Foley Artist | Behind The Scenes Of This Intriguing Job

Foley is an integral part of the post-production world. It is the process of recreating every sound happening on the screen with recordings tailored to the production. These recordings are made by foley artists that perform alongside and in sync with the picture to create the sonic textures happening in every scene.  

Typically the original sound recorded during filming is focused on the dialogue. And is not very clear for spot effects, such as props being used or footsteps. That’s where foley comes in.

It’s such an important process that there are studios dedicated to this specific craft. These are warehouses full of objects of all different shapes and sizes that mean more than what they were originally created for. It’s all about the sound they make rather than the objects themselves. What they ignite in our mind when we hear them rattling, crushed or slammed against the floor. A pair of gloves can become the sound of bird wings flapping. Acorns and walnuts on a wooden surface can pass as breaking bones and something as simple as coconut shells cut in half make the perfect horse hoof noises. It’s all smoke and mirrors to immerse the audience in the world that’s being shown in front of them.

The Origins of the foley artist

The name foley comes from Jack Donovan Foley, an American sound effects artist that developed this very unique technique of enhancing the soundscape for movies. He started working with Universal Studios during the silent movie era in various capacities. But when Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, their first film to include sound, Universal wasn’t going to stay behind. They decided to bring sound to their silent musical Show Boar after the film was shot. For this, Foley and his crew performed and recorded their live sound effects in a single audio track while projecting the film onto a screen. Everything was recorded in one go! It was all about timing and being in sync with the motions and actions of the characters. That’s how this technique was born and has been used in all kinds of productions. 

The last film Jack Foley participated in was Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus. It is known that at the end of filming the director wanted to restage certain scenes to capture the sound effects of slaves walking in leg chains. That’s where Jack was able to shine and prove his craft and instead he recorded the whole scene with footsteps and key chains. Just pure magic. 

How Foley is created

A foley studio is a mix between a warehouse, recording studio and theatre. The live room is a real stage with traps and sliding surfaces that allow the foley artist to create a space to perform in. This artist will look in a well-organised warehouse for shoes, clothes or objects that will provide the sound that they have in mind for each specific scene. Then, they will start recording their performance while looking at the movie to be in perfect sync with the actors’ movements.

Watch Emmy award-winning foley artists Pete Burgis use perfectly timed foley sounds, to bring a sequence of the short film to life in THE SECRET WORLD OF FOLEY.

The engineers in the control room not only make sure that the performance is captured at the right level but also carry out equalisation, audio repair and cleaning processes to make sure the foley sound gets delivered to the post-production audio engineer with the highest quality possible

Keep Things Organised

Foley artists try to layer sounds and give the mixing engineer enough material to work with. To keep things organised during the sessions, foley sounds are categorised into three groups: footsteps, movements and specifics or spots. 

Although the first group is self-explanatory, no two characters’ steps sound the same. That’s why foley artists will change shoes, surfaces to walk on or even the way they deliver those footsteps to get the right feeling for each actor in the movie. Jack Foley himself even characterised the footsteps of stars like, “Rock Hudson is a solid stepper, Tony Curtis has a brisk foot or Marlon Brando’s steps are soft”. 

Movements refer to any movement made by the actors in the scene. Foley artists use clothes, fabrics or elements to bring us closer to the actor’s actions and make them feel more natural. 

Finally, the specifics are any other sound that is happening in the scene like keys being grabbed, wind, scissors cutting, knives, chains, doors… Anything needed to get a full soundscape of what’s happening in the movie.

It’s essential to keep the warehouse organised in order to find the objects that might be needed for the performance. Even pieces of broken china or scrap of metal are stored in their dedicated drawers since they can be reused or repurposed in future recordings.

The Craft of foley

One of the great things about being a foley artist is it isn’t about rules or techniques that can be taught. It’s all about playing around with everyday elements to create sandy, dusty, gritty or rusty textures in a sonic canvas. Taking sounds from unwanted objects and giving them a second life. They are able to turn something mundane into a special and recognizable sound that although it might pass undetected by the audience it certainly adds emotions, realism and depth to the movie.

Our Advanced Diploma in Audio Post Production for Film and TV students learn how foley is recorded and try this technique themselves during the part-time 5-month course. If you want to know more about other areas of audio post-production don’t forget to check out our Audio Post Production Glossary | Top Ten Terms Every Engineer Needs to Know, our article on ADR, ‘What Does An ADR Mixer Do’, and ‘Dolby Atmos | Everything You Always Wanted To Know.