The everyday sounds we hear in movies—the flow of water, the movement of a coat zipper, someone walking in the snow—help create an immersive experience and establish the overall atmosphere. We rarely pay attention to them because they feel so natural, but we’d certainly miss them if they weren’t there. Believe it or not, these sounds aren’t captured at the same time as what we see on the screen. Though it seems logical to record what’s occurring around the actors as they’re performing their dialogue, these sounds wouldn’t come through clearly enough to have any effect. Instead, they’re recorded by Foley artists in post-production.
If you’re interested in learning more about what Foley artists do, as well as how to get started in the profession, keep reading!
What Is a Foley Artist?
Foley artists use a wide variety of props to mimic naturally occurring sounds and record them in sync with what’s happening on-screen. They might use a large tarp to imitate the sound of a sail blowing in the wind, swish their hands in a kiddie pool to create the sound of moving water, or step on a bag of corn starch to mimic the crunch of snow under a foot.
They use their creativity to record sounds that are incredibly realistic. As a result, the viewers experience each scene as if they’re right there alongside the actors.
The History of Foley Sounds
The use of added sounds began with live radio broadcasts in the early 1920s. When film studios began producing the first non-silent films, they quickly realized that their microphones couldn’t pick up much other than dialogue, so they turned to radio sound artists for help.
The term “Foley” is a tribute to Jack Foley, one of the first sound artists to work in film and the one who introduced many of the techniques Foley artists use to this day.
Why Are Foley Sounds Necessary?
Even though today’s microphones are much more sophisticated than the ones used at the start of Jack Foley’s career in film, there are still a number of compelling reasons why Foley sounds are necessary in filmmaking today.
- Sound Quality: Even the best microphones are meant to pick up only actors’ dialogue. Other sounds in the scene might be heard, but the recording would lack the crisp, intimate feel that Foley sounds provide. Not to mention, turning up the gain on the actors’ microphones in hopes of picking up more of the surrounding sound would lower the quality of the entire recording.
- Layering: Foley sounds are recorded individually and often layered together. If a scene has 10 different sounds happening simultaneously, having them in separate tracks gives the mixing engineer the most control over how loud each one is and how they blend together.
- Language Dubbing: Films and TV shows often get dubbed in other languages. Recording Foley sounds separately keeps them intact when the actors’ voices are replaced with new dialogue.
What Does a Foley Artist Do?
The first step in recording Foley sounds is a spotting session, in which members of the Foley team watch the entire film or episode and make notes about which sounds they’ll need to record. Next, they’ll practice making the sounds in real-time while the movie or episode plays on the screen.
When it’s time to record, a team of two Foley artists will head to the Foley stage—an area in the production studio designed specifically for this purpose. The Foley stage has many different surfaces—sand, gravel, tile, hardwood floors, street asphalt, and anything else that the actors on-screen might be walking on. The Foley stage also houses thousands of props that are used in creative ways to produce sounds.
During a recording session, two Foley artists are on the Foley stage, while a mixing engineer is behind the soundboard to make sure everything is recorded, mixed, and synced perfectly.
Types of Foley Sounds
Folley sounds fall under three main categories: walking, movement, and props.
The sound of footsteps is the most common Foley sound. Without it, it would be difficult for the audience to know who is in the scene, who is approaching, and who is leaving. Foley walkers wear different kinds of shoes and walk on various surfaces to match what’s happening in the scene. They must also pay attention to the speed, weight, and personality with which they walk.
A movement sound can be the sound of fabric as two people brush against each other or the sound of someone’s pants moving as they’re walking. Foley artists usually sit down with a piece of cloth in their laps and go through the entire movie or episode, recording nothing but movement sounds.
Everything else that doesn’t fall under the walking or movement categories is a prop sound. These are specific sounds like using a pencil on paper, setting a bowl down on the kitchen counter, or closing a car door.
How to Become a Foley Artist
A formal post-secondary education in Foley is not a prerequisite. In fact, there is no such thing as a degree in Foley, and very few film schools have dedicated classes and Foley stages to practice with. If you have the opportunity, a degree in film production or sound design may be helpful, but again, not necessary.
The best way to learn how to be a Foley artist is to apprentice with someone who has experience in the field. Get ready to do a lot of networking and look for opportunities to shadow a Foley artist or offer your help as an assistant.
Everyone’s path to becoming a Foley artist is different—you may find yourself taking on other roles just to get your foot in the door before you’ll have a chance to express your interest in Foley.
It’s also worth noting that job openings for Foley artists are very rare. Production companies have go-to Foley artists, and if they’re ever looking for someone new, they’re more likely to ask around for a recommendation than post a job opening. This is why, if you’re serious about becoming a Foley artist, it’s crucial to network and build relationships with experienced Foley artists.
Foley Artist Salary
How much does a Foley artist make? It depends. Most Foley artists work independently on a project basis, so they negotiate their own rates based on their level of experience and the size of the production.
Most belong to a union, which mandates a minimum wage of about $450 for an eight-hour workday. Many make more than this, but they also might not be working every day of the year.
Types of Foley Artist Jobs
Foley artists’ talents are needed in a variety of industries. The majority of Foley artist jobs are in film and television, but these openings tend to be quite competitive.
If your heart is not set on film and TV, consider other fields like video game development and live theater. The good news is, your skills and experience as a Foley artist will be highly transferable, so you could start out in one field and eventually move into a different one.
Film and TV
Foley sounds play an integral role here because they help maintain the viewers’ willing suspension of disbelief and enhance their experience. They’re even more important in animated movies and shows, where every single sound is a deliberate choice that helps create a fictional world for the audience to immerse themselves in.
Foley sounds also play a massive role in the development of video games. The goal of every game is to make the player feel like they’re completely immersed in the game, and realistic Foley sounds help achieve exactly that. Unlike in film and TV shows, the player doesn’t just observe a sound—they often control the actions that lead to that sound, so accurate and well-timed Foley can make or break the game.
While Foley sounds are recorded in real-time for film and TV, for video games they’re recorded as samples and then programmed to be executed in response to the player’s actions.
Foley sounds in live theater are nothing new. For hundreds of years, before sound effects could be recorded and played back digitally, stage crews used wood and metal to create sounds of thunder and other effects. Though most theaters today use digital sound effects, many consider Foley a performance art of its own and deliberately use only live sounds.
Test Your Own Foley Skills
Think you have the skills that would fit the Foley artist job description? Put them to the test in the comfort of your own home. Simply turn on a movie, turn off the sound, and see if you can create Foley sounds to match what you’re seeing on screen. Start by practicing walking to match the actors’ footsteps—this is the hardest part! Then use what you can find around the house to create other sound effects.
If you have a knack for it and you’re having fun, it may just be time to consider a career as a Foley artist!
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