A Quiet Place is one of 2018’s great success stories for a few reasons, and one of them is its sense of balance. It’s a film that knows when to hold back, when to let loose, and when to really let loose. Much of this is due to the so-simple-it's-genius plot device: that the protagonists must remain extremely silent in order to avoid the film’s sound-sensitive monsters. It’s a brilliant turn that gave Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, the sound designers in the film, plenty to work with — or not work with.
“By taking out the sound, you can take them to a really unsettling place,” Erik told us. “It’s like having a rug pulled out from under you.”
Essentially, the film is a sound designer’s dream, a project that had them using “shades of quiet,” “sonic envelopes,” and all kinds of aural tools that helped them create the film’s white-knuckle moments.
We were lucky enough to chat with Erik and Ethan about all of the above, and even got to hear from Erik’s pet rooster, Buffy Banana — who would’ve never survived this movie. Enjoy.
Erik: Ethan spent a few years in New Zealand working on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. His supervising partner was Mike Hopkins. Mike introduced Ethan and me. Eventually, Ethan got an offer from Michael Bay to work on the very first Transformers film. So Ethan called and asked if I was interested in sound mining for it. I said, “Absolutely.” That was the first of many collaborations, and we eventually decided to make it official and founded E².
Ethan: We’ve worked with some of the producers of A Quiet Place a number of times: Michael Bay, Andrew Form, and Brad Fuller. They sent us the script, and we were completely blown away. It was immediately obvious to both of us that the sound design would play a crucial role in bringing the story to life. Soon after that we met with John.
Erik: I think Buffy can answer that one.
Erik: Yeah. His full name is Buffy Banana, but we just call him Banana. He would be dead in this movie. [laughs]
Erik: When we met with John, we had this big pitch prepared. We were so excited because this film is truly a sound designer’s dream. But before we could say anything, John was like, “This is a sound designer’s dream.” That set the stage for our collaboration, because John clearly knew how critical sound was to the story.
During that first meeting, we started brainstorming and spit-balling ideas. When the film had been shot and we got the rough cut, we realized it was all going to be about shades of quiet and silence. In order to achieve that, you have to be ruthless about what you choose to play and, more importantly, not play. That first rough cut had a lot of temp music in it, and we pitched several places where we wanted to strip that out in order to create a certain sonic logic for the film.
Erik: The daughter in the film, who’s deaf, is probably the most tangible example of that concept. We created what John referred to as her “sonic envelope,” which is what she hears with her cochlear implant. That’s what makes up the logic of that character’s experience.
Ethan: There aren’t many directors who would be self-assured enough to take the kinds of risks he took in terms of not playing a lot of music or having much dialogue. It’s inspiring to work with someone who really wants to go all-in for bold choices like that.
Erik: The rest of the family had their envelope moments as well. The father uses his shortwave radio to see if there are any other survivors in the world. He puts on his headphones and poof! you’re in his sonic point of view. Similarly, there’s a scene with the mother. Before her baby is born, she puts on a stethoscope and listens to her fetus’s heartbeat. And in that moment we go right into her envelope. There’s something beautiful about how sound can immediately connect you to a character in a very special and emotional way.
Ethan: The approach was driven by the idea of establishing the rules of this world. Because the creatures are blind and hunt by sound, we wanted to firm up the logic that implied anything that made a sound that stood out from the background didn’t exist anymore — because it would have been wiped out. So, in terms of atmospheres, there’s wind through trees, there are crickets, but you’d never hear individual crickets.
We established this logic and then we went about discovering how loud things could be while still being able to exist in this world. For instance, when we have close-ups of things like feet walking in sand, we’re going to hear that very clearly; but when we cut to a wide shot, we don't hear it at all. The idea is that we’re playing with perspective accurately.
Erik: Our overarching philosophy is that sound is half the experience. People talk about going to see a movie or watch a movie, but they’re also hearing the movie. You’re using your eyes and your ears. So we think of sound as being 50% of the experience. And in the case of A Quiet Place, it might even be more than that.
Walter Murch once described this idea that images come in through the front door, but sound comes in through the back door. Which is really true. There’s something primal about sound in that it can affect you in subliminal ways than people don’t often anticipate. I don’t think audiences are used to quiet. They’re used to going to movies where 99.9% of the film has dialogue and music. But by taking out the sound, you can take them to a really unsettling place. It’s like having a rug pulled out from under you.
Erik: As a means to drive the narrative. It needs to be essential to the development of the piece. It needs to be folded in, in a way — not tacked on to the end of the process. If sound is designed on the script level, it’s going to be a stronger story all around.
Ethan: John really did think about the sound when he was writing the script. People aren’t used to being affected by what they hear, and this script gave us a great opportunity to do that in a fresh way. Sound is an incredibly underutilized tool in filmmaking today, but it’s just as important as character development.
Ethan: I think sound can exist in both forms at different times and in different ways. One of the amazing things about it is that it’s such a plastic medium — it can be reshaped so quickly. Within a second, the sound you hear can transition from the perspective of one character to the next without ever changing shots, and that moves people. It’s all in how we choose to meld and augment it.
Erik: Sound is a matter of survival. Sound is a character. Sound is death in this film.