The Invisible Film

A Conversation with Johnnie Burn, Sound Designer of The Zone of Interest

Johnnie Burn is known for his collaborations with Jordan Peele and Yorgos Lathimos, and recently he was awarded an Oscar for Best Sound for his work on The Zone of Interest by Jonathan Glazer. This interview provides an insight into how this collaboration started and how Burn approached the project as a sound designer.

The film is a family portrait of the Höss family. While the mother takes care of the children, the father goes across their house to the Auschwitz concentration camp to work as the camp commander. The most important aspect of the film is that we hear the sounds coming from the camp when the family is inside their house and in their garden, which is surrounded by the camp wall. The real drama takes place outside the images, behind the wall, which means that the soundscape represents the “real film,” as Burn calls it, which remains invisible.

Johnnie Burn agreed to have an interview online, and his screen provided a window into his working studio, which was flooded with sunlight. During the conversation it became clear that he worked together at a distance with Glazer through this window. But before going into the peculiar workflow of long-distance collaborations, I asked him about how he came to be a sound designer, and he explained it had all started with his love for a synthesizer called Synclavier.

(1) The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

Johnnie Burn: I did a business course at City University, and I dropped out because I was staring out the window the whole time. Then I got a job as an intern at a recording studio in Soho, London, that specialized in TV commercials. At that time, my bedroom was filled with sound recording equipment, sampling machines and DJ machines. I loved all of that stuff. Then I found out that this company I worked for had the Synclavier, which was a £250,000 sampling machine, and I was exhilarated. I could play with this thing once the clients went home! So, I was a very happy teenager.

One day, a sound recordist of the company didn’t turn up, and a client was waiting with his actor. The client wondered if there was anyone who could do the recording. At that moment, Burn came in with the tea and said, “I know how the buttons work.” Soon after that, Burn got his own studio. The client remained loyal to him because he had helped out, and others followed. A few years later, Glazer became a client, and they made TV commercials for Guinness and Stella Artois together. In 2001, Glazer asked Burn to work on his film Birth. “That didn’t go terribly well.” There’s a world of a difference between working on TV commercials and working on a film. Burn spent two years working on films, learning how it was done before collaborating with Glazer again on Under the Skin, now as head of sound.

Nina de Vroome: A few years ago, Jonathan Glazer approached you with a new idea that was quite different from his earlier work. How did this collaboration start?

We’ve known each other for twenty-seven years, and we talk regularly. He told me he was writing a script based on the Martin Amis book Zone of Interest [2014], and he said the sound would be very important. But when he gave me the script, it didn’t mention sound at all. While I was reading the script, Jonathan told me to imagine the sound of the camp during the whole duration of the film. Then I realized I had to become an expert on the sound of Auschwitz in that time period. Jonathan said, “We’ll now go to shoot this film, and then in one year I’ll come back, and by then you have to be able to play me what Auschwitz sounded like.”

That’s how the work started. What we learned from Under the Skin is that immersive sound in cinema isn’t big wooshing noises and using all the speakers in the room and being very loud, it’s about credibility and authenticity. We decided to record things in the real world, not fabricating them. Sound design for me begins in the script. Good sound can’t be an afterthought. It has to be integral to the project.

You were left to your own devices, doing research and making recordings for this film that was still invisible. How did you go about this work?

I spent six months reading every book I could find and reading all the witness testimonies in the Nuremberg trials. Jonathan had access to the Auschwitz Museum archive and documents like drawings from prisoners that are descriptive of scenes and incidents. A collection of many hundreds of pages was created that included everything I could find in relation to sound, like what noises the guns made, or the fences, the distances between the buildings. I shared this with Jonathan and said, “This is what I’ve learned. And now I’m going to figure out how to make that into actual sound.”

Jonathan told me that he doesn’t want me to take twenty actors and record them in a voice booth, pretending to be dying. “You need your own sound. You’ll shoot a sound film.” During the filming period of Jonathan, I set out to travel through Europe in the search for sounds, together with a team of four sound recordists. We would visit amateur football matches in Germany, where you can hear a lot of aggressive shouting. We also went to the Paris riots. And we found footage from the BBC that included a camera pointed at the window of a prison in Belarus where you could hear people being tortured. We didn’t use that footage, but we learned how pain really sounds, which is different from when you ask an actor, who will make noises as if falling down a well. We recorded actors informed by what they heard on those recordings, and we recorded it at the correct distances with the correct surroundings. But most of the recordings were done in a documentary way.

[Suddenly, Burn moves out of the frame and comes back with an umbrella in his hand.] I often use a microphone that’s hidden in an umbrella like this one. The wire goes up to my sleeve, and I have a recorder in my pocket. If someone makes a noise, I go [he stretches out as if yawning, pointing the umbrella outward], and I have a clean recording of a voice. The recording is done surreptitiously, since people change once they’re aware they’re being recorded. The spontaneity is gone once people see a microphone. But we always made sure we didn’t record private conversations; we were just there to collect.

A useful area was any city after 3:00 a.m. on a Friday night. At night people get aggressive, or sick, or they argue. And there’s no traffic. Many of the prisoners were French and Polish, so we visited those countries, and the German football matches were useful for the guards. Even though it’s impossible to recognize words, the language was important. There’s a kind of body language of the sound. It is like the way a dog hears if their owner is happy or not, even though they don’t understand the actual vocabulary.

We recreated sounds in relation to the architecture of the camp. The executions happened at block 11, about sixty meters from the house. We recorded gunshots in a firing range that has buildings around it and we recorded it at the same distance. I had a map of where everything was and I knew where the French voices had to come from. The guard voices were in a block down the side of the garden besides the crematorium. So I knew where everything was distance-wise, and therefore I could record things at those distances. There’s quite a lot of responsibility to represent faithfully what happened. This is how I believe it sounded in the garden. And I would use those sounds to edit a short radio play, like a short scenario. I had hundreds of these different scenarios.

During the shooting of the film itself, were you in charge of the sound recording team?

No. Traditionally on a film set, the guy who’s in charge of the sound is called the production sound mixer, he’s not the sound designer. He has a specific skill set of because usually the primary role is to capture the dialogue and everything else doesn’t matter. Every sound apart from the voice will be added later. Because on a film set there are too many people standing around, catering, and all the other noises are wrong anyway. If you work in a décor, all contact sounds with walls or doors don’t make sense. All the production sound mixer has to do is get the voices right. Which is weird, because all the motorbikes and horses are there, so why not record them? But this way of working is mostly done in indie filmmaking, where they are regularly working in real locations, just like for this film that was shot in the actual house of the Hösses.

I wanted to work with the production sound mixer Tom Willers, because of our unusual requirement; we didn’t want to capture the voices so much, but rather the sounds the actors make when moving around in the house. Normally you have one man sitting next to a trolley with lots of stuff and a pair of headphones and two wires coming out, one to each guy with a boompole. But that wasn’t allowed here, because there was no crew allowed on set.

We developed a system of microphones installed in the ceiling and pleaded for a visual effects budget to remove them afterwards. There were ten hidden cameras and twenty hidden microphones, and during the shoot the whole crew moved out of the house to hide in the portacabin that looked like the office block next door. This building was filled with sound people and Jonathan watching the monitor. The actors then played for one hour, until the memory sticks were full.

Tom Willers worked together with two colleagues. Their challenge was to install during three weeks prior to the shooting all the microphones. They ran cables in the ceiling and put microphone positions in numerous places in and around the house. There were fifty microphone placements but only a budget for twenty microphones. So we had to move the resources around. It also meant that every take would come to me with twenty tracks of audio, which was brilliant because it gave me many possibilities. During a shot, Elfrida would walk around the house with the baby, Rudolf would be sitting in a room talking to the men and the dog would run around. Everything would happen at the same time all together. In post-production, I would have the ability to make the volume correct for the room that you’re in, but to have a constant soundscape of the whole household was enriching.

We used 416 Sennheiser shotgun microphones that were attached to the ceiling on a circle that could turn around using piano wire, so that Tom could move the position of the microphone remotely by pulling the strings. Every actor also wore a radio microphone. But those were only used as a back-up system when something on set went wrong, or the actors walked too far away from the microphones.”

(2) The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

It’s an unusual approach to voice, because in most fiction films the voice is very prominent. It fills the aural space completely, while the background noises are predominantly supportive of the voices.

Yes, Jonathan said, “Let’s keep a critical distance from them. I don’t want close-ups. I don’t want to be in their soul. And same goes for the sound. I don’t care what they’re saying. It’s about watching them.” So on the rare occasions I used the wire microphones, I played it through a speaker in a room and recorded it with a microphone again, so it sounds natural.

It’s peculiar, because it’s like adopting a documentary approach, even when it means huge implications for the budget and restrictions that need many technical solutions.

Jonathan wanted to have ten camera positions and hear the sound from the camera position, but he didn’t know which camera he was going to choose until later. So we had to have the sound recordings of the complete house all the time. The sound has an observatory quality.

The shots of the cleaning team in the museum of Auschwitz also have an esthetic often associated with documentary film. In a sense it is very uncinematic.

It doesn’t have any adornment. There is no beautification or dramatization. It is what it is. During the recordings there was one person with a boom, but I did very little in terms of editing and mixing other than occasionally removing the voice of Jonathan. There was no reason to make anything sound more or different.

What’s your view on direct sound recording during fiction films? Is it something purely technical, or is there some way that the sound recordists can be creative in doing that?

I think there’s room for creativity, but it’s less in the moment of recording and more in the understanding of what else there is that could be useful in putting the film together. Whenever I work on any film, I always go to the set and record as much as possible. I’ll go two days later when everyone’s left. I would have looked at the footage and noted what I need, and spend like seven hours going around recording all the different things. Foley is the process of recording footsteps and teacups and all those things in the studio and making them sound nice and crisp, but if they already exist on the film set, then go and record those ones, and it will sound so much more real and therefore more believable. Anyone who likes sound and is on a film set should be allowed to do that. So it’s really about collecting, making a collection of as many sounds as possible.

Can you talk about your sound-library? How do you build your library and how do you use it for your sound design?

I own a company in London, New York and Amsterdam that does TV commercials, which has a very big sound library that we own the license to. I can use that if necessary, but it almost never suits the sounds I put in films. It’s too pristine, which makes it sound like cartoons. My most important sound library consists of sounds I recorded myself over the years. For every film that I do, I always go to the shoot and will spend a few weeks recording sounds that are particularly for that film. And then I make a library and I give that to the picture editor at the beginning of the picture edit, for them to use. I also work on manipulating sounds with filters, which I also save to my own library. My sound library is about 1.2 terabytes and consists of sounds recorded for every film I worked on.

How does the sound edit work?

It’s very labor intensive. We worked a year and a half on the post-production. I live in Brighton and John lives in central London, so it was all done on a Zoom call like this. I built him a room in his house that’s exactly like this one. He has me on a laptop and can hear everything exactly as I do. We’re working each on our side and now and then I’ll play my work to him. He’ll comment on everything and has the whole edit in his head, so I have to warn him before making any adjustment.

The first period of four or five months, we would speak two times a week, and the next nine months were every day for five hours a day, and the last three months were every day for ten hours a day. During the editing phase, I would show him what I’d done, and I mix it already as we go. We immediately work quite detailed, because the way things sound is important to find the subtlety and complexity right away as we work on the scenes. The first few months, we were going through every shot on the film and looking at all the twenty different microphones, making sure that every single sound is there for a reason. And with each stone that we placed, we choose the volume and the tonality and the amount of reverb. Only after working on the visible film, we started adding the invisible film of the soundscape of the camp. There exists no rough version of the sound edit, everything we added was mixed as we proceeded.

You have the on-screen film and the off-screen film. How did adding the off-screen film affect the timing of the images?

It did impact the images, but we didn’t want to hear it while editing the images, since the characters are not responding to the sounds, so there should be no response at all. It was important that we worked on the sound edit of the invisible film, the “second film,” without influencing the “first film,” the visible one, at all. When we were editing the first film, the composer of the soundtrack, Mica Levi, wrote music that went across the whole duration of the film, and it was beautiful. But we had to take it off because as soon as we put the sounds of the camp on it, it suggested that all this didn’t really happen.

The post-production team worked in different locations but stayed in constant communication. Just like me and Jonathan shared a virtual space, so did the image editor Paul Watts and Mica Levi. Me and Mica were in constant dialogue, and I would fit the soundscape around the music of Mica – until it was taken away. That’s how the opening scene came into being. Starting with the title sequence, we added music and discovered it needed duration. This sequence is inviting the audience to use their ears. It’s a prelude that invites for a way of experiencing the film with a focus on the aural.

How do you move from the sound edit to sound mixing, is there a distinct division between the two?

There’s no strict division between the different steps. We even changed the image edit during the mix. Three weeks before Cannes we were finishing the film, but we thought there was something missing. John had the idea to loop the image of a red flower in the garden, and we added a sound of someone screaming on it, but we wanted more time, and Paul, the picture editor, created some red video that we put on the timeline, then Mica added music, and in twenty minutes it was done. So the mixing is normally a stage of fine-tuning the sound, but we took the freedom to add complexity to the film until the very last moment.

(3) The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

Images from The Zone of Interest (Jonathan Glazer, 2023)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.