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Most people have never heard of Jack Foley.  But, his contribution to movies changed the course of films forever and without him, films would be lacking and boring.  So, what did he do?

Foley created the art form and techniques for adding sound effects to films.

Jack-Donovan-FoleyMost of the modern sound effect techniques used today were created by Foley.  He is the father of audio sound effects.  He invented the technical methods to reproduce sounds that are essential for every scene.  Those everyday, mundane sounds that you hear in your favourite movie such as – a door slamming closed, a car horn frightening a pedestrian in a crosswalk, the soft click of a light switch as the room is illuminated, the splash of a footstep as it lands in a small puddle, or even the bark of a dog off in the distance – they are all commonly reproduced after the principle photography is shot in the field or studio.  Most people assume incorrectly that these sounds are captured with the principle photography, but rarely is this the case.

A professional sound effects specialist called a Foley Artist works in a Foley Stage (or Foley Studio) to recreate these sound effects.  Often, they are recreated in these sound stages in ways that are surprising and unexpected to the general public.  For example, the classic sounds of a horse’s hooves galloping may be generated with two halves of a coconut clapped together in synchronization as the artist matches the pace of the horse as it runs.

Within a Foley Stage, the floor has many bays with hatches that lift up to reveal a variety of different substances.  Under one panel may be sand, another might contain gravel, and another will have water, and so it goes.  All of these substances are needed to reproduce the subtle sounds from the film, so they can be recorded and edited later into the effects track of a film.  In addition, there may be hundreds of prop items stored in the Foley Stage or nearby in a closet that can be used to recreate specific sounds.

Foley Stage

Sounds are complex and are often composed of several component sounds recorded separately and then layered together to create the final effect.  The sound effects track is actually a build up of many isolated tracks layered together into one final effects mix.

In classic terms, there are at least three main audio tracks – the dialogue track, music track, and the effects track. These three tracks are a part of the playback of the film in the theatre when you view the film.

However, in the raw post-production creation process, the sound effects track may be an assembly of 4 / 8 / 12 / 16 / 24 / 48 / 96 or more stand alone tracks and then synchronized into one final mixed down effects track.

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The recording in the studio will use a variety of microphones in order to recreate the same ambiance as is expected in the scene on the screen.  It would never do to have two frightened teens walking in a dark, eerie, wide-open graveyard, but then have the sounds reproduced as if they are in a small room.  People would not be fooled.  And after all, movies are all about magic and illusion.

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Even when the tracks are recorded, each track can be individually manipulated in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) to tweak the sounds and optimize them for the desired effect.  These effect tracks can be shifted forward or backwards along the sound track timeline.  They can be modified as well, by shortening or lengthening them to fit the duration of the scene.  The equalization (EQ) can be adjusted for the low, mid, or high ranges to simulate the acoustical values needed for the scene.

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While audio editing is a separate creative process compared to the Foley recording process, the two are naturally intertwined and critical to each other for effective storytelling.  The placement of the sound effects in concert with the narrative or dialogue tracks is imperative to effectively constructing the illusion of reality.  When we talk to each other, we always talk over one another and this is what a split edit recreates.  So, the sound effects must flow along the time line and be heard at exactly the right moment in order for it to sound natural.  The sample time line displays a split edit between the video and the audio.  In this case it is a narrative with background music and sound effects.  The sounds are the wheels on the concrete, the rustle of the wind, and the flapping of the boarders clothing.

Split Edit

In fact, most edits are split edits, whereby we split the visual scene away from the aural scene and transition them independently from each other.  So, the sound tracks may start ahead of, or after the image cut to soften the transition.  In sound effects, you often hear the pitched creaking of the door opening before the picture change of the character turning around to look at the door.  The sound effects lead the visual cuts.  It can also trail the video cut.  Here is an example of split edits with sound effects broken down so it is evident how the mix plays such an important part of the storytelling.

Here is an example of an editing process referred to as a split edit.  In this example, you can see how the effects play a key role in the editing process.

Foley does not cover sounds like car engines, explosions, or other mechanical stuff – driving a car around in the studio or blowing up a building is usually not possible although it has been tried!  They do not do birds, laser blasts, dog barks, or rain storms either!

These are the domain of the Sound FX Editor who draws upon a sampled Sound FX library and computer technology.  Everything from helicopters to thunder can be layered and mixed in to an SFX track.

One of the most famous field recordings is the laser sounds from Star Wars.  It is said to be made from a hammer hitting the guy wires of a communications tower.  He is a reproduction of that sound done as a demonstration.  Does it sound like a laser gun to you?

While a Sound Editor can do very precise and repeatable effects, they have a harder time when it comes to footsteps for example, since every step is different and unique, the pace changes and the mood of the step is always different.  With a good pair of shoes and years of practice, a Foley Artist can perform an actors walk perfectly on the first take while making it sound natural!

In fact, one of the great ironies of Foley is that if you can tell it is Foley, then it is not very good!  The job of the professional Foley Artist is to make the sound so real that the audience would never know it was not real.

So, the next time you are sitting in a movie and enjoying the heartbreaking emotions of a romance, or the rapid fire action of fighter jets in a dogfight, think of Jack Foley and how he made it all better for you.


References:

Singer, P. R. (2019). What is a Foley Artist? Marblehead. Retrieved on November 18, 2019 from, http://www.marblehead.net/foley/whatisitman.html


About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.

He is a business and technology consultant. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more