How Do Foley Artists Make Sound?

Foley artist creating sound for a film

Movies are more complex than they might first appear. At any given moment, there are countless individual elements occurring simultaneously, both visually and audibly, to create the final version that the audience experiences. To the untrained ear, most of these nuances simply go unnoticed and become part of the overall facade. In fact, sound design in movies relies on this lack of conscious attention for audiences to become even more immersed in what they’re seeing and hearing.

Creating the perfect soundscape in film and television requires a myriad of effects and musical cues, but one of the most commonly referred to, and arguably one of the most important, is called Foley. The work of a Foley artist is highly engaging and full of variety, making it an extremely interesting job to have in the post-production world.

What’s in a Name: The History of Foley

Foley gets its name from Jack Foley himself, a man who completely transformed sound in film. His work in broadcast has led to him being the first name in any study of sound design and its roots in movies and television. But it was in the age before movies, when radio was the primary form of broadcast available to the masses, that Foley first made a name for himself, according to MasterClass.

Back in Jack Foley’s day, it was much more feasible to get a high-quality sound effect by having it performed live rather than using a prerecorded canned effect. In the 1920s, a canned sound effect would mean playing it on a phonograph, grainy and extremely low quality. This meant that sound artists were truly performers, their job requiring impeccable timing and attention to cues.

Nowadays, a Foley artist works in a sound studio and has ample opportunity to study the scene that they’re working on and figure out the best possible way to create the necessary sound effects. Once recording and playback techniques and technology had advanced far enough, all sound effects could be recorded ahead of time and added in later without noticeable loss in the fidelity.

What Does a Foley Artist Do?

Foley artists are responsible for creating a wide variety of atmospheric sounds in film and television. Not only do they have to use critical thinking and creative insight to determine which of their many tricks to use for a given sound effect, but it’s also their job to then use their props and other tools to make the sound happen.

Although it’s rarely ever a live performance situation, the way it was back in the days of radio, the performance element is still certainly a key part of the job. These artists must put themselves into the scenes that they’re performing Foley in, ensuring that the intensity and dynamics of their sounds match the tone of what each character is feeling. It’s not something most moviegoers notice on a conscious level, but the performance of these sound designers has a huge impact on the emotionality or tension of any given scene.

How Does a Foley Artist Make Sound?

Because of the vast array of noises and sound effects that a Foley artist has to make on a daily basis, they quickly become acquainted with an equally diverse selection of props and devices used to make every sound imaginable. Sometimes the sound that’s needed is quite straightforward to recreate, and in many cases the artist can simply perform the action being taken by the character onscreen. Things like footsteps down a hallway or a pencil scratching on a piece of paper, for instance, are two very basic sounds where the real thing works best.

In other cases, a sound cue is more complex and not something that’s easily achieved by recreating a certain action in a sound studio. In those situations, a Foley artist must work their magic to find innovative ways to create a sound that fits the action on the screen.

Simple Foley Tricks of the Trade

There are some sounds that have been used so much in sound design that they’re ubiquitous in the world of Foley, and many are still widely used today. Some effects have retained their popularity purely due to audiences being conditioned to hear them; they might not be the most realistic thing, but moviegoers are so used to hearing them that it would actually take them out of the experience if they weren’t present in the mix.

In fact, this phenomenon has been dubbed the Coconut Effect after the prevailing use of hollowed-out coconut shells to generate the sound effect of horse hooves. While it is true that two coconuts being tapped together sounds quite similar to a horse when it’s trotting along a path paved with cobblestones or the like, it’s safe to say that in the vast majority of equine depictions in TV and movies occurs on much more rugged, off-road terrain.

However, the fact remains that if the Foley artist doesn’t include that distinct clop-clop sound, even if the horse is trotting down a dirt path, the audience’s suspension of disbelief is broken, and they’re taken out of the experience. In those cases, what’s realistic in the real world doesn’t always translate to what sounds right in the sound design.

Many of these classic Foley tricks are still extremely popular today both because of this audience conditioning and the simple fact that they get the job done. In hand-to-hand fight scenes, there are many ways to use sound to depict a punch landing but breaking apart a fresh head of lettuce is an inexpensive and effective way to get a satisfying crunch that audiences still love to hear.

Famous Foley: Iconic Sounds

While Foley is comprised of atmospheric sounds that are supposed to fit seamlessly into the mix of background sounds, there are times when certain sound effects gain recognition on their own. This often happens in science fiction, which involves advanced technology that must sound distinct and sometimes unusual for it to fit the outlandishness of the visual nature of the device. The fantasy genre also uses distinct Foley sounds to make their world seem as removed as possible from reality, and many have lived on to be one of the most memorable elements of those movies.

Star Wars

A classic example of a Foley sound that went on to have a life of its own is the lightsaber sound effect from the Star Wars franchise. This and countless other effects from the Lucasfilm series of blockbusters have become just about as iconic as the movies themselves. Ben Burtt designed the distinct hum and swish of the famous Jedi weapon by taking the hum of interlocking motors from old movie projectors and layering that with a distinct type of microphone interference. This just goes to show how the most experienced sound designers work in unusual and often unexpected ways.

Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings trilogy also brought forth a number of unique sounds using a combination of different Foley sounds. Everything from the Eye of Sauron to the distinct magical devices being used by the wizards in the story, like Saruman’s Palantir or Gandalf’s staff, each give a highly original sound befitting of Middle Earth.

Harry Potter

The same goes for the magical sounds of the Harry Potter franchise. Each individual spell had to come with its own distinct Foley sound for the audience to truly believe in the magic they’re seeing. With settings like the Hogwarts castle, different rooms and passages have sounds that are just as memorable as the characters themselves.

Who Does a Foley Artist Work With?

In the realm of post-production, everyone must work together closely and concisely in order to create a finished product that looks and sounds right. Foley artists are always engaged with other sound designers to make sure all their work is in sync, and there will oftentimes be consultations with the composer in charge of the score if there are any difficulties in the mix being too crowded or bare.

Foley artists must also work closely with the director to ensure that their work is matching the director’s intention for the scene. It’s important for these types of sound designers to be team players so they create the best possible sound for the ultimate end product that everybody is working to achieve. Staying in close communication with the director and other sound designers is the only way to guarantee that everybody is on the same page.

Film and Sound Design Program

Ready to put your spin on Foley sound? The Film and Sound Design program offers an occupational degree that immerses college students in the world and industry of film and sound design. IPR’s condensed program allows students to earn a multi-skill, multi-functional Occupational Associate of Applied Science Degree in as little as two years.  Students learn hands-on, entry-level skills in every aspect of the film business: story, preproduction, production, and post-production for video and audio. Work as a part of a team to produce your own film- from concept and storyboard, to production and editing – you’ll graduate with a portfolio of work to showcase your creativity and launch your career in the exciting Film Industry.

If you are interested in a career in film and sound design you should tour our Minneapolis creative arts college, see the labs and meet our staff. Call 1-612-351-0631 or contact admissions to make arrangements.