It’s All about the Sound: What is Foley?

Jack Foley
Jack Foley (photo from filmsound.org article”The Story of Jack Foley”)

Introduction

If you read the credits in a film as I do, you have undoubtedly noticed the Foley credits. But even if you don’t, you have experienced the work of the Foley artists. They add so much to enhance the auditory experience of watching a movie or TV show.

Jack Donovan Foley

Let’s begin by discussing the man who gave the Foley process its name.

Jack Donovan Foley (1891-1967) is best known as the artist who brought natural sound into film. The sounds are added to the soundtrack in post-production.

Foley began working at Universal Studios during the silent era. He was a scriptwriter and director. He also worked on “inserts” which are the close-ups of movements, such as a hand picking up a gun. These close-ups may have been missed during the normal shoot. Foley prepared the sets, graphics, props, and models.

When the sound era arrived, the movie studios were in a frenzy. Universal was working on a silent version of “Show Boat” (which had been a musical on Broadway) and a decision was made to add a composite music and sound effects track. Foley was part of the crew performing that operation.  This came to be known as the first “Foley” session. By the way, the film was only partially a “talkie”.

Subsequently, Foley was called upon to add sound effects in film after film. He and his crew used their own body movements (e.g. footsteps) and props to achieve the desired effect. They literally had to “act” the scene.

One notable example is for the film “Spartacus”. There are scenes of slaves walking in leg chains. But the sound was not good enough. Rather than having to reshoot on location (a very expensive proposition), Foley was able to achieve the desired audio effect on a soundstage with footsteps and key chains!

The Foley Process

The Foley process is one of a number of ways (e.g., dubbing, Automated Dialog Replacement) the sound quality of a film is improved and hence so is the auditory experience of the viewer.  It has been said that poor sound will kill a film.

Foley is the reproduction of everyday sounds that are added to film, video, and other media in post-production to enhance audio quality. Common examples to these reproduced sounds are footsteps, the swishing of clothing, squeaky doors, breaking glass, the punches of a brawl.

Foley work is a necessity because the props and sets used in shooting do not produce the same “sound” as in real life.  Also, especially on location shoots, the ambient sounds are not captured as would be desired. Foley techniques can also be used to cover up unwanted sounds, such as passing auto traffic.

The techniques – that eventually would be called “Foley” in the film context – really began in live radio broadcasts, where a technician would create sound effects, such as a ringing doorbell, on the fly. When sound came to film, people with the radio experience were in demand to help.

The people who do the Foley process are called Foley artists. The Foley artists do their work while watching the film footage. The ability of the Foley artist to do their work in sync with the film video is critical.  The Foley crew is usually composed of Foley artists and sound technicians. The work is done on a Foley stage.

Foley art can be broken down into three main categories — feet, moves, and specifics.

Feet: This is where the “Foley walker” makes the sounds of footsteps, using different floor surfaces, gravel or rocks, as well as different kinds of shoes. This work is done in the Foley pit.

Moves: This category involves the recreation of subtle sounds when movement is involved, such as the swishing of clothing or the clanking of glasses.

Specifics: This is everything else – the part of Foley that uses all kinds of props and material to make sounds such as those from a fight scene.

Conclusion

The Foley process is one of the ways sounds are enhanced in film, video, and TV to improve viewer experience, so subtle and perfect that viewers don’t notice anything has been added. I want to leave you with this YouTube video from Sound Ideas showing two Foley artists bring an action sequence to life with perfectly synchronized sound effects. Foley is used in more than just action scenes, however – it is used even to reproduce subtle sounds in a quiet scene.

Please provide your thoughts and questions in the comments. I would really enjoy hearing from you. If you have a topic in mind you would like me to cover, please let me know.

Additional Information

Filmsound.org: The Story of Jack Foley

Filmsound.org: Foley

Wikipedia: Foley (filmmaking)

Marblehead: The Art of Foley

Soundrolling: What is Foley?


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