Where most artists who create movie sound labor at tasks that can appear fairly obscure and technical, Foley artists look like the ones who have all the fun.
They’re clanking pipes, mixing goop, throwing and dragging junk, walking in funny shoes and making their fingers skitter on concrete. Their workspaces look like a combination of a thrift store and a garage. Their work is gleefully messy.
Yet their art is one of the most crucial to bring footage alive.
“Foley is the art of recreating sound effects live to picture,” explains Alyson Moore, part of a Foley team with fellow Foley artist Chris Moriana and Foley mixer John Sanacore. They watch the action on a big monitor, follow along with sound-making props and time their sounds to precisely match the action.
They might be creating anything from footsteps in snow (cornstarch and cornflakes) to a gun being loaded (a can opener) to the rustling of leaves (¼” recording tape) to a bone breaking (celery) – anything that production sound missed or couldn’t capture. And, of course, footsteps. The specialty was once called “Foley Walkers,” but has since expanded to the re-creation of all kinds of sounds, big and small. Hence the term Foley artists.
Most Foley artists began as performers of some kind, and Sanacore still refers to Moore and Moriana as actors. “We’ll stick with a character throughout the whole show,” says Moore, “so that we get an idea how they walk, what their emotions are. We really study that actor because we’re portraying (the character) emotionally, so you just get a feel for how they move.”
Some Foley techniques have made it into popular culture, like coconut shells for hoofbeats. But with apologies to Monty Python, that doesn’t work the way most people think it does. “It’s not knocking ’em together, it’s actually knocking them on the ground,” Moriana says.
Moriana has been asked to create a sound so subtle that it probably isn’t audible in real life: the flutter of a moth’s wings on a light bulb. That requires the use of sensitive microphones at close range to the sound. With such delicate recording techniques, one bug can mess up the entire work. A literal bug, that is: a cricket.
“When a cricket gets onto the Foley stage, it’s a nightmare,” says Moore. “Everything stops.” And since the Moore-Moriana- Sanacore team works at The Barn in Sunland, Calif., a facility that’s close to nature, that’s a recurring headache.
Moriana says “There’s one I think that’s living behind the wall and every once in a while we’ll hear it. We’ll just
hit the wall and he’ll stop for a minute or two. But yeah, it could be just total disaster.”