Foley artists and sound effects in films

I am fascinated by the way that films are made. There is so much going on behind the scenes to produce what seems so smooth and natural. I have posted many times about CGI and other visual effects but via David Pescovitz, I came across this short documentary about the production of sound effects in films. I had no idea that so much of the sound is added on later, and is not captured in real time by microphones that are hidden from the camera. In addition to getting the sound right, the timing is crucial.

I learned for the first time that the people who produce these sounds are called ‘Foley artists’, named after Jack Foley who pioneered this art form.

There are many stories in the film industry about Jack Foley’s genius, such as the time Stanley Kubrick wanted to re-shoot a Roman army scene in Spartacus to get the sound right — instead Foley jangled a set of keys into a microphone and got the desired sound.

Jack Foley never received a single screen credit for his work, although to be fair, neither did most other film workers during this period. Today Foley artists receive the credit they deserve and Jack has the last laugh by having them all named after him.

This article explains in more detail why attempts to capture these ambient sounds directly while filming the scene are often inadequate and what Foley artists do to correct the deficiency.

Noises on location often mask the dialogue which must be replaced in a recording studio later – an actor may have to replace an entire scene or just one word!

This process is called Looping or Automated Dialogue Replacement (ADR.) The Dialogue Editor then conforms the ‘Production Audio’ (the live sound) and the ADR into a complete track.

However, the ADR segments are clean and free of noise – it doesn’t sound natural when combined with Production. And the footsteps are missing, as well as any other action on screen. Foley fills in the gaps between the live recording and studio ADR, smoothing out the sound and creating new sounds where they are missing.

It makes you realize that there are so many skilled artists working behind the scenes who are not only not recognized by the public but we don’t even realize that they are playing any role at all.


  1. Menyambal says

    They made the sound for the Balrog in _Lord of the Rings_ by dragging a concrete block over a board. I happened to do that once while working -- it gave me chills.

    I just got a bass speaker hooked to my video game console. There was some amazing sound work done in _Destroy All Humans!_.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    It (almost) ruined March of the Penguins for me when I noticed a Foley artist in the credits.

    Apparently a lot of that tromping-through-the-snow sound was just somebody in a recording studio crinkling up cellophane.

  3. EigenSprocketUK says

    The other reason for extensive foley is so that a film destined for international distribution can be sold with an “M&E” track. All the Music and Effects, all the footsteps, clothing movement, crackling cigarettes, creaking doors, dripping rain, humming fans etc. But no voice, so much of what you hear is fake -- or at least not necessarily recorded at the time the actor was on set. The international buyer adds the local language overdub.
    It’s quite weird to see a film with the M&E only: you can hear them perfectly clearly, but when the lips move no sound comes out.

  4. says

    One of the greatest bits of foley, ever, was the bit on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where they brought the “go to” horse hoof foley technique into the movie. It was absolutely brilliant beyond words.

  5. says

    I always loved David Attenborough’s nature documentaries because he requires that any audio of nature is the actual audio. They had to develop whole new ways of capturing the sounds of ants marching, etc.

    Amon Tobin did a cool album once called “Foley” where he did the music based on stuff sampled around him. A Harley motor, sampled, slowed down and key-shifted: there’s your bass line.

  6. kyle brooks says

    I did a fair amount of tv and film “extra” work to see me through Uni.

    One technique that always makes me laugh when I see it is the Discotheque scene.

    A track is played until the background dancers pick up the beat, then the music is turned off and the extras dance to the beat in their heads, while the actors talk in the load exaggerated way people do to be heard over noise.

    Oh and Marcus, sorry but dont believe everything you hear, even from the sainted David

  7. Menyambal says

    Siobhan, thanks for that vid.

    My personal favorite bad foley work is putting the wrong airplane sound in a movie. Aircraft are noisy, but there are enormous variations in the noise. Even among helicopters the sounds are distinctive.

  8. says

    That was priceless!!!!

    And I love how Attenborough implicitly acknowledges that, yes, he is communicating with the bird. Or, rather, it is communicating with him. I wonder if the bird was saying “you are too big to eat and are ruining my basking spot!” or what.

  9. Chris DeVries says

    Basking spot!? No, that’s clearly (based on all the dancing and squawking) its display site, where it has chosen to try and win the right to mate with a (much less preposterous looking) female bird of paradise. I’ve seen the dances of a few birds of paradise on video, and they have all been quite remarkable. But the King Bird of Paradise has, to my mind, the most intricate dance, using its two looooong tail feathers to great effect. Evolution exemplified, I guess.

  10. DonDueed says

    Menyambal, that was parodied nicely in Airplane!, where the sound of a propeller plane was used even though the plane was obviously a jet.

    I was once able to visit the studios at Skywalker Ranch in a professional capacity. I got a tour that included one of the Foley studios. Sadly it wasn’t in use at the time. One thing that struck me was that the floor included several different “sandboxes” with different materials so the artist could produce different footstep sounds — the crunch of gravel or swish of sand, etc.

  11. Trickster Goddess says

    Another trick is after a scene is finished filming in a location, the crew will remain silent while the sound guys will record a minute of “room tone” — the ambient sound of the location such a background ventilation, etc. to add in behind the ADR so the difference won’t be noticed in playback.

  12. lorn says

    Foley artists are indeed artists. And art is good.

    Except for one small thing, one of the reasons people like movies is that they seem so “real” in an exaggerated and unreal way. Everything, not just the sound, is bright, clear and distinct. Notice in the video where they used a wooden-wheel cart for sound effect on the stone seawall when the cart in real life had pneumatic rubber tires. The wooden wheels do have a lovely sound. Far more evocative than the near silent scritch of a rubber tire but it goes to show how movies are not so much real, as more real than real … a journey to a wonderland where everything is up-to-eleven.

    It is like an entire alternate reality where the reds are more red, the sky is a slightly more compelling shade of blue, the blood looks exactly like blood does in your mind’s eye, that out of place hair is disordered in exactly the right way. The girls on the street aren’t just pretty, they are gorgeous. Or plain in an attractive caricature of plainness playing hide-and-seek with the beauty. The leading lady is drop-dead beautiful. Perhaps with one well placed smudge to emphasize her humanity. The leading man has straight men reconsidering their sexuality.

    It is like real life, but better.

    Leaving the theater is when I notice it. The world is more random, equivocated, compromised. The sky is the wrong shade, the dirt is far less endearing. The heroes are compromised. The villains are hackneyed and banal. It is all a disappointment. I want to go back to the world of movies.

    Where the cart with the rubber wheels has the endearing sound of a wooden wheeled model from a century past.

  13. mikeym says

    One of my favorite Firesign Theatre gags is in the old-time radio drama, “Nick Danger: Third Eye” in which a butler answering the door on a snowy night tells the guest to “come in out of the corn starch and dry your mukluks by the cellophane.”

  14. Crimson Clupeidae says

    One amusing Foley effect that is horrifically over used is the sound of screeching tires. Even when a car is starting normally (without spinning tires), so many movies can’t help but add that little effect. It’s often just a small chirp, but still, I wish they would resist more often.

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