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A Quiet Place Part II Sound Designers Explain How They Scare Audiences

A Quiet Place Part II Sound Designers

A Quiet Place Part II is currently scaring audiences across the globe. To commemorate the release, sat down with sound designing team Ethan Van Der Ryn and Erik Aadahl, who shared some absolutely fascinating insights regarding the use of sound in John Krasinski’s horror sequel.

Following the deadly events at home, the Abbott family must now face the terrors of the outside world as they continue their fight for survival in silence. Forced to venture into the unknown, they quickly realize that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

John Krasinski directed the horror sequel, which stars Emily Blunt, Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy and Djimon Hounsou.

Jeff Ames: Thank you for reaching out to us to talk about A Quiet Place Part II. I watched it this weekend and I just want to say congratulations, you did it again! You scared the crap out of everybody.

Ethan Van Der Ryn and Erik Aadahl: (Laughs) Our pleasure!

What initially drew you guys to the original A Quiet Place?

Van Der Ryn: Well, so the original, we read the script and we were completely, completely blown away like haven’t been before after reading a script because we realized, “Oh my God, this is a dream for us as sound designers to be able to work on this film where sound is sort of all important to survival. We realized right away the sound was going to become like another character in the film. For us on every project we work on, we put so much attention into all these details which become almost subliminal in the finished project. Most people won’t pick up on so much of the work that we do. It’s just going to make the world feel real to people and believable, and they’re going to go with it, but they’re not going to think about it.

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But with A Quiet Place, we realized right away this is going to be a movie where people are finally gonna really pay attention in a new way to the sound because the sound is so critical to driving the story forward. The sound becomes the motor in a way, driving the movie forward and also creating an experience for people and taking people on this journey that’s really, in a way, defined by what the sound is telling them in any given moment. We immediately sensed the possibilities in that and we were excited about the prospect of being involved with it.

Did you feel like the sequel was more challenging because now you have to dig into your bag of tricks a little bit more, right?

Aadahl: That’s right! Both part one and part two had their own unique challenges. I think the biggest challenge in part one was knowing we’re living in this universe where there are creatures who hunt by sound. Now, there’s a family who has to be very creative and adapt to that and their reality doing everything they can to understand sound in order to survive — from painting floorboards that creek so they avoid stepping on them or laying down trails of sand so that their footsteps are muted, to not having a conversation without sign language unless you’re next to a waterfall, which will cloak the sound of your voice. Then, of course, learning towards the end of the film that sound is not only the danger but can also be the weapon when Regan, the deaf daughter, realizes that her cochlear implants create feedback with these creatures that are painful for them and makes them vulnerable. So, creating all of those kinds of concepts was the challenge for the first film.

The second film was like, okay, well, how do we expand on that universe, expand on the creature sound design, build it out, create a bigger vocabulary with what we started with? So, two very different challenges, but we were thrilled to jump in and try to tackle it again. The first film we saw was kind of this grand sonic experiment, and we were so relieved when audiences actually not only understood what we were doing but embraced it as a true cinematic experience. It was fun to see that happen again with “experiment part two.”

Van Der Ryn: I think one thing that I would add is how the work we do on these stories is really about creating an experience for an audience. These films are really best experienced as an audience together because they are kind of unique in the sense that we are taken on this journey with these characters and we’re put in the shoes of these characters and we’re really seeing the world through their eyes and hearing the world through their ears. Being able to go into that in the detail that we do with these films to create that unique sonic experience is I think unique to these films and something that’s super special to us.

The sound obviously plays a crucial element in generating scares in these films, but there are also a number of scenes in which the lack of sound creates tension. There’s the bit where Regan is on the train car and she can’t hear the alien behind her — how much are you guys involved in the planning of a sequence like this?

Van Der Ryn: It’s a real collaboration between John [Krasinski], us, the mixer Brandon Proctor and the editing team. It’s a real collaboration. We’re completely involved because there’s a lot of experimentation involved in figuring out what works the best and what’s going to create the most emotion and the most drama. When we start working it’s not always immediately evident what’s going to work the best. So, there’s a real process of experimentation to get there and figure out what’s going to work the best. Something that Eric and I both realized, I think pretty early in our careers, working on big action movies is that where you don’t play sound actually in some ways becomes more important to where you do play sound.

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Especially in big scenes where you have a lot going on. Sometimes if you have too much sound happening at once it turns into mud and just overload, and what becomes important is contrast. And what contrast means in those terms is taking sound out and not playing sound. As sound designers, our basic unit of measurement is a 24th of a second, which is one frame. So, we’re dealing with the sonic world on this microscopic level and looking to create contrast by taking sound out for these microseconds or possibly being able to expand that to longer and create more contrast. These films, part two, in particular, really provides us a brilliant canvas for being able to play with that whole idea of creating contrast through lots of sonic action and then cutting to extreme quiet; or, in the most extreme case of that, total digital zero silence.

So, in some ways, the work we do on these films is really an extension of the work we’ve been doing our entire careers in terms of realizing that the way we create the most impactful experience is to create contrast within the sound design. These films are really the culmination of that work in terms of being able to go from a lot of sound to the complete absence of sound, which for us is really the ultimate dream.

What was the most difficult scene to work on in A Quiet Place Part Two?

Aadahl: One of my favorite parts of the movie is the entire opening sequence. So, in A Quiet Place, we start weeks, if not months, into this alien invasion; and you’re dropped right into the middle of this family surviving. In A Quiet Place Part II, we open on what looks like a deserted town and then vroom(!), this truck roars in and this is where John Krasinski’s character, Lee Abbott, steps out and slams the doorway too loud. And we cut to this title card that says, “Day One,” so that the audience realizes right away, “Okay. We’re, we’re going back in time now and starting from the very beginning.” What I love about the opening is that it unfolds in real-time going through the mundane little errands of picking up oranges from the store and overhearing some concerning news reports from around the world and going to the little league game, and just moment by moment, we’re slowly building tension through the simple everyday acts of everyday life to when we see the first fireball start to drop from the sky and then the mayhem that ensues.

So, that was a really complicated sequence not only for John to shoot — much of what he did was in camera with some crazy techniques. For example, with Evelyn, his wife in the car and then reversing with a bus coming right at the front of the car — that was all in-camera, practical effects with real stunt drivers. So, obviously very challenging on a production level; and then also very challenging for us to create the reality of this entire experience. It’s one big chunk of the movie where there’s no music and purely sound design.

One of my favorite things that we’ve done then in both movies is playing the sonic perspective of characters, in particular Regan, the daughter who happens to be deaf (and played by Millicent Simmonds, who’s also deaf in real life). And when we go into her sonic perspective, her sonic POV, all we hear is sort of the low rumble of her cochlear implant, unless it’s turned off and then we play complete digital silence. In the opening of the movie — reiterating what Ethan explained about the contrast between big sounds and chaos and then the contrast of negative sonic space — we really used Regan as a kind of a palate cleanser within the chaos of this scene, where we’d pop into her point of view and hear almost nothing; and there’s something kind of visceral and shocking about that experience.

This is part of what’s magical to me about sound is that it has the power of putting the audience into the shoes of a character with the snap of a finger. That’s such a wonderful thing about Regan’s character being able to do that with sound — a technique our director, John Krasinski, wound up calling a “sonic envelope.” We do it in both films for not just Regan, but also family members listening to their headphones. Even playing with the creatures’ sonic perspective is such a dream as a sound designer in that sense — to really be able to play with using sound to create an experience for audiences. That’s uniquely something that’s we’re only really able to do in cinema, and ideally in theaters. And it’s wonderful now to see that things are opening up again and that audiences came back for our movie and seemed to really embrace it.

Van Der Ryn: In terms of challenges, I would say that the ending of the film presented some unique challenges in the sense that we’re sort of weaving these three different stories together in a kind of a unique way; and music becomes an important tool for helping to connect the three separate story threads of our characters. The music ties them all together. Then, our challenge becomes — as sound designers — how do we create tension and drama within each of these three stories and articulate each story without being overcome by the connected thread of the music? That poses some sort of unique challenges in terms of, well, how do we want to play the creature? How do we want to play the idea that sound is still important, even though it becomes harder to hear some of these important details? It becomes a real balancing act between what specific elements do we want to hear at any one time. It’s much less challenging when we’re given the whole pallet to just the sound design, to have it be exactly what it needs to be without needing to compete with any other sonic elements. And so, the ending provided some unique challenges in terms of how do we keep all these threads connected, but still distinct from each other and still tense.

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