Secrets behind the sound design of A Quiet Place

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Apr 10, 2018

The huge box office success of John Krazinski's A Quiet Place is not only a boon for smaller, unique genre films, but for sound teams far and wide. While the majority of filmgoers appreciate the average booming blockbuster featuring sounds that rattle your teeth, but it’s not often that a film gets the opportunity to intimately connect an audience to the intricacies of sound.

A Quiet Place is practically a master class in the precision use of sound that demands the audience pay attention to every leaf rustle, twig snap and swallowed scream. All of those choices are the handy work of A Quiet Place's supervising sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl. Both long-time cinematic sound veterans, Van der Ryn has two Academy Awards for his sound work, while Aadahl has been nominated for two Oscars. Often known most for their work on big blockbusters like the Transformers movies, A Quiet Place afforded them the opportunity to go smaller and weave sound, or the lack of it, right into the narrative.

We talked with the duo about the unique soundscape they crafted for A Quiet Place that has audiences jumping out of their seats.

Ethan Van der Ryn (L) and Erik Aadahl (R)

The aural landscape of this movie is itself a character, baked into the DNA of the narrative. In those initial meetings about the movie, did you give John any ideas or direction on how to shoot for what you were eventually going to do with it in post-production?

Erik: Well, it's hard to tell how many of the ideas we gave him, and how many he already had, or would've come up with himself. But one of the things that we really talked about a lot in the beginning was Millie's character, Regan, being deaf. I remember we were talking about sound as touch, and for many deaf people the entire body almost becomes like a human ear where you feel vibrations. We were talking about that and John goes, "Oh, wait a second." And then he disappeared into a space for about 10 seconds thinking and coming up with an idea.

Ethan: One of the really cool things about John is he's so open to inspiration wherever it comes from and is just so collaborative in that way. I think he really wants that from the people that he's working with, to come to the table with thoughts and ideas. That was inspirational to work with someone who's so adventurous in that way and just wants to push all the boundaries.

Left to right: Noah Jupe plays Marcus Abbott, John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott, Emily Blunt plays Evelyn Abbott and Millicent Simmonds plays Regan Abbott in A QUIET PLACE, from Paramount Pictures.

In the very first minutes of the movie, we are given a moment that shows us that we're going to experience, to a certain degree, what Regan's existence is like. Did you have conversations with Millicent, or do your own research, to come up with how that would be presented to us?

Erik: Right. This is something that Millie and her mom discussed quite a bit on set, which is that with Millie's cochlear implant she can hear a little bit, but it's muted and very muffled. It's almost like a low threshold of rumble. So, it was great to get that first-hand direction from her. But in order for that to read in the film it needs to be contrasted with what's coming before and after it. So, as we started putting the film together, there's an opening scene on this trestle bridge and the family is walking. They're in a little reverie. Originally there was temp music that was spotted in by the picture department and it wallpapered through any sort of perspective shifts that we would be able to create for Millie's character.

We realized really early on we need to actually take out all the sound and just introduce exactly what we want to hear for each beat to create her perspective. We call her perspective her envelope, which was the term John started using while we were working on the film. And to create the contrast coming in and out of her envelope, we would take environmental atmospheric sounds, like the leaves and the wind, and raise those before we cut into her point of view, so we could really hear that shift clearly. If we were just quiet the whole time around it, it wouldn't really read if you're watching it in a theater with 200 people eating their popcorn.

So, our first logic discovery was that we really needed to strip things out and reintroduce them to get those points of view. And some of them only with when we start to introduce the envelope of these creatures, which are the inverse sonically to Regan's character.

Speaking of the creatures, sound is actually what they're attracted to, but ultimately their undoing. And so, from a frequency standpoint as sound experts, you get to pick where on the spectrum it's going to be destructive for them. Was that based in science or was it more organic?

Ethan: It wasn't so much a scientific approach as just an emotional feeling. We wanted to be able to feel just a little bit of the pain that the creatures were feeling, but not so much as to make us want to run out of the room. So, it's like finding the right balance between how much is too much pain, and how much is enough to let us know that this hurts?

Erik: We started with two scenes as proof of concept sound-wise (for the creatures). The first one was the very opening on the trestle bridge. The second one was the cornfield where Millie's character first interacts with the creature, and that's another place where we had to create this logic.

Ethan: The proof of concept there was to try to make it clearer to the audience because nothing is explained. There's no exposition. It all has to be explained through the visuals and through the sound. And there it was really about how do you explain through the sound what's going on in terms of the hearing aid interacting with the creature in a negative way? It's causing this feedback that's causing Regan pain, but also causing the creature to experience this pain, so what's the connection between the pain that they're both experiencing, and what is it like from each of their points of view?

The creatures have very distinct sounds. Were their sound signatures guided by John's specific ideas, or did you suggest your own ideas for them?

Ethan: Part of the direction for John, obviously, is they've got to be scary. So, that's one of the first directions going into it is we gotta do something super terrifying. And then another part of it is the logic behind it because they are so disturbed by sound it doesn't make sense for them to be too noisy. So, how do you deal with those conflicting ideas to make them terrifying, but at the same time to make them hate sound?

And then the other part of the direction from John is the idea that they have three modes of operating. One is a search mode, which is where they're searching for whatever they've just heard that's made a sound. And then they have an attack mode, and then they have what I'll call an idle mode, when they're just in between those modes.

One of the ideas that we pitched early to John was the idea that when they're in their search mode they almost have a sonar capability. They're able to send out sound into the environment and hear the reflections back in the environment, and navigate that way. That was the inspiration for some of the sounds that led to that mode.

Erik: So, it was starting with that idea that they're searching, and maybe they're using sound as part of their searching, since they're essentially blind. Their perspective of their universe is all through what they hear. We imagined creatures that do similar things, like dolphins, and started playing with the click-y sounds of their vocals when they're in more of a search mode. And then obviously when they get aggravated, then we go into much broader frequency viciousness. But we're going to be a little coy about what exactly we used for all of those sounds.

Can you tell us if you went out to collect sounds that you could then manipulate, or was did their sound come from your own personal sound stockpiles that you then manipulated?

Erik: It was a bit of a combination. The biggest challenge on this movie, other than the creative challenge, was how quick the schedule was. There was a ton to do in a very short amount of time. It's all of our own recordings, but some of them were from recordings that were not just done in the last six months.

Ethan: The one other thing I would add about the creature design process is just what I touched on earlier. The dichotomy between how do you make these things scary, but then also at the same time go with the logic that they hate sound. And I think part of that process for us was overdoing it a bit in terms of how much sound we have them making. And then needing to go through a big pass of peeling back 60 to 70 percent of that. It was peeling back a lot of layers, and going too far with the peel back process and losing too much of the scariness, and then needing to put back some of their sounds to amp up the scary side. I think that's part of the process we go through on every film, but it was just very focused in this film because of the tight, tight schedule.

Another big part of the sound landscape that's striking is that you take mundane sounds in the environment, and use them as elements of terror. Rushing water is now a jump scare!

Erik: Totally! Teeny little sounds can be life or death. What John did with the construction of this movie reminds me a lot of Hitchcock with two people having a conversation across a table on a train. It's one scene, but then all you do is have one little shot at the head of the scene of a bomb underneath the table, and the scene plays totally differently. This whole film kind of felt like that to me just how we constructed it. All of the little details have this ominous potential and with just a little mistake it's over. It made the details so important. I don't think I've ever worked on a film where the sound of cloth on the person is so important, or the sound of a close-up foot stepping into sand is so important.

Noah Jupe plays Marcus Abbott in A QUIET PLACE, from Paramount Pictures.

What sound sequence is your favorite in the film?

Erik: My favorite moment is in Regan's point of views when her cochlear implant is on. It's just a very low end little rumble presence, and then when it's off, it's complete silence, which I've never done in any movie I've ever worked on. There’s not even a little tiny hiss, or air, or anything. It's like digital zero. And there's a moment at the end of the film where she's in the truck with her brother, and they're getting attacked by a creature. She turns off her implant and she looks at her brother and his face just blossoms into this terrifying, beautifully acted, expression. I mean, it's such a strong performance of what he's seeing behind her. And it's complete zero silence. And to me, I just get goosebumps thinking about that. And that's funny as a sound designer saying my favorite moment is zero sound. (Laughs)

Ethan: Well, that's so funny because when you started introducing what you were going to talk about, I'm like, "Oh, no, you're gonna choose the same moment as me!" It's funny because Erik and I haven't talked about this before, but actually you went to another moment. For me, actually, it's the very first time in the movie where we go into that complete silence in Millie's envelope and that's where she actually turns off the cochlear implant for the first time. We go from what we experience, and what we have experienced until now is her deafness, and we go from that to this complete silence. And that moment, the first time Erik and I tried it in the editing room, it took my breath away then. And every time we played through that in the movie, every time I watched it, it takes my breath away all over again just because there's something so bold about doing that. So, I find it interesting that Erik and I both chose similar moments of going to complete silence.

What was it like working with composer Marco Beltrami in terms of how you all found the right space to respect what each of your teams brought to the sound table?

Erik: Marco is just brilliant, and it's just such a pleasure working him. I think my first film with Marco was I, Robot. And then more recently we did World War Z and The Shallows with him. He's got such a great sense of storytelling, and that's so key, especially for this movie. It's not about showing off, it's really about what serves the story, what serves the characters and the scenes. He crafted a score that just beautifully weaved in and out of what we do. It’s kind of like a dance between sound design and music. Both things interweaving and working together, where one takes the lead and the other steps back. Marco just had such grace and style and graciousness. Many composers would be freaking out that there's no score for these big stretches. So, kudos to Marco and also kudos to the music editor Del Spiva too, who had a huge part.

Ethan: The one thing I would add to the beauty of what Marco was able to achieve is that like us, he was just under this incredibly short schedule so it really all had to happen very fast. We couldn't have asked for a better partner from the soundtrack end of things. He was really fantastic.