When we speak about Foley, we always refer to a sound effects technique for both live effects or synchronous effects. This technique was initially named after Jack Foley, a famous sound editor at the renowned Universal Studios. Basically, foley artists strive to match all kinds of live sounds effects with what is actually going on in the film. These sounds are done manually using inanimate objects and people.
This technique is an excellent way of adding the subtle sounds into the film, the sounds that often the production overlook due to all the intricacies involved during the shoot —the noise of the saddle every time a rider gets on his horse or the rustling of an individual’s clothing are just some example of those sounds that are not considered by the production up front, but those are necessary to provide the film, or any other audiovisual project, with that distinctive touch of realism. Otherwise, by using other methods, it would be rather difficult to achieve the exact same level of authenticity.
A good foley artist often takes the place of the actor with whom production is trying to sync effects, if not, well, the sound ends up lacking the necessary level of authenticity and realism to be convincing enough. Most foley artists, the successful ones, of course, are audiles —they can look at any inanimate object and picture what of sound they can get from it. A foley crew, on the other hand, includes several individuals. The walker, or the one who makes the sound, and a technician, maybe two, responsible for recording and mixing the sounds. The vast majority of foley recordings take place what other people would call storage areas —rooms full of laundry, pieces of metal, rocks, stones, a sandbox, metal trays, empty cans, forks, knives, broken guns, anything.
Foley artists start by watching the film in order to determine which sounds need to be added or replaced, which ones can be subject to some level of enhancement, and which ones they can get rid of. At that point in time, the sound on the film is composed mostly by the dialogue and sound effects crafted during the production of the project. These sounds are actually recorded on a guide track, often dubbed as a production track. Later on, technicians focus on other sounds that may be subject of playing a minor role in the film: crowd noises, the musical score, dialogue replacement (or dialogue re-recordings through ADR), other sound effects and, last but not least, sound designed effects.
It is not rare to have up to 80% of a film’s sound altered, edited or simply customized in some way once the movie has been shot. Some sound effects are easy to craft and can be added by resorting to pre-recorded and existing audio libraries; however, many sounds remain unique to every project. Think of footsteps, for instance. As foley artists watch the film, they identify which sounds they need to craft and create, and imagine ways to pull them off. Additionally, when it comes to noises, foley artists have to consider other factors such as the origin of the noise or who is making that specific sound and, most importantly, in what kind of environment. Some noises or sounds are too difficult for just one take, so foley artists must carefully combine different noises from different sources to perfectly represent the sound they are looking for. In some cases, foley editors can ultimately digitally alter these sounds to match what the film is projecting. In the foley studio, you will find all sorts of surfaces for simulating all kinds of footsteps, a splash tank, all kinds of chambers for simulating different variations of echoes, and the mixing booth where foley engineers record and mix everything. The process is quite simple: foley artists spend hours orbiting microphones and watching a huge screen as they try to synchronize the noises they are producing with the action being projected.
But why is foley so important anyway? Well, the vast majority of a film’s soundtrack is added during the post-production stage for several reasons:
Some situations are not real during filming
Think of swords in Vikings fights or punches that don’t make contact with the skin in fist fights. These sounds are, of course, added during post-production and have to really embody what the action requires.
Some CGI simulations are not from this world
The vast majority of CGI elements are ultimately not from this world: big monsters, lightsabers, flying vehicles, etc.
Some sounds cannot be recorded on set
Imagine recording on set, in just one take, the sound of a bird’s wings when it jumps into the air or a letter being taken out of the envelope. This sounds, even though we never pay attention to them in real life, are needed to provide the project with realism.