If the public thinks about sound design in films, it is usually in the context of dramatic effects: the zruuuuum of a lightsaber, or the noises that dragons make in Game of Thrones. But the sound fulfills a completely different function in John Krasinski's directorial debut, A Quiet Place. A powerful thriller about a family trying to survive an avalanche of monsters with hypersensitive hearing, the film deviates sharply from the larger, better and stronger formulas used in most movies and uses the lack of sound to create a history full of unbearable tension. Its objective is to make the audience afraid to make the slightest noise, so that they do not put the characters in danger.
The film's supervising sound editors, Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, know exactly how much A Quiet Place differs from most conventional horror. The duo has worked in multiple genres, from the Transformers and Kung Fu Panda franchises to Godzilla and Argo. (Van der Ryn also won the Oscars for his work in King Kong and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.) I jumped on the phone with them to talk about the unique opportunities offered by A Quiet Place, the dangers of making a movie that It requires the public to shut up and the unique presentation of the film will be translated for the viewers they see 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 impressed by the sound possibilities. There was almost no dialogue in the script, and we realized that this would be a sound designer's dream, but it would also be very, very, very difficult. It's funny, then, when we met with John, before we could say anything, he said, "This is a sound designer's dream." Hit us until the blow.
Ethan Van der Ryn: In the script, sound is obviously so essential to tell the story. That was really exciting, just the prospect of having the sound so front and center, in terms of storytelling.
"How minimal can we get, and how concentrated can we be?"
The last 10 years that Erik and I have been working together, I feel that everything was developing in this movie, where we could explore in more depth many of the themes that we have been exploring in other films. But people do not necessarily hear much of that work in the same way they do in this movie. Everything is so important for storytelling that it gave us the opportunity to really force people to listen in a new and fresh way.
What does it mean to "explore themes" from a sound design perspective?
EVDR: we've done a lot of great action, special visual effects, creatures movies, where a lot happens often on the screen. What we have learned is that, frequently, what can be more effective in our work is really reducing the amount of sounds we are playing, to try to focus on it. And sometimes, we almost have to counteract the images when there are many things that happen visually. We feel that we have to focus the sound in some way to help tell the audience what is important in each particular moment.
So that's something we've been working on, reducing the sound. Seeing how much we can take out. In a way, instead of seeing how much we can play, which is what many people think in terms of sound design: "How much sound can we play?" For us, it has been the opposite. How minimal can we get and how concentrated can we be? [A Quiet Place] is bringing that to its logical conclusion.
Photo by Jonny Cournoyer / Paramount Pictures
Erik, you said that when they both read the script, they thought it was going to be an opportunity, but it was also very difficult. What were some of the challenges that were immediately highlighted?
EA: Well, in a movie that is bombastic, for example, in which you can have many sounds, and you can have a great score of music during the whole process, somehow you are a little bit safer, because there are many layers and the track is very full and active. In a way, it can be this layer of security, both for us as sound designers and for the public.
A quiet place is the flip side of the coin. It is reversing all that concept, where it is more about the negative space, the silences and nuances of tranquility and, ultimately, of silence. Then, when you play a sound, you are naked. Then it has to be perfect. So that's a huge and huge challenge for a film as scanty as it is.
Some of the other challenges were, obviously, that we have these creatures that are blind, but very in tune with the sound. For them, any sound is amplified, far beyond what a human ear would be. So, creating your sonic language, your sonic views and what you hear was a great challenge.
Given that audiences are used to modern movies being so noisy, was there anything you did to make viewers feel more comfortable with the sound approach of this movie? Do you have a way to start the audience in the shallow end of the pool, so to speak?
EVDR: One thing that we focused on was really establishing the natural sounds of the environment, which maybe people are used to listening to, but do not think about. It's part of normal life, but it's something that people never really focus on. So simply set the sound of the wind through the empty streets, and the normal everyday environmental sounds that set the mood and feel real to people.
It was very important not to play music, to feel that we really could be there, and we are not necessarily sitting in a movie theater watching this movie. Instead, we can begin to be absorbed gently in this world, as if we were there with them. It was just a subtle question of making all the natural details realistic and credible, so that as a public we could start buying in this world.
EA: One thing that we ended up doing quite late in our mix was after having screened it at South by Southwest, and we were still halfway through our final mix. We realized that in order to facilitate the audience in this very different sound experience, we actually raised the first reel of the film several decibels, so that it was a bit easier to relate and comfortable, and then slowly started to back off to a floor with much less noise.
Then, the public has a few minutes to re-attune their ears and brains with this different experience. Our first step in the movie while playing it at South by Southwest was even quieter at first. But that was a small discovery we made, which I think helped the overall arc of the movie.
Photo by Jonny Cournoyer / Paramount Pictures
Did you ever worry how audiences would deal with silence? There has been an avalanche of stories about people who suddenly realize how noisy they are in theaters. Was that part of your calculation?
EA: Well, it's certainly something we think about. The starting point of Ethan and My, in terms of design, is first to try to create a sound design that impresses and excites us.
"Are people going to be too noisy for this to work?"
The second part of that answer would be, when you have a lot of sound and volume, there is a psychoacoustic effect in any movie. Comfort the audience a little. It's like a security blanket. What happens is that people recline in their movie seats and the sound can make the audience go back a little. When you take off that security blanket, when you become so quiet, people begin to lean forward, and begin to hold their breath and shut up themselves, and become aware of the sounds they are making. In a way, making the audience really an active participant in the movie experience.
So we strongly felt that any risk we took to invest the soundtrack and get so silent would be paid ten times for that experience, for that psychoacoustic experience of making an audience lean forward and hold your breath and get carried away by the movie until the end credits.
EVDR: We definitely thought about the idea: "Well, are people going to be too noisy for this to work?" But as we felt strongly enough that it worked for us when we saw it, [we felt] it's worth it to put it there to see if people can stand with that.
There were several sections in the film where we had discussions about how long we could stretch some of these areas of silence. Especially in relation to Regan, the deaf character of Millicent Simmonds, when there are sequences in the movie where she has her cochlear implant turned off, and we are going to complete the digital zero. We thought a lot about how long we could run without literally no sound. But for the rest of the movie, it was much clearer in terms of what we thought an audience would be able to endure.
EA: Fortunately, we had an amazing director in John, and producers with whom we had all the support. They wanted us to take those risks. Everyone was a little nervous when the movie premiered in South by Southwest. But once 1,200 people in the audience reacted the way they did with the movie, we all breathed a sigh of relief, like, "Okay, this works, we do not have to worry about that." And that gave us the license to take it a little further when we finished mixing.
We are talking about a nuanced theatrical experience, but many people will see this movie at home. How can this type of sound design be translated into that environment, when there is no guarantee of what kind of equipment people will use?
EA: Normally, in a movie, there's something called a near-field mix, which is for home theater release formats. In a near field mix, the dynamic range is usually compressed a bit. And so far, I'm not sure there's going to be a close-field mix in this movie. It can be the full dynamic range, the theatrical mix for home theaters. If people listen at home, they have to close their doors, turn off the dishwasher. Be in an environment as pristine as possible.
"Unless you have a great movie theater at home, you may want to try the headphones"
That's one of the good things about having theaters with good sound systems and good acoustics. It is almost like a temple, in a way, that is protected from the outside sound. Normally, that environment is used to fill the theater with sound. But with peace of mind, it is just as effective to create that isolated and pristine environment.
So, for home audiences, unless you have a great home theater, you may want to try the headphones of this movie to get the most out of it. That certainly was something we think a lot about. That's why we've been encouraging everyone to go out to theaters to see and hear first.
Photo by Jonny Cournoyer / Paramount Pictures
Are you overlooking the near-field mixes where you both would like to see the industry in general?
EA: I think it's very debatable. There are two different ways of thinking. One concern without making a close-field mix is that some things could simply disappear if people are not playing the audio at the reference level. That would be an argument to make a close-field mix. But the argument against is that we do not want to dilute the dynamics either. The beauty of this film is that there is a lot of negative space and a lot of dynamic between where the valleys are and where the peaks are.
A small metaphor that we often use is that you can not really see the peak until you first find the valley. So we would not want to fill that valley, nor shave the peak too much. I think that decision will probably be made in the coming months.
Although I love that idea. Those people would basically have to keep their phones, turn up the volume and just pay attention to the movie, even at home.
EVDR: Yes, I also love that idea, because I feel it is such an unusual experience in today's world that people can really tune in and listen to it carefully. I love the idea that this movie, in some way, forces people to do something they're not used to, but it's something that we're all capable of. I feel that it is forcing people to refocus on some of the potential that we all have, in a new and fresh way.