'A Quiet Place' Sound Designers on a Trend That Defines This Year's Oscars

The irony of silence in sound design.

When we think of Academy Award-winning sound design, 2017’s bombastic Dunkirk score by Hanz Zimmer or 2016’s haunting Arrival soundtrack (Jóhann Jóhannsson) come to mind, but the 2019 Oscars may surprise us by rewarding a compelling new trend in cinematic sound: the absence of sound itself.

Leading this trend is A Quiet Place, a movie so silent you could hear every piece of popcorn eaten in the theater during screenings, and in an interview, the movies sound designers Erik Aadahl and Ethan Van der Ryn, explain why that decision is part of a broader shift in how movies sound.

“People are ready for a different experience,” Aadahl tells Inverse. “I like to think we helped inspire a new trend in sound.”

Van der Ryn and Aadahl co-founded E² Sound, known for big-budget spectacles like the Transformer movies, World War Z, and The Meg. But they took a different approach with John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, the frighteningly quiet alien invasion horror that caused a commotion early in 2018.

A Quiet Place depicts a sci-fi alien apocalypse in which blind monsters with super-hearing hunt and kill most of humanity. Long stretches of the film are totally silent, and the family at the center of the story only survives as long as they do because they already knew sign language before the apocalypse started.

Regan Abbott argues with her father midway through 'A Quiet Place'.
Regan Abbott argues with her father midway through 'A Quiet Place'.

A Quiet Place was nominated for sound editing at the 91st Academy Awards, but it’s not the only film that deals in silence. Also nominated in the category, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma follows a quiet maid in Mexico City in the early 1970s, and it’s punctuated by long periods of silence. Similarly,

Similarly, First Man (also nominated in the category) recounts the story of Neil Armstrong as the first person to land on the moon. As such, the vacuum of outer space presents an opportunity to honestly portray the silence of space travel.

Silence, it would seem, ironically helped define sound editing in 2018.

“We love it! It’s a great trend,” Van der Ryn says. “It feels like it’s kind of overdue.”

In a conversation between Inverse and Van der Ryn and Aadahl earlier this month, the sound design duo explained TK TK and TK.

A Quiet Place
John Krasinski starred in and directed 'A Quiet Place'.

A surprising number of nominees in sound design this year utilize silence a great deal. Why do you think it was so popular?

Erik Aadahl: Silence is a wonderful way to reset the ear, and it gives the sounds you do play later more meaning.

Using the metaphor of painting: it’s like negative space. A painting that’s just all white is kind of meaningless. But if you have contrast and darkness with a shaft of light — kind of like how Rembrandt paints — it’s the negative space that gives meaning to the positive.

The equivalent of that effect in sound is silence. It’s a wonderful, underused tactic, but when it is used well, people pay attention.

Ethan Van der Ryn: There’s also a psycho-acoustical effect that happens where when we use silence. It actually tends to draw people in and bring them into the picture in a way. Then a lot of sound suddenly can push you back. It’s the opposite of how negative space pulls you in. There’s this push-pull effect of negative sounds versus louder sounds.

What’s the biggest thing you learned from your experience working on A Quiet Place?

Erik Aadahl: My biggest takeaway is a new appreciation for the power of sound. Humans evolved the ability to hear long we evolved the ability to see. Because of that, sound is deeply rooted in our consciousness and subconsciousness. Sounds really interact with the reptilian part of our brains where we feel strong emotion. Whether that’s love, or fear, or whatever else, we feel it very strongly.

I have this new appreciation for the power sound has to manipulate emotion, especially in a story like A Quiet Place. As sound designers, we kind of become the invisible puppet masters in telling the story. That was really invigorating.

How did you react to the success A Quiet Place saw at the box office?

Ethan Van der Ryn: I think we were really pleasantly surprised by the reaction and how much attention it gave to what was going on with sound design. Erik and I have worked on a lot of movies, and it’s rare to get as much attention given to the sound design.

When we’re working on the movie, we took some risks that we’d hoped would pay off. We thought it was going to be engaging and fresh. It was really working for us, but we didn’t have the opportunity to put it in front of an audience before the premiere. We were so happy that audiences responded to it so positively.

Erik Aadahl: It was thrilling to hear people say after they left the theater that they heard the world in a new way. They were newly aware of sound and volume. Their ears had opened up after the experience of the film. That was the greatest compliment: people were experiencing the reality of sound in a new way.

How has the Oscars experience for A Quiet Place been different from other films?

Ethan Van der Ryn: I feel like there’s just been more interest in the sound of this movie than a lot of other movies that we’ve been involved with and nominated for. The level of interest is just heightened for this movie. I attribute it to the, the sort of importance of sound in terms of driving this movie. It’s a sign of how unusual that is for a movie to really make use in such a full way of the power of sound to engage the audience and to drive the narrative.

We’ve never done as much press as we have for this movie.

You’re up against Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, Roma, and First Man. What do you make of the competition?

Erik Aadahl: I think it’s a wonderful batch of fellow nominees and it’s an honor to be considered alongside them. The funny thing is, we know almost all of them. They’re either colleagues or personal friends of ours. It’s fun for all of us that we’re getting acknowledgment for sound design.

We’re all kind of rooting for each other.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Media via Paramount Pictures, T GCAX