Academy Award Winning Sound Designer Johnnie Burn on Crafting the Authentic Sounds Behind ‘The Zone of Interest’

Posted on: Feb 23, 2024

Photo Credit: Impact24PR

By Steffanie Bradley

Johnnie Burn is a BAFTA Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated British film sound designer and re-recording mixer. Renowned for his ability to create immersive and captivating soundscapes that elevate the cinematic experience, Johnnie and his team create soundscapes that resonate with big artistic visions.

Recent work includes his Oscar nomination for Sound Design on Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest. Additional credits include Yorgos Lanthimos’ Venice Golden Lion-winning Poor Things, and Jordan Peele’s Nope, all garnering widespread acclaim and winning many prestigious awards for their extraordinary sound design.

His journey into the world of film began with the mesmerizing and avant-garde Under The Skin by Jonathan Glazer. This collaboration paved the way for a fruitful partnership with visionary director Yorgos Lanthimos, resulting in remarkable films such as The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), and the critically acclaimed The Favourite (2019). Johnnie’s exceptional work on Trey Edward Shults’ Waves (2019) and the evocative Ammonite by Francis Lee further demonstrates his commitment to artistic excellence.

He is a member of MPSE (Motion Picture Sound Editors), AMPS (Association of Motion Picture Sound), and BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts).

Can you describe the specific challenges you faced in creating the sound design for The Zone of Interest?

The challenge in the The Zone of Interest was to create the sound of the world’s worst mass murder in history and to do it with authenticity and respect to the victims and the survivors. That meant an awful lot of research and hard work in trying to figure out how to do that.

How did you ensure through the research that the sounds you recreated were historically accurate?

I guess becoming an expert on sound in Auschwitz in the Second World War, and I read for six months intensively and over a year and a half in total. I utilized the Auschwitz Memorial Museum archive and all the literature that’s available online and in books and things like that. I made an enormous list of all the kind of things that were happening. Like the specific things that were mentioned such as the guns used were from the First World War, not Second World War because the good stuff went to the front line.

Other details, like how many executions there were a day and where the whipping happened and how they would make the prisoners count the number of strikes out and if they got it wrong they’d have to start again. A lot of awful things like that.

It actually suited the film better for me to go out into the real world and record sounds that really exist of people in pain or shouting aggressively or things like that, in pubs and football matches and riots in Paris and late night in Berlin and things like that and reuse those in the film because the context of how you’re watching them in the film makes you believe that they are what we’re imagining they are. Because I found that when I tried to do it with actors in a booth, it just all sounded sort of wooden. It’s very hard to fake pain and death.

Some of the sounds, for example, when they’re having the kids party in the backyard, but you hear screaming in the background, those are some of the scenes you’re referring to?

Yeah. So all those screams were someone really actually screaming, not someone saying, “And, take three, scream.” I think that’s why they’re really quite credible because there’s lots of weird things that I learned about it as well like, if someone’s screaming in a voice booth and you say, “Pretend you’re dying,” they go, “Ahhh!” like they’re falling down a well. If someone actually does it in real life, they go, “Ahhh!”  and then it just stops.

How do you feel that implementing sounds like this in the film contributed to the viewer’s experience of the narrative in an authentic way?

It’s extraordinary. I’ve never worked on anything that has used sound to such a powerful extent. We didn’t put the horror scope on until we’d quite well made the family drama as we saw it. The film without the horror sounds on, it’s quite nice. It’s like people having a nice time with a dog and a baby and the house and garden.

Entirely changes the tone of the film, which it was important to do.

It’s amazing. John said to me the year before, “I’m going to go film this and you need to be an expert on the sound of Auschwitz when I get back because I don’t know how we’re going to do it. I never want to film the atrocity, that’s been done before and it’s of no interest to me. Everyone knows those images, we can conjure them out of their mind with sound.” 

We initially imagined it would be the odd scream here and there, and what we end up with is something that needs to sound way more industrial because so many people died. When we looked into the facts of it, there was a lot going on. It was extraordinary having theoreticized about it a year and a half before to actually seeing it with the whole soundscape in there was really quite remarkable.

Industrial sound, that’s a good term for it because I remember things like the furnaces and I’m sure you had to take sounds from that into account.

Yeah. We kind of call that the sound of “the machine of death.” I mean, it’s an amalgamation of the crematorium and the furnaces and they also manufactured armaments and textiles there, and people walked around in clogs. It’s the most ghastly place, which is an example of how the images that Jonathan Glazer or Łukasz Żal, the cinematographer, could have given us would never be as grim as the ones that you actually paint in your own head [from the sound]. In a scenario like that, you go to a dark place with what you imagine.

What in your career history do you feel prepared you for this type of a film?

Under The Skin was the previous film that I did with Jonathan Glazer, about 10 years ago now. What we really liked about [coming up with] the sound for that film was credibility from things that really happened. We realized that a truly immersive soundscape in cinema isn’t about having big explosions or making your seat rattle. It’s about believing the sound that you’re hearing. The more you get that, the more you are immersed in the film. I learned a lot from that experience. Working with Jonathan Glazer is no small undertaking.

Is that how he brought you onto this project?

Yeah. We’ve known each other for nearly three decades and the first thing I did with him was a video in 1998. Then loads of Guinness commercials over the years and all sorts of pop videos with David Bowie. Loads of stuff over the years. Then he said he wanted me to be head of sound on Under The Skin. I thought, “okay, I need to figure out what the difference between a 60 second commercial is and a two-hour-movie.”

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in sound design?

If you’re interested, definitely go for it. Passion is really important because certainly I work long hours, but it’s a job I’ve never worked a day in my life. Start finding material to work on. Download something off a movie clip and try reworking it and seeing how you would do it and develop your own style. 

I think the most important thing that a sound designer needs to eventually learn once they’ve gained the skills, is that it isn’t about the sound design, it’s about the director’s vision. Think as a film director who’s going to make the whole film work by telling a story, don’t think like a sound designer who wants to get all his sound design in the film, kind of thing.

More like working together to create the narrative versus proving yourself.

Exactly. If you do the latter, then you’re not going for the same goal, and then you have a director who thinks, “Why does this guy keep throwing their crazy ideas at me when if they just understood what I want, there would only be one way of doing it and they would realize that,” kind of thing. It’s important to be aligned on the vision and narrative to bring the film to life with sound design.

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