Appreciating the art of Foley

David Hamilton-Smith explains why he feels the work that goes into reproducing sound effects the old fashioned way has never really got the attention it deserves.

Foley is the industry-wide term used for adding a variety of sounds to pictures. It is, in my opinion, one of the least appreciated of the recording arts for the very reason that it should never be noticed. Unlike flashy explosions, pulsating music and weird sci-fi noises built by sound designers, the work of the Foley artist remains subliminal. Yet we hear their work on films and television every day.

Developed by sound engineers in the 1920s from a need to increase the ‘realism’ of their radio plays, the activity of recording sound effects on films derived its name from one specialist, Jack Donovan Foley, who worked for Universal Studios. Back then everything had to be done at once as there was only one track to record on. This meant a team of people to make every noise required, and they had to be very accurate. Today’s almost limitless digital tracks and technology means two things: 1) the large teams of yesteryear are gone – one or two people can cover each scene while dubbing mixers add new tracks on each pass, and 2) if there’s a mistake we can very quickly edit/move/re-record any effect we have recorded. Theoretically, therefore, it doesn’t have to be perfect.

So surely anyone can be a Foley artist? My answer is an emphatic “No!” It is not just a question of duplicating what is on the screen and recording that actual noise in a soundproofed booth. It often requires lateral thinking to create effective sounds. I tip my hat to whoever was the first Foley artist to slice a cabbage and then drop it into a basket to denote a guillotine beheading.

I worked with the late Beryl ‘Footsteps’ Mortimer on many occasions. She always surprised me with how she created sounds. Once we had a man trudging through snow. The location sound was badly distorted. I was curious as to how Beryl would approach replacing these in our sound booth. “We’ll do it like we always do, dear,” she said. Clueless as to what she meant, I blustered, “Of course!” She removed a roll of cotton wool from her Tardis of a bag, placed the roll close up to the microphone and tore the wool on each step. Perfect! On another session for a short animated film about growing people like plants in pots (don’t ask!) we couldn’t find the right sound for their limbs stretching as they grew. We called Beryl in. Immediately she took a wooden mortar and pestle out of the Tardis and ground the two together in time with each movement. Again, perfect!

Watch and learn

Over the years I have learnt a lot from watching these experts ply their trade. On a Ruby Wax show when we needed to make the sound of eels moving over each other – the actuality had buzzing all over it and they hardly made any noise. I went to the kitchen and brought some liquid soap and a bowl into the booth. My assistant recorded me ringing my gloopy hands under the mic. It sounded exactly like slithering eels.

Most dubbing mixers have a vast store of digital effects on hard drives. And yes, of course we have a huge library of footsteps. So why don’t we dub them ourselves? Answer: because it would take us far too long, and I know it would never be as good. I might attempt a short sequence but never an entire project. For me, recreating footsteps would be an utterly thankless task if it wasn’t for the skills of Foley artists. This, along with recording ‘cloth’ (all the sounds the actors’ clothing would make as they move), I believe, more than justifies their invaluable role. Whether it is a sitcom, a drama, a film, or an animation I will always use Foley experts whenever possible for their speed, their choices of sounds and their ingenuity. I think they add a great deal.

We replace, and/or add to, various sounds recorded on location for a variety of reasons – extraneous noises that intrude upon the dialogue like aircraft, sirens, technical glitches etc. During a particularly poignant scene in a drama I was dubbing, the director’s chosen takes had the sound of doves cooing loudly from their nest in the eves! This required ADR and Foley to repair. Sometimes a director decides to re-record the actors for performance reasons, so every sound in those scenes has to be dubbed back on. On feature films and high-end dramas the demand for the entire project’s sound separates, from which alternative language versions can be made, meaning that every scene has to have every sound dubbed on. Doing this without the expertise of Foley artists is possible, but it would take forever and the result would never be up to their standard. Also having the Foley tracks to play with on the final mix gives the engineer the greatest possible scope for creativity.

A post-production schedule includes time for the dubbing mixer to ‘fit’ the Foley before creating a sub-mix. Foley artists build their reputations on being fast and accurate. This ‘fitting’ time is simply because no matter how good the person creating the effects might be, there will always be sounds that benefit from being moved slightly earlier or later. The better the artist, the fewer the tweaks.

There can be understandable confusion as to where spot effects, background atmospheres, sound design and Foley begin and end. Often I’ll add in ‘spot effects’ like doors, gun shots, explosions etc, but I always make a definitive list of exactly what we need the Foley artists to cover so as not to duplicate or omit essential sounds.

Foley is definitely an ‘art’. These professionals live with the irony that their work, by its very nature, has to go virtually unnoticed. Every sound they create is designed to create believable environments in viewers’ minds. My colleagues and I appreciate every noise they continue to make.

David Hamilton-Smith has had an extensive career in music production, television and film post-production. He has worked on many prestigious projects that have won top awards including Emmys and BAFTAs. His experience spans every aspect of sound recording, including dialogue editing, Foley, ADR, spot effects, music editing, sound design, background atmospheres, location recording, live mixing, pre-mixing, music composition, lyric writing, over-dubbing, mixing and mastering.

(Pictured: Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Credit: Warp X)