Behind the Silver Curtain

The Magic of Foley Sound Design

The magician’s task is to trick. He deceives in order to achieve his greater purpose: to entertain. Magicians accomplish this greater purpose by taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary. And this mysterious transformation of mundane to magical happens on stage, front and center, before the audience’s very eyes.

A film is a different kind of magic show—a fabricated reality designed to trick the viewer into believing that the spectacle unfolding on screen was, in some world and at some point in time, real. The task of a filmmaker is therefore not unlike that of a magician: deceive in order to entertain. But while the magician must remain visible throughout the show to avoid suspicion, the filmmaker must remain removed from the audience entirely. The role of magician and assistant are divided among numerous cast and crew for the filmmaker; and the big screen serves as a silver curtain, forever drawn and concealing the magic of the movies.

Movie magic manifests in a myriad of forms, from transformative makeup and computer-generated creatures to explosive stunts and otherworldly green screen sets. But no trick of the trade facilitates the transformation of ordinary to extraordinary quite as literally and cleverly as foley sound design.

 

Pulling Rabbits from Hats: Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Ice cream cones, cantaloupe, pineapple and dish soap. These are the ingredients used to create the sound of a dinosaur egg hatching in Speilberg’s Jurassic Park (1993). There is no audience present for this performance, no spotlights, trapped doors or vanishing cabinets. Foley artist Dennie Thorpe stands alone on a sound stage with these four very ordinary objects on a table in front of her. A microphone hovers just above the table and, beyond that, the film flickers silently across a screen. As the newborn raptor breaks free from its shell, Thorpe crunches ice cream cones to simulate the cracking of its egg and strokes a soapy pineapple when a character runs a finger along the dinosaur’s slimy scales. (Watch her create these effects here.)

JurassicSpeilberg, S. (Director). (1993). Jurassic Park [Motion picture]. USA: Universal

When a magician locks his assistant in a box and saws it in half, audiences rack their brains, wondering how the trick is done. To the contrary, if Thorpe does her trick well, no one will wonder at it all—they will simply watch a dinosaur being born. That is the inherent difference between traditional magicians on a traditional stage and the invisible illusionists of the sound stage. One seeks to defy reality, while the other seeks to forge it.

The shaking of sheet metal for thunder, the crinkling of cellophane for fire, the snapping of celery stalks for the breaking of bones: these are just a few of the tried and true tricks foley artists use to forge reality. But before Star Wars‘ foley artist Ben Burtt recorded a blend of bear, badger, and walrus sounds to create the fantastical language of the Wookiees, foley effects were considered less an artistic process and more a series of tedious replication (Ratcliffe, 2016). In fact, at its conception, the pioneers of foley sound were not considered artists at all. Rather, the first foley artists of the 1920s were referred to as “walkers” and were tasked primarily with recreating the sounds of—you guessed it—walking.

 

Jack Foley: The Houdini of the Sound Stage

Jack Donovan Foley was the original “walker” and sorcerer of sound design. In 1927, Warner Bros. Studios shattered the silent film era with the premiere of The Jazz Singer—considered Hollywood’s first official “talkie.” Though it was not the first film to feature recorded sound, it was the first studio to produce a film with synchronized singing, dialogue, and music (Lambrechts, 2015). The talkie was a cinematic breakthrough and a smashing success at the box office. There was no going back to an age before cinema sound.

JackFoley   Jack Foley. Photo courtesy of Catherine Clark.

The revolutionary release could not have come at a worse time for Universal Studios, which had just wrapped production on its—ironically—silent musical, Show Boat (1929). In a desperate attempt to salvage its newest silent film, Universal called upon its employees, asking anyone with radio experience–which often involve performing sound effects on air–to come forward and lead the charge in syncing Show Boat to sound.

Universal employee Jack Foley, who was working as an assistant director at the time, answered the studio’s call. Up to this point, dialogue was the only sound that could be easily recorded on location. The subtle sounds of motion—the scuff of footsteps and the rustle of clothes—that give a scene texture and a sense of realism, could not be picked up by primitive boom mics (NPR, 2000). But on Universal’s sound stage number 10, Foley and his team developed a novel method of retrospectively adding those subtle sounds, clear dialogue and convincing ambient noise back into a motion picture after filming had wrapped. They accomplished this by silently projecting the footage in studio, while recording and performing live sound effects perfectly synced to the action occurring on-screen (Lambrechts, 2015). They called this technique “direct-to-picture recording,” though it would later become synonymous with Foley himself.

The studio rented a brand new Fox-Case recording system, which interlocked the picture to the recording apparatus. On a single stage, in a single take, on a single audio track, the cast of Show Boat delivered their lines and sang the musical numbers, while a 40-piece orchestra played in the background (Kunkes, 2008). Also on stage were Jack Foley and his team of “walkers” who walked in place and jostled props to create footfalls and other unique sound effects that were perfectly timed to the film (Theme Ament, 2014). Show Boat—now a proper musical—was released two years after filming wrapped to much critical acclaim.

Poster_of_Show_Boat_(1929_film)

Foley spent his entire 40-year career at Universal, turning Stage 10 into a direct-to-picture facility that was eventually named the Jack Foley Stage. He focused primarily on footfalls, props, and some cloth effects, but as the ‘walker’ moniker implied, footfalls were his specialty. In a 1962 interview, Foley insisted that every actor’s walk has a unique personality (NPR, 2000):

Rock Hudson is a solid stepper. Tony Curtis has a brisk foot. Audie Murphy is springy. James Cagney is clipped. Marlon Brando, soft. John Saxon, nervous. Women are the toughest to imitate. My 250 pounds may have something to do with it, but the important thing is their steps are quicker and closer together.

By the time he reached retirement, Foley had contributed to creating sound magic for hundreds of films and walked, by his estimate, 5,000 miles recording footfall effects (Bell, 2010). In the 1960s, Desilu became the first studio outside Universal to name their direct-to-picture facility after Foley, cementing his contribution to the craft (Kunkes, 2008).

Next to the on-screen talent, foley artists are perhaps the most essential performers in a film. Though these sonic sorcerers were not considered artists until the late 1970s, there was no denying that these so-called “walkers” were, from the very start, athletes in the studio.

 

Don’t Blink: The Magic of the Moment

“Cut … cut! We’re out of sync,” yells the sound mixer from behind the control desk. Soundmen Terry Burke and Andy Malcolm stand in pile of rubble, panting. Somewhere underneath the splintered wood, overturned furniture, and decimated heads of cabbage is a sound stage. The 1979 documentary short Track Stars: The Unseen Heroes of Movie Sound demonstrates how frantic the recording process used to be in the early days of foley. The two artists have carefully positioned random, ordinary objects around the stage to shake, climb, kick, and even karate chop in half at designated moments in the film—an anonymous action sequence they recorded to illustrate the creativity and athleticism of foley artists. Five minutes into the non-stop sequence, the men had just finished punching a hanging hunk of meat and head-butting cabbages when they accidentally triggered the table-smashing sound effect a few seconds early.

One-track technology meant that all sound effects had to be performed in real time, on a single audio track. If the foley artists accidentally knocked over one of the many props poised on stage before the action occurs on screen, the take was trashed. If the artists perform a sound mere seconds too early or too late, the take was trashed. And if one of the foley artists gets hungry and his stomach grumbles, the take was definitely trashed.

Before the arrival of digital sound mixing, there was no way to sync a pre-recorded or isolated sound effect with pre-recorded footage. Rather, all sound effects for a scene had to be recorded sequentially without stopping or, often times, simultaneously. That is why foley artists often worked in pairs, a practice that still persists today even with the use of digital mixing software. “Foley artists frequently work together to perform two different sounds at once, creating a more dynamic sound that exists on its own without having to layer tracks, which can become time-consuming,” explains Golden Reel winner and freelance foley artist Shelley Roden (Kunkes, 2008). She continues, “This job takes intense focus and athletic endurance, and by working with partners, foley artists are able to recharge their brains and bodies while their partners are doing the footsteps for their characters or performing a simple prop” (Kunkes, 2008).

TrackStarsClipWatch the clip from Track Stars (1979).

 

Title Transformation: ‘Walker’ to ‘Artist’

In part, the switch from ‘walkers’ to ‘artists’ can be attributed to institutional changes in the 1970s and 1980s. During this waning of the studio era, it was not uncommon for film editors to cut their own foley effects to supplement the footage. It was this shift from editor to creator that first sparked the alternate job title (Wright, 2014). The dawn of the digital age in the 21st Century, brought with it technological advancements that solidified foley practitioners’ role as artists in the film industry. “Now with digital advances, as far as sound quality goes, the playing field has been leveled somewhat,” explains foley artist John Roesch (Wright, 2014). He continues, “Really, the big determining factor is not technical anymore, it’s strictly artistic’ (Wright, 2014). During an interview with Editors Guild Magazine (2008), New York-based foley artist Leslie Bloome explains how the editing software ProTools has revolutionized the field of foley:

The foley editor can cue the session by using black regions, and name all the files beforehand. This gives the foley engineer the ability to call up all the similar cues at once, as in ‘Actor No. 1, exterior footsteps, on grass.’ Now the foley artist can perform all of that actor’s steps on the same surface with the same shoes with few or no mic moves. This also keeps the foley artist in the same vibe with this one character instead of jumping around from character to character or from surface to surface. With a properly cued session, we can record up to 350 to 400 cues in a day.

However, these ample strides in productivity do not come without consequence. Bloome adds, “The downside is that when we are done, the studio now has a new library to pull sound effects from. Foley artists have no recourse or receive no residual from the re-use of our sounds” (Kunkes, 2008). But despite these ever-growing libraries of generic sound effects, foley artists are as much in demand as they were in Jack’s day—even more so.

In an industry where time is money, it would seem that budget-minded producers’ attempts at exchanging foley artists for sound effect libraries prove ultimately more expensive and less effective. While independent, small budget films may not have the resources to employ foley artists, major studios find that original foley keeps their productions on time, while delivering superior sound quality. “A sound editor will go into his library to look for a body fall and come up with 1,200 of them; he won’t have time to go through all that,” explains foley artist James Moriana. “He knows exactly what he needs, and he knows we can get it for him right here in five seconds and fine-tune it” (Kunkes, 2008). Not only are sound effect libraries less efficient, but they are also less believable. Roden says, “It would take a sound editor much time and effort to build element upon element to create a final sound with the same dimension and qualities that a foley artist is able to perform in real time” (Kunkes, 2008).

Foley was developed in the late 1920s as a solution to a problem. Today, it is foremost produced as a creative preference. Nearly every sound in serious feature films are recreated and recorded by foley artists, not necessarily because the on-location sound is poor, but because foley effects sound even better than the real thing—more organic, more consuming, more present. It is the microphone’s job to record audio as it is. But foley artists are conjurers of sound, tasked with forging reality, not mimicking it.

SpartacusKubrick, S. (Director). (1960). Spartacus [Motion picture]. USA: Bryna Productions

The greatest challenge of Jack Foley’s career came in 1959 with Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. During the most climatic scene of the film, the entire Roman army marches into battle, with swords drawn and chain mail clanking with every ominous step. It was a heart-pounding, visually stunning sight, but Kubrick had a problem: the location sound was unusable. The disgruntled director considered sending the entire army back to Italy for a reshoot, just to get the right sound. Before flying an army across seas, Kubrick made a stop at Foley’s studio. “I don’t want to hear footsteps,” said Kubrick, “I want to hear something else” (NPR, 2000). A few days later, soundman Jim Troutman peeked his head into Stage 10. A silent army marched across the screen. “Jack went out to his car and he had … a ring with keys on them, all kinds of keys,” Troutman recalls (NPR, 2000). “And he walked into the room and he stood up in front of the mic and he went: che, che, che, che … the Roman army coming down the hill” (NPR, 2000).

It is the same kind of “something else” Kubrick was searching for that keeps foley artists in high demand today. Foley is a performance-based art that cannot be adequately replicated without the performer. As performers, foley artists must become the characters to the same extent as their on-screen counterparts. “Foley is about nuance,” explains Bloome. “A person on the street who just won the lottery and walks five steps from a building to his car is going to walk with a totally different attitude than a person who just ran those same five steps after robbing a bank” (Kunkes, 2008). Stock sound effects cannot perceive nuance; they cannot perceive anything. It is the foley artists’ ability to literally and metaphorically put themselves in the characters’ shoes—to find solutions to the “something else”—that makes them irreplaceable.

 

Vanishing Act

The rolling credits after the film fades to black is the final curtain call for the filmmaker–an opportunity for the audience to acknowledge the artists’ efforts, even when their applause goes unheard. But after 33 years on Stage 10, creating Roman armies from key rings, and walking 5,000 miles in every imaginable kind of shoe, Jack Foley never received a single on-screen film credit for his acoustic wizardry. His profile on imdb.com (Internet Movie Database) retrospectively acknowledges him as “foley artist–uncredited” for his sound department roles, from The Phantom of the Opera (1925) to Spartacus (1960).

Today, foley artists would never be excluded from the rite of the rolling credits. But then again, we know what to call them now. Jack Foley didn’t have a title for his pioneering role on the sound stage. There was no industry term for his direct-to-picture process of recreating soundscapes; at least, not while he was the one wearing the shoes and smashing the cabbages. “Foley” referred only to the man himself.

It seems an injustice, no doubt, to have excluded Jack Foley from the credits of all the films to which he gave a voice. But for however unfair it seems to us now, this lack of attribution means he succeeded where no other accredited foley artist ever will. By remaining invisible, even as the credits rolled, the illusions Jack casted across the screen were never shattered. After all, the viewer should never be aware of the artist behind the soundscape; they should just marvel as the dinosaur is born and tremble as the army descends the hill. That is the prestige, the last act, the grand finale for the acoustic magicians of the silver screen: to disappear before the show begins.

night television tv video

References

Bell, J. (2010). Foley recording: A misunderstood art. Center for Digital Education. Retrieved from: http://www.centerdigitaled.com/artsandhumanities/Foley-Recording-A-Misunderstood-Art.html

Kunkes, M. (2008). Foley: They make the noises for the talkies. Editors Guild Magazine, 29(5) Retrieved from: http://www.editorsguild.com/v2/magazine/archives/0908/features_article04.htm

Lambrechts, S. (2015). Foley: The art of movie sound effects. TechRadar.com. Retrieved from: http://www.techradar.com/news/video/foley-the-art-of-movie-sound-effects-1301281

[Mdfilmmakingvideos]. (2010, Jan. 25). Foley: Jurassic Park. [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dp7aJ6zoLXY

NPR. (2000, March 24). Profile: Universal sound man Jack Foley. [Podcast]. Science in Context, Retrieved from: link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A166113514/SCIC?u=munc80314&xid=fec8e444.

Ratcliffe, A. (2016). Five iconic Star Wars sound effects and how they were made. StarWars.com. Retrieved from: http://www.starwars.com/news/5-iconic-star-wars-sound-effects-and-how-they-were-made-starwars-com

[SoundIdeasCanada]. (2011, Dec. 5). What is Foley sound by Sound Ideas. [YouTube Video]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OONaPcZ4EAs

 

Hero Image: Nolan, C. (Director). (2006). The Prestige [Motion picture]. USA: Touchstone

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