It was Chris [Oddy] who suggested that it didn’t sound as industrial as it should. He said, ‘You’ve undersold the scale of what is going on.’ It came back to trying to represent the truth while trying to be respectful to events.

“We went back and put in more sound of the crematorium constantly operating like a machine in the background. It’s not only historically accurate but provides a shorthand that circumvents the need for more sensationalised sound.”

Burn says Glazer is “sort of a genius” to work with. “Rigorous, very hands-on and a really lovely guy to hang around with. We talk football and food. Looking back, he really was my film school. I had one of the best directors in the world telling me why he filmed a shot the way he had. I’ve been very lucky to spend an enormous of time with him. The downside is that he will not stop until something is perfect. I must be a bit like that too.”

Read More Behind the Scenes: Poor Things