A Quiet Place's Oscar-nominated sound guys take on noisy eaters

Sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl are up for an Academy Award for the "sonic envelopes" in John Krasinski's horror hit.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Jonny Cournoyer

Horror movie A Quiet Place made a lot of noise in 2018. Not only was it a box office smash in the US, but now it's earning Oscars buzz for its sound editing.

Much of the film plays out in heart-stopping near-silence as writer, director and star John Krasinski joins Emily Blunt to battle vicious monsters possessing a keen sense of hearing -- which makes sound a matter of life or death. 

The Oscar nomination, announced Tuesday, goes to sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn, who has previously won two Oscars for sound editing, and Erik Aadahl, who has been nominated for sound editing Oscars. They were responsible for what they call the "amazing alchemy" of sound and silence that draws us into the inner worlds of the story's embattled family members. Krasinski has called the film a "sound designer's dream."

CNET spoke with Aadahl and Van der Ryn last year before the film's release. Here is the conversation.

Q: How did you approach the unusual sound for A Quiet Place, where we go inside the head of each character -- and even the monster -- to hear only what they hear in their little bubble?
Erik Aadahl: 
John [Krasinski] coined 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 [when we hear only what she hears through her hearing aid], 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]. 

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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. 

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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?
 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.

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. 

USA - Portraiture - Ethan Van der Ryn
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USA - Portraiture - Ethan Van der Ryn

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

Ann Johansson

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?
 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 (industry guidelines for optimum sound levels in the auditorium)? 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...

First published April 11, 2018.
Update, Jan, 22, 2019 at 7:02 a.m. PT: Adds Oscar nomination.

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