The legend goes like this: In the wake of the 1927 Warner Brothers smash hit The Jazz Singer, movie studios of the era scrambled to produce their own talking pictures. With Show Boat nearly wrapped as a silent film, Universal Studios executives turned to a man named Jack Foley to add sound effects to the movie in post-production.
Other filmmakers soon followed the practice, and Foley became the father of a recording art form that still bears his name (with a capital F) today.
How Foley is Recorded
With the exception of extensive digital SFX libraries, the fundamental practices pioneered by Jack Foley remain in place today. Footsteps, body movements and prop handling are still the top three sounds that Foley artists capture by meticulously matching them to images on the screen.
To find out how it’s done in a post-production recording studio, Shure photographer Stuart Van Dorn and I headed out for a wintry afternoon’s field trip to Chicago’s River North neighborhood, where a 10-member team of sound designers, music composers, producers, mixers and location recordists create audio magic at Noise Floor. The studio is a labyrinth of mixing suites, recording studios, a music composition space and edit bays.
Doing Foley in Chicago is a little different than in a film industry town like Los Angeles, so the team at Noise Floor doesn’t have the luxury of a permanent Foley studio. Their setup–dozens of plastic bins and boxes containing everything from sand and gravel to switches, old computer keyboards and hubcaps – is moved into a small studio adjacent to the largest mixing suite.
Our guide was sound designer and Foley artist Bryen Hensley who had answers to our many questions.
The most common Foley sounds – footsteps and body movements – haven’t really changed since the early days. Why is that?
When we’re cleaning up dialogue in the production audio, these are the first to go. If we’re doing ADR (automated dialogue replacement) we have to rebuild that scene from scratch.
Are there specific mics or techniques for Foley?
Typically, we like mics with a very narrow polar pattern –cardioid or hypercardioid. We don’t want to pick up any of the room we’re recording in, so we tend to use shotgun microphones.
Mic placement really depends on the sound we’re going for. With footsteps, I like to have it real tight. I only want to capture the sound of the steps and not the sound of my pants. If we want a little wider sound, we back the mic up a little bit or change to a different mic with a wider pickup pattern. We’ll flip it around or raise it up and try different positions.
It’s a collaboration between the engineer and the Foley artist. Like any other recording application, we’re looking for that sweet spot.
Can you name a recent example of an unusual sound your team had to record?
Last fall, we had to create the sound of the main character’s armor moving around as he walked. We ended up using a large belt with metal plates suspended from it. We were able to control the clanking as we moved around and we also created layers of those sounds in a composite to get the effect we were after.
Are there sounds you can’t find in your SFX library or create in your Foley stage?
We have a million sounds in our library, but I’m working on a film right now that needs the sound of two people sitting on a circa-1900 mattress. Turns out that one of our staff members has an old creaky mattress that belonged to his grandmother, so we’re going to head over to his house to do some field recording. That’s the thing with Foley; you don’t have to stay in the studio.
When we’re not super busy, we expand our own sound effects library. I have two or three stereo mics and a stereo shotgun mic. We’ve also used the Shure MV88 a bunch of times in the last few months. We needed the sound of keys going into the ignition of a car, so we just grabbed the MV88 and an iPhone, ran down to the parking lot, jumped in the car and recorded it.
You’re dealing with independent filmmakers, game developers and production companies. What does your typical workflow look like?
It varies with the type and complexity of the project. We’ve worked on everything from indie projects to AAA titles, but the basic steps are the same.
- Watch: We start by reviewing the locked picture and spot it shot by shot, scene by scene with the client.
- Listen: Next is the production audio. We’ll listen to it and do whatever cleanup is required.
- Identify tasks: At that point, we determine how much ADR is required, what SFX we need and the Foley that needs to be recorded.
- Assign them: Once we’ve identified the tasks involved, we meet with our team to divvy them up and build a post production sound schedule.
- Record the Foley: This generally involves two sound team members – the Foley recordist and the Foley a Depending on the duration of the project and its complexity, it can take anywhere from an afternoon to several days to record and clean up the Foley.
- Code the files: We code all tracks by scene, location and character. It gets very, very, deep with backgrounds, Foley, sound design music and dialogue.
- We’ll have a feature film handed to us from an editor that had 60 tracks of audio and when we add our paint to the canvas, it can end up being a total of anywhere from 600 to 900 tracks of audio. That’s the fun part.
- Add the music: We’re usually dealing with temporary music tracks, so the score is almost always the last element to be added to the soundtrack before we final mix.
- Get final approval and output the deliverables: Throughout the production process, we send files to the client to keep them in the loop. We use a web-based video collaborative feedback website that lets us post our audio mix retracted to the picture so that they can listen to the sound in stereo and share time-coded comments.
After we feel like we’re in pretty good place, we invite the client to the studio to listen to the mix. Then, we create the final output based on whatever format is required.
You’ve been involved in the film community here for the past 20 years. Has it changed?
The world of distribution has changed because of Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and web streaming. There are many, many more outlets for content. We’re doing a lot of short films, web series and feature films – the kinds of projects that didn’t have a place to go ten years ago.
A lot of it is has to do with the fact that the cost of equipment has come way, way down. When the DSLR revolution happened, people could go out and shoot a film on a Canon Mark II DSLR camera or something like it and the footage looked great. In fact, it looked cinematic.
Any words of wisdom for future Foley artists?
We don’t have the luxury of limiting our services to just Foley, so flexibility is important. We all have to wear a lot of hats, but the end goal is to make something sound as unique and interesting as we can.
What makes great Foley?
Foley is performance art. For me, it comes down to finding the thing that makes the film sound real, making the sound part of that scene. If an audience member notices the Foley, that’s a failure. The sounds we work so hard to create should be seamless.
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