Articles - 26th February 2019

Foley Artists

Words by Harry Harris
Illustration by James White

It’s Oscar season once again, the time of the year when films are broken down into a dozen or so parts and awarded handsomely based on who had the most extensive marketing budget that year which was the best. Though the whole endeavour can feel a little wearing, it does go some way to de-mystifying the entire filmmaking process, as we begin to pay more attention to the more invisible aspects of filmmaking, such as editing, cinematography, and sound.

However, anyone who’s waited patiently for the end of a Marvel movie can tell you just how long those film credit sequences are, and how many individuals’ work goes into a finished movie. There are no Oscars for gaffers, grips, and best boys, and nor is there an Oscar for Foley, one of the most interesting aspects of a film’s sound design.

Put simply; Foley is the art of recording various things to mimic the sound effects that appear on the screen. Any ambient sound that’s not sufficiently picked up by the sound operator on the shoot is aped in a recording studio, once the film is completed. Often, weirdly enough, this involves food. Watermelons being pummelled. Lettuces being stabbed. Pistachios being ground up. Celery sticks being snapped in half. Weird as it may be to imagine, the gruesome sounds of every horror film you’ve ever seen are probably made by salad ingredients.

If you want to get a good, quick understanding of what a Foley artist’s job entails, you could do a lot worse than watch Peter Strickland’s 2012 psychological horror Berberian Sound Studio, the story of a man whose mind unravels while doing the Foley for an Italian horror film.

Foley is still done bespoke, but there’s also a big bank of stock sound files that some films will go back to and use time and again. The most famous of these being the ‘Wilhelm scream’, a one-second screaming sound that was first recorded for the 1951 movie Distant Drums, but has subsequently popped up in everything from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to the video game Red Dead Redemption. However, this is more of a stylistic choice. It’d be near impossible to do the Foley for a film only using stock sound.

The problem is, there is currently a huge skills shortage in the UK film industry for these less fashionable, but extremely important roles. To combat this, the BFI launched a £20m plan in 2017 to try and encourage more people to realise the careers available to them within film. A BFI-commissioned report estimated that 30,000 jobs would become available over the subsequent five years.

Speaking at the time, Liz Karlsen of independent production company Number 9 Films stated: “If you think about the number of platforms that have exploded – things are being made for Netflix, Amazon, HBO, Sky, film and television. There’s just not enough people out there to fill all the jobs that need to be filled.” The work is there, so how do you go about finding it?

Speaking to Moving On Magazine in 2018, Foley artist Lou Brown, whose credits include Doctor Who, Casualty, and Swallows and Amazons, suggests networking is a big part of the job: “The ease with which you find work depends on your level of experience and how much you make yourself known. When starting out it takes time to gain competency, so finding work is more difficult. Once you’re established, it’s a case of staying in touch with studios and sound supervisors.”

In the same interview, Lou notes that the craft should be learned intuitively, rather than academically. This tallies up with the DIY, problem-solving nature of Foley, something that was neatly illustrated by experienced Foley artist John Fewell during a masterclass with film education charity Into Film, back in 2012. As well as demonstrating how snapped celery mimics the sound of broken bones, or how walking on cat litter is used to create footsteps, he also brings out an old, rusty tap, saying: “Every Foley artist will have something that squeaks.”

That said, Fewell stresses that if you want to get into the industry, it doesn’t make sense to go in cold: “I would get a background in film, generally. Get a job as a runner, or something in a post-production house. Learn the process of post-production sound. It’s silly to go into Foley when you don’t actually know why you’re doing it. It’s nice to get the science of what you’re doing first, and then just work on it.”

In terms of educating people about the many roles available within the film industry, Into Film are at the forefront. Not just through educational resources such as this interview, they’ve also worked with Creative Skillset — now ScreenSkills — who work with the screen industry to set up apprenticeships and training opportunities for anyone looking to get on the ladder.

Through ScreenSkills you also get platforms like Hiive, an online community of young people starting as script editors, directors, sound recordists, and any other job tangentially related to film, TV, or video games you may be able to think of.

Foley artist Ricky Butt speaks to me over the phone the morning after a busy day at one of her other jobs — performing in the west end production of Mamma Mia, the film version of which she also did the foley on. She can also list Slumdog Millionaire, Black Mirror, and Bridget Jones’ Diary in an impressive list of credits going back 25 years.

The link between a technical role, and being a performer, may seem unusual, but she tells me it’s more common than you may think: “There’s a few of us that started out being dancers because we started out being trained by these ladies, who’d done it for thirty years. They had so much work and wanted to train up some younger women to do it, and they wanted particularly to use people who’d been dancers. Because of the coordination, the timing, and also the performance, which is what it is.”

This is where the “artist” side of being a Foley artist comes out. Not just in the creative ability to mimic or replicate sounds, but in knowing what a scene needs sonically, and how to perform that in the studio.

However, Ricky tells me it’s an industry that’s diminishing, but maybe not for the reasons you might think. Rather than there being a lack of money or a crisis of labour, she tells me that as an art form, it’s still somewhat misunderstood by the powers that be: “Production always takes the lion’s share of the money. Post always has less chunk of the budget, even though sound is such an enormous, huge part of taking a film from a good film to a great film. They’ll make sure they have ten unit drivers, but they’ll only pay for one Foley artist when two would make it really good.”

Another challenge is time. “They want miracles done, in such a little amount of time, and you just can’t quite understand how they’ve got there. Very often they’ll just base the time they give you on the minutes of footage they want shooting, but you need to look at what it is.” In addition, Foley artists do not work alone, and though it feels like it’s more on the technical side of filmmaking rather than the artistic one, there is a division of that sort within Foley itself: “A good mixer will know exactly what mic to use. You get an enormous range of qualities in the recording of Foley. The artist may be the same, but you’re only as good as your mixer, and how you record.”

It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a small industry, but there is still bespoke Foley theatre being used for productions: Shepperton, Twickenham, Elstree, and Cardiff all have facilities where Ricky and her colleagues will do a lot of their work. Because it is so small, it helps to sustain itself, and there seems a good amount of camaraderie between those within it: “There’s such a small community, we are known, they know us all. Particular studios will use their first choice artist because they have a relationship with them, but very often they’re not available, so you have a chance to go there. We just get phone calls from the studio.”

However, there’s still some work to be done when it comes to securing the future of the industry: “There are a few places that are starting to train up young people, but you need to train from somebody. That’s where the difficulty lies, so some of our old skills are being lost because they’re not being taught to the next generation. It’s also very different now because the majority of us worked when it was still analogue. It wasn’t digital. We had to be so much more accurate. You can move things a few frames now, you don’t have to be so accurate. So those kinds of skills are being lost, that real eye for accuracy.”

There is something a little Wallace and Gromit about the life of a Foley artist which makes it look quite appealing from the outside. The idea of these creative, problem solvers who all have stacks and stacks of props that they’ve collected over years of service to the trade — John Fewell has his favourite tap, for squeaking sounds. Ricky has a car boot full of different kinds of shoes because each one makes a different footstep.

The best studios may be set up with a range of microphones, each adept at capturing different kinds of sound, but every Foley artist is different. They all have their own unique instruments they use with which to make their art. Happily, it seems this perception stacks up when talking to them. Despite the frustrations of the industry, there’s still an incredible joy, enthusiasm, and playfulness that comes with the territory.

Think about that credit list again, the myriad people who go into making a film. Award ceremonies are fun, but when you think about it, it’s crazy to break down something that is so collaborative, that is so much the consequence of lots of different people pulling together in the same direction, to a few headline gongs. It’s also crazy to think about these roles in terms of creative and technical — they’re all creative, they’re all artists, otherwise, they wouldn’t have chosen to pursue a career in the movies. So the next time you’re at the cinema, listen closely when someone’s walking along a gravel floor, or when someone gets punched — a lot of time and energy went into that so that you wouldn’t notice.

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