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How Do You Become a Foley Artist and Work in Sound Design?

Foley artist recording sounds for a film

Interested in sound design? Want to know how to become a Foley artist? Foley artistry is one of the most fascinating specializations in sound production. Named for the sound effects producer Jack Foley, foley art is utilized in filmmaking and sometimes in live or recorded music performances. Foley is used to significantly enhance the soundscape of a moving picture.

A Foley artist needs a broad range of skills in sound recording and production, time management, and rapid response. This is essential to being successful at this rarely discussed, but incredibly vital role in the film world. Here’s how to become a Foley artist.

The Role of Foley Artists

Named for sound effects designer Jack Foley, foley art is sound design specific to film and television production. Artists recreate the ambient sounds of any given landscape, from a darkened living room to a misty English heath. To do this, they utilize a broad range of recording equipment, props, and tricks to insert these sound effects appropriately in the film reel. This is done much in the same way that voiceover artists record the dialogue in animations.

Foley is intended to be so well-integrated that the viewing audience does not notice it at all. The viewing of a television or film program involves the suspension of disbelief. The work of the Foley artist is critical to this suspension. The audience must feel that every sound, every word, and every effect is natural to the landscape they are looking upon. Without Foley artistry, the concept of the “uncanny valley” becomes omnipresent in the film production. This creates discomfort in the audience at its unnatural silence between dialogue.

Jack Foley was part of the sound crew that worked with Universal Studios on its first films featuring sound and voice following the Era of Silent Films. Leading a small group of other sound technicians, they reeled the film in a small studio. Recreating the sounds that would be naturally heard, fully synchronized with the actions of the actors onscreen. To this day, Foley art is executed in this fashion.

Foley in Practice

Feet, moves, and specifics are the three separate categories of Foley art. The feet category includes sounds of running, walking, and kicking. Moves involves ambient sounds such as the one made by a person’s pants when they are walking, or the swish of fabric as two people pass close by one another. Specifics are any other sound related to situations that might seem unusual or out of place. These include injuries, slamming doors, and the like.

Foley artists often use a range of tricks to achieve specific sound effects. Artists us lettuce to mimic the sounds of bone injury in action or horror films. To make the sound of someone walking on snow, place cornstarch in a leather bag. For squishing sounds, use handsoap. To mimic thunder, use metal plates or sheets. While some Foley tricks are tried and true, the creativity demanded of a Foley artist on a day to day basis to create new sounds, or create better methods for making them, is high.

Foley artistry doesn’t just demand creativity, but physical dexterity and fitness as well. Most Foley jobs involve lengthy periods of sitting and kneeling. They often spend time walking and running in the Foley feet category for any given program. In addition, they must also work different props with their arms and hands. Examples include using metal sheets for thunder and the swishing of fabric for the moves category. Foley art is a physically and mentally demanding form of art. However, it can be immensely rewarding, especially if a Foley artist networks heavily enough to become an in-demand artist.

Skills and Training of a Foley Artist

The skills needed by a Foley artist are many. To start with, a Foley artist must learn all the ins and outs of sound production. Many aspiring Foley artists undertake degree studies in sound design, music, or film. Then continue developing their skills, and physical dexterity, after their degree studies are finished.

Sound Design

Sound design skills are first and foremost among others. In most sound design production or film audio degree studies, sound technicians will learn the historical context of contemporary audio production and practice. Also, they will study academic subjects related to the development of modern audio technology, like physics and mathematics. They learn about different materials used in the construction of sound technologies, from mixing boards to condenser mics. They also learn about up-and-coming and cutting-edge technologies that could dramatically change the landscape of their craft.

Recording

Foley artists must become masters of the sound recording process. Sound design students will spend hundreds of hours in the audio labs and stations. Therefore, learning and mastering the use of different types of microphones, mixing boards, and digital audio workstations. They’ll also learn how to adapt different physical spaces to the work at hand. Thus able to create the best quality sound and recording for a broad array of projects, from sitcom episodes to epic film battle scenes.

Mixing

Mixing skills, from special effects applications to equalization, is no less an important skill to master. While Foley artists at high-level studios may pass their recordings on to an audio mastering professional that will oversee the broader range of the soundscape, freelance and small-studio Foley artists will often be required to do their own mixing and mastering with the facilities they have available to them.

Mastering

Mastering is the final step in any recording process and involves perfecting the final takes of a recording. This is less essential for Foley artists. Although, mastering is an important process in ensuring quality of sound across a range of formats from physical to digital.

Equiptment

Most sound designers learn to repair and maintain the equipment they use. Learning to fix equipment can save money and even time down the line. Many Foley artists start out as freelancers or working in small barebones Foley studios. As a result, knowing how to troubleshoot and repair equipment isn’t just a desirable skill, it may well be required.

Acoustics

Knowledge of acoustics is also vital to the work of the Foley artist. Foley artists often watch the entire film reel they’re working on and take notes on what sounds and equipment will be needed for each scene. They also decide what atmosphere the sound must take. For example, footsteps in a hall require reverberation; rustling in a quiet bedroom requires a drier acoustic environment.

Foley artists might have access to different studio spaces to carry out their work. Often they work in a single room or studio and therefore need the knowledge to modify the room as necessary to get the quality recording they need. Using wall hangings, sound baffles, and other methods of acoustically treating a recording chamber is just as vital to the Foley artist as it is to the music producer.

The Business of Foley Artists

In the course of their studies, aspiring Foley artists should take the time to learn something about the business of the audio industry, with a particular focus on networking and marketing.

Knowing business can assist Foley artists in developing a good baseline for entrepreneurship, as many Foley artists are freelancers that work for several different studios or on multiple projects simultaneously.

But as important as knowledge of business is, knowing how to network is also critically important to the Foley artist. Most Foley artists work as apprentices under a mentor or master Foley artist before striking out on their own, and this mentorship is usually a requirement for success. In addition, networking can help the aspiring Foley artist meet potential mentors and ensure that their career gets off to a solid start.

Very few Foley artists work in Hollywood on a full-time basis; only the largest studios hire full-time Foley artists, and often there are only a few at a time. For large-scale projects, though, they may hire additional Foley artists to help the existing team complete the needed soundscape by the deadline. Foley artists should make it a point to attend professional networking events, premieres, and events relevant to film and sound production to establish contacts and get their work seen or heard. Networking is a skill in and of itself, far more than just talking to people and mentioning your profession, it is a skill that involves cultivating real interest in the networker’s professional activities and convincing prospective clients to hire them for current or future projects.

Final Thoughts

While Foley artistry is a highly demanding career path, it can be a very rewarding one, and for sound technicians who value applying their creativity and skill in different ways across a broad array of projects, it can be the career opportunity of a lifetime.

Did learning about how to become a Foley artist interest you? The Institute of Production and Recording (IPR) offers a program in sound design for visual media that teaches students about Foley techniques.

The Sound Design for Visual Media program is an occupational degree program that immerses the student in the world and industry of sound design for visual media. Students in class learn key skills and concepts necessary to meet the demands of a large-scale audio/visual media project. These skills and concepts include advanced sound design, synchronization, sound effects creation, field and location audio recording, boom operation, ADR recording and editing, Foley recording and editing, the creation and recording of music for visual media programs, and the audible mixing of these elements together. At a higher level, students will also learn how to make the correct aesthetic decisions for the project they are working on, gain important organizational skills that include logging and archiving of media materials, and achieve the skills necessary to advertise and market the final product.

Contact us today to learn more about the sound design for visual media program and starting a rewarding career in the audio industry.