The Art of Foley

Posted on December 13th, 2013 - Written by: Josée Daigneault

In a perfect movie-making world, perhaps every sound recorded during principal shooting would pristinely match the director’s vision. In reality, the live sound initially recorded doesn’t always match the video and insufficiently captures the subtle details that vividly brings a film to life. This is where the Foley artist comes in, filling in the footsteps, crashes, wing-flutters, creaking doors and an endless array of sounds. Foley artists work behind the scenes in filmmaking, TV, radio and increasingly video games, recreating physical sounds using props and their own ingenuity.

Foley artists

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Jack Foley never received a screen credit for his work but many of his pioneering sound effect techniques are still used today. Instead of reshooting a scene of the massive Roman army to capture the sound of shields and swords clashing during Spartacus (1960) as Stanley Kubrick wanted, Foley jingled some keys before a microphone and called it a day. Foley artists today work in post-production to not only save the cost of replicating difficult or impossible sounds but also inventing never-before-heard noises for newly imagined characters.

Microphones on set tend to only capture dialogue, which renders all other sounds absent or too quiet. Foley artists create almost all sounds in a separate studio, and while there are numerous established techniques for common sounds, innovative thinking is always required to achieve the perfect mix. A typical day may begin by reviewing cue sheets that specify the timing of movements in a scene to determine the sounds required. A collection of props accumulated over the course of a career may be spread out on display to encourage creative solutions, along with a fridge full of noisy foods, such as frozen lettuce to mimic breaking bones.

Foley artists generally work in teams, studying the raw footage of a film to slip seamlessly into the mood and get into character. They must walk in their character’s shoes, literally, from ballerina slippers to combat boots, recreating footsteps depending on the character’s mood and setting of the scene. Some scenes require several simultaneous sound effects, such as a gate opening, keys jangling, cat scratching and coat shuffling. These are usually recorded separately before being blended together. Sharing the workload for a project might mean dividing up a show’s characters, each receiving their own track, or working in tandem to recreate the sound of rainfall on an umbrella, for example, by one pouring water and another flapping a plastic sheet.

A good feel for rhythm, coordination and timing are prerequisites for the job, with a great ear and the creativity to experiment with sounds from unlikely sources, learned during audio courses. For example, a common trick for trotting horses is banging together coconut shells. While there is significant autonomy in determining optimal sound creation, a director may have distinct preferences for developing surreal moods that transcend natural environments.

Connections definitely help to break into the industry, and many have gotten their start by working with an established mentor or through networking in film production programs. Jobs will always exist because movies and TV shows are in constant need of customized sounds. Recent Trebas Institute graduate Katie Zadorozniak landed a Foley job at a Toronto studio, working on high profile shows such as “Bones”, “Parks and Recreation” and “Parenthood”. The work can be physically demanding and a challenge to meet deadlines, but it is ultimately a fulfilling career choice. The skills learned in sound engineering school can be turned into dream jobs working on major motion pictures.

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