World: My Portfolio - Johnnie Burn

The sound designer Johnnie Burn started his career as a tea boy at the Tate Gallery, not that you would know it now. In 1999, together with Warren Hamilton, he set up the hugely successful sound design studio Wave, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. Burn's first job was on Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO's Guinness "surfer" spot. He was approached by the director, Jonathan Glazer, when he was on gardening leave.

"He told me I'd kick myself if I didn't do the project," Burn says. "So I got all my equipment out of the garage and set up a makeshift recording studio in my mate's meeting room." It was here that Burn used a sample of Leftfield's Phat Planet, distorting and layering the sound to add depth and intrigue to the cinematic visuals. The ad won the 2000 Creative Circle Award for best use of sound.

Frustratingly, it seems sound design is still regarded by many directors in post-production terms, and some still have a pretty narrow idea of sound's potential as a storytelling device. "I'm trying to educate them," Burn says. "Directors such as Jonathan Glazer and Nicolai Fuglsig are more inclined to get me involved much earlier on."

Speaking about Bartle Bogle Hegarty's Audi "bull", which won the D&AD 2003 sound design award, Burn explains: "Nikolai is a very animated chap, incredibly enthusiastic about his work and is more than happy to spend a lot of time explaining his brief. In 'bull', he was quite clear he wanted the background pulsing sound to be very much driving the piece."

Burn still finds the unpredictability and lack of process to his job uncomfortable and admits trying to interpret the type of sound a client wants can be challenging. "It is always ideal if someone has a clear idea of the energy or emotion they want, but half my job is to get that out of them," he says.

"If I take the pieces I am most proud of, 90 per cent of my work has been disregarded because that is the process you have to go through to find something people find acceptable." He compares his job to that of a lucky hairdresser who can "stick the hair back on and start again" if the customer doesn't like the way it has been cut.

Music, stemming from his love of DJing, is crucial to Burn's projects.

He has worked on Madonna's Music video, BBC Radio 1's "soundclash" ad and won two BTAA craft awards for sound design on Kiss FM's "music is life" and for Xbox's "mosquito". The latter spot features a high-pitched buzz set to Am I Wrong, by the French DJ and producer Etienne De Crecy.

Burn listened to the track and then pitched the mosquito sound in by ear. And you'd be wrong to think these sounds were electronically enhanced.

"It was very honestly done," Burn deadpans. "I recorded individual mosquitoes that I had trapped by their legs."

Did many die? "Probably of starvation more than anything else," Burn says. "But they don't live very long anyway, do they? And no-one really likes them."

- Johnnie Burn was talking to Kate Nicholson.

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