A Quiet Place Part II Sound Design: "People Were Afraid To Eat Their Popcorn In The Theatre!"

At the time of interviewing sound editors Ethan Van der Ryn and Erik Aadahl in early 2020, A Quiet Place Part II, the sequel to John Krasinski’s 2018 horror hit A Quiet Place, was due to hit cinemas a few months later, and the duo had just finished the movie’s audio mix. Little did anyone know that the film would not end up hitting the big screen until over a year later...

It turned out to be worth the wait: at the time of writing, the delayed sequel has become the biggest hit at North American box offices since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Quiet Place Part II follows what’s left of the Abbott family as they are forced to navigate and survive in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by blind monsters with a rather acute sense of hearing.

After seeing how much tension can be created by a strategically placed nail in the first movie, I’m keen to hear what Van der Ryn and Aadahl have in store for audiences for round two.

Congratulations on wrapping A Quiet Place Part II! What were your roles in this film?

E.V: We're happy to be done with our movie now. We actually finished the final mix yesterday morning at 7am!

E.A: As the supervising sound editors, we oversee the post production sound department. Our job is to be the ears of the movie, and the whole process of gathering sounds through recording to then designing those sounds, working with people in our team like the Foley artists, the dialogue editor, ADR editors, re-recording mixers, to basically building the whole track, and working directly with our director John Krasinski to fulfil his vision for the movie.

As sound designers, what were your initial thoughts of the concept of the first movie, given that the characters can’t make any noise?

E.V: When we first read the script, our first reaction was like, ‘wow, this is a sound designer’s dream’ – just the opportunity to tell so much of the story with sound; the importance of sound in the telling of the story was just incredibly exciting to us. Challenging, yes, but we were really excited by the possibilities inherent in the script.

When we saw the first cut of the movie, we wanted to get to work right away. We didn't have a lot of time. We met with John, he pitched us a little bit, and he said, ‘How do you want to work this? Do you want me to come in and start working with you guys’? And we said, ‘No, we'd like to take a pass by ourselves and then be able to present it to you, get your reactions and feedback, and start working that way’.

That worked really well for us because it allowed us to respond to the movie as it was at that point, and start working based on our own instinctual responses for where we wanted to go with the soundtrack.

One of the big things that hit us right away was the desire to explore the point of view of the deaf daughter, Regan. What is it like for her on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment level to be living in this world where sound is critical, and where being able to hear is critical for your survival? If you make too much sound, you're likely to be dead.

That puts her in such an incredibly vulnerable position, and we realised that can be really powerful at times in the movie and we could find places to go into her point of view, sonically, and experience that as a viewer.

We realised pretty quickly that this is gonna work and this can add a lot of incredible contrast moment-to-moment, as well as going a long way towards making the experience of watching the film incredibly interactive, intimate and personal.

E.A: When we read the script, our jaws were on the floor! We thought that this might be one of the most challenging projects we've ever taken on, but it had the potential to be the most rewarding.

Sound is a central character in the film, and we're following the story of this family that’s gone through extraordinary lengths to survive by understanding sound and using sound as a survival tool, to the point where they've laid down sand on paths so they don't make sound as they walk, they painted floorboards that are safe to step on and won't make a creek.

They use sound as a diversionary tactic, like an egg timer, or the waterfall which is the only safe place they can have a full conversation (because of the physics of sound, the louder sound will mask the smaller sound).

It was built into the story, so it was the perfect toolbox of sonic play for us. It was pretty thrilling to have the original writers, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, who came up with this concept, and our incredible director, actor and also writer John Krasinski, who truly understood the power of sound and shaped this cinematic experience around our craft. That was such a thrill. And now he's done it again!

We started hearing that people were afraid to eat their popcorn in the theatre! That was thrilling for us to hear.

Sound is a particularly powerful tool in horror movies; I find myself covering my ears when watching horror films, not my eyes. Do you think that says a lot about the power of audio design in this genre?

E.A: I agree with you that sound goes to the reptilian part of the brain – evolutionarily speaking, we develop the sense of sound before we develop the sense of sight. I think because of that, it goes so much deeper into our subconscious, and it's an incredibly powerful tool in cinema.

By working on scary films as sound designers we can become the puppet masters of the audience’s emotions in an invisible way, as opposed to the image. A great picture editor, Walter Murch had this wonderful saying along the lines of, ‘images come in through the front door, but sound comes in through the back door’. I love that metaphor, because it's just so true.

E.V: Sound is such a great way to help describe suspense, which of course, is such a big part of this film in particular, and horror films in general. Just to be able to create this environment of incredible suspense where we can be hearing things happening off-screen that we don't a way, that can be more scary than when we're actually seeing it.

E.A: There's been this trend in cinema to go bigger, louder: ‘how huge can you get with the soundtrack’? This movie was an opportunity to completely invert that idea and flip it on its head. So for us it became, ‘how quiet can we get’?

The amazing effect that has on an audience is it actually makes them more scared than if you have a big sound. It can have the effect of making an audience hold their breath, and be afraid to breathe – just like the characters on screen.

We started hearing stories after the first film that people were afraid to eat their popcorn in the theatre! That was thrilling for us to hear because it's like, ‘Okay, this experiment that we tried actually works’! We were able to literally make the audience hold their breath.

What techniques from the first film did you apply to the sound design in the sequel?

E.V: The biggest thing was, ‘how can we use the idea of quiet, and in fact, the idea of complete silence’? This is a place that we went to a couple times in the first film when we were in Regan's sonic point of view and she had her cochlear implant turned off, out of her ear.

There were about three brief moments in the first film where we went to complete digital zero – complete silence – which is something that is almost never done in modern films. In this second film we were able to expand on that idea a little more.

It was really about building on the idea of this world where silence or quiet equals survival, and also exploring the vulnerability of not being able to hear it all; what is that like in this world?

Which moments from the sequel work particularly well from a sound design point of view?

E.A: I always love the strange dichotomy between Regan and the creatures: she's a deaf person, and the creatures are kind of the opposite. They have extremely sensitive hearing – a hyper ability to hear, so it’s two different sides of the coin between them.

I love moments where we can compare and contrast the creatures’ point of view and Regan's point of view.

Without giving anything of my favourite moments from the new film is going into the creature's heightened sense of hearing and allowing the audience to perceive what it perceives.

E.V: I'm gonna actually go with another moment, which, oddly enough, is another moment where we're in Regan's point of view. She's woken up from a nap and her hearing aid is gone, and so we're in her completely silent sonic point of view.

As she realises, ‘oh my god, where's my hearing aid?’ – it's so intimate to feel like we're that close to someone else's experience. Just to feel her vulnerability in such a critical and visceral way is very powerful for me.

I find it kind of ironic that both of us have honed in on moments that involve complete silence, and how ironic is that for people who work with sounds to actually have our favourite moments be actually silent moments. To me it just points out the power of sound. Sometimes it's not until we take something away that we fully understand the power that it has.

I think that's so true because so much of how we perceive sound is taken for granted, and by taking it away, we're suddenly confronted with, ‘oh my god, sound plays such a huge part in my life and my experience of the world’. It's not until we lose that that we realise what a powerful part of our experience it is.

E.A: It reminds me of when we were experimenting with an anechoic chamber in Minnesota, which is a completely sonically isolated chamber. It's completely eerie.

If you go into one of those and the lights are turned off – your balance comes from your ears – and by not having any sort of sound cues for orientation, you lose your balance in the dark in this chamber and it takes a few minutes for your brain to readjust to such a lack of sound.

Then the threshold starts adjusting and you can hear the fluids going through your body, your heart pumping, and the whine of your nervous system. We based the sound of Regan's sonic point of view for when her cochlear implant is turned on upon that experience of being in an anechoic chamber.

Did you have a feeling the first movie would be such a hit with audiences?

E.A: We knew it was something special. Our only thermometer is our own taste – that's how we gauge a movie. If we get goosebumps and we like it, we know it's good. Of course whether that translates to an audience's reaction is a completely other question. None of us knew, ‘Is this just going to be too weird for people? Will people respond’?

We didn't really have the answer to that question until we premiered the movie at South by Southwest for 1,200 people and it got a standing ovation. That was a thrill because it was like a vindication, like, ‘Okay, this grand experiment worked’.

E.V: On most movies that we do, we do test screenings all through the process to see how things are working, and on the first movie, we weren't able to actually do any test screenings to give us that feedback.

So we really were in a way just operating fully on our own instincts and our own taste. We really didn't know how it would work with a wider audience, so that was a fun and thrilling experience to have.

E.A: One of my favourite things was hearing from people after they'd seen and heard the film. They said they walked out of the theatre onto the street and heard the world in a new way, in a fresh way.

They were shocked at how noisy the street was! They were paying attention to the individual sounds, which we often usually just filter out. That was really gratifying to hear that the experience lingers for people.

What technology did you use to bring A Quiet Place Part II’s sound design to life?

E.A: The company Ethan I co-own is called , and we have a building on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, which is where we do most of our design work. We record all over out in the field, and we also do quite a bit of recording in our studio.

One of our favourite tools are extended frequency microphones, for example the Sanken CO-100K – which goes beyond the range of human hearing. It can reach frequencies that only minke whales can hear – 100kHz.

We've had a lot of fun with sound design, exploring that range beyond the limits of human hearing into the audible range.

Our main workstations are Pro Tools systems. We did the bulk of our sound design in 7.1 in all of our design rooms and the film was mixed both at Warner Brothers Burbank on stage five, and our final mix was Warner Brothers, New York, which is where Ethan mentioned we just finished yesterday morning.

What is it like experiencing the finished movie as people that have worked on it; is it able to frighten you?

E.V: The experience of working on it definitely changes the experience because we don't have the advantage of not knowing something scary is about to happen; we already know that surprise.

That being said, I will say that there's still a few moments in this new film where every time it goes by, I jump. I literally jump out of my seat. There's definitely moments that get me every single time.