Foley Artists, The Unsung Heroes Creating Realistic Sound For Film And Television
There’s just something so satisfying about watching a film with great sound effects – as a sucker for action, superhero, apocalyptic and kaiju films, it has become a no-brainer for me to make sure I do my favourite genres justice by catching them in cinemas (life will never be the same again once you go IMAX 3D).
One of my very first encounters with foley, even though I did not know its name back then, was sometime in 2011, when I watched a “the making of” clip of how sound effects in the Transformers franchise were made (behind-the-scenes videos is another of my weaknesses).
I remember being incredibly awed after watching the sound-effects artists melt dry ice on different types of metal to produce metallic humming and screaming sounds, which were later incorporated into a scene of an alien ship crashing onto a planet.
SoundWorks Collection: The Sound of Transformers: Dark of the Moon from Michael Coleman on Vimeo.
Being able to imagine things that didn’t exist, and yet still be able to link image and sound together so seamlessly – these people were in a league of their own, and it was simply amazing.
A brief history of foley
The art of foley is named after Jack Donovan Foley, a sound-effects artist who played an integral part in the transition of silent films to sound. Working in radio, Foley created sound effects for live broadcasts, using generic, everyday items to make realistic sounds that accompanied shows on the airwaves.
Foley then joined Universal Studios in 1914, and when the 1920s came around, the era of “the talkies” (sound films) began. It was in 1929 when Universal Studios released Show Boat, which would eventually be known as the first-ever, non-silent musical to utilise foley.
Because microphones could only pick up nothing more than dialogue, other sounds had to be added in after the film was shot. Thanks to a sound crew who painstakingly created all the sound effects to match the film’s projection, carefully timing their actions on a single live audio track so that each footstep and closing door synchronized with the actor’s motions, Show Boat became a huge success. Foley worked as part of that crew.
Throughout his career, Foley continued to work his magic on other films, up until his death in 1967. In the 1950s, industry people coined the term “foley” to refer to the act of adding sound effects to a film, after some directors saw Jack Foley performing his craft live.
How foley changed the film and television industry
From the creak of a wooden door, to the laboured breathing of an astronaut in space… this is where foley steps in. Often times, the props and sets of a film do not react acoustically as their real-life counterparts would, resulting in unnaturally quiet, awkward stretches of silences.
As viewers, we tend to recognise the absence of something, much more so than its presence. And if these background noises that we tend to take for granted go missing, the overall experience of watching a film becomes less gratifying. The presence of foley enhances the auditory aspect of the film, allowing us to associate images with complementary sound effects.
Foley brings video to life, creating an immersive experience that is not unlike the ASMR trend of today. It makes or breaks a film; good foley is when the viewer cannot tell the difference between which sound effect is authentic, and which is made up.
Badly-done foley, on the other hand, results in a disjointed feeling that not only throws the film off-kilter, but also causes a cringefest, as so clearly and kindly illustrated by this weird Instagram account, Bad Foley.
It pokes fun at famous film scenes by intentionally adding in terrible sound effects. This shows how important foley artists are in creating a believable cinematic experience, and how sound is indispensable in life.
What you hear isn’t always what is really happening
While the existence of foley is to help us imagine and visualise more accurately, foley artists often have to resort to strange methods to create these “believable” sounds. Take a look at some of these examples and you’ll be surprised.
Rain: The sizzling sound of frying bacon
Birds flying: Shaking rubber gloves really quickly to make a flapping sound
Dragonflies: The whirr of a battery-operated portable fan
Dinosaurs hatching: Cracking an ice-cream cone while squishing melons covered in liquid soap
E.T. moving around: Sliding a piece of raw liver in a plastic container, combined with jelly in a wet towel and shaking popcorn in a bag
The orcs’ vocalisations in Lord Of The Rings: The calling of baby elephant seals
That metal “gloop” sound in Terminator 2: Covering a microphone with a condom and dipping it into a solution of water, flour and furniture cleaner
To get a clearer idea of how foley artists perform their craft, watch this video where foley supervisor/artist Barnaby Smyth takes you through some of the most common foley techniques used to recreate everyday sounds like wind, horses, keys, bones breaking and bloody guts.
For the past 19 years or so, Smyth’s career as a foley artist has been nothing short of illustrious, having provided the sound effects for films like Alien VS Predator, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Pan, Tolkien and Darkest Hour, to name a few, as well as for television series Downton Abbey, The Night Manager, Black Mirror, Big Little Lies and more.
Smyth is also the director of Feet First Sound, a foley studio in England, constructed within a 2,000 square-foot warehouse, which used to be an industrial laundry.
SOL Exclusive: Interview with Barnaby Smyth
For this story, we were incredibly lucky to speak to Smyth, who gave us a whole new insight into the world of foley.
Q: You have a very extensive portfolio – how did you end up as a foley artist?
A: I first started as an assistant mixer, then an ADR recordist and eventually became a foley engineer/editor. When projects were recut but there was no more budget to get the foley artists back in, I had to fill in. I soon realised I wasn’t too bad at it.
Q: In your opinion, what sort of qualities must a foley artist possess?
A: I think having a musical ear is very important. A sense of rhythm really helps too. I used to play the drums, so having fairly good coordination is very useful when performing foley.
Q: What’s something people tend to misunderstand about your profession as a foley artist?
A: That we are having endless fun and just mucking about! I think some people’s perception is exactly this, whereas the reality is: foley is hard work, trying to get everything the client wants within the timeframe allocated.
Q: Let’s talk a little about the details. Take a feature-length film for example: how many foley artists are there working on a single film?
A: Traditionally, it always used to be two, but now due to dwindling budgets it’s normally one. I always work alone.
Q: Do you work independently of each other, or do you work together?
A: As a team when booked together. Crowd scenes are a lot easier with two artists, but my engineer, Keith Partridge, fills in as the second artist if and when we need two sets of feet.
Q: How long does it take to complete all the sound effects needed?
A: Films generally take 10 days – sometimes up to 15 on bigger-budget ones. The editing time is about the same. For a television series, an hour-long episode generally takes us four days, then another four to edit.
Q: What are some of the most commonly-created sounds everyday people tend to take for granted?
A: Well, all the feet for starters. People sitting on a chair, or picking up a glass. Kissing or hand grabs and claps. Also the tiny sounds used to mirror the character’s body movement. All these are re-recorded in the studio, and when done properly should sound utterly natural and realistic. Therefore, they should never be noticed by the audience.
Q: On creating otherworldly sounds versus everyday sounds – what is the difference in terms of the challenges faced in each one?
A: Otherworldly sounds can be recorded close with less acoustics, sometimes using contact microphones. It’s often a lot of experimenting with weird tones and vibrations to create unusual sounds. Whereas everyday sounds need to sit within a scene, so having a natural acoustic really helps. Backing off the mic from the sound source also makes it sound realistic.
Q: Do tell us about one of the best experiences you’ve had working on a film.
A: Darkest Hour, directed by Joe Wright, was great to work on. In that film, Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill, and creating the sounds and mood in the war rooms was a real challenge. We had after-hours access to the actual rooms where Churchill ran the war from, which was such a privilege. I took a huge case of all my shoes down (male and female), and performed all the characters’ footsteps, walking up and down the old corridors of power. The floor was an old, worn lino, which had a lovely soft attack to it. So Churchill’s sharp brogues sounded great as he thundered up and down. We also recorded spot effects like typewriters and old phones, which would sit in the background of the soundtrack to add to the atmosphere.
Q: On watching the films and television series you’ve delivered foley for – which one are you most happy with?
A: I think either Darkest Hour or perhaps The White Crow, which was about the ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev.
Q: Please share one of the sounds you’re proudest of creating.
A: The ballet sequences in The White Crow (directed by Ralph Fiennes) were really hard, but very satisfying to achieve. To give the impression of Nureyev training in Russia at these old ballet schools with suspended floors and huge ceilings – amazing acoustics – we double-tracked each ballet performance footstep to give it that gymnasium-style quality. Me with my ballet shoes on, recording in the studio; combined with a recording my engineer Keith did of his footsteps, jumps, slides and skids, in a church with a mezzanine floor.
Q: What is the most rewarding aspect of working as a foley artist?
A: Creating an entire soundscape with your bare hands (and feet!). Also, discovering new tricks and methods to create sounds is also incredibly fun.
Q: Without foley, film and television would be…
A: Very flat-sounding, and you would hear ADR (automated dialogue replacement: dubbed or re-recorded lines of dialogue) poking out of the soundtrack. Also, foreign versions of films need a fully-filled M+E (music and effects), which relies hugely on the foley tracks.
Q: What’s your opinion on the future of foley?
A: I think it is healthy. Computer technology has really helped with editing and mixing, but the human artistry of foley is still incredibly important. It’s rather like the difference between synth music and a full orchestra. One cannot replicate the other completely convincingly.
So, during your next trip to the movies, take time to appreciate the sound effects created by foley artists like Smyth, the unsung heroes of film and TV. Together, they’re changing the world, one sound effect at a time.
Cover Image: Kelly Ho / Image credit: feetfirstsound.co.uk
Writer | Michelle Tan
Underneath her RBF, Michelle is actually a friendly raccoon. Loves collecting ugly things, changing her hair colour, and dinosaurs (not necessarily in that order).