A Masterclass in Sound Design
A Quiet Place, the first major-league budgeted film from director John Krasinski (13 Hours, The Office), is the type of picture that will be examined and explored at length in film schools across the country for decades to come. It’s a film that examines the medium of film itself, specifically the role of sound in film, and it touches on a number of groundbreaking hypotheses in the process.
The first thing I noticed at the film’s outset had nothing to do with the picture at all, but rather the sounds surrounding me in the theater. We start off in an abandoned town, with our family hiding out in an old thrift store, and, as you may have gathered by now, it’s silent. The premise of the film is extremely high-concept and laid out in full by the logline: “If they hear you, they hunt you,” so it goes without saying that our family – headed by the real-world husband-and-wife team of Krasinski and Emily Blunt – carries itself in silence. We don’t get our first music cue until several minutes in, which means that the opening sequence leaves the theater awkwardly quiet. So much so that I began to notice every little sound around me – coughs, sniffles, munching of popcorn, opening of candy, a cell phone ringing near the front, latecomers piling in and arguing in hushed tones about where to sit, the smart guy directly in front of me who blurted out, “I can’t hear!” as the collective shushing attempted quell the vocal onslaught of the latecomers.
At first I thought this was just the natural side-effect of opening a film in silence, but then I realized it was something more. By allowing us these first awkward moments sitting in silence and noticing every annoying person in the theater, Krasinski is brilliantly world-building. What he’s saying is, “You notice each little cough, sniffle, and candy wrapper when it’s this quiet, now imagine existing in a world where those little inconvenient noises can get you decapitated in an instant.” It’s one thing to have a high-concept premise explained to you through exposition, it’s quite another to lay that premise in your lap and make you realize it for yourself.
And therein lies the true brilliance of A Quiet Place, its sound design, an often overlooked and underappreciated aspect of filmmaking that is rarely at the forefront of any filmic discussion but, put plainly, is something that Hollywood dream-makers in this day-in-age simply could not live without.
In order to best understand how important sound design is, one need look no further than the Comedy Central Cartoon South Park, which has survived two-plus decades on basic cable using visuals derived from shards of construction paper – the very same medium kindergartners stain with boogers and edible-paste in an attempt to earn gold stars on the bulletin board. Even though South Park isn’t much to look at (though it’s come a long way visually since its inception), what brings the small Colorado town and its over-the-top collection of characters to life is the sound design. South Park does an incredible job, not just with its voice-acting, but also with its diegetic sound – the flick of a light switch, the hum of a fan, the sound of chewing, a car passing in the distance, birds singing, a television playing in the background during an argument – all the little sounds that usually go unnoticed, never are in an episode of South Park, and that’s exactly why shards of construction paper come to life and allow the viewer to experience emotional stakes and fully-developed characters. It sounds alive, it is alive, regardless of what it looks like.
But visuals aren’t a problem for Krasinski, who produces an amazing looking picture in A Quiet Place alongside cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen, best known for her work on Fences and The Girl on the Train. Instead, Krasinski uses sound design to supplement other aspects of his film, specifically the narrative, where the sense of hearing, and the act of making noise have life-and-death consequences attached. We learn this very early on and in startling fashion when the youngest member of the family, Beau (Cade Woodward), is savagely killed when he turns on a toy spaceship that lights up and makes tiny whooshing sounds that echo through the forest like a rock concert in the middle of a library. The boy is killed thanks to his oldest sibling, Regan, as played by Millicent Simmonds, who is, like the character she plays here, deaf. Whenever we are in Regan’s point-of-view, the sound design hollows out and leaves us in utter silence, which is different from film silence in that it doesn’t include environmental tone. These moments are jarring, because we aren’t used to them as an audience, but they are brilliant as well, because they put us inside Regan’s head and allow us to understand her perspective without a hint of exposition. One such moment occurs just before Beau’s death, as we are given a shot-reverse-POV of Regan watching her father Lee (Krasinski) turn in silence and run past her toward Beau, who is lifted off his feet and taken away by the alien enemy in a blink of an eye. This is first time we start to question how a deaf person exists within this realm. At first, I thought being deaf in this world may be an advantage, after all, a deaf person would be ahead of the game when it comes to dealing with silence, knowing already what others would have to learn – like sign language. But this scene and a couple of others in which Regan is inches from the aliens without knowing because she can’t see them, gives us the understanding that being deaf in this world is also like being blind: In a world in which sound is sight, not hearing is not seeing as well.
Where supervising sound editor Erik Aadahl’s 19-member sound team truly shines its brightest is in the construction of the alien creatures themselves. The graphics team designed the creatures to feature a large ear-like abscesses in their heads and we are given close-ups of the aliens “hearing” from time to time. But their movement and their hearing wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the sound design, which features clicks and ping-backs in the visceral, violent noises the creatures make. This gives the feeling that these aliens exist in a world of sonar, where they send sounds out and evaluate the echoes that return in order “see” the world around them. We never really delve into the working function of the creatures themselves, and Krasinski keeps his film moving at an incredible pace (the TRT is 90 minutes), because of sound-design decisions like these. We understand, or at least have a working understanding of how these creatures exist simply because of the sound design. We don’t need long, drawn-out moments of exposition where one character explains to another how these things work. We have the high-concept premise, and we have the sound design, and that’s all we ever need to understand everything we need to know about our otherworldly antagonists.
While I wasn’t a fan of everything about the film – it relies too heavily on kids making poor decisions to get the family into trouble, and some of the major plot-points were a little heavy-handed and on-the-nose – it’s obvious why American audiences are in love with this picture.
At its heart, this is a film aimed at parents. At one point, Blunt posits, “What are we if we can’t protect our children?” The theme laid out in verse. Krasinski, best known for his heart-felt role on the American version of The Office, is nothing if not genuine in his love and care of his wife and kids. Blunt pulls off the best acting and is the focus of the film’s finest sequence, when she is confronted by one of the alien creatures as she goes into labor, and one can’t help but feel her pain physically as she demands more and more of our empathy with each passing frame. The entire family is suffering through PTSD after the loss of Beau in the opening sequence, and although I wish we could have delved deeper into their individual psyches regarding the loss, we are given more than enough to decipher how each character is dealing with it. There is also a bit of a playful streak in the film, as Krasinski peppers in here and there much-needed moments of levity, including the film’s final shot which could have been stolen from a Duke Nukem video game trailer.
In the end though, what we are left with is a convincing argument for pay raises among Hollywood’s sound producers and editors. This film is all about what sound means, what silence means, and how the sense of hearing is integral to our understanding of the world around us. It is a masterclass in sound design, especially when it comes to our villains, who need no more explanation than a sentence or two because of what Krasinski’s sound team was able to accomplish in their design. The plot is tension-heavy and unafraid. It kills off its most and least vulnerable characters and it shows a family’s strength is its love, even as it deals with the tragic and unthinkable. It also creates one sequence – we’ll call it “Blunt in the bathtub” – that will be talked about in film circles for decades to come.