Johnnie Burn on Creating the Sound for The Favourite

The Favourite - Harleys heel clicks

Korey Pereira: Johnnie, thanks for taking the time to talk to me and the readers about the sound of Director Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest film, The Favourite. This is the third of Yorgos’ films you have worked on; how did that relationship begin?

Johnnie Burn: Hi Korey! Thanks so much for your time. I’ve got so much from Designing Sound and feel really saddened by the hibernation; I hope we wake up one day. To your question: yes, that’s right. I have worked with Yorgos on both of his last two films. The Favourite is the third. Yorgos very much enjoyed the 2013 film, Under The Skin, which had pretty key sound design, so he looked me up and asked if I fancied helping out with a film he had coming up called The Lobster. The post for The Lobster was being done in Amsterdam and I happened to have a sound studio over there already, which was fortuitous. We mixed that film one freezing February 2015. Everyone rides bicycles in Amsterdam so we cycled miles through the snow each morning to the out-of-town mix stage. I ended up in hospital with pneumonia due to my foolish insistence that big coats were for sissies. If you have seen any of his films, you will know why this appealed to Yorgos’ sense of humour. We’ve been friends ever since.

Johnnie Burn working with an Avid S6
Johnnie Burn working at Wave Studios, U.K.

KP: In regard to your work on The Favourite, how early did you get involved with this project?

JB: We had a lot of lunches and discussed his next film, which was going to be The Favourite. I read a script, which was one of those moments in life that stood out to me. He had also been writing with Efthymis Filippou on another script, The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, at the same time. As a result of the wonky way these cogs turn in the film business, Sacred Deer actually ended up going first very swiftly followed by The Favourite. Yorgos went pretty much straight from cut-lock on Deer to pre-production on Favourite, leaving me to do the whole sound post on my own with my team. Fortunately, my method involves post sound being involved throughout the production process, leading to us as a post sound team being quite involved with how the Avid sound develops alongside the cut, so Yorgos knew the way it was headed. I did pull him down to a mix room one evening during the shoot of The Favourite, but that’s the only time we had to pull Yorgos in during the post for Deer. Pretty much the first time Yorgos heard the mix on Deer was at the Cannes Premiere. He didn’t totally hate it, and I think that really gave us both a lot of confidence going forward.

KP: So, for The Favourite, were you in communication with the location sound team during production?

The Favourite - Rashads cart on set
Rashad’s production sound cart

JB: Yorgos and I met a bunch of production sound mixers for TF. Rashad Omar is fantastic and felt like a very good fit for Yorgos. Rashad did a brilliant job. Before the shoot, we discussed potential pitfalls – especially the massive noisy costumes! Luckily, the wigs ended up being great for mic concealment. Yorgos has a no ADR red line, so getting clean production audio was extremely important; he’d probably rather ditch a shot if it came to that. I always love to develop a detailed and comprehensive library of backgrounds, spots, acted out foley, and so on from the locations on any film I do – both for me and the cutting room. Rashad did what he could with gathering other sounds around the noisy set and the primacy of dialogue, but largely we resolved to return once the last catering truck left and the house fell silent.

During production, Rashad checked in often with progress reports and issues, like 400-year-old floorboard creaks. Normally I’d like to be on set, understanding the film better, but at the time I was too busy mixing Deer.

KP: So once production wrapped, what was the post sound process for The Favourite like?

JB: Yorgos is amazing to work with. Looking at how he works across all departments, I think he likes to choose the cast and crew super carefully, and then stand back and let them do their job. Mostly you’ll only hear from him when you are getting it wrong. He hires me as a Sound Designer, but also to look at how the whole sound of the film is used, constructed and presented.

We have developed a great workflow that suits our love of realism and perfection. I made two key decisions early on. Firstly, to get the offline sound not just indicative, but viable and realized, to allow time for the painfully slow crafting detail at the end, because I know that the last 5% can take half of the time. Secondly, although I love Pro Tools, we decided to boldly work in Nuendo as it would allow us to bring together the whole mix in a single thousands-of-track session file, and this mix we developed slowly alongside the later stages of sound edit with the team all feeding in across a network. So, the mix was more like having something we could keep chiseling at.

The Favourite - Brendan and Simon viewing action to recreate
Brendan and Simon viewing action to recreate on location

When production wrapped, I returned to the now quiet Palace with SFX editor Simon Carroll, and assistant Brendan Feeney. We recorded literally everything. We had viewed the assembly that editor Yorgos Mavropsaridis had made during production so we had reference for key action shots and lists coming out of our ears. We set about re-enacting the film, but with wonderful close mic’d sound focus.

The picture was edited in the building next door to my London, Soho sound studio. During this six-month period, we worked very closely with the picture team in developing the sound alongside the cut. We cleaned up dirty dialogue and then tracklayed every single scene in considerable detail using our real sound and the stuff we made up. Then, when we had something good, we would send Dial/Music/Spots & Background splits over to the edit assistant, James Panting. This also made for a great feedback loop between my team and the director/editor. We would put new sound in overnight, like elves, and the next day Yorgos would view it just in the course of editing the film. If my phone didn’t ring, we would move on happily.

We also switched the Avid over to a 3 channel LCR setup and worked very hard on getting the Avid sound as precise as possible and very playable. We checked this Avid output occasionally on a mix stage, making detail tweak notes. This allowed us to make every screening of the film-in-progress a simple Avid playout, so there was no need for temp mix hassle or annoying the director, or not being able to include those last minute edit changes into the cut being tested today.

We kept a single session file for each and every scene with file names relating to the sound premix stems we had placed in the Avid. This meant that at cut-lock, we spent a week or so compiling one whole film session file from our scene files. So, at cut-lock we began sound post with a fully tracklayed film that had already been approved by the director. This was a great place to start!

Then, after cut-lock, the core team expanded to 10 for a couple of months. Michelle Fingleton made a really crisp and thoughtful dialogue edit which we then made a kind of safe premix of, knowing that we could develop subtle sound design better against quiet dialogue. We made a full foley pass with some great innovation around all the, err, rudeness in the film. We worked on developing the sound in incredible detail. We took the fully-formed tracklay we had made during the picture edit and had this brave moment where anything less than 99% great was deleted. We then started from there, as you normally would. About eight weeks after cut-lock, we had all the clean dialogue and foley in and loosely premixed. We then spent another four months editing sound and slowly developing the mix alongside this sound edit, taking the project onto a mixing stage on occasion. We knew the level Yorgos wanted us to aim for and I felt that the only way to achieve that perfection was to kind of almost finish the soundtrack before we had even started – to really front-load as much work as possible to relieve pressure on the back-end, as I know that polishing things that last 5% can really take half the time.

So, all-in-all we edited sound for eleven months: 6 alongside the cut, then another 2 after cut-lock. We then spent another 3 months after that where we edited and pre-mixed together with a few weeks for the final mix.

KP: What was it like working on a period piece?

JB: The house was generally very quiet and all the tapestries on the wall made for a sound much deader than you would imagine, but the floorboards and the dollies were pretty crazy. Poor Michelle had a big job editing around that lot.

Design-wise, working on a period piece was interesting. Pre-production, we discussed how we could have elements of modernity in the sound as it was not going to be your traditional period film; but really the challenges to me felt more in being constrained to a small toolbox of what we could use. We know what things sounded like in those days, so there was no re-imagining a futuristic sound world that just happens to sound great in a cinema, and Yorgos dislikes any over-the-top easy sweeteners. We had to just use the things like winds and fireplaces and feet to do heavy work in supporting the drama, which with a few techniques we achieved pretty well.

The Favourite - any wind up there?
Any wind up there?

KP: While this film could have been played very straight from a sound perspective, you and your team made a lot of bold sound design decisions that really lead the narrative. Can you talk about those decisions?

JB: I actually really wanted to do a sci-fi film next, but Yorgos wouldn’t let us, so I just did one anyway without him noticing. No, I’m kidding! The thing that really excites me at the moment is using real sound – taking almost a documentary approach – but choosing and mixing it in a very cinematic way, so that you end up heavily influencing a scene without it feeling tired or like you are being manipulated. It really is possible to avoid tropes if you put the effort in. I spend an unhealthy amount of time looking at every single shot for ages, thinking as a filmmaker more than a soundie: what is the film trying to say here, and what sound could we possibly use to help achieve or even subvert that? We found we were using a lot of atmospheric sounds to help shape a mood, so we began injecting musicality into these broad spectrum sounds by boosting very specific EQ frequencies at musical intervals commensurate with either the intention of whatever the music was, to subvert that, or in the case of no music just to help land the scene.

KP: One specific scene I wanted to make sure to ask about is the dance scene between Abigail (Emma Stone) and the Queen (Olivia Colman). We are inside, but the dancing is paced to the syncopated sounds coming from the next scene. Can you talk about this moment?

JB: I love the pigeon dance. Their dancing is beautiful, and the film had no composer yet, so we wanted to carry rhythm through and yet Rachel and Emma are fighting over the Queen, and Yorgos had this idea of coming to the guns a little earlier and we just expanded on that and started getting the bird out of the cage and so on, but all in rhythm and I find it captivating now. I love how every time Emma gets very close to Olivia, a gun goes off.

KP: Were there any other scenes or moments in which you were able to take some creative liberties?

JB: Rachel firing the blank at Emma was one of those moments where I felt we could use real atmosphere to work like music and be shaped to guide us to a wonderful moment of pregnant pause just before the gun goes off. It was a very windy day on set and despite Rashad’s best efforts we were tied to a reasonable amount of wind noise during any speech, which turned out to be a real bonus! I added some more and used very specific EQ frequencies to shape it like score to fill those spaces. There was no composer on this film; we were working a lot in that space between music and sound.

KP: In your interview with Mix Magazine, 5 Films, 5 Reasons to Listen, you talk about how you pitch-shifted the atmospheres and sound effects and edited them in rhythm with the music. How much of the tonal content of the film was score vs. tonal sound design?

JB: Yorgos chooses score himself during the picture edit. It goes on and it doesn’t change much. Yorgos didn’t use music before The Lobster, but he would make a great music supervisor if the directing thing doesn’t work out! Like the film, the music is contradictory in some of the details. We have classical baroque pieces by Handel, Bach, Purcell and Vivaldi, and yet also the very modern Anna Meredith. We had to do some work in the mix, making everything sound like the same family, but really the big challenge from an editing point of view was that without a composer to re-work a melody or a tempo, or split out stems, we had to be pretty creative sometimes with how we came in and out of the music. Like in the opening scene, the pauses in the music were extended way beyond their compositional origins so we kept the balls in the air with the rabbit cage tinkling in key gently, and placing the FX and foley so that it favoured musical rhythm over strict image sync. We did a lot of work between sound and music after cut-lock and this theme developed over the last few months of post. As I touched on before, part of this was using winds and fires fine-tuned to imbue musicality, but this theme became distilled as Yorgos found it a great way to describe the burgeoning sadness toward the end of the film. We distilled these rough natural tonal sounds into pure single notes that become more present under the later music cues of the film, ultimately coming to overwhelm the final cue entirely.
But really every sound element that went into the film had a rhythm and pitch strategy.

There is a scene early in the film where Abigail is summoned to bandage the Queens legs. There is a simple music piece, Didascalies by Luc Ferrari, firing a clean viola G note every second or two.

We used all the environmental sounds to work like layered music around this single note and it works so much harder than the music alone would. All the fireplace winds and roars were pitch-bended or tuned to musical frequencies using tight EQ to follow the musical pitch and then add melody. Later on, we used tonal wind to distance when we cut to Lady Marlborough who is at that point out of favour, the wind goes cold and discordant, separating her further – she floats away on this wind and we use the wind again to detune the outgoing music and solve a key change from major to minor. We worked like this throughout the film, finding areas where the sound could step up and fill the gaps or even contradict the music.

KP: That is one of the moments that really stood out to me the first time I watched the film and inspired me to reach out to you. Thanks for giving us more insight to the design behind it. Now, can you talk about how you as the designer and re-recording mixer balanced between the design, the music, and playing a scene straight?

JB: From a sound point of view, the film begins more straightforward than it ends. Well, actually, it begins with the Fox Searchlight fanfare recreated by squeaking rabbits, but let’s move past that a second! As the film progresses the sound design is a pretty key element in picking up the idea that this is not just a comedy; but it is very subtle – more suggestive than walloping. We were finding that we did not need to lean things too hard. Much of the music in the film was representative of the period, as it would have originally been played in court. So we were mostly trying to match that feel, but the balance was achieved by really watching the film and feeling whichever element was going to best say what we wanted to say and that wasn’t always the music on the surface.

Recording exterior ambiences

KP: Once all of the design and editorial work was done, what can you tell us about the mix?

JB: The mix was a bit of a fresh approach. Because we didn’t have to wait for a composed score, and Fox Searchlight kindly allowed us the time we felt we needed. I realised we could approach the mix more as an accumulative process rather than a moment in time. I begged early on for time in the schedule to sit with all of the sound elements for a couple of months before going to final mix. My team slimmed back down to just the three of us, and this period was in parts sound design development, premixing, effects revisions, and cut tweaks, all aimed at really making this bird sing. I have a commercial and trailers-licensed Dolby Atmos mix room which isn’t huge but sounds incredible, and we played the mix there once a week and made notes for the week ahead. The very final mix, which was a couple of weeks at Goldcrest Theatre 1, was actually more of a mastering session. Really what we had for a few months was a sculpture we could keep returning to after some thought.

KP: So, what is next for you?

JB: Since we finished The Favourite, I put a hole in my schedule to help my business partner, Warren Hamilton, get our new sound post house, Wave Studios, in New York up and running. It is going so very well now that I have an imminent trip to LA to look for a space there as well. I am also putting a bit of thought into some sound design for Yorgos’ next film. I’ve been discussing with someone an extraordinary musical, and at last Jonathan Glazer is ready to go on his follow up to Under The Skin – all of which, sadly, I’m sworn to secrecy on, but I feel very upbeat about these projects! And then there’s this perfect layout sound-edit controller, which I go back to working on whenever I have the time.

KP: What advice do you have for any aspiring sound designers or other post professionals?

JB: Always think like a filmmaker who just happens to be doing the sound.

KP: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. The Favourite is in theatres now.

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