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FIG. 1: Foley is the process of adding the sounds of human activities, such as footsteps and the rustling of clothing, to a scene. Here, a Foley artist works in a sand-filled concrete box, called a Foley pit.

Foley. Foley is the process of recording the sounds of human action in a studio to mimic actors’ onscreen movements (see Fig. 1). Footsteps, the rustling of clothing, the handling of objects, and other sounds are recorded by the Foley team while watching the picture. Foley is a deep and dedicated art form, and good Foley artists have a rare combination of skills that include amazing reflexes, great physical control and stamina, a rich imagination, and a knack for coaxing the best sounds out of inanimate objects.

For the scene described above, the Foley artists would find a pair of worn leather shoes to imitate the character’s and then record all the scuffles and foot scrapes in a Foley pit, a concrete box with sand in the bottom. They would also record clothing rustles to mimic the character’s movements, and the sound of the bottle slipping out of his coat pocket. The final recording would be the clattering of the fruit crate.

Hard SFX. Hard or principal SFX (sound effects) are the primary up-front sounds that sync to important events on the screen, highlight the drama, and help tell the story. The lead sound designer typically works on those sounds. In the sample scene, the hard effects are the tires squealing, the bottle smashing, the cat yowling, and possibly the clatter as the hero runs into the crate. The final mix might include the Foley artists’ crate clatter, the sound designer’s clatter, or a combination of both.

In large-budget film projects, the hard SFX category is further subdivided into editorial and principal effects. Editorial effects are routine, everyday sounds such as doors closing and cars starting. Principal effects are the big, production-specific laser zaps, explosions, and dinosaur footsteps.

For example, in the film Being John Malkovich, different people created each type of effect. Ren Klyce, Malcolm Fife, and I were contracted to provide all the weird sounds, including the tunnel sequences, everything that takes place inside Malkovich’s head, and the bizarre restaurant scene. Another team provided the everyday sounds. In the film Fight Club, however, Klyce created a unified aesthetic mood throughout the film by creating all the sounds with his small team. (Klyce was nominated for an Academy Award for that film.)

Production sound. On most live-action projects, the sound at the scene of the shoot, called the production sound, is captured by a production recordist. That person’s main job is to record the dialog, but he or she might also capture some of the editorial sound effects as well as backgrounds and room tones. That task is made difficult by the sound of cameras whirring, generators buzzing, and directors screaming, but the production recordings are a gold mine of material. Of course, animated projects such as games have no production recordings.

Background/ambience. Backgrounds (also called atmospheres) are sounds that are not synched to events on screen. Those sounds set the mood and define where something is taking place. Distant city traffic, the ever-present rumble of a starship, or a chorus of birds in the jungle can serve to reinforce the visual image and enhance the story’s believability. Backgrounds also come in two types. Ambiences are long, continuous recordings that set a mood with something that doesn’t call attention to the track. Stingers or specifics are short elements added to the ambience tracks at certain times to spice things up.

Reprinted with permission from Magazine, March, 2001
2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved.

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