In John Krasinski’s post-apocalyptic horror film A Quiet Place, sound is a matter of life and death. The bloodthirsty aliens stalking an isolated farm family (played by the director and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt) hunt with their ears, setting the characters — and audience — on a nearly silent and terrifying tiptoe toward the credits. Talk, laugh, eat, love, play normally and you’re toast. Supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, partners at E2 Sound, worked with Krasinski and used several new studio tools to heighten and intensify the film’s prominent negative space. Though the pair, who have seven Oscar nominations between them, routinely tackles tentpole films like those in the Transformers franchise, A Quiet Place provided a test lab for techniques they’ve long been lobbying for. We asked them to unspool the elements of this film’s unusual soundtrack and their part in shaping it.
StudioDaily: Were you on set during production, and was it a quiet or noisy place?
Ethan Van der Ryn: We were not there. This whole film happened for us only in post, as most of the movies we work on do. We’re used to recreating the whole world, and even redoing a lot of the dialogue, in the studio.
Erik Aadahl: But it is true that sets can typically be very noisy places. You have grips working and walkie-talkies going constantly. In this case, John really enforced a super-quiet set. Probably the biggest reason for that was just for the actors to be able to embody this reality and stay in character and not get distracted as they perform in a world that is very, very quiet. That was pretty unique.
This is a relatively small-budget horror film, yet it was produced by Michael Bay and features ILM visual effects and creatures. What was your schedule like?
EA: It was actually a very quick, condensed schedule, not like the bigger-budget films we tend to work on. In a way, that might have been a blessing, because we could take some big sonic risks and then not have time to doubt ourselves or give the studio tons of time to overthink things and go in circles. It turned out to be a really great thing.
What was one of the bigger risks you took that paid off?
EA: Just how quiet we can get! One thing we do in this film that I’ve never done in any film before — and I can’t really think of an example in another film — is actually going to complete silence. Digital zero. That’s when we’re in the “sonic envelope,” as John called it, the sound POV of Regan, the family’s deaf daughter. Millicent Simmonds, who plays her, is also deaf, and when her cochlear implant is turned off, we go to absolute silence. That’s pretty risky. If we were working with filmmakers who weren’t so fearless, that could have easily been vetoed. But everyone involved in this film wanted to just go for it. There’s something kind of magical when you take sound out. It’s unsettling. And it’s a novel experience for an audience. They aren’t used to that and it forces them to really become a part of the experience. They feel like they’re right there, in that space, with these characters, to the point where they are even afraid to eat popcorn. These sound breaks make them active participants in the story, and that’s exciting and something special.
How did you work with Krasinski and the edit team during post?
EVdR: It was a very collaborative process, though a remote one, based on the fact that our studio is in L.A. and John and the picture editor were based in New York. Basically, as we would complete our first sketch pass on a scene and get ourselves happy with it, we would do a quick little stereo mixdown of it, bounce it to picture and then post it for John to listen to and give us feedback. We were doing a little temp mixing for a screening presentation, so he came to L.A. and we were able to spend time in the studio together. That in-person feedback was super useful as we completed the sound design and mix.
How did the alien predator evolve sonically? I heard multiple species in there.
EA: There are a few different kinds of sound concepts in there. We had to think about the sounds the creature itself is making, but also what the sounds are that the creature perceives. [As if on cue, Amdahl’s rooster seems to answer him.] OK, there’s Banana saying hello! Anyway, the film’s creatures are blind but have super-acute hearing, which they use to navigate the world. In a few parts of the film, we move into the ear of this creature and into its sonic envelope, which is very heightened. As far as what the creature sounds like, John had originally described several different modes that it is in during pursuit. There is the intense attack mode, but there is also a more calm and idling sound — which is like a guttural, wet breathing — and a searching mode. Because these creatures are blind, early on we came up with this concept that they use sound to see, like real animals that use echolocation. That’s the clicking sound you hear. As those sounds reflect on the surfaces they are in, that paints a three-dimensional picture for them, the same way bats or dolphins use high-frequency sound to navigate through their environment.
The only song, or song fragment, in the film is when the Abbotts slow dance with a shared iPhone headset to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” It’s really effective.
EVdR: That was a scene John had in the shooting script, and he specified that it be “Harvest Moon.” The producer, however, didn’t think they were going to have the budget to pay for a Neil Young song. But it was very important to John that it be that song. So he made it happen. It was an example of several non-negotiable things for him on this film. As a director, it pays to fight for key elements that you’re passionate about and not to give up on them or sell out. They were apparently crying on the set when they filmed the scene, and that emotion is there on screen. Similarly, he was insistent that a deaf actor be cast in the role of the deaf character.
EA: John described Millie Simmonds, the deaf actress, as being the film’s spirit guide on set. She taught the crew American Sign Language and coached them through it, and apparently had a lot of ideas for her scenes. That was pretty inspiring for all of us. In fact, when we pop into her perspective, or sonic envelope, that was inspired directly by her description of what it’s like to hear through cochlear implants.
The original script had no deaf character but Krasinki added her in his final draft, correct?
EA: That’s right. Our very first scene that we tackled, once we got the rough cut, was the opening scene in the pharmacy on through the family’s first encounter with one of the creatures. That was also one of our first experiments with taking sound out: when we go in close to Millie’s character, we thought, what if just go right into her perspective, sound-wise — cut out all of the atmospheric, ambient sounds and just go into that low hum of her perspective? There’s something amazing about how sound can put the audience right in the shoes of that character and hear exactly what they are hearing. We didn’t know if our experiment would fly, but it really works, to the point where, when they did some more pick-up photography at the end of the shoot, they got even more close-ups of her cochlear implants, which in turn let us establish that concept immediately.
What did you bring away from this experience that gives you new confidence to try in other films?
EVdR: One of the things that we’ve been arguing for passionately for some time is this idea of creating more negative space in all of the movies that we work on. There’s a tendency for a lot of big-budget movies to create a theme-park ride where you’re just overwhelmed by visuals and sound and are taken on a thrill ride. So even before this film, what we’re always trying to say is we need to create valleys in order for the peaks to actually register. It’s all about creating context and contrast. We’re always kind of fighting to create moments where we can get really quiet, or moments where we can not play any music and just rely on sound, or vice-versa. I think the fact that this movie, which has taken that idea to its logical conclusion and is impacting audiences the way it is, is certainly giving us more credibility when we make that argument to filmmakers about creating more dynamics and a more visceral soundtrack that will help suck the audience into this world. We want each film to be experienced, not simply be an entertainment.
Explosion fatigue is real.
EVdR: Totally. It’s overload. And in almost every film we do, we come upon a moment in the process where we have to say, “Look, we’re just overloading things here and we need to pull back. But this film is exhibit A of why pulling back can work so well, and will definitely help us make that case persuasively in the future.
EA: In a way, loudness pushes the audience away. Too much just numbs them. It’s kind of incredible how silence and quiet does the exact opposite. It makes people lean forward. And because of that quiet and that silence, when you do introduce a sound, it can be a tiny, delicate sound that actually means something to the story. Here, every little sound walks on this knife’s edge of the possibility of death. It’s that added underlying tension to every little delicate sound we used. If we’d had a wall-to-wall music score in the film, it would have completely clobbered that tension. The negative space, that heightened listening, is just so much more effective.
It seems very primal, too, a nod to how our earliest human ancestors tried not to be eaten for dinner by their animal predators.
EA: We were just talking about how primal sound really is, actually. There are very few places in the world these days that you can go and experience true quiet. Modern civilization is a noisy place. So replicating that sense of complete quiet — no jets overhead, no cell phones going off, no weed whackers buzzing away — that’s a novel experience. It’s also pretty unsettling, because we’re not used to it. But in living creatures, the ability to hear evolved before the ability to see. It’s inside that reptilian part of our brain. Because of that, sound can be used in subliminal and emotionally manipulative ways that maybe aren’t as obvious to an audience when they are also being manipulated visually. For us, that’s where the magic is, and it’s a wonderful tool for creating feeling.
Speaking of tools, did you try out any new technology in your mix?
EA: We actually used some pretty unique ways of recording sound for this project. We work in Pro Tools and all of our design rooms are in 7.1 and server-based. It’s a very fluid workflow — we’ve usually got several projects going at once, so we can shut down a session in our design room and two seconds later have it open on the mixing stage. It’s a big leap from the old days of hauling drives around. We also did an Atmos version of this film. Two of our favorite new microphones are a SoundField, which records beautiful surround sound atmospheres, and a type of binaural microphone, the Neumann KU 100, which is in the shape of a human head. It has sculpted ears, and you can record truly realistic sound that sounds like it is inside your head. It was perfect for the sounds of the cochlear implants, and for when the father puts his headphones on to scan the short-wave radio frequencies to see if there are any other survivors left in other parts of the world. It’s a really fun microphone to use and I want to say it’s almost like it lends a sense of touch to the sound. It was the perfect tool for this movie.
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