Written by Jennifer Walden. May contain spoilers. Images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Seeing Paramount Pictures’ A Quiet Place in the theaters was an interesting movie-going experience. This film about staying quiet shined such a spotlight on sound that the audience became acutely aware of every little sound they were making. As the film was beginning, the audience was still settling in —opening snack bags and crunching on popcorn, then something interesting happened. Everyone stopped, mid-crunch, and became totally silent. It was almost surreal.
In A Quiet Place, the planet is infested with creatures that use sound to hunt their prey. Their hearing is super-sensitive, so it’s imperative to be as quiet as possible in order to survive. Sound designers Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl at E² Sound not only created the varying level of quiet sounds for this film, they also created all the creatures’ sounds. They’re “creature sound” experts at this point. They’ve done numerous creatures for films, most recently for Pacific Rim: Uprising, Transformers: The Last Knight, Trolls, Goosebumps, Godzilla of course, and many, many more. Here, Van der Ryn and Aadahl share insight on how they created the sound for A Quiet Place — a film in which there’s no place for sound to hide.
Director John Krasinski comes to you and says, “I want to make a film about not making a sound, and I want you to do the sound for it.” What were your first thoughts?
Ethan Van der Ryn (EV): Super-excitement, and just being really thrilled with the whole idea of going to a place that we’ve been trying to go to but haven’t been allowed to. For this film, we were even pushed to go to a place where we were able to play with dynamics, and play with perspectives, and play with silence, which is something we are always trying to do but we have never before had a story that is so heavily reliant on going to those places. So we were thrilled by the whole concept.
This film makes the audience pay attention to every little sound. As the designers of that sound, how did that make you feel? Did being under the microscope make you agonize over every sound?
Erik Aadahl (EA): People might mistakenly think that doing a film like this is easier than doing a big, loud, bombastic, wall-to-wall sound job. But, the opposite is true. It’s just as hard if not harder. Every little sound is actually a big sound in a way. You’re naked. So the tiniest little details have to be perfect and have to work with the logic of the whole film. Sound is deadly. Sound becomes a matter of survival. A sound that is just a little too loud means death. Doing this is so challenging because you’re constantly walking along the knife’s edge, on a tight rope, trying to maintain the reality of the experience and maintain the philosophy and the logic of the story. So it was massively challenging but thrilling to now be done with it and have it be so effective. It was a giant risk making a movie this quiet and I think it paid off.
Seeing A Quiet Place in the theater was such an interesting experience. The whole audience became aware of how much noise they were making, and they stopped. It was dead quiet…
So this film … made audiences a part of the experience. Just like the characters on screen, the audience was afraid to make a sound in the theater.
EA:I think audiences aren’t used to that experience. Normally there is a security blanket of music, sound, and loudness that can make them comfortable and lean back in their seats and chomp on their popcorn. They can relax and get lulled into the movie. By subtracting the sound — finding how quiet we could get, it creates a much more unsettling experience because audiences just aren’t used to that. In real life, the world is noisy and full of sonic stimulus. There’s hardly a quiet place in the world anymore that you can go to. And normally theaters are the opposite of quiet. So this film created a novel, very different experience that I think was really unsettling for people and made audiences a part of the experience. Just like the characters on screen, the audience was afraid to make a sound in the theater. That’s what we were hoping for, that kind of effect.
Check out this video interview with Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn on the sound for A Quiet Place:
EV: Some of the feedback that we’re getting on the film is that, in a way, it’s almost teaching people how to really listen and how to hear in a deeper way than they are used to hearing. We’ve also gotten the feedback that for some people that experience is extending after the movie has ended; they go out into the street and start hearing the world in a way that they haven’t really heard before. They’re hearing more detail. Watching the movie, in a way, is forcing people to open their ears in a way they haven’t opened them before. The impact of the film is extending beyond the experience of just watching it. I find that so interesting and rewarding.
This film also opens awareness to the different levels of quietness that exist. In the film, there’s dead quiet like in the pharmacy to pretty loud around the river and the waterfall, to full-on sound during the creature attack on the pickup truck. Did you and the director define the level of quiet for each scene, or did you just play it by ear?
EV: The sound design process was an exploration. Erik and I started very early in the design process trying to figure out how quiet we can get to start with and then figuring out where we can take it to. For each moment, it goes to a different variation of quiet. This result was more from a process of exploration than it was actually determining with the director how quiet a scene should be. We were really just feeling it as we explored it.
EA: To expand on what Ethan just said, one discovery from our exploration was something that wasn’t scripted. The daughter character Regan Abbott is deaf and she’s played by actress Millicent Simmonds who is deaf in real life. Very early on we decided we wanted to try to create a “sonic envelope,” as John [Krasinski] termed it, for Regan’s points of view. In close-up with her character, we switch to her sonic perspective and that was something that we experimented with and stumbled upon pretty early on.
Regan wears a cochlear implant and when it’s on there’s this low hum. At one point, the producers were wondering if that sound was actually too quiet, was it going to read enough in a big theater. So we massaged it and got it to a place where everyone felt that it was reading the way we wanted it to.
Within the daughter’s sonic envelope, there is another envelope which is complete silence. That happens when she turns her cochlear implant off. There are three moments in the film when that happens, and there’s something so shocking about having total, absolute silence — total digital silence.
Any film that I’ve ever worked on I’ve never been able to get to complete silence. It was kind of thrilling because it’s so different.
I think it’s the first time in any movie that I’ve worked on where there is nothing playing at all. Normally when things go quiet, there is still a little thread of room tone or a single note of music decaying. Any film that I’ve ever worked on I’ve never been able to get to complete silence. It was kind of thrilling because it’s so different.
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Another sonic perspective that you explore is the creature’s perspective. Its head opens up and exposes a sort of ‘ear’ and the audience experiences the creature’s super-hearing ability. How did you handle that?
EV:We came into that once we found the envelope for Regan and went fully, sonically into her perspective. The second scene we worked on in the movie was a scene in the cornfield when the creature emerges out of the corn behind Regan and her hearing aid starts to feedback. It’s a key story point that her hearing aid is interfering with the creature and causing both of them pain.
We realized at that point that we needed to be able to go inside the perspective of the creature sonically and hear what it was hearing and reacting to.
We wanted to be able to tell that story with sound-only because there is no other way to tell it. When we first started working on that scene, there was no creature yet visually. There was no VFX for it. So we were able to establish the idea of getting into Regan’s sonic envelope, hearing her pain with the feedback. Then there is a reverse shot where we knew the creature was going to be. We realized at that point that we needed to be able to go inside the perspective of the creature sonically and hear what it was hearing and reacting to. We started playing around with that idea when the shot was just a blank plate, when there were no visuals for the creature.
When the creature visuals were put into the shot, we were then able to fine-tune our sound to the visuals. Once we had the close-up of the creature, we had the close-up of its ‘ear.’ As we played with the sound more we realized we needed to spend more time on the close-up of the ear, so that this sound that it was hearing could fully blossom and develop from being just the ambient sound of the wind through the corn and the crickets in the field to become hyper-amplified, and then hear the creature strip away layers until it got down to just the sound of the crickets being super-amplified. It was very much a developmental process.
That case in particular is a good example of how the sound design actually needed to happen before the picture could become fully developed because picture editing had to change as the sound design came together and the visual effects also needed to change a little bit once the sound design started to develop. It was different from the way most movies happen, where the picture editing happens and then the visual effects happen and then the sound crew gets in and does their thing. This was more of a parallel process where it all needed to happen interactively together.
When you got the visuals and saw that the creature’s head opens up to expose the ear, how did you make that awesome, gross, wet sound?
EA: There were a lot of creature sounds that we made, from the vocals (like their searching sounds, their idling sounds, and their irritated/agitated attack sounds) to the physical sounds of their body. The creatures have these exoskeletons, like a crab or arachnid, with these wet joints. We liked playing with those wet and crunchy sounds. There’s something very tactile and visceral about those kinds of sounds.
We wanted to capture that tactile, visceral, organic quality where we feel like this thing is made out of some kind of crunchy, wet flesh.
EV: One of the things that John [Krasinski] kept telling us in his direction was to make it scarier. It needed to be scarier. Part of that was, on the close-ups, to make it sound gross. We wanted to capture that tactile, visceral, organic quality where we feel like this thing is made out of some kind of crunchy, wet flesh. We wanted to give it a visceral, organic grossness.
What kinds of things did you record to get crunchy and wet?
EA: We made a pact to not talk about the actual sounds we used to make the creatures. But, I will say, for that peeling flesh sound we used a watermelon husk being pulled apart and opened. It was both wet and kind of cartilage-y and sinewy. Some of the crunchiness has a little bit of ice in it which is that a more solid joint kind of sound. Then for some of the goopier sounds we have wet rag squishes.
The Tonebenders podcast just published an in-depth audio interview with Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl – here it is:
The creature makes a wide range of vocals. What was your approach there?
EV: When we first met with John, we got an early cut of the film to start working on. One of the main topics of conversation was what are these things going to sound like. John talked about having three main modes of operation for the creatures. One mode was the searching mode, which happens when they’ve heard a sound and they are trying to locate where it is coming from. The creatures go into this search mode and because they are blind we were inspired by the idea that they used echolocation to navigate the world. We started playing with that idea based on real world animals that use echolocation to navigate, like dolphins and bats. So that was the inspiration for that clicky, chattery sound.
Another mode John described was when the creatures are in an idle mode — when there are close to something but they haven’t been able to locate it. That was about enhancing the sound they hear when their head petals open up to expose their ear. The idea was to make them sound very visceral and organic. We use a lot of snorting and breathing, and general disgusting-organic creature noises without them being too amped-up or active. It’s more of this idling state, as John described it.
Then there is the attack mode, which is the third main mode, and they have a lot more energy. That is when we got to a screechy sound.
We realized that there’s something magical about having that be a mystery so that the audience isn’t going to be thinking about x, y, and z when they hear Godzilla. They’ll just be thinking about Godzilla.
EA: On Godzilla, we were asked all the time how we made Godzilla’s roar. We realized that there’s something magical about having that be a mystery so that the audience isn’t going to be thinking about x, y, and z when they hear Godzilla. They’ll just be thinking about Godzilla. So we decided to keep that a secret, even from director Gareth Edwards, until we were done with the movie because we didn’t want even him thinking about that every time we played a scene. We didn’t want to subvert the effectiveness of the sound. So similarly to that experience, we are not yet going to give the ingredients of the creature vocals in A Quiet Place. Maybe one day we will.
I will say what we tried at first but ultimately didn’t use. One of our amazing sound designers, Brandon Jones, had this very squeaky kitchen drawer that he recorded. It had this shrieky, intense quality to it. For a couple days we were playing with that and trying that out but then ultimately we decided not to use it in the film and we went with something different. So that was an example of something we tried but didn’t use.
Let’s talk about your approach to the outside world. You hear wind and bugs, but not a lot of birds. Were there specific parameters for the sounds you could use to create the outdoor ambiences?
EV: We weren’t given specific parameters beyond the idea that we are trying to establish a logic for the film and the sound design should always reinforce that logic. We talked about the idea that it’s not only people who learned to be quiet in order to survive but all of the animals in the world have learned to be quiet as well in order to survive. The only birds you hear making sound are going to be the ones that are flying up in the air where they are too high to be captured.
Also, there are other more subliminal cues happening with the bugs. For example, you don’t hear any single cricket chirps. The logic being that anything that stands out from the background is going to be in danger.
EA: To expand on what Ethan just said, any creature that has not learned that lesson is dead. We’re on a farm, and if they had roosters, those roosters are long gone. They would not have survived this scenario.
EV: It’s evolution in action.
Did you have a favorite scene for sound?
During any other movie, you’d have scary strings going, music and tension and loud noise building and crescendoing. But during this scene, we just pull the rug out from under the audience and out from under ourselves.
EA: My favorite moment is a moment of complete silence. It’s towards the end of the film when the kids are in the family pickup truck and Regan’s hearing aid starts to get the feedback/interference sound so she switches it off and we go to complete, absolute silence. She looks over at her brother and he’s looking just past her and his face blossoms into this contortion of terror. That juxtaposition of that incredible performance (and the intensity of that performance) with absolute silence to me was just so shocking. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. During any other movie, you’d have scary strings going, music and tension and loud noise building and crescendoing. But during this scene, we just pull the rug out from under the audience and out from under ourselves. The combination of complete silence and the intensity of the moment to me was just totally thrilling.
A big thanks to Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl for sharing with us the thrilling and innovative sound behind A Quiet Place – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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