Interview: ‘Under The Skin’s Sound Designer Johnnie Burn On Creating Sounds You’ve Never Heard Before

A longtime collaborator with director Jonathan Glazer, sound designer Johnnie Burn has earned critical acclaim for his work on Under The Skin. Often singled out by critics, last year he was nominated for Best Technical Achievement at the British Independent Film Awards. Burn was also on the team for creating the sound effects for Skype – where I talked to him recently. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

How does it feel to have worked on a film that’s topping so many critics lists?

It feels like having a Christmas number one [laughs]. We spent such a long time creating the film that the thought of actually showing it to anyone never popped into our heads. I’m really thrilled for John Glazer because I know what an enormous amount of time and effort he’s put into it.

It’s especially impressive considering the film first screened about a year and a half ago, right? That’s quite some legs.

Yeah, September 2013. I was surprised when the first reviews came in and people started singling out the sound as something that they found quite interesting. I was on it years before the shoot so it totally absorbed my thoughts for a long period of time – lying at bed at night wondering how to make a scene better and texting John ideas then he would reply at midnight. So yes, very rewarding but I’d like to see other aspects receive the recognition they’re due.

Do you think it’s a good thing to have sound that takes a spotlight like that?

Good question. Maybe the issue is that people don’t get the time to spend on other films on sound and therefore this is more unusual.

Were there any influences from other films for Under the Skin?

I watched Persona. I know what John likes and the main thing would be restraint. Although the sound is quite big in terms of its prominence it’s just because the sensitivities are turned to such a high level. I looked at Orson Welles and Jean-Luc Godard to see how sound can be used to steer the narrative.

You worked with Glazer before on Birth. How was it different this time?

Remarkably different. That being my first film I didn’t know my craft so I floundered quite a bit. With Under The Skin, I knew it was coming for a good few years so I did my homework and understood a lot more about the process. I was comfortable in that respect.

How does he direct you?

A lot of it is doing it together. There was a time when we didn’t understand where he wanted to go but by the end there was a very common language that we shared. We started painting stuff on the film and knew when it was working or not.

How do you know when you’ve got the sound that works?

Oh you really do. For the white void scene we tried to do normal film versions of foley and nothing seemed quite right. We thought about how the process had worked on all the other sounds by recording them in the real environments, so we applied it to having someone in a completely alien space. We found a physics lab with zero sound reflection and reenacted the scene picking up immense detail but with an odd analogue sound.

What other experiments did have to find sounds?

A big thing that we were trying to do was dovetail all of the sound effects with the music. I did a lot of that by using specific EQ frequencies instead of broad bass and treble so that when a piece of music ends the sound effects would carry the mood on. I’ve never really seen it done before to that kind of level where every single sound throughout the film pretty much had its musical pitch adjusted.

What was your collaboration like with composer Mica Levi?

Mica is a fantastic person to work with. So inventive. Whenever she did something new musical rendition, I would adjust my pieces of sound to be more synthetic with that. It was very much John as a lynchpin of the collaboration with some kind of crazy final idea in his head rather than us sitting in a room working together.

Were there any roadblocks you had to overcome?

The director would be the biggest roadblock [laughs]. He’s incredibly rigorous and he would like to hear every single possible version of creating a scene before choosing. Combined with the fact that his standards are extraordinarily high so the biggest roadblock was just choosing a route on anything and then to perfect it. Ultimately what we were trying to do was to create an alien’s impression of the world and not one that you’ve heard before so to do anything that we’d come across as a traditional route simply wouldn’t work.

Do you want to continue exploring this dense dark side or would you be open to something a lot lighter in tone in the future?

It depends what comes with it because I enjoy the auteur filmmaking process and in that respect as a lowly sound department person you probably have more influence on the creative thing that you’re making. But I’ll tell you, it’ll be nice to do something that’s a bit easier [laughs].

I see on your website that you did the effects for Skype, where did they all come from?

You know, the Skype log in sound is me and Pete [Raeburn, Under The Skin’s music producer) going ‘Skyyyype(pop).’ All the ringtones follow similar themes – we snipped little bubbles into tiny sections and then pitched them a bit and made them ring. The main thing we were trying to do was nothing you’ve heard before so that was quite a fun challenge.

It’s funny, I was watching Birdman last night and in the first 30 seconds you hear the Skype ringtone and immediately I was popped out of the film. That’s me!