The Sounds of Silence (or, What Noises Do Animated Fantasies Make?)
The critical noise surrounding the recent release of horror film A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 2018) has largely served to amplify its considered (and sparse) application of sound. The film’s narrative certainly explores the implications of selective sound and image arrangement, with the complex interplay between each sonic component used in service of crafting the danger of (largely offscreen) fantasies. Sonic suggestion is certainly central to how A Quiet Place orchestrates the drama of its part-science-fiction, part-horror, part-family drama premise. Set on a dystopian Earth in 2020 (that feels more than a mere two years away...), A Quiet Place tells the story of the Abbott family who live silently and relentlessly scavenge for supplies, all the while trying to dodge a plague of creatures with a hypersensitivity to sound. The Abbotts know all to well the risks that such creatures pose, having lost their youngest son Beau during the film’s opening scenes (the sound of the four-year-old’s battery-powered space shuttle toy luring in the creatures, despite his father Lee’s frantic efforts to save him). The remainder of the film plots the family’s mounting dread largely from inside their soundproof farmhouse, as well as their frequent foraging expeditions into the nearby woods (Fig. 1). Communicating chiefly through American Sign Language (ASL), Lee, pregnant matriarch Evelyn, alongside children Marcus and Regan, must avoid making a sound as those who make noise become an easy target for the alien creatures’ perverse affections.
At the centre of John Krasinski’s impressive feature-length horror debut as director is Lee's relationship with his daughter (played by deaf actress Millicent Simmonds), whose guilt over Beau's death leads her to believe that her survivalist father blames her for the monsters' attack on her younger sibling. This tension adds additional nuance to a film that quickly becomes more than just an experiment with silence and sound editing, but is instead about how sound has evolved into a crucial structuring principle that supports the relationship between each family member. But if the ability to hear is what fractures Lee’s relationship with his daughter (he also struggles to devise a working hearing aid for Regan, much to their frustration), it is also the thing that must be managed and controlled at every turn. When Evelyn is forced to give birth – in a bathtub – in total silence as a way of protecting both herself and her newborn, the absence of sound is, paradoxically, raised to its highest pitch of emphasis (Fig. 2). It is ultimately this drama of a “life turned down” (DeFore 2018) and the momentary visualisation of sound (in its absence) that drives the narrative of A Quiet Place, whilst perhaps working to secure the film’s spot within the horror genre. As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman notes, A Quiet Place “generates a free-floating dread out of the fact that almost every sound a character makes is potentially deadly” (2018). But as part of its generic manipulation of elements, A Quiet Place combines a largely realist visual repertoire – including almost no non-diegetic sounds and a gritty sense of aesthetic realism – with moments of unexpected technological innovation. Just as Lee, played by Krasinski himself, makes regular attempts to upgrade daughter's cochlear implant to restore her hearing, A Quiet Place expresses its own technical specialisms in combining live-action with moments of unexpected, yet undoubtedly spectacular, digital animation. Unlike Lee's frustrated attempts at rewiring his daughter's hearing aid, the film's own creative bargains that it strikes with technology are thankfully far is more successful.
The fantasy of A Quiet Place is certainly anchored to its portrayal of the army of sightless CG creatures, whose responsiveness to sound is as relentless as it is devastating. Vanity Fair reporter Yohana Desta noted of the "nameless monsters" that "They move rapidly, so that for much of the film all you see are quick, large blurs that jolt out of the woods and pounce on their prey. When you do finally see them, they're utterly grotesque - large and lithe, with faces that open up into a flap and thumping ear canals that get lots of garish close-ups" (2018). Influenced in their design by "prehistoric fish, black snakes, and bats, particularly their movement patterns" (ibid.), the film's muscular humanoid-esque beasts are delivered in unnerving fragments, using sound as a way of hinting at their presence at the same time as such noises must be muffled by the Abbotts to prevent their enemy's very monstrous appearance. The creatues' angular, geometric design also provides a stark visual counterpoint to the softening of the Abbott family home as it is insulated with sheets, mattress and pillows. Yet the clicking, scuttling digitized monsters with extended ears also visually match the decrepit farmhouse, replete with broken wood panels and protruding rusty nails that, like the monsters, are initially left unseen by the characters in the film and glimpsed only briefly. Yet it is through the intrusion of these creatures into the barren post-apocalyptic world that A Quiet Place transforms into something resembling an animated fantasy. Industrial Light and Magic provided extensive visual effects for the film, including the motion-captured aliens that prowl and marshal the land surrounding the farmhouse as the Abbotts live in enforced quietude.
As many writers have acknowledged, fantasy and animation have both found enduring places within the screen histories and traditions of horror cinema. Paul Wells argues that “animation is particularly adept at foregrounding its specificity as a form in relation to the horror genre” (2003: 48). In particular, as Wells notes, the frequent animated adaptations of Gothic literature reflect animation’s own ability to function as a rhetorical commentary upon the principles, codes and conventions of specific generic frameworks. Wells gives the specific example of the "gothic surreality" of Edgar Allan Poe’s 1843 short story The Tell-Tale Heart, which was adapted by the UPA studio in 1953, as well as others such as the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Mad Doctor (David Hand, 1933) (see left) and, more recently, children's television series Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids (Jamie Rix, 2001) produced initially for ITV (Wells 2002: 45). When also considering the qualities of transformation and metamorphosis so often attributed to the power of the animated medium, horror appears the ideal subject matter through which to explore its creative potential. A Quiet Place is one such exploration, flexing its creative muscles in its depiction of the monsters and fully exploiting the capabilities of animation to realise the horror of what has largely remained unseen and unheard (qualities equally demanded of the Abbotts themselves). But Krasinski's film adds a deft use of sound into its mixture of animation and fantasy, and in doing so invites spectators to think about the role of sound in the construction of animated fantasies. Many scholars have identified "the new technologies driving fantasy's sound (the Dolby era) and image (computer graphics)" in the post-classical Hollywood era (Holliday 2018: 219), as well as the function of sound and composition across the fantasy genre more broadly. Janet Halfyard's edited collection The Music of Fantasy Cinema, for example, aims to "to see clearly the manner in which fantasy and its musical strategies have changed over time” (2012: 10), thereby plotting music's dramatic relationship to the machinations of fantasy and its sword-and-sorcery narratives. This sound/image relation plays no less a strong part in the overall success of A Quiet Place, which exploits the scarcity of sound for its own scares, but also as a way of making solid the liminal (and ultimately virtual) creatures achieved through computer graphics. A Quiet Place asks us to think about what fantasy might sound like, and how sonic elements can conjure or actualise the fantastic moments of a film. We know, perhaps, what a Disney animated fantasy sounds like or what a fantastic sound effect might resemble, but what other noises do such fantasy animations make? As Krasinski's film makes tantalisingly clear, the creative place between fantasy and animation is anything but quiet.
Defore, John. "'A Quiet Place': Film Review," Hollywood Reporter (March 9, 2018), accessed August 9, 2018, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/a-quiet-place-review-1093580.
Desta, Yohana. "“Gross It Up”: How the Freaky Monsters of A Quiet Place Were Created," Variety (April 11, 2018), access August 9, 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/04/a-quiet-place-monsters-effects.
Gleiberman, Owen. "Film Review: 'A Quiet Place," Variety (March 9, 2018), accessed August 9, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/film/reviews/a-quiet-place-review-sxsw-emily-blunt-john-krasinski-1202722603/.
Halfyard, Janet, ed. The Music of Fantasy Cinema (Genre, Music, and Sound Series.) (Sheffield: Equinox, 2012).
Holliday, Christopher. "From Buzz to Business: Hollywood, Fantasy and the Computer-Animated Film Industry," in Fantasy/Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, eds. Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant (London and New York: Routledge, 2018), 210-226.
Wells, Paul. Animation: Genre and Authorship (London: Wallflower Press, 2002.