During the filming of a movie, the only sound recorded on set is the dialogue, meaning that all the surrounding sound is lost, so no footsteps, clothes rustling, background ambiance etc. This is essential because you want to make sure that the actor’s voices are captured as clearly as possible to make for easy listening, so can’t afford any interfering background noise to be captured as well, but without any other sounds the films would be unnatural. The foley artist’s job is to build all the sound back up again using different objects, and the idea is to make the foley so realistic that it becomes invisible to the audience, meaning they take the sound in without realising. If any noise sounds unnatural or doesn’t fit in with the scene, people will pick up on it straight away and critique it, which ruins the audience’s immersion in the film. It’s a difficult job that requires a good ear and a great imagination, because the artists can be given quite difficult or unusual sounds and have to be able to replicate them using only the objects that they have. The website ‘Epic Sound’ has a very detailed guide to foley which could be a useful reference in the future as it tells you how to create many sounds using household objects. It’s also difficult because there’s no such thing as silence, there’s always background noise, so as a foley artist you are constantly having to fill in gaps with sound even when there’s nothing on screen obviously making any noise. For example this scene from No Country for Old Men.
After the loud noise of the car crash, there are a couple of moments of what humans view as silence, where everything in shot is very still. But actually if you listen closely, the sound design for this is rich with noise, however subtle it is. There’s the hissing and creaking of the cars post-impact, there’s a very faint breeze and wind in the leaves of the trees, there’s bird calls and a dog barking. The sounds fit so well with the setting in the scene that they don’t even register consciously with us,but if they weren’t there, we would immediately notice how unnaturally quiet it was.
Foley is used in everything: live action, animation, TV shows, radio shows, even documentaries. The documentary one surprised me a little, because the whole point of them is that they’re non fiction and the footage they show us should be genuine and true. But if you watch this video you can see why it’s necessary.
Even though a documentary is showing you factual information it’s still a form of entertainment and needs to be able to captivate and hold the viewer. A much-used phrase is “people will forgive bad picture, but they won’t forgive bad audio” and it’s true, if a documentary has bad quality audio that jumps around all over the place and is full of unwanted background noise like wind or tourists (as shown in the video above) people aren’t going to want to sit through the whole thing, because ultimately they’re watching it to be entertained. Using foley ties the whole film together.
There are huge benefits to recording all the different sounds in a scene separately. It gives the editor control over which sounds are most prominent in a shot, because some sounds aren’t as necessary to a scene while others might be important. If the film showed a tap-dancer on stage, you would want the viewers’ ears to be focused on the sound of their feet, not the sound of the audience shuffling and chattering, so the tapping of the feet would be made much louder during editing. The difficulty is finding the right balance between all the sounds, and I think one of the weakest spots in film in terms of foley are fight scenes. It must be difficult to record foley for fighting, because the movements are often very repetative and punches don’t make that much sound in real life, so the noise has to be exaggerated in film to make it at least slightly interesting. But there are some films where the foley seems a little careless.
This scene from Flash Point is well choreographed, but if you listen to the sound effects, you will notice that it gets repetitive very quickly. Every single impact sounds more or less the same, whether it’s a kick or a punch and whether it’s light or hard. Even when the actors fall from a building onto the ground the sound still sounds the same, and yet the fight lasts for nearly 9 minutes. The foley you create for a scene is meant to add another angle of interest, not detract from the scene like it does here.
This scene from Sherlock Holmes manages it better. The foley here contains a wider range of slap and punch sounds that are mixed together and timed better with whats going on in the scene. If the slap is lighter, the sound is smaller and quieter. Also in this clip, whenever the actors perform large movements, there is a loud ‘whooshing’ sound effect. Even though it’s clearly unrealistic and wouldn’t sound like that in real life, it works for the scene because the sound emphasizes their actions and makes it appear as if they are putting more effort into the fight than they actually are.