Interview: Chris Burdon on mixing ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’

Turning on the style for the new Guy Ritchie flick The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Chris Burdon has developed into one of the most in-demand re-recording mixers in the movie business. Adam Savage caught up with him after a preview Dolby Atmos screening of the film in Soho, London…

What would you say was the biggest challenge that you faced with this particular film?

The biggest challenge was to maintain that ‘60s style and vibe inherent in the film and embellish it energy-wise. There were lots of story lines going through the film that had to be articulated really clearly and, of course, being a Guy Ritchie film, the music was so important.

It was a ‘60s film, but had to be mixed in a modern way – all the old tracks are in stereo, but you’ve got 5.1, 7.1 and Dolby Atmos. I also didn’t want it to be too loud; I wanted it to be punchy with the music tracks and sound FX but I was very happy with how it sounded here [at Dolby’s Soho screening room].

And mixing the movie in Dolby Atmos allowed you to be extra creative, I imagine?

It was fairly conservative in terms of dialogue panning, and there was subtle use of overheads in Atmos for the music – I quite like using heavy percussion to create some intensity using the overhead speakers as it allows you to get quite a meaty sound.

In addition to the fantastic sound FX sequences throughout the film, if you listen to the effects mixing there are also simple little things like in the torture scene there was some nice work done with the spinning bulb, which was subtly panned around the room, but it was never meant to be too flash.

You’re a bit of a specialist in dialogue and there was some great use of it in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Did that require a lot of work?

Dan Morgan, the dialogue editor, and myself formed a very strong unit during the dialogue pre-mix. The original dialogue was in really good shape, but we did have lines of ADR, and Guy really does not like that, so we agonised at trying to do our best. There wasn’t a lot of ADR, but what was in there we had to make sure Guy was happy with.

My bread and butter, early on, is to get as much as I can out of the dialogue and I have a subtle style to what I do. I just want it to sound even, comfortable and with a reasonably high fidelity sound.

How would you compare this project to some of the others you’ve completed recently?

An obvious straight comparison, with the same editor (James Herbert), would be Edge of Tomorrow, the Tom Cruise film. Because Tom Cruise can be quite hands-on with sound, you have to get it right for him. If he has the time he loves coming in to check out a dub at the end – he did that with the new Mission Impossible for a few days.

He didn’t have as much time on Edge of Tomorrow, but we still needed to make sure his voice sounded good, and make it work with the ADR.

The dialogue in that wasn’t too dissimilar to U.N.C.L.E., but there were huge action sequences, aliens, and it was more multi-layered so there was just a lot more going on.

Which sequence turned out to be the most complex when mixing The Man From U.N.C.L.E.?

Probably the chase across the island with the rock crawler and the motorbike – there wasn’t so much dialogue there, but in terms of the sound effects there needed to be a lot of work done on that.

What are your thoughts on the progress made in the field of immersive sound over the past few years?

We’ve been mixing 5.1 and to a lesser extent 7.1 for the best part of 5-10 years and you realise that some cinemas aren’t necessarily able to invest in that technology after a while and the standard of those systems are getting more tired. You work in a rather lovely environment and come to listen to it in a place like this [Dolby Europe] where it sounds great, but you go to some older cinemas where it’s not so good, so the immersive experience is kind of being diminished.

But Dolby Atmos is raising the bar in what you can do and how it feels. When you move sound it’s more accurate, fun and articulate, and as you have more state-of-the art gear with Atmos you don’t have to make it so loud. I can put dialogue reverb in the overhead speakers and it’s just a subtle detail and you can just go in new directions.

So what’s next for you?

I’ve been extremely fortunate to mix so many amazing films in the last few years. It looks like there are some great projects coming up, so fingers crossed I can get involved.