2018 has been off to a strong start for film, and one of the surprise hits of the year “A Quiet Place” became a cultural sensation. John Krasinki’s horror film became a blockbuster success after taking in $270 Million worldwide and scoring a 95% on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is the way in which sound is employed so effectively throughout. That’s where Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn come in. The two have a combined 7 nominations, and 2 Oscar wins for Ethan. They founded their own studio, E2, after working on “Transformers” in 2007. With their work in “A Quiet Place,” a third nomination may be on the way. The two sat down to talk to me about the way sound is used in “A Quiet Place,” building a sonic chiaroscuro, and how Millicent Simmond’s life inspired the sound design process.
AF: I saw both of you went to film school, but then transitioned into the world of sound design. How did you each end up on that path?
Erik: Yeah, I went to film school and went to the University of Southern California, which has a sound department. This was back in the ‘90’s, and its grown since then. They had several mixing stages and a foley stage. As a student, I worked there as a part-time job, and that’s kind of how I fell in love with sound.
Ethan: Yeah, I went to film school up in San Francisco at San Francisco State University. It’s funny because the sound in my own films was pretty bad in a lot of ways. When I got out of school I met someone that was a supervising sound editor at the LucasFilm sound team, which was in the Bay area. I was lucky enough to get a job on “Terminator 2” with Gary Rydstrom and got to be around him a lot. I worked on “Titanic” for almost a year and went straight from that to “Saving Private Ryan.” That was my real training in sound design and sound editing. From there I went to work with Peter Jackson on the “Lord of the Rings” plus “King Kong.”
AF: What was the moment that made you guys found your sound company, E2, together?
Erik: We met through a mutual friend, a New Zealander named Mike Hopkins. I think you and Mike were in town for the awards season on “Two Towers.” The first project was something that fell into Ethan’s lap, that first “Transformers” by Michael Bay. I remember the very first week working on it, it was really intense. Collaborating with Ethan allowed us to knock it out of the park. I realized on the first project that we challenge each other more than any filmmaker challenges us, and we pull out the best in creativity from each other.
AF: What I found most exciting about “A Quiet Place” was how you use silence. How did you go about using sound and negative space to strip sound away in this movie?
Erik: Well, sometimes you have to take something away to appreciate it.
Ethan: Yeah, it was something I learned early on, specifically working on the intense battle scenes in “Saving Private Ryan.” To get sounds to read, one of the most important things is to make sure there is silence or negative space, around any sound I wanted to be articulated. I think some people have the misconception that sound design is how much sound did we put in. How many tracks did that take? Actually, it’s more important what we take away. Even if that space is only 1 frame, a 24th of a second. That’s kind of what it’s all about. The beautiful thing about “A Quiet Place” is that we were able to take that thing in everything we do and expand upon the idea. It makes the suspense that much more terrifying and makes the sounds we do play that much more impactful.
AF: One of the things silence does in this film is amplify the sounds we do hear. Those sounds are much louder because of that silence.
Ethan: Right, everything’s more about the context that it’s played in. What sounds is it coming out of and what sounds is it going into? The context becomes the most important thing in term of how any moment reads.
Erik: Context is critical. In the context of this film, even the smallest sound can become deadly. It’s this constant knife’s edge that we’re walking on. Sound is relative. For example, if you’re walking by a waterfall, there’s this concept called masking, where you can talk normally. It’s funny, we did an interview with Leonard Maltin and he said he thought it was the loudest waterfall he’d ever heard in any movie. It’s not, but it’s that contrast and feeling of bigness.
I think that’s kind of a fascinating psychoacoustic principle that really becomes really clear with “A Quiet Place.” We started describing it as “sonic chiaroscuro” because we have contrast from those sounds to extreme silence. We see it with Regan (Millicent Simmonds) when she turns her cochlear implants off during some of those intense moments. It’s that chiaroscuro that makes the bigger moments feel louder and makes the quieter moments feel even quieter.
AF: So you brought up Millicent Simmonds when talking about her character Regan. She is a deaf actress. How did her experience in life help you in the design of how her character hears things?
Ethan: John Krasinski related to us what her mother told him about how she hears the world and we used that in the creation of her sonic world. I should say worlds really, because we created two sonic perspectives for her, one where the cochlear implant is turned on, and another where it is turned off. When it’s off, we can go to digital zero, nothing. Those are probably the most unique moments in the film because audiences are not used to complete silence in a movie. They’re not used to hearing complete silence in the world ever. If you think about it, where do we naturally hear that? It’s a new experience.
Erik: It’s like an experience with an anechoic chamber. They are lead lined, and devoid of sound. It’s unsettling and shocking. Something simple, like the sound of our feet bouncing off the walls, gives us orientation and balance. When you take all those reflections away, in an anechoic chamber, you begin to lose your balance. After a few minutes in a chamber like that, your ears retune and readjust. You begin to hear the sound of your body, and your blood flowing through you. It’s like the rumble from the caverns within your body. We used that to give that sensation to the film.
AF: Another thing you guys just touched on was the idea of the sonic perspective. Tell me a little bit about how you built that depending on which character the camera is focused on.
Ethan: Well the most obvious is Regan. We also go into the sonic perspective of the creatures. There’s a scene in the cornfield, which is Regan’s first up-close experience with the creatures, and we kind of A/B their different sonic perspectives. Of course, the creatures have this acute hearing. That’s when we go into the creature’s sonic envelope, which is this cacophony of insects before it starts to interfere with Regan’s hearing aid.
We have other sonic perspectives as well. There’s the audience perspective of the wind through the farm and the wind through the trees. The father’s (Krasinski) headphone perspective, trying to listen to radio frequencies. Then there’s the moment with the mother (Emily Blunt) listening to the heartbeat of her yet to be born infant. There’s also the couple listening to the music of Neil Young. That’s one of the amazing things about sound. It can put you right in the shoes of the characters, which can be incredibly powerful.
AF: I’ve heard that you’re staying away from trying to give away the combinations that make up these creatures, but what were some inspirations that you used to help create this creature’s sound base?
Erik: So, when we first met with John, one of the things we talked about was the creature design. We batted around the idea that these creatures were blind and they had super acute hearing. What if they navigated through the woods with echolocation? That’s where the “searching” mode came from. Then one of the other modes that the creatures had is what John described to us as an “idling” mode, which is when they’re close to something but they don’t know what it is. Just sort of hearing their organic sounds, like snorting and breathing.
One of their other main modes was agitation, leading to an attack. What does that sound like? We got there by playing with their physical movement and mass and vicious power, as well as going into a shrieky vocal. When they’re attacking, we wanted to make them terrifying. We got there by combining the size, and power, and this horrific vocal element.
Ethan: There was this big discovery we made probably mid-way through the process. We started to strip away the sounds from the creatures. At first, we had them vocalizing quite a bit. Sort of talking through chatter. We realized at a certain point, what if we strip it way back? What does that do to the effect? What we found was that it made them way scarier to hear them less. It was sort of a discovery that reinforced the approach to the entire film.
AF: What is one moment that you point to in the movie that you are most proud of the design you pulled off?
Erik: Well the one scene that gives me goosebumps every time I see the movie is towards the end of the film when the two kids are in the truck. Regan’s cochlear implant starts fritzing again, so she turns it off and we go to absolute silence. She then looks at her brother, who is looking past her, and this is Noah Jupe’s incredible performance as his face starts to contort. It’s this moment of what he’s seeing and hearing, and what she can’t. That incredible combination of pure silence, and such an intense moment, is such a shocking and gives me goosebumps. I know it is shocking to hear a sound designer say their favorite moment is absolutely no sound, but I think that’s part of the fun of this movie.
AF: That is such a cool scene in this film without a doubt. So what’s up next for you guys?
Ethan: I guess the way we work, we have multiple teams below us working on several projects at once. The next one coming is a Marc Forester film for Disney called “Christopher Robin,” which is a very sweet movie. It takes off with Christopher Robin from the “Winnie the Pooh” has grown up and lived through the war. He’s suffering these mid-life doldrums, and he reawakens the joy of his childhood and he becomes reacquainted with all of his friends from the Hundred Acre Wood. That one will be out in August.
AF: Yeah, I’m very excited about that one.
Ethan: Then I think the next thing to come out will be the “Bumblebee” movie from Travis Knight from “Kubo and the Two Strings,” and then I believe its “Godzilla” after that.
Erik: Yup, those are the next few projects.
AF: Alright, before you go I just wanted to say that in my screening, there was a moment you dropped to complete silence and at the same time the theater next to us was letting out. Everyone was so angry at the other theater simply because they were leaving their movie. I got to say, it was one of the coolest theater experiences I’ve ever had with a movie.
Erik: Oh that’s great to hear.
Ethan: We’ve been getting interesting feedback from people with similar experiences, and it’s exciting. I like that people are being forced to listen in a way they’re not used to.
AF: Thank you so much again, and we wish you best of luck moving forward!