Johnnie Burn never imagined he would have a career in sound. "I started off doing a degree in business studies at a university in London, and I dropped out because I knew I was miserable doing it," he chuckles. "What I really loved doing was sitting in my bedroom with all my sound equipment, but I had no idea you could get paid for it."
An old school friend recommended Burn for a job working at an audio post production company. "The company had just bought this thing called a Synclavier, which was a quarter-of-a-million pound sound-sampling machine. It was the Ferrari version of everything that I had in my bedroom," he says. "I couldn't believe that at 6 o'clock every day when the clients left, that was mine, and I could play with it as long as I could keep my eyes open. So, I slept at work a lot and felt so lucky."
In 2003, he was enlisted by auteur filmmaker Jonathan Glazer to collaborate on the sound for his film, Birth. For Glazer's next feature, 2013's Under the Skin, Burn made his official debut as sound designer, supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer. His work with Glazer led to collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos (including 2015's The Lobster, 2017's The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and 2019's The Favourite) and Jordan Peele (2022's Nope).
This year, Burn is behind the sound on both Lanthimos' Poor Things — which won Best Film at the Venice Film Festival — and Glazer's The Zone of Interest, which won Grand Prix at Cannes. "I've been lucky, for sure," he says. For the latter, Burn was awarded the Commission for Sound and Images Artist-Technician Award. "It's a powerful part of the movie. It's what makes it work, right?"
Below, Burn shares with A.frame his Top 5, including the Brian De Palma-directed thriller that he recommends to anyone wanting to understand what a sound designer does.
Directed by: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker
The first film that really hit me was Airplane! It's just so funny. It formed so much of my teenage sense of humor. 'Surely you can't be serious.' 'I am serious, and don't call me Shirley.' All of that, I found so hilarious. My brother and sister and I would constantly be quoting that for years. For me, that was a really brilliant, formative film experience.
Directed by: Brian De Palma
It's such an extraordinary film — a political thriller and a love story — and Nancy Allen is amazing. Obviously, it's a film about a sound designer. That's great for me because, when any of my friends say, 'What do you do for a living?' Or when my mother said to me, 'What do you mean you do the sound on films? They sound all right to me,' I made her watch Blow Out. She was like, 'Oh, someone actually does that!'
But Blow Out is such an extraordinarily well-made film, and Brian De Palma's a genius. It was so influential for Tarantino, for example, and how he went about his career. So, I think that is a fave of mine.
Directed by: Ingmar Bergman
It's such a dreamy nightmare, but I was amazed that there could be more than one take on a film; that you could watch it and resign yourself to the fact that there isn't one set way of interpreting the film. You could watch it in two different moods, and have two completely different reactions to it. So, understanding that films could do that was a revelation for me, and then there's the fourth wall moment in it. Also, the soundscape is beautifully simple. I was wowed at the filmmaking.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
I've got to include a Kubrick film, but I'm very torn between 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining. Obviously, HAL was great, but if I were going to rewatch one, it would be The Shining. I love it so much from a sound point of view. And then the whole setup, and the iconography of that tricycle going down the corridor, and the carpet that you see in hotels now. Everything about it. Shelley Duvall's performance was extraordinary, and what she went through — was put through — to get there. It's just an extraordinary film.
More than anything, I've spent my entire life walking into bars with friends going, 'Here's Johnny!' So, that's the main reason.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola
It's such a perfect film, isn't it? I don't know what I can say that hasn't been said about it, but it's so well-made, and spans so much history, and the performances are incredible —what De Niro did with his take on the character of Vito Corleone and how good Al Pacino is in that. I could watch that movie endlessly, because it's so well-made.