Jack Donovan Foley is the father of motion picture sound effects. Though he never received a screen credit for his work, Foley invented many of the techniques for creating (or re-creating) sound effects for film, television, and radio. During the filming of Spartacus (1960), Stanley Kubrick wanted to reshoot a scene of the massive Roman army to get the sound of their metal shields and swords clashing just right; Foley jingled a set of keys in front of a microphone and called it a day. The pioneer has since been vindicated, as every Foley artist working in film, TV, and video games bears his name.
In real life, everything makes a sound. We associate all actions with a certain noise, and without that familiar auditory indicator, the images we see on screen feel artificial and flat. Live sound is recorded during principal photography, but after reshooting and editing, that audio track does not always match. It is the job of the Foley artist to fill in the footsteps, crash-bangs, and other movement-associated sounds. To do this, the artist has at his or her disposal an arsenal of props: sandbags; an endless collection of shoes, hammers, car doors, and weapons; and a refrigerator stocked with noisy food like celery, pudding, and ice cubes. Pulling from their bag of tricks, these artists turn pine cones into cracking knuckles or a feather duster into flapping wings.
During post-production, the artist performs on a Foley stage while watching the film or video in real time. For every sound effect that must be recorded, movement is physically re-created to produce the appropriate effect. If the scene calls for a woman to run down a fire escape in her Manolo Blahniks, the Foley artist will put on a pair of heels and stomp along a metal stair, matching the actress step-for-step. The artist duplicates every car-door slam, sucker punch, and window smash—or something acoustically approximate—live. Foley artists also devise brand-new sounds for computer-generated characters and objects, creatively imagining the gnashing of Gollum’s teeth or the charging gait of the Jabberwocky.
Skills & Education
There are no specific educational requirements for this job. Most Foley artists pick up the craft while training under a veteran mentor. An education in audio production and recording arts can give you the necessary technical expertise, and coursework in film and TV production can teach you about the post-production process. To learn how best to approximate the sound of ribs cracking or laundry blowing in the wind, you’ll just have to experiment for yourself. This job requires a creative thinker, someone who is observant and has a keen ear for subtle sonic differences.
What to Expect
Skilled Foley artists are needed for film, television shows, and video games. This is a freelance role, and the trade can take years to master. To move toward a career in Foley, look for positions in the production sound department, at a post-production studio, or as an assistant on the sound editing crew. Most importantly, you must network. Be proactive in seeking out other artists. Most Foley artists who realize their dream of working on major motion pictures, TV shows, and games will spend a lifetime dedicated to honing their skills and innovating new techniques. These artists rarely make a lateral leap from this role, but work their way up from unknown noisemaker to sought-after master craftsman.
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