Foley Artist  What They Do

Just the Facts

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dotFoley artists are the people who create the sound of space aliens invading Earth. And they'll convince you it's really happening. In the illusory world of the movies, that's their job.

dotComputer technology allows production companies to use and change pre-recorded sounds.

"All our sound work is done digitally using CD sound libraries and digital equipment by our sound engineers, rather than actual live sounds created by traditional foley artists," says Mairi Welman. Welman works for a company that creates animated television programs.

dotStill, foley artists will always be needed, no matter how good technology gets. So says Wayne Gordon, a sound director for a large sound studio in Los Angeles.

"There are differences in how they record and edit sound, but [making the sound] is still done the same way it's been done for years and years," Gordon says. "There's pretty much no chance of it changing because they still have to create those sounds."

Geoff Turner, with four decades of experience in foley work, agrees wholeheartedly. "You can't mimic human beings," says Turner. "For real drama -- we're talking about a relatively good quality production -- foley is always a definite part of it.

"The ways of inserting it into the show have definitely taken advantage of the modern digital technology, but the basics [require] actually having an artist in the studio. All of our shows still get a real person doing foley....It definitely is alive and well," he says.

dotWhen Hollywood made the transition from silent to talking movies, it came up against a hurdle it hadn't anticipated. Actors moving across a set without the sound of footsteps seemed unnatural. A microphone couldn't pick up the sound without becoming part of the shot.

It was Jack Foley, a Hollywood sound effects artist, who came up with the solution. He created the foley stage -- a room where artists can recreate the sound of footsteps or the movement of props, all in sync with the picture.

dotToday, a foley artist's work goes well beyond footsteps. They're expected to come up with sounds for the rustling of clothing and even the squish of dinosaur dung under a hero's feet. In order to capture these sounds, the foley stage must be acoustically dead so no other sounds can contaminate the effect.

"Every day, you have to figure out how you're going to do this," says Gregg Barbanell. He did foley for Dumb and Dumber and hundreds of other films. He works for a post-production company in California. The firm has a creative team of 50 editors, mixers, sound designers, engineers, foley artists and support staff.

dotThe list of sounds to be put on a track is almost endless: footsteps, car doors slamming, gunshots, even the rumble of an aircraft launch. You might think it wouldn't be long before all those sounds could be stored in a database and reused, but Barbanell doesn't think that will happen -- at least not for movies.

"If you did that, it's going to sound very sterile. It will lack that human element," he says, noting that not every angry footstep sounds the same. "But I imagine eventually it will happen, especially for TV work."

dotFoley artist Lise Wedlock agrees. Wedlock has worked on productions for the government and television.

In the past, foley was only used for big-budget feature films, but now it's used for just about everything -- creating a big demand for them in the film market.

"There aren't very many of us, but all of us are working hard," says Wedlock. She was the foley artist for the feature film Agnes of God and the popular kids' series Are You Afraid of the Dark?

dotOne new trend is an increase in sound intensity. Ten years ago, a gunshot was relatively quiet. But with today's at-home theaters, people expect to be blown away when a gun goes off.

"Film has a reality unto itself," says Barbanell. "In real life, a gun sounds like a little pop or crack. Like sharp firecrackers. But in films, that doesn't cut it. We have our own reality and that's bigger and bolder."

Says Wedlock, "I don't remember using the elaborate props we have now. I used to go down to the studio cafeteria and [record that sound], or grab a stapler from a desk and do that sound. Now the nuance has to be so much more precise -- almost enhanced. The soundtracks are getting more and more elaborate every day."

At a Glance

Turn a soundless movie into a booming success

  • Digital sound is changing the field, but foley artists will always be needed
  • The list of sounds you can create is endless
  • Train your ear and study sounds