Foley artists play a significant role in creating sounds for film and TV shows. Foley artists need to be well-versed in various audio production techniques and have a keen understanding of music, rhythm, and sound in general. While this role often goes unnoticed by audiences, the audio for a project can sound lackluster without the expertise of a competent foley artist.
Want to learn more about this crew position? From day-to-day responsibilities to national salary averages, here’s everything you need to know to be successful in the role.
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Foley artists are responsible for creating and enhancing the ordinary, everyday background sounds of a film during postproduction. Since the sound department on set focuses mainly on capturing dialogue, foley sounds are recorded later in a studio. The foley team uses the finished footage as reference so that the sound can be synced perfectly with the picture.
Foley effects are generally broken down into three categories:
- Footsteps—foley artists utilize specific types of shoes and floor surfaces to recreate what’s in the scene.
- Movements, like the swishing of jeans or rustling of a jacket.
- Specifics, such as a squeaky door, a sword being unsheathed, or glass breaking.
The person who captures these small sounds accurately plays an unsung but integral role in immersing an audience in the atmosphere of a film; without even the most trivial noises, the reality of a scene can feel off.
“People take sound for granted, but you would miss it if it wasn’t there,” explained Alyson Dee Moore (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” “Big Hero 6,” “Clueless”). “We bring sound into the story, and we can create any mood with that sound…. The art of foley goes back to the old radio days, where you would see the sound guys clomping with their coconuts.”
Foley artists work in a project’s sound department during postproduction under the guidance of a sound mixer; it’s common for them to start out as production assistants before moving up within the sound department through hard work and connections. However, it’s not out of the ordinary for foley artists to be former actors and/or dancers, since they are delivering physical performances. Once in the sound department, they might start out as an assistant or apprentice under an experienced foley artist, sound editor, or sound mixer before landing the job.
Like any role in the industry, it’s crucial at the entry level to absorb information from those in the field around you—in this case, your peers at audio postproduction offices and sound studios. Many professional foley artists begin by working on independent and student films before advancing to bigger productions. Typical film schedules for a foley artist in the industry can be between 15 and 30 days.
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While similar in theory, foley is a technique for creating a sound, whereas sound effects are the result. Also, foley is applied after the project has wrapped and been edited together, while sound effects are applied throughout production.
The biggest difference lies in the fact that foley is created for very specific reasons—like an actor’s hand brushing against a shirt—as opposed to a more general sound effect, like a gunshot or explosion. Furthermore, foley artists use props and various physical tools to create that desired sound.
“It’s almost like a prop house,” Moore said. “We have collected different things, because everything here should make a sound. [For example,] pine cones can be used for cracking ice…. It’s an interesting dance.”
“Doctor Who,” “Chernobyl,” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” sound man Harry Barnes agrees. “Good foley artists are hugely creative and will use the most unlikely things to get the sound you may be after,” he told Backstage. “I was the foley editor on ‘Sweeney Todd,’ which required a massive amount of foley, as it was essentially a musical film, with actors miming to playback—so everything had to be replicated. When Todd was busy cutting people’s throats, the foley artist used half an orange and sucked into it to get a nasty sucking, squelching sound for the blood releases. It worked a treat!”
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A foley artist’s salary depends on a variety of factors—first and foremost, whether or not they’re a member of the IATSE Local 700. A foley artist in the union is guaranteed a minimum of $2,773.12 a week, or $57.06 an hour, with 48.6 hours guaranteed. From there, their salary depends on a few factors, including how many jobs they work a year, their experience level, and the size of the project. Non–union members, by comparison, earn around $200 per day.
“Foley artists are independent, so you have to negotiate your fee on each job,” foley artist Gregg Barbanell (“Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Better Call Saul”) told Careers in Film. “The union does guarantee minimums, but unless you’re working regularly, it’s a hard road. You have to be ready to go down that path.”
Foley artists should be natural performers with strong hand-eye coordination and a great ear. Creativity is key; a foley artist’s main job is coming up with ways to reproduce a variety of sounds for any situation imaginable. While no specific education is required to enter the field, knowledge of audio production, sound recording, and sound equipment will give you an edge.
However, the best preparation for the job is hands-on experience–even if it’s in your own living room. “If you think you might be good at it, switch on your TV at home and turn the sound off,” Barbanell said. “Put on a pair of firm shoes, and stand on a wood or tile floor—not carpet. Then, you literally stand there, and as people are walking around, see if you can match their steps…. What really separates the cream from the milk is footsteps. [See] if you find that you can sync footsteps perfectly, stop when they stop, and catch that weird hitch in their walk. Most people can’t do that, and that’s a brilliant start.”
For more on how to get work on a film crew, visit Backstage’s crew hub!