Foley artists whose credits include Breaking Bad, The Revenant, Killing Eve, Black Mirror and Suicide Squad explain all about Foley.
The art of Foley sound effects is the reproduction of everyday noises that are added to film and television during post production to enhance the audio quality. A Foley artist will use props and elements of the set to recreate and enhance sounds for video.
Gregg Barbanell began his career some 40 years ago working as a sound editor in Hollywood, where he realised there was a demand for Foley artists. He started his own Foley company in 1979, and he is now the in-house Foley artists at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Barbanell has worked behind the scenes on many motion pictures and TV series including Suicide Squad, The Revenant, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
What’s a day-in-the-life of working in Hollywood?
The Foley stage itself is a very specific custom recording environment with lots of empty space and every imaginable surface available to walk on from rocks and cement to wood and sand.
I work in a team where there are usually two Foley artists performing and a mixer in the booth who is driving the bus, we are all working to the action cues.
We have thousands of props surrounding us and the job involves a lot of problem solving. Every day is different, it’s usually a race against the clock but fortunately I still get up every day and am excited about what I am going to do.
The first layer of recoding is performing all the footsteps to the film as it is being projected. Unlike sound effects editing, which is all about taking pre-recorded sound and editing it to make it fit the picture, Foley artists perform the sound live while the picture is running. We have to re-enact every sound imaginable; it is especially time consuming for a feature film and usually takes between 10 to 15 days in total.
I also work on a lot of TV which is different depending on the programme and budget. The job is more challenging now than when I started because budgets have tightened.
Has technology changed the way you work?
For Foley artists, technology has changed the ability to get to the next cue quicker, which under time restrictions is critical.
Film technology has come a long way from where I started 40 years ago. We used to use the 24-track machine where there would be one 24 track of tape per reel of film which would usually take 10 minutes to start on the next one, whereas today we instantly jump cues because of the use of digital.
From an engineering recording perspective, the equaliser gear to manipulate the sounds is great with the plugins available to augment the sound to make bigger and amplified noises.
How has Foley artistry evolved?
In the beginning we did all the feet and some props because the sound editors were cutting simple thing including a cup down and picking up the telephone, they would be some difficult things to hear so they would opt for Foley sound. However, today based on time and budget we are doing every little ridiculous noise including waving hands through hair.
It is part of the evolution in sound and film because sound is a very important element of film which has become rather sophisticated.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
New cues and trying to come up with a sound for something weird. It’s about problem solving and imagining what you want to hear from the action and how you can make that sound. Ultimately Foley art is boiled down to doing an excellent job with limited time.
The threat is that recording Foley is very expensive and I work in Hollywood where everything is expensive, so the goal is to get an excellent job done with good time management.
What advice would you give an aspiring Foley artist?
It’s no lie that it is very difficult to break into the industry but knowing someone and hanging out on the Foley stage is great experience.
We have to move so fast so it’s difficult to have a trainee, but it does happen. My advice would be to find who is doing it in the area and get the foot in the door.
When I started, there were only a dozen good Foley artists working, over the years more and more are doing it.
There is a lot of debate about the future of Foley, many attempts to digitally produce Foley with massive pre-recorded Foley noises on a keyboard, but it has not gone well. There are digital Foley effects that are being done on some TV shows, but it does not sound the same; it’s somewhat robotic and lacks human touch.
If you’re passionate go for it, but there is debate and some people argue Foley is going to be short lived I think what might happen is some of these TV shows, they may use digital Foley in the future.
What has been your career highlight?
I’m lucky to have a rare studio role but in addition I get videogame work for Blizzard Entertainment and I can’t say no. However, my credit list is extensive, but the pinnacle of my career was working on the entirety of Breaking Bad. I did every single episode and that was amazing, it was more like working on a miniature feature with a couple of days grace.
They used the Foley as a featured because the nature of the show was quiet. The fly episode (‘Fly’ – the tenth episode of the third series), we spent an hour doing the legs and wings, it was incredible, and I never have worked on a TV series that has used Foley so beautifully.
Some movies like Dumb and Dumber are just fun and some like Little Miss Sunshine are so low budget we helped create the bus as a character for first time director, it was a great achievement. However, the most challenging job was on Spirted Away from 2001, and I still have people contacting me about that.
Ruth Sullivan, who is based in London, fell into her Foley career by chance as wanted to become an actor. She said she has a love-hate relationship with the craft, because some jobs are tedious and repetitive, while some are very satisfying. Most recently she worked on Killing Eve which she loved because sound was a hugely important element of the programme. She has also worked on UK productions including The Little Drummer Girl, Bodyguard and Black Mirror.
What is the primary job function of Foley sound recordist?
The relationship between artist and recordist is so important – its great if you both get on well and have a similar outlook on a job. It can be really instinctive with both feeling a sense of achievement and satisfaction from creating amazing sounds. The power balance is quite delicate in such an intimate working environment - it’s a physical job which can be very draining, and it is easy to feel resentment if an artist feels a recordist is asking for unnecessary extra footsteps or sounds in a scene. It’s also important to remember that everything an artist does is a performance - sometimes we need praise!
Has technology changed the way you work?
Yes, in the sense we can do a lot more than we used to because filming techniques and editing techniques has changed, it’s become fast and furious. More intimate film work, very close up to the actors and hear claustrophobic sounds, hand clutches and so on cover a lot of detail in the recording.
I was lucky to start my career in the late 1990s, where the process to record on film was slower. I had to learn how to be in sync and detail because you didn’t have so many options; you had to be more precise.
What kit do you rely on?
There are lots of pairs of shoes, different types of material including cloth, leather, denim, cotton shirts as well as objects from, rattles, an old Game Boy to wood and gravel. Studios have a lot of props in the store cupboard, but it is important to bring the right shoes.
What skills does a Foley sound artist need?
As a Foley artist you must have patience, coordination and need to think laterally. Sometimes you might need a prop to make a sound you could use something a bit different and manipulate the sounds differently.
The responsibility of Foley is to recreate the full sound track of all the noises actors make on set. The mixer chooses the location sound and the Foley sound or track layer is overlaid. For example, the sword clashes on, the gun shot, and the extra details will be done by Foley.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
In practical terms attempting to do as much of the project as you can in the time allotted is challenging. Trying to get through some of the crowds’ scenes with lots of footsteps is tricky.
Microphone technology has improved enormously in the past several years, we can do things now we wouldn’t have been able to do before and we can record on and move the mics around and get more distance which is great for features.
What cinema trends do you expect to impact Foley sound?
In recent years there has been a lot more focus on Foley and creating stylised sound, this was hugely important in Stranger Things with hyper real noises that created a sense of reality and that is the direction I see us going in.
Radu Bostan is a Foley artist with more than 10 years’ experience of post-production recording and audio for film and TV. He is based in Moldova and currently works as part of the Moldova Grinder Sound company in Chișinău. He has worked on features, short drama and TV series.
How did you become a Foley sound artists?
My journey in this field began approximately six years ago when the sound recorded on set and the sound libraries was not enough to capture all the atmosphere, vibe and depth of the soundscape of the film. Foley sounds were the key elements, the missing link to fill in the gap that was involuntarily distracting the moviegoers’ attention. Just like the excess of production can be harmful and can affect the audience’s perception of the picture, so can the lack of the necessary elements. As of now, I’m really involved in the Foley and post production processes for Swedish TV series, and heavily involved in audio post-production for Indie films.
What is your role on a set?
The main role that I have on set is the correct understanding of principal soundscape elements that are presented in the picture. It’s critical to have the correct understanding of the emotion and the personality type of every character, looking for the props that can recreate the original sound in such a way, so that the listener does not feel a sort of auditive discomfort.
This is especially important when talking about the complete reproduction of the sound in the international version of the film when the only thing that changes is the ADR. Bringing sound to the picture and capturing the mood of what is visually represented, that’s the main job of the Foley artists. Any interpretation of an action is a metaphor of what ears can hear. In some ways, we trick the mind of the listeners.
That means that all the elements like the first step of the main character to the sound of a dog moving in the background. There is constant communication with the film director or sound supervisor for the understanding of every subtle element that needs to be present on screen, so that we meet all their expectations.
Has technology changed the way you work?
The technology barriers were broken a long time ago with the development of digital, with the diversity of the portable digital recorders that can satisfy a large spectrum of users, from the beginners to professionals to the quality of the sound interfaces and the multitude of microphones that are available on the market.
One of the key factors in Foley production is the space in which the Foley artist can reproduce the sounds needed, how vast the collection of props and how good is the sound proofing of the Foley room. The imagination of the Foley artist and their level of expertise is very important because the substitution of the artist with plugins or sound libraries can’t really capture the human factor.
What skills does a Foley sound engineer need?
A Foley artist must have an open mind for imagination, plasticity of the body, ability to capture the emotional state of every character and the details seen onscreen with the combination of hard work and desire to challenge yourself in producing the correct sound.
What kit do you use?
Ultimately a very large collection of props and of course my attention to detail, imagination and the understanding of the movie director’s vision, as well as SennheiserMKH 60, Sennheiser MKH 416 and Rode NTG 2 microphones, an RME audio interface and ProTools 12.8 HD.
What cinema trends do you expect to impact Foley sound over the next 10 years?
Like we are seeing now, in the next 10 years the industry will be completely driven and dictated by the audience preferences. It’s hard to make a strong affirmation; the progress is unpredictable sometimes, but one thing is for sure - Foley artists will always be there for the satisfaction of every film and television production.
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