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Film's unsung hero
The art of sound-effects is named after a movie pioneer who never got
screen recognition for his work. Today's foley artists make the credit
roll, but they're just as invisible



'Rock Hudson is a solid stepper; Tony Curtis has a brisk foot; Audie Murphy is springy; James Cagney is clipped.'

Jack Foley describing the footsteps of the stars in 1962

In the 33 years that sound-effects pioneer Jack Foley worked on Stage 10 at Universal Studios, he never received an on-screen credit for his inventive, and sometimes cost-saving contributions. But the art he single-handedly created in the early days of the "talkies" was eventually named after him and is part of every feature film showing at the local multiplex.

Almost every sound we hear at the movies that isn't dialogue or music is a sound effect. From footsteps to gunshots, from the faint rustle of clothing to the fiery roar of a jet, sound is either created by a foley artist or deliberately placed there by a sound editor, who either went out to record it or selected it from a vast library, and possibly combined it with other sounds or altered its pitch.

Many early sound pictures had dialogue and music but no feeling of the noise of movement. Soon editors started cutting together footstep sounds for actors, but would use the same tracks over and over. Foley got the idea of projecting the moving image in a sound stage and recording sounds in sync with the actors' movements, using different surfaces and an array of props. It was said that Foley could make the sound of three men walking together using only his two feet and a cane.

His last foley job was on Spartacus. Director Stanley Kubrick wanted to reshoot the Roman army marching to battle because the location sound was no good. Foley ran out to his car and retrieved a large ring of keys, which he then jangled in sync to the march step, creating the rhythmic "ching" of the armour and saving production the expense of a two-day shoot with soldier extras. Today's foley artists follow the techniques established by Foley (who died in 1967), but unlike him, they get credit for their work.

Andy Malcolm, one of the best-known names in the business, is a Genie Award-nominee for best sound editing in 2002 for his foley work in Max and David Cronenberg's Spider. Asked to describe his job, he says: "While the dialogue editor is stuck in front of a computer, I'm on my feet all day throwing car doors around and punching roasted chickens."

Malcolm has been doing foley work since the mid-seventies, but started working out of his own home in Uxbridge, Ont., just three years ago. "The studio is built on the ground floor," he explains, "and there's a room delegated for exteriors with a huge dirt pit, asphalt, cobblestone and grass growing under a sun lamp. So it's great for clomping through the dirt or digging a grave."

Malcolm and his team did the foley work for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, the first Inuit feature film, in the month of July. "The powers that be didn't think we could do it," Malcolm says. "But we brought in huge sculpting blocks of ice and sent a driver to the arena to pick up snow from the Zamboni. Then we layered it with cornstarch," he adds, noting that's what creates that crunchy snow sound.


Foley artists love squeaky things. Malcolm won't allow WD40 in his house, which he has wired for sound. "The whole end sequence of Red Dragon [the second Hannibal Lecter sequel] takes place in a beach house and we did the foley for that in my house." For scenes like this, Malcolm uses portable monitors to watch the action. Digital-recording technology also allows him to do "location" foley, which he has done for such films as Lolita, Sunshine and The Sweet Hereafter.

"The technology is affordable now, so we have a portable setup which we can take to a location. The whole dynamic range of sound is so much better it actually makes our job more intense. We've got as many tracks at our disposal as we need." Mechanical sound in film marked its 75th anniversary last year.

Experiments in synchronized sound and moving image were happening long before The Jazz Singer -- the Warner Bros. film that wowed audiences in 1927 and that changed commercial filmmaking almost overnight. Still, movies have been trying to catch up with developments in sound technology ever since. Although creativity has flourished throughout the history of film sound, costs of updating equipment and theatre sound systems prevented most moviegoers from fully experiencing the artistry. Lately, however, things have changed. Thanks to digital technology and the multiplex construction boom in cities and suburbs across the land in the late nineties, movies have never sounded so good. But some things haven't changed since 1927. Sound is still invisible, so to speak.

Sound effects have a hidden power, affecting moviegoers in subtle ways. Say, for example, an unexpected sound -- the slam of a door or strange methodical scratching -- makes you jump or tremble in your seat, yet you describe the experience later by recalling what you saw, or thought you saw, on the screen. Perhaps you feel a sense of hope, longing or dread while watching a scene even though no one is talking or moving and there is no music. Do you remember hearing a bird chirping, a restless wind or a tap dripping? Probably not. When the sound effects work, it's because they seem to belong; they are not noticed in the way a dazzling visual effect makes you say, "Cool."

As Academy Award-winning film and sound editor Walter Murch once put it, "film sound is rarely appreciated for itself alone but functions largely as an enhancement of the visuals. By means of some mysterious perceptual alchemy, whatever virtues sound brings to film are largely perceived and appreciated by the audience in visual terms. The better the sound, the better the image."

Awards season is just around the corner, and every year the same thing happens: When the winners of best sound and best sound editing are announced, a large group of excited men and women rush the stage and their heartfelt words are soon drowned out by music. (Foley artists and sound editors watching from home might say they know exactly how they feel.) So it seemed like a good idea to beat the rush and talk to some of the talented people responsible for sound effects in Canada.

Malcolm is preparing for a trip to Montreal, packing a suitcase full of flippers and wet chamois to create sounds for a National Film Board animated short called Penguins Behind Bars. "Animation is the most fun," he says. "For live action you're trying to make everything transparent. In animation, the audience already has a suspended sense of disbelief so you can exaggerate everything more."

Most foley artists work in studios built in postproduction sound facilities. In the pristine, carpeted environment of Tattersall Casablanca in Toronto, the foley room looks like it's ready for a garage sale or even garbage pick-up. Shelves are crammed with kitchen utensils and dishes, old chairs and appliances are against the walls and there's a pile of shoes at Donna Powell's feet. Powell, whose foley work is acknowledged in a Genie nomination this year for best sound editing on Rare Birds, put on a pair of leather-palmed gloves and guitar picks to demonstrate the sound of dog feet.

"For Such a Long Journey I snipped pieces of rigatoni in a scene where someone is having his nails cut," she explains. "You're constantly improvising. It helps to have a theatrical personality and a sense of rhythm. It's not just a technical job." Foley artists get asked to do things Jack Foley would never have imagined, like taking eyeglasses on and off. "I was once asked to make the sound of mascara going on lashes," Powell says with a laugh, adding, "foley is like parsley. You have to put it on the plate for the customer so he can take if off." If foley artists are the extroverted pack rats of the sound world, then sound editors are soft-spoken sound junkies. Foley artists collect props, sound editors amass libraries.

Award-winning sound editor Jane Tattersall has been collecting sounds since she started in the film business in 1984. While she was working on Istvan Szabo's Sunshine, a Genie winner for sound, she spent a couple of weeks in Budapest. "I walked the city, rode the trams and the subway and recorded sounds. I woke up really early one morning to record the 5 o'clock bells. I walked into a courtyard and suddenly a huge flock of pigeons rose up and the sound was incredible." Tattersall used some of the sounds she recorded for Sunshine and other period films she has worked on as background ambience in Max.

Postproduction sound companies thrive on the strength of their proprietary sound libraries, which augment the sound-effects CDs which everyone can buy. Every film project presents an opportunity to collect new sounds. Stephen Barden of Toronto's Sound Dogs, which made a name for itself in part by making its vast library of sound effects available on-line, admits the library came up short when they were bidding on Men With Brooms. "We rented a curling club for two evenings, brought in a consultant since none of us knew how to play, and recorded every possible sound made in the rink," he recalls. Barden has since used the sound of a rock rumbling down the ice as part of an earthquake tremor.

"A lot of directors are visual people and aren't necessarily thinking of sound design before they start shooting," says Barden, whose team won a sound editing Genie for Treed Murray. When Barden worked on Paid in Full with director Charles Stone III (Drumline) two years ago, the relationship was ideal. "The movie is set in early eighties Harlem, and there were scenes with drug dealers down in the stairwells of old brownstones.

"He got his actors to imagine there were sounds off screen and respond to them, like a car door slamming or approaching footsteps. Something like that gives us sound editors a window of opportunity to shine through." Stone took Barden to various neighbourhoods in Harlem where the movie is set, and the next day Barden hit the streets. "I went out with this very discreet microphone mounted on the temples of eyeglasses and a portable DAT machine. I walked around and recorded playgrounds, people talking on the streets. That natural ambience is always the best thing."

Foley artists, sound editors, recordists and mixers seem to accept their lot as the invisible creative contributors to moviemaking. But the next time you are experiencing the "mysterious perceptual alchemy" of sound and image, why not show your appreciation by closing your eyes and opening your ears?

Sound bites

The DVD release of Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones includes an excellent, articulate documentary that shows all the stages of creating sound for a motion picture, featuring sound designer Ben Burtt and his team doing their thing at the Skywalker Ranch (the Mecca of sound).



The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film by Michael Ondaatje is a wonderful, rambling book that essentially transcribes three interviews. Murch eloquently discusses the craft and artistry of sound with anecdotes connected to memorable films he has worked on, and examples from film history.



The Web has plenty of great resources on film sound. Two of the best are:
- featuring articles written by some of the most respected names in film sound
- an excellent primer on foley and introduction to film sound elements and it includes an article on Jack Foley



For Real Audio listeners, a highly entertaining 12-minute radio documentary on Jack Foley is archived at

Special to The Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada) January 20, 2003  Print Edition, Page R1

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