Post-production has many skilled specialties that make an artistic contribution to a finished show. Few can argue that they are actually performers, though, in the sense that actors and musicians are performers.
That’s one claim Foley artists make with confidence.
“We watch the screen and put ourselves in the actor’s body, so to speak,” says Foley vet Gary Hecker. “That’s what makes it organic, I like to think, because it does have a human element to it.”
From door slams to footsteps, key jingles to ice tinkling, swishing fabric to jammed machinery, Foley artists and mixers are charged with recording sounds from scratch, in sync with the action that happens on the screen, using props and tricks that sometimes look less like 21st century movie production than the contents of a child’s toy chest.
Yet while their props can be as low-tech as in the heyday of radio dramas, the hardware and software they use is some of the most advanced in audio post.
The biggest change has been the addition of nonlinear digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Digidesign’s Pro Tools along with sound-manipulation software that can alter audio in dozens of ways.
“(The process has) just been getting faster and faster,” says Phil Stockton, partner at C5 Editorial in New York.
Speed is just one of the benefits, adds Hecker. “This technology helps us create sounds and add depth to them. In the old days, we just had the props and a little equalization from the mixing console.”
DAWs also let Foley mixers record hundreds of passes during a session and to cut, copy and paste where necessary. That’s especially crucial while working on a film like “2012,” which boasted a soundtrack filled with hundreds of sound effects and Foley tracks.
To create those end-of-the-world sounds, Hecker and his team crashed hundreds of rocks and broke dozens of boards on the Foley stage at Todd-AO in Hollywood.
“We recorded them and then put the rock sound on top of the board crack,” he explains. “We were able to record it in a way that it sounded big and dynamic, and then do maybe 10 different layers of it before playing it back to the picture.”
The change in scale leaves Stockton shaking his head: “It’s hard to imagine how we used to do it,” he says. “I started out with upright Moviolas and flatbeds, and then we bought a Synclavier (an early digital recording and sound-manipulation tool).
The new technology helps, but the goal is the same as it’s always been: Record tracks that bring character and emotion to a film.
Foley mixer Mary Jo Lang, who worked on “Terminator Salvation” with Foley artists John Roesch and Alyson Moore at Warner Bros., concurs. “If you don’t believe (a character) is walking in the desert, then you don’t get sucked into that part of the movie and it doesn’t feel right. We help build that whole ambiance so you feel as if you are there.”
Adds Foley artist Dennie Thorpe, who worked on “Up” for Skywalker Sound: “We create an environment for the characters to live in, especially on science fiction or animated movies where there is no production track. It’s a big world, and Foley creates the real world for the people seeing the movie without them really knowing it or being aware of it, so that they are comfortable.”
While the addition of DAWs and the growing availability of digital sound libraries would seem to threaten the art of Foley, the authenticity of the sound a good Foley artist can deliver practically guarantees the future of the craft, at least in features.
“On some kinds of movies you can use sound libraries, but on others it matters to have all the details” Stockton says. “When you go to a (sound) library, you’re saying, ‘This is close. I can settle.’ Foley is a performance that is literally tailored to exactly what’s happening on the screen and not something that just sounds similar.”