Jan 11, 2021
We — collectively as a video-watching audience — wildly underestimate sound.
As a creator, you know that sound quality is paramount in video and film, so you dedicate hours upon hours to pairing the right music with the right visuals.
You look for the best camera gear, sound equipment, and processes because these things makes a big difference on-screen.
But during your off-time — when you take on a viewer’s perspective — it’s easy to forget how intricate the sound production process truly is. As part of the audience, we forget that the sounds we hear in TV shows and films come from unconventional sources.
Unless you’re involved in the Foley process, you’d never assume that the monsters’ eerily movements in A Quiet Place (2018) were created by twisting crab legs. Or that the sound of walking on snow is often produced with sand and a bag of cornstarch.
Foley artists are the geniuses behind the production of sound effects in film.
By taking a hands-on approach, Foley artists use the resources available to create everyday and invent otherworldly sounds. Because sound is subjective, these creators use trial-and-error to create the best Foley sounds to match specific on-screen moments.
Foley artists are major players in post-production — so naturally we wanted unpack how they do what they do. In this article, we explore what a day at the office looks like for a Foley artist.
Foley derives its name from one of the first radio sound artists, Jack Foley.
In the 1920’s, radio studios recognized a need for a reliable source of quality sound effects during live broadcasts.
The solution? Hire sound artists who could perform on air and create the right sound effects in the exact moment the effects were needed.
Though Jack Foley didn’t invent sound effects, his work as a sound artist to create new sound design techniques left an impact on the way creators approach sound production today.
These days, Foley artists are involved with different types of creative projects — i.e., films, video games, commercials, and more. Once filming for a project wraps, Foley artists get to work.
The project’s director, supervising sound editor, music editor, and Foley editor review the footage during a spotting session and chart out what sound effects the Foley artists need to create.
This includes a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds. A core difference between the two is that diegetic refers to sounds that the characters in the film can actually hear, and non-diegetic refers to sounds that only the audience can hear.
For a Foley artist, diegetic sounds include doors opening and closing, wind, rain, and car horns to name a few. Foley-created non-diegetic sound isn’t as common as diegetic sound but can be used by filmmakers to add exaggeration and humor to a scene.
Take this scene from Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), as an example.
In this case, Foley artists use a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic sound effects that make the fight sequence realistic but also dramatized. By including non-diegetic sounds, the Foley artists emphasize the characters’ movements during the fight.
Under the umbrella of diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, Foley artists either create new sound effects or re-record over poor quality sounds that already exist in the film.
Once the Foley artists identify what sound effects are needed, the trial-and-error process begins in the foley studio.
A Foley artist’s studio is specifically designed for any type of special effects recording imaginable.
Each studio has different modifications, but typically there will be at least one Foley pit built into the floor. With a Foley pit, artists can fill the space with dirt, sand, water, or other materials needed to simulate a certain sound effect.
In addition to recording equipment, studios house a viewing screen to display the footage that the Foley artists are working with at any given moment. During the Foley creation process, a streamer moves across the screen and signals to the Foley artists when they should start.
Technical equipment aside, Foley studios include a wide variety of props and materials for creating sound effects.
Throughout their careers, Foley artists learn how to expedite the creation process and create specific sounds with specific props. Sound effects like footsteps or creaking floors become easier to replicate as artists become more familiar with tried-and-true techniques.
When artists encounter a scene that requires a commonly-used sound effect, they know exactly which props to use. But if the sound effect is obscure and unique, Foley artists take a more inventive approach with unconventional props.
The video above shows how Foley artists develop techniques for imitating horse hooves, walking in a forest, cracking ice, and more. Foley artists improvise until they find what works — and discover through trial-and-error which props will be most effective.
Foley artists work alongside a mixer so that, once they create the right sound effect, they can integrate Foley into the film.
Foley artists have a hand in practically every on-screen moment. But as viewers, we tend to overlook Foley in favor of a film’s soundtrack and dialogue.
While every layer of the sound production process is crucial, we should recognize that sound effects are just as important as the music score.
Foley artists are experts at convincing our minds that the sounds we hear on-screen are actually what we’re hearing. We listen to the sound of a Foley artist walking on sand and don’t question that this sound is anything other than footsteps on snow.
A Foley artist’s part in the post-production process is meant to be subtle — if it were obvious, the impact wouldn’t be the same.
With that being said, it’s not always feasible for creators to hire a Foley artist. Limited budgets and fast-approaching deadlines can work against you and make it difficult to get the sound effects that you need for a project.