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  • How much sound in a movie is actually recorded while the actors are in front of the camera?
  • What sort of technology is used to create the incidental sounds in film?
Peggy reveals some of the secrets behind movie sound effects at Skywalker Ranch. segment length 7:35


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As you go through an average day, how many sounds around you do you actually hear? Every time you close a door, do you listen for the click of the lock? Do you hear the clink of a glass as you set it down? Although you may not actively hear these sounds, if they weren't there you'd wonder what was missing. Foley, the process of creating incidental sounds, is the art that completes a film--all by adding sounds for which you never really listen.

Whether they're tearing heads of cabbage for a paper shredder in The Temp or "smooshing" gelatin in T-shirts for E.T.'s wobble, foley artists add sounds that make the experience more real for the audience. The process is named for radio and movie sound pioneer Jack Foley, a technician at Universal Studios in the 1950s who became famous for synchronized sound effects.

Foley artists begin their work by watching the film to determine which sounds need to be replaced, which need to be enhanced, and which just simply need to be added. At this time, the sound on the film includes all of the dialogue and sound effects created during the actual production of the film. These sounds are recorded on a production track or guide track.

Later, technicians may add crowd noises (also called walla), the musical score, rerecorded dialogue or ADR (automated dialogue replacement), sound effects, and sound-designed effects. It's not unusual to have 80% of a movie's sound track added and altered in some way after the movie is shot.

Some sound effects are common and can be pulled from prerecorded audio libraries. But many are unique to each movie--footsteps, for instance. As they watch the film, the artists identify which sounds they need to create and start thinking of ways to make them. In addition to the noises themselves, the foley artists must consider other factors, such as who makes the sound and in what environment. Some sounds are too complex for one take, so the foley artists carefully combine different noises to fully represent a single sound. In some cases, foley editors can digitally alter recorded sounds to fit a scene exactly.

In a foley studio, you'll find different surfaces for walking on, a splash tank, echo chambers, and a mixing booth where the sound engineers record and mix everything. Foley artists spend hours huddled around a microphone, reading cue sheet??????q?;???s and watching a huge screen as they meticulously synchronize their noises to the action.

So the next time you see a movie, listen very carefully. If you don't notice a thing, you've got a foley artist to thank.

  • How would you create a sound for something that has never been heard by humans, such as sounds on a distant planet or a dinosaur egg hatching?
  • How can foley artists affect the mood or meaning of a film through sound effects?


cue sheet: a list of all the necessary sound effects, along with their "cues"--time code and/or film footage signals that indicate when the sound begins and ends

dialogue conversation or verbalizations in a film

echo chamber: a box or container used to create the illusion of distance and reverberation

incidental casual, everyday sounds. Special sound effects that aren't necessarily "special."

mixing console a machine capable of taking in several different sounds, then mixing them at different levels to create a single, unified sound

reverberation a reechoed sound which fades until it becomes inaudible

rough cut the "first draft" of a film

score the background music throughout a film

splash tank a container filled with water for wet sound effects

walla the film industry term for background crowd noises in a movie

  • Belton, J. & Weis, E. (1985) Film sound: Theory and practice. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Harris, R.J., Jr. (1992, Dec 21) The foley artists are a noisy bunch in moviemaking. The Wall Street Journal, pp. A1 & A5.
  • Mooser, S. (1983) Lights! Camera! Scream! How to make your own monster movies. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
  • Mantell, H. (1983) The complete guide to the creation and use of sound effects for films, TV and dramatic productions. Princeton, NJ: Films for the Humanities.
  • Smith, T.G. (1986) Industrial Light and Magic: The art of special effects. New York: Ballantine Books.

Community Resources

  • Contact your state's film board to find out who does foley or sound work in your area.
  • Tour a local TV or film production company.
  • Contact a local radio station to find out if any DJs use sound effects.
  • Check your local library for LPs, tapes, and CDs containing sound effects libraries.
  • Contact the theater department of a local university for a speaker on theater sound effects.


    How many different sounds can you create with just ten items and your tape recorder? For starters, you'll experiment with each individual material and see how many sounds you can make. Then start combining them. As you become more familiar with the properties of different materials, think about other sounds you can create with them.


    • ball bearings
    • balloons (uninflated)
    • bottle of carbonated water
    • bottle of noncarbonated water
    • cellophane
    • cylindrical oatmeal carton
    • Popsicle sticks
    • rubber bands
    • sandpaper
    • stiff pieces of cardboard
    • tape recorder

    1. Experiment with each of the above items to create different noises. Try creating new sounds by manipulating two or more items in combination or changing the environment you are in. Feel free to cut things apart, glue them together, or do whatever else inspires you. Decide what actual sounds your sound effects could represent. Tape-record your sounds. When you??????q?;??+/ finish, write out a list of what each sound on the recording represents, as well as how you created it.

    2. Now, your debut as a foley artist! Play the sounds for a few friends. Do they recognize what you intended the sound to be? If you like, draw pictures or add dialogue to the sound effects to make the noises more recognizable.

    3. Using your new sound effects as inspiration, write a short scene for the radio. See how many different sound effects you can incorporate. How would you write this scene differently if sound effects weren't available to you? Record and share your scene. And when famous Hollywood producers want to hire you to do foley on their films, remember the folks at NEWTON'S APPLE who gave you your start!


    In the NEWTON'S APPLE foley segment, Peggy learns that there are several different sound elements in the dinosaur egg hatch--the cracking egg, the sticky membrane, and the motion of the baby dinosaur. Can you identify the different elements of other sounds? For instance, listen to a watermelon being cut open. Or a box of cereal being opened. How would you categorize the different types of sounds?


    Silent films depended on an organist in the movie theater to add the music and mood to make a movie complete. Rent a silent Charlie Chaplin film. Treat it as a rough cut. Watch the entire film with the sound turned off. What sound effects would you add? How would you do them?


    Take a tape recorder on a walk with you. Really listen to the sounds around you and record sounds that you hear every day, but typically ignore. Choose your top ten favorites and play them for friends. How many do they recognize? How many stump them? You can make it tougher by editing out part of longer sounds. (Here are two to get you started--a parking meter and a light bulb be??????q??????ing screwed in.)


    In the early days of live radio, John Dennis invented a way to create the sound of thunder. His method of rattling a large piece of thin copper sheeting suspended by wires became so popular with others in the field that an irate Dennis accused another producer of "stealing my thunder!" Dig through your kitchen. How many ways can you steal some thunder? (Hint: Don't do this before 10 a.m.)
    Newton's Apple is a production of KTCA Twin Cities Public Television. Made possible by a grant from 3M. Educational materials developed with the National Science Teachers Association.




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