Movies are often described as a visual medium, but what we hear has as much impact as what we see.
"Depending to what degree the director unleashes you," says movie sound designer Johnnie Burn, "you can hugely change people's interpretation of the image."
Burn made his name working on the sound for the famous Guinness Surfer advert, as well as the avant garde Scarlett Johansson film Under The Skin. Director Yorgos Lanthimos was so impressed with Burn's soundscapes that he recruited Burn to work on his highly acclaimed and highly idiosyncratic films The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and his new movie The Favourite -- playing in US, UK and Australia theatres now.
Starring Olivia Colman, Rachael Weisz and and Emma Stone as feuding noblewomen, this blackly comic period tale required Burn and his team to recreate the sound of an 18th century palace -- using 21st century technology.
I chatted to Burn on the phone about the process of storytelling with sound, working with Lanthimos, and whether superhero movies are too loud.
Q: When you're making a period movie, does that come with a particular brief?
Burn: You certainly don't get too much of a brief from Yorgos, he lets you have a stab at it and then you might get a disapproving look if you get it wrong. But if you're making a futuristic film you can design your own soundscape, giving you the palette you need to paint pictures with sound and affect the drama. With period films it's constrained to what we know things sound like. It's a smaller toolbox.
Can you give an example of how you use sound to help create the world of the story?
There's a scene very early on when Emma Stone goes into the palace kitchens and we made it sound like the engine room of a ship. It's busy and it hums. And then as you go up the stairs it gets much lighter.
While we see what's in front of us on the screen, how does sound fill in the world we can't see?
Painting the whole world around that is definitely a fun part that I enjoy -- you can be as mischievous as you like outside the windows. There's probably a maximum of 10 horses you see at any point to represent the armies outside the palace, but it's fantastically cheap to just put on the sound of 10,000 horses and an awful lot of shouting Sergeant-Majors! Depending to what degree the script or the director unleashes you so you can manipulate it, you can hugely change people's interpretation of the image.
How do you use sound to suggest the emotional state of a character?
There's a scene where Olivia Colman's character, the Queen, is very cross, and she stops by a fireplace and there's wonderful cinematography with the light flickering on her face. I could then use the rumble of a fire to reflect that very long shot of her sulky face. Rather than let the fire burble away, I used a very sharp EQ frequency to inject a musical tone into it on a subtle level.
Are we talking about tones an audience actually notices, or subconscious tones and sounds?
It increases throughout the film. All the emotion of the interplay between the lead characters is done subtly with sounds of wind. About halfway through the film a darker mood develops -- you're aware of the nasty predicament these characters are getting themselves into, and the tones become more overt. Under the different pieces of music, I made the tones develop from being a wispy modulating wind thing, which you might imagine hearing slightly musically on a mountain top to becoming more of a straight finger-around-a-wine-glass thing. That's modulating sympathetically with the music so underneath the music in the last hour of the film there is a suggestion of a deeper darkness... In the final scene, you're pretty much deafened by it.
How does sound design interact with the music?
Much like good old Mr. Kubrick, Yorgos has a really encyclopaedic knowledge of music. He's fantastic at choosing music. The score is a construct of many different pieces, baroque pieces from different composers predominately of that era, and a couple of modern composers. The supplementary sound design work is the grouting between the cracks. There's a scene where one piece of music ends and another starts about 4 seconds later. Normally in a film you need a good 10 or 15 seconds for your brain to forget the note that it's heard, for you to happily listen to a new piece of music and not think there's a discordance. So I used wind to do basically a key change from minor to major. Sound people would notice it but a viewer would think that's the same piece of music they're still hearing.
Do you actually go out and record things like wind, or create it digitally in a studio?
I live near Devil's Dyke, a weird geological structure where the wind whistles up. It's a great place to go and be the nerdy sound guy with one of those hairy hamsters on a stick. I bring [the recording] back to my bat cave and you can do two things to make it play the right notes. One, pitch-bend it so you vary the speed of how it plays back, so wooooo becomes weeeOOOooo. And then the other thing is that wind, like sea, is a very broad spectrum noise -- it tends to include at all times low notes, mid notes and high notes -- so if you use a very sharp EQ at very specific frequencies you can coax a musical note out of it. For example, 415hertz is G sharp, which plays quite a bit in the film, and it sounds like a a very rich pure note that has a fragility to it. If you play a violin on that note, it's a continuous sound, whereas wind has a natural on and off, soft/hard thing going on.
How is sound recorded on set?
The primary job of the production sound recordist, who in this case was Rashad Omar, is really clean dialogue. Yorgos doesn't want to get [an actor] back to the studio three months later [to re-record their dialogue] because there was some noise. It never sounds right, because you can't replicate the energy of the set.
Then the minute filming wrapped and all the noisy catering trucks and lighting people had gone away, we had the house to ourselves and we spent a few days literally just opening every door, recording footsteps from different position points, covering ourselves in mud, rolling in leaves -- everything that happens in the film, recorded in a variety of ways so we had a huge library of what these things sound like for real. Then you take them back to the studio and you manipulate them, turn the bass up a bit and make it a bit more filmic.
Can you even record stuff on your phone?
Yeah, it's amazing, I actually do. I've got this little connector that goes in the bottom of the iPhone to plug in a professional field microphone. I record straight into a Rode app, and that delivers to SoundCloud the minute you stop recording. So I'll often have an assistant or a sound editor go out into the field to record something we need, and literally as they're recording it they hit stop, they give me a ring in the studio, and via iCloud or Dropbox it will appear on my computer. I put it in the timeline and have a listen there and then and you can [ask the person in the field] "Can you do that a bit slower?" That's enormously powerful because it takes a day and a night out of the turnaround of developing sound. And of course, you can bring an iPad [when recording] and have a look at the shot [from the film] that you're going to recreate.
After collecting sounds, how much does technology help you conjure the desired soundscape?
A lot of realistic-yet-cinematic sound is facilitated by modern technology. The noise reduction software you can get now is phenomenal, like the iZotope series. You can roll in leaves in Kew gardens under a flight path and then go back and remove the airplane, and it sounds like you've recorded leaves in the studio. You can really dial up the clarity on what you're listening to and you can be very specific when you come to mix it.
Then there's making sure you don't overcrowd particular areas, so if footsteps are in there at the same time as a swish of a big period dress, you can make sure one of them's quite bass-y and one of them's quite treble-y and it all fits together nicely.
And there's keyword searching. I've built up a huge library, and it's so easy now to record sounds and put keywords of what they might be useful for. So if I want a dog peeing -- that's a bad example!... If I want someone falling over, I type that in and I can find it. It's useful how quickly you can get your hands on good recordings during your three weeks to put them on the film.
Finally, are blockbuster movies, like superhero movies for example, too loud?
Without a doubt, yes. But they're aiming for a different audience. Superhero and action movies have a visceral impact, particularly for a younger audience that want to be walloped. Films like that are a completely different animal, I don't begrudge them their quantities and volumes of sound. I mean, I'd love to have a go at one!
Culture: Your hub for everything from film and television to music, comics, toys and sports.
Movie Magic: The secrets behind the scenes of your favourite films and filmmakers.