Like last year’s Oscar-winning “Dunkirk,” “A Quiet Place” offers a unique soundscape that drives the propulsive narrative. Indeed, John Krasinski’s horror hit is all about sound and makes brilliant use of silence as a storytelling device.
And all the better in Dolby Atmos, in which we become totally immersed in the sonic terror. Make a loud noise and the creatures will pounce and kill you. So it’s not surprising that much of the movie’s success is wrapped around the brilliant sound design (a sure Oscar contender) in concert with Marco Beltrami’s menacing score. (Spoiler Alert: We divulge plot points involving the creatures.)
“Audiences assume that movies with lots of sound are the hardest to do,” said supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl (“Transformers: The Last Knight”). “Not so. Counter-intuitively, a quiet film can be hard, if not harder, because you don’t have a cloak of sound to hide behind. You’ve got something very sparse where every little detail becomes magnified because there isn’t just this bed of noise all around it. So, one of the broad challenges of this film was creating a really quiet environment where the logic has to work and every sound that you hear can’t be too much because it’s life or death for the characters.”
Creating Sonic Points of View
Director, co-writer, and co-star Krasinski recommended that supervising sound editors Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn (“The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”) create sonic points of view — or “envelopes” — for each member of the Abbott family as well as for the creatures. However, while Evelyn (Emily Blunt), Lee (Krasinski) and son Marcus (Noah Jupe) occupy a normal sonic space, deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) has her own unique situation that she shares with the creatures, which are blind yet communicate through clicking sounds and navigate with bio sonar similar to dolphins and bats.
“Millie has two sonic envelopes,” said Van der Ryn, “one with her cochlear implant turned on and one when it’s turned off. And the creatures experience an inverse. where the smallest sounds are amped up to the point of immense irritation.” Different and often annoying levels of feedback, therefore, became an important part of the sonic signature.
A State of Flux
Aadahl and Van der Ryn were on a very compressed schedule and in a constant state of flux, with scenes evolving due to last-minute creature design by Industrial Light & Magic (supervised by “Transformers” vet Scott Farrar). The sounds of trees, wind, and rustling clothes were created by their team, with additional foley assistance from Toronto-based Foley One (“The Shape of Water”).
Composer Beltrami (“Logan”), meanwhile, was brought on to create an otherworldly score that complemented their creepy sound design. Music had to either be stripped out or extended to accommodate the sonic vibe. “It was a big arc to carry through, so the music was to inspire a sick to your stomach feeling, but still leave room for the sound world to lead in terms of what [they’re] hearing,” he said.
Beltrami composed a melodic yet slightly askew theme for the family, in which the black piano keys were de-tuned a quarter tone, and a creature theme with a pulsing, attacking presence. It’s a low, bending motif that was electronic but recorded from acoustical sources (brass, strings, and percussion).
A Real Nail Biter
The first really scare moment occurred when Evelyn’s water breaks and goes into labor. She steps on a nail going down the stairs, and finds herself trapped in the basement with one of the creatures. But she smartly uses an egg timer to throw the creature off so she can escape into the bathtub upstairs. When fireworks go off, she’s finally able to scream and finish going into labor.
“It’s a testament to Emily Blunt’s pure acting and our job was not to step on it and mess it up,” Aadahl said. “None of the creatures had actually been designed, they’re not there, so it’s all her and she completely sells it.” The creatures have different sonic predatory modes (searching, idling, attack, and pain). “As they get agitated, the intensity of their vocals get amped up,” he added. “It’s nice to have a movie where we can go from complete silence to 11.”
Added Van der Ryn: “In this particular scene, we wanted to understand bettter how much the creature can hear once it opens up its ear. We go into the close-up of the creature’s ear after it unfolds and we allow just the sound of the egg timer to get incredibly amplified. So it becomes clear how the creature is experiencing sound and how different it is from the rest of us.”
However, after shooting the scene the sound editors realized that they needed to cut directly to the egg timer to connect the dots, so the scene was reshot. Also, ILM needed to re-animate the creature when they decided not to show it creeping down the stairs in full view. “These are examples of sound leading the way with our experimentations,” said Van der Ryn.”