Engineering Technology
Film 101: Understanding Foley Sound
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Movies are primarily a visual medium—but even the most breathtaking visuals fall short without sound effects. From the sound of footsteps creeping closer to the rustling of clothing as a character moves, foley sounds add depth to a film and immerse audiences into the onscreen world.

What Is Foley Art?

Foley is a unique sound effect technique that involves creating and “performing” everyday sounds for movies and television shows. Foley artists create these sounds in a recording studio during post-production, in synchrony with the picture, to enhance the quality of the audio. Foley sound got its name from Jack Foley, the sound effects artists who developed and shaped the technique.

Foley effects work both with and to replace the film sound recorded on set, which is known as the field recording. Most scenes use a combination of field recordings and foley effects.

The Origins of Foley Art

Foley was first used during live broadcasts of radio plays in the 1920s. Rather than using sound effects played off a phonograph, which were often low-quality and unreliable, radio studios hired sound artists to create the effects on cue. The most recognized of those early radio sound artists was Jack Foley, who moved to the film industry to pioneer the methods and techniques that foley artists still use to this day. 

What Do Foley Artists Do?

Foley artists reproduce everyday sounds like footsteps, doors opening and closing, wind blowing, glass breaking, and other ambient noise. Those sound effects get added to the edit in post-production to enhance the auditory experience of a film or television show.

The 3 Types of Foley Sound

There are three main categories of foley sounds:

  1. 1. Feet: The most common production sound a foley artist creates is the sound of footsteps, since those are more difficult to accurately capture while shooting a scene. Foley recording studios have a variety of different types of shoes and floor surfaces so artists can recreate steps from nearly any shoe on any surface. 
  2. 2. Movement: The sound of movement, like the sound of two people brushing past each other, is a subtle sound effect that enhances a scene. 
  3. 3. Specifics: Specifics are any sounds that are not movement or footsteps, like a phone ringing or a door creaking. 

How Is Foley Sound Made?

Foley artists record sound effects on foley stages, which large recording studios equipped with thousands of objects, textures, and surfaces artists can use to recreate sounds. Before recording in the foley studio, foley artists watch the entire film, note what sounds they’ll need to produce in every scene, and gather the necessary props and materials from the studio’s warehouse or storage area.

Foley artists originally recorded foley sound effects for a film in one long take by projecting the film onto a screen and timing every single effect perfectly. With modern film editing techniques, foley artists can focus on individual sounds, can do multiple takes, and the effects can be further edited and/or enhanced in the sound editing software.

What Happens During a Foley Recording Session?

Foley artists recreate immersive, natural-sounding audio using unexpected methods. In a typical recording session, foley artists break down a scene into the individual sounds they need to capture, then recreate and record them one by one. They record in real time while watching the film to make sure that the sounds are properly synced with visuals.

For example, in a scene where a man enters a diner and sits down at a booth, the foley artists create the sound of a door opening, a door closing, footsteps on laminate with the character’s type of shoes, and finally someone sinking into a padded vinyl chair. Foley artists also consider what other background noises to capture, such as dishes clinking and waitresses walking, if those weren’t captured in field recordings while shooting the scene.

Recreating some sounds are simple, like jangling car keys, since the foley artists can produce that sound using the original object. Some sounds are more complicated, the foley artists brainstorm creative ways to recreate them, like using cellophane to make the sound of crackling fire.

4 Ways Foley Effects Enhance A Film

Foley artists recreate incidental sounds for a number of reasons:

  1. 1. Foley sound makes a scene more realistic. Every moment of your day—even the silent moments—have sound. The most effective foley sounds are those that sound so natural and real that the audience does not notice them. 
  2. 2. Foley sound makes a scene more immersive. Sound is a key element of storytelling. Sound effects create a sense of atmosphere and draw viewers more closely into the story. 
  3. 3. More believable ambient sounds. Background and ambient sounds in a field recording are not usually loud enough to enhance the action on their own, so foley artists recreate them in the studio to be louder and more believable. 
  4. 4. It’s too quiet without foley effects. Movies without background noise are too quiet—audiences think the sound in the theater has gone out. Foley sound fills that aural void and makes scenes feel more natural.