From the wet squelch of an alien creature to the crisp tip-tapping of a dance scene, filmic aural experiences are created by foley artists. These audio masters use their imagination and technical know-how to produce sounds to add into films for more realistic, immersive viewer experiences. Intrigued? Keep reading to learn about the creativity and craft of foley sound effects.
Foley sounds are the reproduced sound effects that are added to filmed media in postproduction to enhance audio quality. They are named after Jack Foley, a sound effects artist who pioneered the addition of sound into previously silent films after filming was complete. He and his crew recorded audio tracks of perfectly synchronized live sound effects to add in to films.
Today, foley sounds are often created and recorded on individual soundtracks and layered in with their visual counterpart. The sounds, which replace or supplement field recordings taken at the time of filming, are made by foley artists, who specialize in crafting fully immersive, realistic, and creative audio experiences.
Foley artists might break plates, stomp around on newspaper, drop rocks over an umbrella, or even bawl uncontrollably to create the right sounds to add into a film scene. Foley sounds are usually not direct reproductions of the sound they’re meant to mimic; instead, they often use creative materials and movements to create a sharper, more precise sound. This video demonstrates foley artists at work along with their sounds as they appear in film:
When a scene has dialogue that needs to be dubbed for clarity, foley sounds are also used. The original recorded sounds may be lost when the recorded dialogue is replaced with the clearer, dubbed version.
“A Quiet Place Part II” Courtesy Paramount+
The primary purposes of foley sounds are:
- To replace sounds that weren’t captured during filming: A poor auditory moment can ruin an otherwise cinematic masterpiece. Foley sounds prevent this from happening by replacing sounds that were hard to capture or that weren’t captured accurately.
- To add to a film’s realism and believability: Hearing the sound of a horse clopping across the ground or grapes being stomped to make wine adds to the viewer’s experience. Without these sounds, a film might feel unrealistic or accidentally comedic.
- To draw viewers into a scene: The sound of a creaking stair in a scary movie can be more terror-inducing than even the most sudden visual jump-scare.
- To legitimize quiet scenes: Adding even the slightest ambient noise, such as the hum of a cochlear implant used in “A Quiet Place,” makes quiet scenes feel more natural—and makes truly silent scenes stand out.
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There are three main types of foley sound effects: feet, movement, and specifics.
Feet: Foley artists create the sound of footsteps by wearing many different types of footwear on various types of floors—high heels on a hardwood floor sound vastly different from bare feet squishing through a swamp, for example. Foley artists who create feet sounds are sometimes called “foley walkers” or “foley steppers.”
Movement: This category includes nuanced sounds made by movement, such as two actors brushing by each other and their clothing just barely touching.
Specifics: These are any other sounds created by foley artists, such as an incoming text, a running dishwasher, or a banging door.
Foley sounds are made when foley artists mimic an actual sound in a foley stage, an acoustically sound recording studio outfitted with all manner of props, surfaces, and materials. They usually follow these steps to create foley sounds:
1. Watch and notate: Foley artists begin by watching the full video they’ll be adding sounds to and taking notes on what’s needed.
2. Gather props: Artists gather props and materials to produce sounds. From shoes to sand to raw meat, everything is fair game.
3. Break a scene down into individual sounds: Breaking a scene into discrete audio parts helps determine which individual sounds need to be recorded.
4. Come up with creative solutions: Foley artists often need to brainstorm ideas for what might make the right sound. For example, the following audio elements are often created using these corresponding foley sounds:
- Wings flapping: shaking a pair of latex gloves or opening and closing an umbrella
- Skiing, boarding, and walking on snow: pressing thumbs into a box of cornstarch
- Bones breaking: snapping a celery stalk
- Raining: frying bacon
- Controlled creaking: leaning on old chairs and stools
- Punches landing on a body: rolling up an old phone book and hitting a couch
5. Record sounds: Foley artists create and record each individual sound in real time while rewatching the film. Foley sounds are usually recorded using sensitive condenser microphones that can pick up on subtle nuances and record crisp audio.
Creating foley sounds for feature films takes a substantial amount of time and is usually budget-dependent, according to foley artist Marko A. Costanzo (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Departed,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Life of Pi”). “Low-budget films will allow two to five days of recording with some editing to tighten up the loose sync. Most half-hour or one-hour television series will use one to two days. Medium budget films will get almost two weeks, depending on whether it is an action film or other type of sound intensive show. Big budgets will usually take three to five weeks. These films expect every nuance of sound imaginable.”
The process of recording foley sounds requires both diligence and imagination. For example, this performance by foley artist Leslie Bloome (“Still Alice,” “The Apostle,” “Cartel Land”) showcases the creative work that goes into making foley sounds.
7. Add sounds: Finally, foley sounds are added to the film soundtrack by audio engineers.
“Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back” Courtesy Lucasfilm
Foley sounds helped create comprehensive, captivating auditory experiences for these iconic films:
- “Star Wars”: The highly recognizable lightsaber sound was made by recording microphone feedback from a tube television.
- “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”: The sound of E.T.’s walk was created through a mix of the sounds of packaged liver, jelly in a wet towel, and popcorn in a bag.
- “Jurassic Park”: Foley artists created the sound of a velociraptor hatching by recording the sound of an ice cream cone being crushed.
- “Inside Out”: The soundscape of the inside of Riley’s mind was created by recording crabs walking in the sand.