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A Quiet Place sound guys take revenge on noisy eaters

Horror movie A Quiet Place is making a lot of noise at the box office. Directed by and starring John Krasinski with Emily Blunt, the hit film battles vicious monsters possessing a keen sense of hearing, making sound a matter of life or death. Much of the film plays out in heart-stopping near-silence, making popcorn-munching difficult but thrilling audiences nonetheless.

I spoke to Oscar-winning sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl about what they call the “amazing alchemy” of sound and silence that draws us into the inner worlds of the story’s embattled family members, in a film Krasinski called “a sound designer’s dream”. How did you approach the unusual sound for A Quiet Place? Erik Aadahl: John [Krasinski] wound up coining the term “sonic envelope”.

The very first thing we worked on was the opening, and that was our pitch to John — let’s go right into the daughter’s head, something we can continue through the film, and then it pays off nicely at the end. For the daughter, who is deaf, we have her cochlear implant envelope, but then we also have her envelope in which you turn the implant off and we go to complete absolute silence. To me that’s the boldest risk all of us took.

In a strange way silence is more terrifying than any sound you can put in there. It’s really unsettling. My wife and I went to see the film with an audience over the weekend, and the whole theater was holding its breath during those moments — everyone’s terrified of making the tiniest little sound, and in a way that made the audience really a part of the film.

Is this film your revenge on noisy popcorn eaters?

Aadahl: Yeah, they will become the hunted by fellow moviegoers if they’re opening up their little candy wrapper [laughs].

John Krasinski directed and co-wrote A Quiet Place, starring with Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds and Noah Jupe in a story about a family that has to stay silent to survive.

Jonny Cournoyer

When do sound designers normally join the production process, and was the process different for A Quiet Place? Ethan Van der Ryn: We tend to work on a lot of big visual effects films, and on those, we come in very early in the process. On a number of films we’ve done in the last two years we’ve started doing our work before the movies have even been greenlit — we’ll do a lot of sound design work for pre-viz presentation to screen for money people.

For this movie there was an initial meeting with John Krasinski before the movie had been shot to start talking about some ideas, but then we didn’t start doing our work until after all the shooting had happened and there was a first cut of the movie. It actually turned out to be a fairly condensed schedule compared to what we’re used to. It was kind of nice just to work fast and there wasn’t a lot of time for the studio to second-guess everything or water it down.

We could take a lot of bold chances and not second-guess ourselves. What kind of bold chances did you take in this film that you might not taken elsewhere? Van der Ryn: We took music out through a lot of sections, which allowed the sound really to become a character and act in a way that it really sucks the audience into the experience.

Emily Blunt stars with young actor Millicent Simmonds, who is herself deaf, in A Quiet Place.

Jonny Cournoyer

How did the music people feel about the music being stripped out?

Aadahl: They were incredibly gracious. We’ve collaborated with Marco Beltrami a number of times — on I, Robot [and] more recently we did World War Z with him and also The Shallows. Marco is a consummate storyteller.

He thinks in the big picture. Some composers don’t listen to the sound design when they’re working and refining their composition, but Marco does. Van der Ryn: When we talk about sound, we’re talking about all the sound, including music, and so we need to treat it all together holistically.

Aadahl: It’s funny that when you do choose not to play music for these big stretches, when it does arrive it’s 100 times more impactful and powerful. The same way where you strip out sound and then play a sound, it’s more impactful.

Sound editor and designer Ethan Van der Ryn in a editing studio on the Sony lot in Culver City, California.

Ann Johansson

Your previous credits include blockbusters like the Transformers movies and various big action films with lots of explosions and wall-to-wall sound. Having done this film, would you consider using silence as a tool in other movies?

Van der Ryn: Absolutely. I feel like some of the ideas we’re exploring in this film we’ve been trying to explore for years. In a lot of big studio movies there’s so much convention of how to play a movie that’s become very ingrained.

It’s tough to get away from wanting to drive action scenes, for instance, with a lot of big music. I think you can find in our work on some of the big movies moments where we’ve been able to explore introducing moments of silence. It’s all about creating contrast to get power.

When it seems movies are getting louder, is this a timely reminder of the importance of quiet and contrast?
Absolutely, one of the trends in not just film but in music is to fill every hole and always have information at all times. What happens then is you get this plateau effect. It’s just this flat sonic experience and the effect can be that audiences tune out.

Taking away sounds, actually finding the negative space, subtraction is the key. When you find the valley you can truly appreciate the peak. Hopefully that’s a conversation A Quiet Place has stirred.

Van der Ryn: Just to add to that idea, one of the really interesting things I see happening with this movie is that I think it’s an important movie for people to see in theatres. The sound is so important to the story and to the experience of the movie, and the only way to really experience that correctly is in a really good listening environment. How can we create something that’s so intimate and interactive that the audience really gets sucked into it and feels like they’re a part of it, as supposed to being on a thrill ride?

We feel like we’re involved, we feel like we’re there. Has this project made you think about the quality of sound in theaters? Aadahl: There was some discussion about that — what’s it gonna be like in a bad threater?

How quiet can we get and will that disappear in a theater that’s not playing at reference levels? A lot of theaters play much lower than reference level because there has been this race to the edge of the cliff with volume levels in a lot of films, so many theater chains just turn it from seven down to five — that’s not what you wanna do for this film. Van der Ryn: And it’s not a film that’s gonna translate well to watching on your laptop or even just watching on a TV at home.

Aadahl: When people watch this on TV at home, we encourage them to shut the door to the kitchen, turn off the dishwasher and the washing machine…

A Quiet Place is in theaters in the US, UK and Australia now.

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