If audiences think about sound design in films at all, it’s usually in the context of dramatic effects: the zruuuuum of a lightsaber, or the noises the dragons in Game of Thrones make. But sound serves an altogether different function in John Krasinski’s directorial debut A Quiet Place. A potent thriller about a family trying to survive an onslaught of monsters with hyper-sensitive hearing, the film deviates sharply from the bigger, better, louder formulas used in most movies, and instead uses lack of sound to create a story filled with almost unbearable tension. It’s meant to make the audience afraid to make the slightest sound, lest they put the characters in danger.
The film’s supervising sound editors, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, know precisely how much A Quiet Place differs from most mainstream horror. The duo have worked together across multiple genres, from the Transformers and Kung Fu Panda franchises to Godzilla and Argo. (Van der Ryn also won Oscars for his work on King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.) I jumped on the phone with them to discuss the unique opportunities A Quiet Place afforded, the dangers of making a movie that requires audiences to stay quiet themselves, and how the film’s unique presentation will translate for viewers watching at home.
It must have been evident from the script that this was going to be a playground for sound design. What were your initial thoughts on the opportunities here?
Erik Aadahl: We read the script just before meeting with John Krasinski for the first time. Both Ethan and I were just blown away by the possibilities for sound. There’s almost no dialogue in the script, and we realized this was going to be a sound designer’s dream, but would also be really, really, really hard. It’s funny, then, when we actually did meet with John, before we could say anything, he said, “This is a sound designer’s dream.” Beat us to the punch.
Ethan Van der Ryn: In the script, sound is obviously so integral to telling the story. That was really exciting, just the prospect of having the sound be so front and center, in terms of the storytelling.
“How minimal can we get, and how focused can we get?”
The last 10 years that Erik and I have been working together, I feel like it was all building up to this movie, where we could more fully explore a lot of the themes we’ve been exploring in other movies. But people don’t necessarily get to hear a lot of that work in the same way they do in this movie. It is all so central to the storytelling that it gave us an opportunity to really force people to listen in a new, fresh way.
What does “exploring themes” mean from a sound design perspective?
EVDR: We’ve done a lot of big action, special visual effects, creature movies, where there’s often a lot going on onscreen. What we’ve learned is that often, what can be the most effective in our work is to really strip down the number of sounds we’re playing, to try and get it very focused. And sometimes, we almost have to counter the visuals when there’s a lot happening visually. We feel like we have to actually get the sound more focused, in a way, to help tell the audience what is important at any particular moment.
So that’s something we’ve been working on, stripping sound down. Seeing how much we can take out. In a way, instead of seeing how much we can play, which is what a lot of people think about in terms of sound design — “How much sound can we play?” — for us, it’s been about the opposite. How minimal can we get, and how focused can we get? [A Quiet Place] is taking that to its logical conclusion.
Erik, you said that when you both read the script, you thought it was going to be an opportunity, but also very difficult. What were some of the challenges that immediately stood out?
EA: Well, in a film that’s bombastic, for example, where you might have a lot of sounds, and you might have a big music score going through the whole thing, in a way you’re kind of a little safer, because there are many layers, and the track is very full and active. In a way, that can be this security blanket, both for us as sound designers and for the audience.
A Quiet Place is very much the flip side of that coin. It’s inverting that whole concept, where it’s more about the negative space, the quiets, and the shades of quietness, and ultimately, the silence. Where then, when you do play a sound, you’re naked. So it has to be perfect. So that’s a huge, broad challenge for a film that’s so sparse like this.
Some of the other challenges were obviously that we’ve got these creatures who are blind, but highly attuned to sound. To them, any sound is amplified, far beyond what a human hearing would be. So creating their sonic language, their sonic points of view and what they hear, was a huge challenge.
Given that audiences are used to modern movies being so loud, was there anything you did to ease viewers into this film’s approach to sound? Did you have a way to start the audience in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak?
EVDR: One thing we focused on was really setting up the natural sounds of the environment, that maybe people are used to hearing, but don’t think about. It’s a part of normal life, but something people never really focus on. So just setting up the sound of the wind through the empty streets, and the normal everyday environmental sounds that establish the environment and that feel real to people.
It was very important not to be playing any music, in order to feel like we could actually be there, and we’re not necessarily sitting in a movie theater watching this movie. Instead, we can start to gently be sucked into this world, as if we were there with them. It was just a subtle thing of really getting all the natural details realistic and believable, so that as an audience, we can start to buy into this world.
EA: One thing we wound up doing pretty late in our mix was after we had screened it at South by Southwest, and we were still halfway through our final mix. We realized that in order to ease the audience into this very different, novel sound experience, we actually raised the first reel of the movie up several decibels, just so it was a little more relatable and comfortable, and then slowly started to ebb back to a much lower noise floor.
So the audience has a few minutes to retune their ears and brains to this different experience. Our first pass on the movie as we played it at South by Southwest was even quieter in the beginning. But that was a little discovery that we made, that I think helped the overall arc of the film.
Were you ever worried about how audiences would deal with the silence? There’s been a rash of stories about people suddenly realizing how loud they are in theaters. Was that part of your calculus?
EA: Well, it’s certainly something that we thought about. Ethan and my’s starting point, design-wise, is to first try to create a sound design that impresses us, and makes us excited.
“Are people just going to be too noisy for this to work?”
Second part of that answer would be, when you have a lot of sound and volume, there’s a psychoacoustic effect in any movie. It comforts the audience a little bit. It’s like a security blanket. What happens is, people lean back in their movie-theater seats, and the sound can push the audience back a little bit. When you take away that security blanket, when you get so quiet, people start to lean forward, and they start to hold their breath and get quiet themselves, and become aware of the sounds they are making. In a way, making the audience really an active participant in the experience of the film.
So we felt strongly that any risks we were taking with inverting the soundtrack and getting so quiet would be paid off tenfold by that experience, by that psychoacoustic experience of making an audience lean forward and hold their breath and be gripped by the film until the end credits.
EVDR: We definitely thought about the idea: “Well, are people just going to be too noisy for this to work?” But because we felt strongly enough that it was working for us when we would watch it, [we felt] it’s worth putting it out there to see if people are going to be able to hang with it.
There were various sections in the film where we had debates about how long we could stretch out some of these areas of silence. Especially in relation to Regan, Millicent Simmonds’ deaf character, when there are sequences in the film where she has her cochlear implant turned off, and we go to complete digital zero. We thought a lot about how long we could run with literally no sound. But for the rest of the movie, it was a lot more clear-cut in terms of what we thought an audience would be able to hang with.
EA: Fortunately, we had an incredible director in John, and producers who we had the full support of. They wanted us to take those risks. Everyone was a little nervous leading up to when the film premiered at South by Southwest. But once 1,200 people in the audience reacted the way they did to the film, we all took this sigh of relief, like, “Okay, this works. We don’t need to worry about it.” And that gave us the license to actually take it a little further as we finished the mix.
We’re talking about a nuanced theatrical experience, but a lot of people will see this movie at home. How do you make this kind of sound design translate to that environment, when you’ll have no guarantees of what kind of equipment people will be using?
EA: Typically on a film, there’s something called a near-field mix, which is for home theater release formats. In a near-field mix, usually the dynamic range is compressed a little bit. And so far, I’m not sure there is going to be a near-field mix on this film. It might be the full dynamic range, theatrical mix for home theaters. If people hear it at home, they gotta close their doors, turn off the dishwasher. Be in as pristine an environment as possible.
“Unless you have a really great home theater, you might want to try headphones”
That’s one of the nice things about having theaters with good sound systems and good acoustics. It’s almost like a temple, in a way, that’s protected from exterior sound. Normally, that environment is used to just fill up the theater with sound. But with quiet, it’s just as effective for creating that insulated, pristine environment.
So for home audiences, unless you have a really great home theater, you might want to try headphones for this movie to get everything out of it. That certainly was something we thought a lot about. That’s why we’ve been encouraging everyone to get out into theaters to see and hear it first.
Is foregoing near-field mixes where you both would like to see the industry go in general?
EA: I think it’s very debatable. There’s two different modes of thought. One concern without doing a near-field mix is that some things might just disappear if people are not playing the audio at reference level. That would be an argument for doing a near-field mix. But the argument against is, we don’t want to dilute the dynamics, either. The beauty of this film is, there’s so much negative space, and so much dynamics between where the valleys sonically are, and where the peaks are.
One little metaphor we often use is, you can’t truly appreciate the peak until you find the valley first. So we wouldn’t want to fill that valley up, or shave the peak off too much. I think that decision is probably going to be made in the next couple months.
I love that idea, though. That people would basically have to put away their phones, turn up the volume, and just give their attention to the film — even at home.
EVDR: Yeah, I love that idea too, because I feel like it’s such a rare experience in today’s world for people to be able to really tune in and listen that carefully. I just love the idea that this movie, in a way, is forcing people to do something they’re not used to doing, but it is something we’re all capable of. I feel like it’s forcing people to retune into some of the potential we all have, in a new and fresh way.