Foley: The Art of Going Unnoticed

What is Foley Sound?

When you’re watching a film, the sound you hear coming from your speakers isn’t always the sound that was recorded on set. While filming a car chase scene, it is very unlikely that the sound recordist, no matter how skilled, will be able to capture every little detail. The sound of the driver’s leather gloves creaking as they grip the wheel would be lost behind the engine noise, rushing air, and squeal of rubber tyres. Instead, sounds are added after the shoot, in the sound recording studio.

This practice of adding sounds to a scene by recording them in a studio afterwards is called creating Foley Sound. When done correctly, the audience has no idea it’s happened at all.

Foley’s beginnings

Jack Donovan Foley was the developer of many sound effect techniques used in filmmaking. He is most famous for his work in developing a more hands-on version of Foley Sound that consisted of recording all of the sound effects live and all in one take.

Originally, Jack Foley worked for Universal Studios during the silent movie era (1914). After their competitors, Warner Studios, released a film that included sound, Universal needed to move quickly to stay contemporary. They called for any employees that had experience with sound and radio to step forward, and with that, Jack Foley became part of the newly formed sound and music crew.

Jack Foley and his small team perfected the art of recording live sound effects on a single track of audio. They had to practice over and over to ensure their timing was exact, otherwise actors footsteps and closing doors would not be synchronised with their sound effects. Jack Foley continued to work on films until his death in 1967; his basic techniques are still used today.

Foley Sound in modern filmmaking

Fortunately, sound effects no longer need to be recorded live and with so much precision onto one track. Instead, nowadays we can record each sound effect onto separate tracks individually, then align it exactly with its on-screen counterpart.

A Foley studio employs hundreds, if not thousands, of props to help create sounds. The goal is to re-create the sound as realistically and believably as possible, but what you see and what you hear aren’t always the same object.

Here is a list of common tricks:

  • Corn starch in a leather pouch makes the sound of crunching snow
  • A pair of gloves sound like bird wings flapping
  • A thin stick, when whipped through the air, makes a whoosh
  • An old chair can be used to make controllable creaking sound
  • A water-soaked rusty hinge is used to make metallic creaking sound. Pressing the hinge against different surfaces can change the sound dramatically
  • A heavy staple gun combined with various other small metal sounds can work as gun noises
  • A metal rake makes the rattling squeak of a chain-link fence
  • A heavy car door can be used to make most car related noises, but an entire car is preferred
  • Burning plastic bags makes a realistic candle or other non-crackling fire sound
  • ¼” audio tape when balled up and walked on sounds like grass
  • Gelatine and hand soap are perfect for wet squelches.
  • Frozen romaine lettuce sounds like breaking bones
  • Coconut shells sound like horse hoofs – as famously parodied in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

 

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