The above clip from the movie Bowfinger is a perfect example of what sound does to heighten a movie experience. That it is also the exact joke and point of the scene is just a bonus for our latest installment of :
What Is A….? Series.
Today we answer, just what is a FOLEY ARTIST?
Believe it or not, a good portion of the clip above was the work of a foley artist. In a nutshell, it’s their job to re-create or add ambient and everyday sound in post production to the overall audio tracks of a project. Everything from doorbells to punches to car tires to yes footsteps can be added in with a foley artist re-creating them on a sound stage.
Why exactly is this needed? It’s a bit complex simply, not all recorded sound on set comes through clearly and when a film or tv episode is being edited, the goal is for everything to be as clean as possible. Sometimes a character’s shoes don’t click loud enough to give the right sound or the microphone in use is not picking up everything that is happening in a shot.
Worse still, the mic could pick up TOO much, including cars and planes possibly flying overhead which takes away from the action and dialogue of the scene.
Just as much of the dialogue can be enhanced by being re-layered over the visuals using ADR or Automated Dialogue Replacement, sometimes a foley artist will be called in to fix up the background sound to enhance a scene or a moment.
This practice of adding sound can be traced to none other than Jack Donovan Foley, an employee at Universal Studios. He started working during the silent era but with the release of “The Jazz Singer” there began to be a demand for sound in motion pictures. Foley was tasked by Universal to add sound to their upcoming release, “Showboat” and started the process that came to be known after him.
In those days, microphones could only pick up dialogue, so in order to add a more realistic and immersive experience, Foley and his team went about adding in footsteps, doors closing and other basic but commonplace sounds to give the movie more than just a basic sound quality.
Of course, since nothing could be saved digitally and then synced with a computer in the beginning, Foley and his team had to record the sounds live in a studio. The film was projected on a screen as the team attempted to capture a single audio track that could be used for the release of the film.
Imagine the pressure if one single footstep or door slam was missed and therefore out of sync with the image! As the silent film went away, the need for sound became the new standard and Foley’s practices went along with it.
Even Foley artists often use unique techniques to get the desired sounds, not just stamping on the floor themselves to re-create footsteps. For instance, a famous technique involves dropping a heavy phone book to simulate the sound of a body being punched repeatedly. Or corn starch in a pouch can be used to re-create snow crunching. Though perhaps most infamously, you can use coconuts to simulate horse hooves:
Like so much of production, a foley artists job is to both stand-out and be so subtle the audience never even notices it. If you watch a movie or tv show now without the aid of foley sound, you’d think something was missing. The scene would feel empty since in our everyday lives, our ears pick up so much ambient noise.
Most foley artists have to be creative as well as technical since they are not just involved in recording and mixing the sound but actually creating it sometimes in an uncommon way. If you step foot in to a Foley studio it would be very possible that you’d see dozens of different types of shoes, all sorts of floor boards and hundreds of pieces of prop and metal, all to re-create sound aside from their actual uses.
They are always keeping an eye or more specifically, an ear out for anything that they can use to get the desired sound they need.
Foley work falls generally in to the same category as sound design though their job is to re-create sounds that oftentimes already exist. Sound designer are the people tasked with inventing how new things or futuristic things would sound, like say a hovercraft or lightsaber. Their work along with the sound design team is then handed off to the sound editing department who put together all the non-score soundtrack.
So next time you sit down to watch something, take a moment to appreciate the people who made it seem as real as possible right before you. They’ve spend literally hundreds of hours searching for just the right shoe or prop to help create the soundtrack of the scene just so that it sounds REAL.
Want to learn more? There are plenty of videos and clips online that show these masters at work: