Articles - 9th August 2019

Foley Artist: What really goes on behind the scenes in your favourite films

Words by Ruth Sullivan
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Foley Artists work in soundproofed studios with different surfaces laid out, such as concrete, floorboards, sand and gravel, and are full of various props like crockery and glasses, old telephones, leather saddles, swords, trolleys, chairs, keys and jewellery. We record all the footsteps, clothes moves and prop actions performed by the actors in a TV drama or film, literally creating a full soundtrack of everything that moves to make it sound as realistic as possible. So every time an actor pours a cup of tea, gets into a fight, walks on gravel or crashes a car, the sounds will have been recreated in a studio and mixed into the soundtrack. It’s particularly useful when there are special effects as there won’t be any recorded sound taken from the location; think of clashing swords or the CGI monsters in Harry Potter. And if the actors are performing on a set, the floor may be painted to look like flagstones but still sound wooden so we record footsteps on a stone surface to make them sound right.

Foley is particularly useful in animation as, for obvious reasons, there is no original sound; everything is added in post-production. Animation can therefore be the most fun to work on, although terrifically challenging, as you may be responsible for creating the signature sounds for characters. Think of Peppa Pig’s skipping, for example! It is also essential for selling a project to another country who will be dubbing their own language. If all the original dialogue is cut out that also means all accompanying sounds disappear, so Foley is used to create the bed to support the new dialogue.

Filming techniques have changed dramatically over the last couple of decades, as have the methods and demands of recording sound. Everything is faster and contains much more detail – likewise we have a seemingly infinite number of tracks to record onto. As an audience, we also expect bigger and more complex soundtracks and Foley has a role to play in making something sound either more natural or enhanced. Think of how important the sound is in Stranger Things for example. It can literally place the action in a specific location and bring the scene to life.

Becoming a Foley Artist was never part of my plan. In fact, I was trying – unsuccessfully – to find dancing and acting work back in the 90s and had decided to send my CV off for one last time before giving up and finding a “proper job”. The advert was in The Stage saying “dancers wanted for film work”, which I assumed would involve being an extra in a disco scene or some such. But, instead, the lady on the phone gave me a brief description of Foley – I’d never heard of it – and said she ran a small agency and was looking for dancers to train up as Foley artists. An ex-dancer herself, she explained that rhythm and coordination were essential for being an artist, as well as the ability to copy another’s movements, so I auditioned for her, walking on the spot in time with an actor on the TV, and to my bemusement was taken on for training.

I say training – in fact it was a very informal process which involved going to her house for a couple of hours every few weeks whilst she taught me some of the tricks of the trade (how to look at the screen whilst pouring a cup of tea or how to walk in time with someone when you can only see them from the shoulders up). After which I was invited to observe a session in a Foley Studio, occasionally joining in with the other two artists walking in time with a crowd of people on the screen, then eventually allowed to take on a character myself. Those first sessions were a real eye-opener and utterly terrifying – a huge darkened room with a big cinema screen at one end onto which the film was projected, and a counter running at the bottom measuring the time in feet and frames. It felt like a performance with everyone in the room holding their breath in silence to see if you were able to step in time with the actor – devastating when you went wrong and enormously satisfying when you got it right. In those days we often recorded onto tape, so synchronisation was hugely important; it wasn’t yet a digital world, so mistakes were harder to rectify.

Becoming a Foley Artist now is not an easy task. There are only about 10 freelance Foley Artists working in and around London; we always used to work in pairs but that happens less frequently nowadays, so the options for taking on trainees are limited. Probably the best way to learn about this strange art is to contact a post-production house and ask to observe a session. If you’re lucky, you may be able to help out with crowd scenes, as I did when I first started, and see if you really have the Foley bug. It’s hard work, as well as physically and mentally challenging, but it’s always varied and usually very rewarding.

I’ve been lucky in my career and have recently been able to branch out into live Foley work in the theatre (“Live Foley” is a bit of a contradiction in terms, as Foley is always recorded). This is of necessity a very different skill – there are no second takes! But I find it very exciting and, of course, the performance element is heightened in front of an audience. I love working in the theatre – it’s what I trained to do after all – so being able to combine my professional work as a Foley Artist with performing is really wonderful. It also enables me to create props and sound effects that I wouldn’t normally be asked to make – for example, I have what I call a “sea sausage” which sounds like waves on a pebbly beach. In film and TV, those sounds would be taken from a library track or field recording but I love that I can make the sound with a pair of trousers and some aquarium gravel…!


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