The Art of Foley: Making Film and Television Come To Life


Have you ever noticed how many different “sounds” surround us every day? Probably not. Often most ambient noise go unnoticed but are recognized by your brain as normal, abnormal or even dangerous sounds. As I sit here typing I can hear the keys on my laptop “clicking” away. When I lean back, my chair makes a subtle creaking sound. I also hear someone dragging a cardboard box across the floor in another room. Even though I do not see the source, I recognize the sound and know what it means. Now imagine watching a film or television program that contained none of these background sounds. It would be a very sterile, unlife-like experience. We would instinctively know something was wrong by the lack of ambient "noise". The sum of all the sounds in a setting is called the soundscape. The soundscape for a busy New York street is much different than a country road, for example. Most of the sounds we hear in television and film are added into the soundtrack later, after the film was shot. Footsteps, spent ammo casings hitting the floor and punches are all recreated through the art of Foley.

Jack Foley is credited with inventing the concept of recording ambient sounds for use in films. In 1929 Universal Studios wanted to turn their new silent film, Show Boat, into a modern movie with sound. The studio had to keep up with the other studios, now that films were being produced with recorded sound. No one in the studio had any experience in the movie soundtrack arts because it was a brand new technology. Foley enlisted people who worked in live radio to watch the film and recreate all the sounds while watching the movie. An orchestra played the music score while the “walkers” made footsteps, laughter and other sounds that synced up to the action on the screen. This is how the art and science of Foley began. Over the years technological advances have improved what can be done during the editing process. Some common sound effects were recorded and used in many different television programs.

The original Hawaii Five-0 and The Rockford Files used stock sound effects in some scenes. You may notice that most hand guns all sound the same in that era of television programs. I’ve noticed that most of the sounds of face punches and bodies falling to the ground are also the same stock sound effects. One of the most common sound effects of times past was a ringing telephone. Nearly all effects editors in the US used the same prerecorded telephone track. The ringing was recorded on tape, which eventually stretched, so that the ringing sound had a [video=youtube_share;yg1Cx26-928][/video]. It can be heard on many of the television shows of the 70s and 80s, before electronic telephones and cell phones became the norm.

Today even with all of the modern digital sound recording and editing technologies plus thousands of pre-recorded effects, Foley is more important than ever to create an lifelike soundscape. Modern Foley artists work in a dedicated recording studio with the sole purpose of creating sound clips that make the audio accurate to what is being seen on the screen.

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Hackenbacker Studio

The advent of surround sound adds even more importance to accurate sound effects. One of the more difficult Foley challenges is to re-create footsteps. I don’t mean mere fottfalls. Take a look at a film and watch how an actor’s steps change depending on the action. High-heels make a different sound than athletic shoes. An actress could start off at a leisurely pace, stop, spin around to face her accuser and then take off running. Each step has to be coordinated both in pace and heaviness to recreate life-like steps. Our brains would instantly warn us that something was wrong if the sounds did not sync and match what our eyes were seeing. Some Foley studios have an entire car at their disposal to recreate door locks, slamming doors and seat creaking. Saran wrap is used to reproduce a crackling fire. Rusty metal hinges could sound like squeaky rail car. As an audience we often underestimate the importance of Foley. But that is the beauty of Foley. The sound effects are so “real” that we do not think about them, even though they are telling us a story. Foley is an essential part of every movie, television program, cartoon and commercial. See for yourself. Sit down and focus on the sound rather than the video. Close your eyes and immerse your senses in Foley!
A really eye (or should I say ear?) opening blog. Sound is so important to television. When TV screen used to be tiny and have fuzzy images, it was sometimes the primary way of addressing viewers. If you listen to TV now, you can still hear the legacy of sound drawing viewers into programs. By the way, Jim Rockford's phone is one of the most iconic and important sounds in television history.