A Quiet Place terrified audiences to the point that they wouldn’t even eat their popcorn for fear of making noise. In one of the year’s most nerve-racking horror films, most of mankind has been wiped out after a monster invasion, creatures who locate their prey by sound. The slightest noise can get you killed. The family we follow in the film has a daughter who is is deaf, so they’ve learned ASL (American Sign Language) which has helped them survive.
For sound designers, Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, A Quiet Place was a dream project. Focusing on the struggle to stay quiet, Van der Ryn and Aadahl worked out the most challenging scene of all with director John Krasinski. Once that puzzle was solved, the other pieces fell into place. The end result was that sound became a central character in the film, keeping the audience tension levels at a maximum, acutely aware of every noise.
Read how Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl tackled the challenge of A Quiet Place.
When you first heard about the idea and the way sound would be used in A Quiet Place, what was your reaction to it?
Ethan: We got sent the script and we both read it and called each other. We thought it was amazing and it was the dream of a lifetime for us, especially as we spend our careers working on all the details of sound and then to be given a showcase for all of that work where sound becomes a central character in the film and we viewed it as a magical opportunity to really explore some of these ideas we’ve been working with our entire careers that are a contrast between quiet and loud and all the different shades of quiet. Also about frequencies.
There was also the idea of pulling out sound and the most powerful use of sound was where we took it away as opposed to adding it. This was an idea we’ve been playing with for years and this was really an opportunity to explore that to its maximum potential.
Erik: Sound is just in the DNA of this story and it’s a central character. The whole story really revolves around the concept of sound. It’s a matter of life and death and survival. We’re following this incredible family who has to adapt to this world by understanding sound. It’s also about how they understand and use sound to the point where they’ve learned sign language, where they’ve poured trails of sand so they’re not stepping on twigs. They’ve painted floorboards that are safe to step on. Their alarm system is lights rather than a sound alarm. There are entire worlds that John, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods all came up with. It was really an incredible playground for us to play with.
It was Andrew Form who approached us first who said, “I know you hear this all the time, but this time it’s true, but this movie is all about sound.” And it’s true, we do hear it a lot when people are trying to get us to work on their movies and this time it was true.
When we first met with John, he said, “This is a sound designer’s dream.” It was thrilling for us, taking it as far as possible doing something so unique.
The use of sound and its absence was so powerful, especially when you you use silence in the cornfield scene when the creature is behind her.
Ethan: It was one of the first scenes that Erik and I started working on. John really wanted us to start with that scene because it’s a big nut to crack. He realized and we did too that if we were able to work out the logic of that scene and specifically the idea that her cochlear implant creates some sort of electrical interference with the creature that is painful for him. That’s an important plot film to the film, the idea that sound is the weakness of these humans trying to stay alive, but it also turns out to be their greatest strength in terms of combating these creatures who are blind and have hyper-sensitive hearing. There are a lot of points that we needed to make clear and establish in that scene and if we could do that with sound it was important to figure out.
Erik: We’re doing it without dialogue and exposition, it was really sound doing the heavy lifting.
Ethan: As we started working on it, there were a few important things we realized. When we started working on that scene there were no visuals of the creature. The creature didn’t exist visually. We were working with plates and imagining where the creature would be and what the shots would look like.
We knew we wanted to experience what Millicent’s character was going through. We wanted to be able to go into her experience sonically. Conversely, we thought it would be cool to go into the creature’s experience sonically.
We started with the idea of cutting back and forth between her perspective and the creature’s perspective as the creature gets closer to her, the feedback gets more intense. That was an important scene to crack. Once we had something we felt good about, we sent it to John and felt it unlocked a lot of the sonic envelopes for the various characters in the movie. More specifically for Milli’s character, but also for the creature. Sound is so important for both of them.
Once you cracked that scene, did you work from a linear perspective, or did you find other moments?
Erik: There were two scenes we worked on. First, that and then the opening scene leading up to the bridge attack. Those helped us establish a logic we could follow through the film. We didn’t work in a linear way. We tackle the hardest scenes first.
At this point, the end of the movie was in flux. The key scenes we got first was the flooded basement, the birth scene, the waterfall scene, and those were the ones we worked on.
We also worked on the corn silo scene.
The things we worked on first through these scenes were Milli’s point of view. What wound up happening was we realized there’s something really powerful happening when we go into her point of view and John ended up calling it her sonic envelope. There was something really experiential and powerful about that. We realized there were a lot of places we could use that.
We used it with the creatures and their hyper-acute hearing, to mother and father listening to Neil Young together, to him putting the headphones on and you hear his point of view scanning shortwave radio. What we realized was when we went into those point of views, it really helps put the audience into the shoes of those characters. That was one of the most discoveries of the entire projects and why people notice the sound so much. It really made the audience an active participant in the experience by doing that.
That was some of the feedback we got, we were being told, ‘I couldn’t eat popcorn because the audience was so quiet.’ Upon leaving the cinema they’d experience the world in a new and fresh way and that was pretty gratifying to hear that as sound designers.
Would you say this was one of the bigger challenges of your career?
Ethan: Absolutely and in some unique way in terms of really being able to strip things down and figuring out how many different shades of quiet we could create. So many of our projects are big sounds and we’re trying to create articulation between those moments. Part of those moments are about stripping out sounds and what sounds do we not play. if we play everything it becomes a wall of noise. That work was good training for this project and taking it to that extreme.