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Foley Secrets

April 20, 2017

The scene in the Hollywood movie is a leather-jacketed hero who scuffles with a bad guy, walks through the snow and then guns his motorcycle engine before zooming off into the night. But, what really happened was the actor’s double punched a roasted chicken with a rubber kitchen glove and squeezed two balloons together while walking on a sandbox filled with cornstarch. That’s showbiz…

Things Are Not What They Seem

For most of us, the sounds of a movie are as entertaining as the visual experiences. But, unbeknownst to most viewers, the lion share of sounds and special effects are not captured at the time of filming. Instead, they’re either recorded in the studio by highly imaginative technicians called “Foley Artists” or pulled from a library of pre-recorded sound bites that are stored on computers until the sound is mixed for the movie.

The term Foley Artist began as early as 1927 when Al Jolson’s movie, “The Jazz Singer” became the first “talkie.” In those days, the dialogue of the actors superseded virtually all other sound or music recorded for the film. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that movie studios discovered they could enhance the overall quality of the movie goer’s experience by adding specialized sounds that were purposely stripped away during filming in favor of an actor’s spoken lines.

Jack Foley Creates a New Industry

Jack Foley began as a stunt double and later moved into sound production at Universal Studies. After shooting several major motion pictures at outdoor locations, Foley was asked by his sound engineer to improve the quality of the audio tracks by introducing a series of “studio clips.” Setting the industry standard, he discovered that in order to enhance the sound, three categories of sound were required: first, came the “footsteps.” Each actor executing a scene in a movie walks or runs with their own unique gait, on a variety of surfaces. By watching raw footage of the film, Foley Artists attempt to replicate the actor’s gait and sound by walking on the most suitable surface – cement, gravel, sand or other surface – even pudding.

The second sound category that must be captured is the “moves.” Moves accompany footsteps and include the sounds of skirts swishing, pants rustling or leather jackets squeaking.  Finally, all of the other special sounds required to make the experience more believable must be either pulled from thousands of computer-generated archives or shot specifically for the film.

Foley Artists are natural born scavengers. When they’re not actively involved in producing sound effects for films and television series, you’ll often find them scrounging around garage sales, garbage dumps or piles of trash looking for anything that will generate a particular sound. They must also have very fertile imaginations. What may sound like a couple passionately kissing in a Hollywood love scene, may actually be a Foley Artist sucking on his forearm.

When Foley Artist Marko Costanzo began freelancing for C5, Inc. Sound Editing, he needed to come up with a variety of new sounds to use on his projects. Since most weren’t available, he invented the following ingenious additions to his audio library:

  • For a two-minute sequence of a dragonfly in “Men in Black,” Costanzo clipped the ends off of the blades of a simple plastic fan, replacing them with duct tape. When the fan was turned on, he could control the quality of the “flapping” sound by brushing his fingers against the duct-taped blades.
  • For a knifing scene in the popular crime drama, “Goodfellas,” Costanzo tried stabbing chickens, beef and pork roasts – with the bones in tact.
  • To achieve the sound of walking on a new snowfall, he covered Kosher Sea Salt with a thick layer of cornstarch.
  • To emulate the sound of a dog prancing across a hardwood surface, Costanzo glued press-on nails onto work gloves. The size of the dog could be controlled by the thickness of the nails used.

The motion picture industry thrives on creating fantasies. From the moment that the actor steps onto the soundstage, nothing is what it actually seems. You can thank the Foley Artists for bringing lightsabers and wet, squishy, gurgling victims into your living room!

Written for and excerpted from Armchair Reader The Gigantic Reader – West Side Publishing (September 7, 2009)

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