Chris Burdon and The Sound of Top Gun: Maverick

The sound of Top Gun: Maverick

On Thursday May 12th 2022, two weeks prior to its worldwide release, Resurface co-founder Ben Nemes spoke to rerecording mixer Chris Burdon about his work, career, and approach to the sound of Top Gun: Maverick.

In the weeks that followed this conversation, Top Gun: Maverick opened to rave reviews, an A+ Cinemascore grade, and a career-best $300m opening weekend at the box office for Tom Cruise.

The interview took place in front of a packed Audio Theatre at The Media Production & Technology Show at Olympia, London; returning to the annual calendar after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Resurface offers its thanks to the show and to Chris, for their permission to reproduce the content here.

You can listen to the interview using the Soundcloud link below, or read the full transcript underneath.

Introduction: “Talk to me, Chris”

Ben Nemes: Well good morning everyone, and welcome to day two of the Media Production Show 2022. We are live and in person, who thought that would ever happen again? You join us here at the Audio Theatre for this first keynote conversation of the day. My name is Ben Nemes, I’ll be your host this morning and I’m delighted to tell you that I’m joined by Mr. Chris Burdon from Warner Bros here in London.

Chris Burdon: Thanks very much

Ben: I think it’s also important at this point that we acknowledge and thank Simon, he’s doing our sound yesterday and today.  No other stage is going to do that, just the Audio Theatre. Be nice to sound people, if we can’t do it then what hope do we have, right?

Chris: True

Ben: We will be talking a bit about Chris and his craft and work and career. We will also be looking at a very particular piece of work that he has coming out soon. I think its two weeks tomorrow?

Chris: The 27th

Ben: a little indie thing called Top Gun: Maverick, which – if you’ve seen a bus or the internet or a newspaper in the last week or two, you may be aware of. We’ll show a little vignette of that and go a little bit into detail about that.  I’m going to take my cue from Chris about what we can and can’t talk about, ‘cos it’s not out yet. There’s a few things we can and can’t do but I’ll look for body language signs!

I think a good place to start would be a definition of terms, just in case anybody in our audience today doesn’t know what a rerecording mixer is. Maybe you all do? Maybe a good place to start will be: What is it that you do, Chris?

Chris: a rerecording mixer is typically at the end of the audio chain for making a TV programme, documentary, film…anything with sound married with picture really, and responsible for balancing any elements of sound within that project. So typically for me I will balance music and dialogue or I will have a colleague in a film mix scenario who’s balancing sound effects, footsteps, any and all sound elements of any film. Rerecording mixer takes responsibility for the balance, the level and so many aspects of the sound and it’s at the end of the chain, basically.

You have the units of sound staff throughout a whole project: The recordist on location, super important, then it goes via the picture department cutting the film and then sound editorial gets on board.  These days they will edit within Pro Tools and then I get the Pro Tools sessions and it’s my responsibility, with a lot of people telling me what to do and asking me what to do, to get the final balance of all those elements – and that’s a rerecording mixer.

Ben: So pretty much – if you think about the entirety of a project – where the rubber meets the road, the last stop before this 2, 3, 4 hundred million dollar movie goes out the door is you?

Chris:  I mean it is!

You get a lot of the tension of a project being concentrated at the last moment, in a dark room with a lot of people around, and it’s not always just that you’re doing the final sound – it’s often the final picture is being put together as well.

You get this combination, and it can be slightly stressful, just based on the fact that anybody that knows about completion fear or finishing a project – we are all there at that point.

Ben: I guess in terms of deadlines all eyes are on you?

Chris: It can be, I mean some schedules are straightforward in terms of getting to that point, others you are meant to finish a mix on a Friday and you carry on to the next Friday and so on and so forth.

Origin Story

Ben: For any of you that didn’t know what a rerecording mixer does, what that term means, I think there’s no shame in that; It strikes me that a lot of rerecording mixers didn’t know what that term was until after they decided that it’s what they wanted to do. The kind of epiphany that telling stories and invoking emotion with sound came before the realisation that that could be a job.  Does that ring true with your experience, going back to your ‘origin story ‘?

Chris: My origin story, I was really fortunate to get into this industry having come through in the way that a lot of my colleagues have done through the years. It was quite a long time ago, as a youngster without any of the knowledge of the internet of what was going on. I was basically into music and the slightly more technical side of music; I played keyboards and synthesizers, that would be my teenage years.

Ben: The clever kind of music!

Chris :  I was thinking about this; if I played bass or drums or guitar – who knows? Would I still have got into this?  The technology really lent itself.  I went to university, did chemistry, of all things, that was just kind of ticking a box to do something, and that was in the mid-eighties. The transition into this industry was just a few years where I did another course… still not knowing anything about what I’ve ended up doing. Nothing, not one iota.

Ben: Did you know it existed, that it was an actual job that had an HR department and a salary?

Chris: I think, like anybody, I knew that I could see credits on TV shows and I would see ‘dubbing mixer’ which would be typically what I would know. I wouldn’t know of rerecording mixers as that was more of a film term.

Ben: Was it a UK / US thing as well? Because the rerecording mixer term seems to come from the US a bit more as a standard, or was it a film/TV delineation?

Chris: I’ve got to claim almost complete ignorance of knowing the mechanics at that point. We are talking in my late teens, early 20s

Ben: So when did you stop being called a dubbing mixer and start being called a rerecording mixer?

Chris: A lot later, because I joined the BBC in ‘91 and there was no question, it was all TV and I went through the training process and ended up becoming a dubbing mixer in the late ’90s. Then moving to De Lane Lea in Soho, that credit I would see on films. Then that changed. And I don’t know, if you look at credits on TV, there’s still a lot of dubbing mixers still mentioned.  But sometimes it’s a rerecording mixer so – to be honest, its interchangeable. It’s the same job, give or take.

Ben: It seems to follow the TV / Film, but that’s all up in the air anyway now, if you think about what is ‘telly’ anymore.

Chris:  And also just to come back to the original definition of what a rerecording mixer is, the lines are being blurred so much these days. I’ve talked about recording on location – that’s probably not something I can do or my colleagues can do, my close colleagues I work with, but between sound editorial and mixing, that line is blurred now.

I could end up doing sound editorial a bit, and sound editors and sound supervisors can end up mixing quite easily now with new technology.

I would like to emphasise the experience of people that do it well, who really know what they’re doing, it blurs the whole thing anyway so the names often don’t define what we’ve done.

Ben: You mentioned the route in via the BBC, was that at Evesham?

Chris: I ended up doing an 18-month training course at Evesham, which very sadly doesn’t exist anymore.  These days there’s so many opportunities to find out what is available online and in media, more courses and more film courses and media courses – but in terms of pure training that the BBC gave me – I don’t think it exists anymore.

Ben:  I guess there’s a technical argument that says there was no such thing back then as learning-by-doing.  You couldn’t download a trial version of Pro Tools and mess about with audio. You either got access to that kit in a formal capacity – or you didn’t, I suppose.

Chris:  You can do a great deal. I think that’s advice for youngsters coming through.  You can see so much and you can glean so much information and you can get an idea of what is needed to get into this industry. Whereas, as I said, into my early twenties, very unaware, I went to Foyles – where the new De Lane Lea is going to be, where Warner Bros is moving to around the corner.  I went into that building and got a thick book on television, video, broadcasting – and read up on that before my BBC interview and I had a whole load of audio training, well knowledge, that was the source. Whereas now by typing you are able to glean a load of information.

Ben: But then I guess there’s a counter-argument that says that there’s a type of training that was given by the BBC at Evesham – that was the gold standard?

Chris: It was fantastic. When I walked in, got into the BBC, I remember walking into TV centre and looking up to the building in Shepherds Bush and going ‘Never, ever forget how lucky I’ve been to get this formal 18 months’. I knew what was coming, I could’ve been kicked out or failed but…

Ben: Most of the rerecording mixers and dubbing mixers that I speak to talk of a ‘sliding doors’ moment, an epiphany, a turn of fortune or an amazing thing happened and here I am.  For you was that it? Was it getting into the BBC training course or was it after that, something around those early days of De Lane Lea?

Chris: I think the biggest bit of luck for me, was that I opened a copy of Sound On Sound sometime in 1990-91 and saw an advert that was 2 inches by 1 inch and it said the BBC was looking for an assistant film recordist…

Ben: An assistant film recordist?

Chris: Probably a trainee assistant film recordist? –  in this little advert in the back of the classifieds in Sound On Sound. I could tell from the ad it was a really interesting thing but I knew nothing about it, and that’s probably the biggest bit of luck in my whole career to date.

Subsequently, I think I’ve been lucky in certain paths and roads I’ve taken. But I think anybody who knows me or knows what I’ve done over the years will be aware that I’ve been fairly consistent in how I’ve approached stuff. Not been gung-ho or demanding to be doing this immediately or ‘I need to be on that TV series’. I’ve been very fortunate in terms of learning in De Lane Lea in Soho, being there forever, twenty something years, which is very unusual, but I started in TV, picked up film work and everything just sort of worked to come to this day, really.

The Best of the Best

Ben: I think that is a good place to go next, really: To think about not only the amount of time that you’ve been at De Lane Lea (or latterly at Warner Bros De Lane Lea, of course, because it wasn’t originally), but also the type of time.  Because we’ve been through a real change in the UK of the kind of work that is coming to these shores.

I’m not going to let you suggest that its ‘right place right time’, because at some point you’ve got to walk the walk.  But you were at De Lane Lea through a really interesting period in what’s happened here in the UK.

Maybe start from the beginning and talk a bit about what you saw changing and how that manifested for you. Mention some of the work, because what I find interesting about the work in your career is the breadth of it, the different types of stuff you’ve turned your hand to so well. You can drop into a sentence 3 or 4 feature films that are wildly different, and yet are all at the top of their respective genres. So it’ll be interesting to know a bit more about how that period in the UK sector’s evolution manifested for you.

Chris:  Anybody who’s working in this industry in the UK, shared a bit of luck over a long period of time. The tax breaks for filmmaking in this country happened to coincide with me being at (now) Warner Bros but (then) in De Lane Lea.  Arriving at De Lane Lea I was a TV mixer.  It was interesting to see Silent Witness is now in its 25th year – I tracklayed the first series of that at the BBC before I left and that’s how it has spanned.

I can remember actually going into stage one, studio one at the time, and seeing a feature film mix, Adrian Rhodes was mixing An Ideal Husband and I’m going ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how, or whether, I could do this’ because of the whole dynamic, the whole feel of that compared to the relatively contained field of TV mixing at that point. So I took that as a reaction, and at that time I didn’t see myself walking into feature films. It took time and it was this ‘transition’.

Harry Potter a few years later was the defining moment for Warner Bros itself, and the film industry here.  I mentioned the tax breaks, I don’t know the details myself of how that works, but we started to get more and more quality work.  I was still doing TV and I got a great relationship with these guys Danny and Matt from Phaze UK, and started doing some Matthew Vaughan and Guy Ritchie work, but that was work that would’ve been British work, or that was the assumption I made.

I started doing half TV, half film and then more film was coming along.  Again, no question, right place right time. You get opportunities. Going back 10, 11, 12 years, I started seeing my feature film career take off with Sherlock Holmes or Guy Richie and Warner Bros stuff.  A few years later Edge of Tomorrow, a Tom Cruise movie, those were being shot in the UK.  Leavesden was up and running by then.

Ben:  Again that’s one of the Harry Potter side effects, that Rolls Royce factory in Watford became Warner Bros.

Chris: We started to hear rumours that Warner Bros were interested in buying De Lane Lea around that time, and it was all part of the same momentum. It was exciting times because De Lane Lea, being an independent studio in Soho, was difficult. You had big rooms which – if you divided into small rooms – you could do commercial audio and make more money.  We always knew we were slightly on the edge financially and things have changed to be more secure.

Ben: I think you’re right, talking about the Harry Potter era and then more and more of the bigger US-funded tentpole features. Shooting here because we’ve always had big spaces to go and shoot, and then the tax incentive to do that, but posting here as well. You could easily just scoot off back to Los Angeles and mix, but things were happening here which, as you say, presented you the opportunity to work on this stuff.  One of the things that comes out of that is relationships, is people you’ve got to know through that decade or so.

Chris: One thing I want to emphasise is that when I first arrived, there was – some of this might be based in facts – but there was a difference between what Hollywood was producing and how stateside sound compared to sound in the UK. And some of it was slightly just a judgement call, something wasn’t quite right, but the amount of work we were doing here meant we were on the back foot. We didn’t have the experience. What happened rapidly was that it advanced and our sound editorial crews were competing, not suddenly, they worked hard to get up to that point, and that made a huge difference. When the films were talking about needing to post here because of tax dollars or when it was practical to post here, we would have teams that were delivering the same as Hollywood.

It could be quite demeaning about what was produced here and sound, films and so on, and that started to change relatively quickly and made a huge difference in opportunities for all of us.

Ben: There’s a quote from Danny Boyle that says the big difference (back in his Shallow Grave, early days), saying the big difference between UK and US feature films, actually, is the sound. And the time and money as well, through that period it got adjusted, there was more attention, more budget, more time, more love given to the work.

Chris: It’s intriguing to get to know why that was the case in the first place. Because with the same technology you can make a film loud, you can make it ballsy, you can do subtlety and so on, why there would seem to be this apparent difference?

You Can Be My Wingman

Ben: Through that period then, making key connections and key trusted relationships that you work with again and again, this is going to lead us to where I think we should go next. I’ll give Simon a cue shortly. 

Pandemic. Early 2020, late 2019, one of the projects that’s in the works on our shores is Top Gun: Maverick. It’s one of those shows that was so far down the runway when the pandemic hit, it couldn’t stop, I guess? They couldn’t just say ‘well, you know, we’ve hardly started, we’ll just sit back’.  They couldn’t duck under the pandemic, they had to figure a way through. So I guess there’s some relationships in there, people that you’ve worked with in the past, that would be good to know who those key players are that got you involved in this project…if you can go there?

Chris:  I can. Over the years you build up relationships with certain people, you can be lucky to be available when someone else isn’t available and these are some of the people I have really strong relationships I hope to retain. Paul Greengrass for some movies. I was doing some premixing yesterday for Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards director, this is 8 years, 10 years’ worth.  Other times you lose, you get out of sync with a project when you are doing something else, sometimes it’s something you didn’t want to do, and you miss out.

Getting to this point and being on Paramount’s radar for Top Gun is interesting, it starts all the way back with Edge of Tomorrow, doing a Tom Cruise movie. He’s aware and hands-on at that point and he always has been.

Ben: He’s in the mix?

Chris: He turns up and had a day or two with us on that. That happened a long time ago… 8 years ago.  Then I didn’t mix any of the bulk of Mission Impossible. But I came in, and this is another nice bit of happenstance, for 8 days on the last Mission Impossible and of course that’s 3 or 4 years ago – you forget that 2 years of pandemic throws everything out of kilter!  So that’s the background and part of that team, James Mather (who’s just been nominated for an Oscar for Belfast) and I have developed a good relationship.  I didn’t do loads of work with him – he did Potters early on – but we slowly developed that relationship.

Ben: James has become Tom Cruise’s guy, through all the Mission stuff?

Chris: I would say so. He’s done Mission Impossibles and Top Gun, this project, and he’s due to do the next two Mission Impossibles.

Ben: On the other side of creative divide, you’ve got Eddie Hamilton (picture editor).

Chris: That was an interesting link because we worked at the end of Mission Impossible, so we all knew Eddie was going onto Top Gun. I know Eddie from way back, from early Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughan stuff, so I knew him from there and our paths crossed along the way: Eddie the Eagle, we worked on that, lots of really interesting stuff over the years.  

I was aware he’d gone to the States, so this is interesting ‘Hollywood versus us’.  Top Gun was considered the most American of things. It’s not a franchise, but a sequel, and I was aware of some of the mixers that were in the frame to mix it.  Eddie was over there, on this huge job, we knew it was a monster and I would know anecdotally what Eddie was doing. That was the background, no concept that it was coming to mix here, at all.

Ben: Let’s stop there and (Simon, if you wouldn’t mind), let’s watch a trailer, out in cinemas worldwide 2 weeks tomorrow, 27th of May

The Sound of Top Gun: Maverick

Ben: So that’s going to be a big deal.

My first question is – and we’ll go back a bit too, as I’m of a certain age where I remember Top Gun and how I felt about Top Gun and its sound – We were talking a bit about relationships and how they conspire to put you in the frame to mix this particular feature.

When you get the email, the call, whatever, that says ‘oh by the way that booking in your diary? that’s Top Gun: Maverick’. What do you do next? What’s the first thing that you do?

Chris: Go downstairs, talk to my wife! And say oh by the way, you know Tom’s calling again, some variation of that. With projects, with films like this, anything like this, anybody that knows, who puts themselves out of their comfort zone, there’s this mixture of excitement and then a little bit of pressure. There’s no question. You get used to the rhythm of that, working on these things and films like this. I still get a kind of sense of apprehension, even though I absolutely know what I’m doing, at the start on premix day where no one important is going to be in the room, your head starts to go and you start to realise that this is going to be a big deal. You have to turn up and not make a mess of it…  That’s not a very mature angle on it!

Ben:[laughter] So, everyone: “Turn up and don’t make a mess of it”, that’s all you need to know!

Chris: you start to think about the heritage and you talk to colleagues about it, you start to find out what’s happening.

Ben: What’s your process? What do you prep first, where you go first? Do you shy away from going back and listening to the first one, or did you immerse yourself in that?

Chris: I didn’t immediately but I was aware that was what I needed to do.

Colleagues of mine over the years have discussed the sound of the original film and it was seminal.

I emailed CeCe Hall, who I’d met many years ago, and who got nominated for sound editing on that and I haven’t had a response – I think she’s retired, but I would love to actually chat to her now, I met her so many years ago and it’s amazing how the world has now moved around and we can talk.

Ben: I wasn’t going to mention that, I wasn’t going to pile on more pressure by mentioning that although Top Gun back in 1986 – it wasn’t well loved as a piece of art, but in the craft it is an absolute touchstone.  I remember it, as a 13 year old in the cinema, as being something different, the way it sounded.  Those F-14s (if they’re not F-14s don’t @ me) those planes, those engines were a character in the film.

Chris: She layered all sort of animals and everything,

Beause that’s just the nature of sound design, and creating the visceral in addition to something that is technically right. Doing all sorts of other things to make a sequence work.

You want to make it feel as if it’s happening, and you’re sitting in the seat and all those things. She was at the forefront, and at the time that was happening, that was on mag, that was on film – that wasn’t on Pro Tools.

Ben: A very unsophisticated world…

Chris: Completely different technology. Rerecording mixers at that time, and CeCe was an editor, but rerecording mixers were absolute genius level.  Able to analyse sheets of paper and cue sheets and move faders. There was no automation – or there was very limited automation.  

I would see people, when I joined the BBC, who were doing that kind of mixing who would come out after a day as though they had been physically battered around.

It was so intense, so to create good sound tracks then, we have it a lot easier with Pro Tools now. We can stop and start, use a button and a mouse to adjust something that you haven’t got quite right. These men and women were at the coal face of that, so I referenced back to that movie.

Ben:  So if it wasn’t that well regarded culturally, it was Oscar nominated in both sound categories, it was one of Kevin O’Connells first – of his 20-odd nominations if I remember rightly. So everyone who’s a student of, or an observer of, the way feature films are made, absolutely reveres the crap out of Top Gun, even if it wasn’t On Golden Pond, Terms of Endearment, or whatever ‘the film’ was that year.

So here we are. You’ve done your prep, had a listen back – and you’ve mentioned what it was like in ’86 for the people that were mixing that first one. Now, as much as that moved the craft forward a bit, now the audience is that bit more sophisticated and their expectations are that much higher than they would’ve been, having not heard anything like it in ’86. How do things like Atmos play into your approach to something like this?

Chris: The good thing is, where you get a bit of a comfort zone in amongst all the pressure of a big movie, is that you know some of the people involved. And Eddie Hamilton, his connection is through to Chris McQuarrie, through to Tom Cruise – that’s the Mission Impossible triumvirate. The three of them, they’re so strong and then anybody who works with them will buy into that. Part of it is that Eddie is absolutely all over Dolby Atmos.

One of my most fun things was having the Mission Impossible theme and being told by Eddie that I have all these music stems and all the percussion separate from the strings, separate from the woodwind, separate from the synth bass… he said ‘Just fill your boots and make it the best Atmos mix you’ve ever done’. You are like a child in a sweet shop of sound and you are spinning things around, you’ve got the joystick going crazy and Eddie comes in and he is so enthusiastic and it blows his mind. It’s wonderful. This goes back to doing the job full stop.

You know, it’s just thrilling and why I’m doing it. So knowing what Top Gun had to be about, it wants to be a super loud film but, me personally, I don’t want to hurt people physically like some films do – it’s a fine line, so difficult. You have that. You know in terms of Atmos, my co-mixer Mark Taylor on sound effects has probably got the biggest job on a film like that.

Ben: The effects part on this is big!

Chris: Music-wise, I’m thinking Atmos from the get-go, you kind of go into auto pilot, pun not intended, when you go into these things. You start, we’d always get a script.

I watched the film and was blown away by it, just watching it in a small room.  You try not to get too excited about it, because we’ve all had disappointments with films we thought were great, but that’s a brilliant start.  Then you start mixing.

I did some music premixing early on and saw some of the sequences on the big screen in the dubbing theatre and just was absolutely blown away by it. So you’re getting more of this feedback of what the film should be and how it made you feel. Then Eddie provides a kind of roadmap that comes from the filmmakers that he’s part of, and you just start and you get going.

You turn up to work and you do all the things that, if you’re lucky to be experienced enough, some things happen intuitively. You’re making so many decisions all the time, all day long. Most jobs are like this, of course, you are choosing what to do – but in sound you’ve got this infinite amount of things, it feels like. On a film like that there’s so many layers of sound and so many variables, you just have to break them down into units.

I’m talking about the music being fantastic, but the voices in Top Gun are just…John Hamm’s voice!  And you kind of know you’d better not make a mess!

Ben: Sadly, we are about to run out of time, it sounds like you had fun on this particular project. I’m looking forward to seeing and I wish you the best of luck with it. I’m sure it won’t need a lot of luck, it’s got an awful lot of goodwill behind it so, Ladies and Gentlemen, it remains only for me to say thank you to Chris Burdon.

The Media Production & Technology Show returns to London Olympia on 10th and 11th May 2023. Click here to find out more.