Foley artists are the people who create the sound of space aliens invading
Earth. And they'll convince you it's really happening. In the illusory world
of the movies, that's their job.
Computer technology allows production companies to use and change pre-recorded
"All our sound work is done digitally using CD sound libraries and digital
equipment by our sound engineers, rather than actual live sounds created by
traditional foley artists," says Mairi Welman. Welman works for a company
that creates animated television programs.
Still, foley artists will always be needed, no matter how good technology
gets. So says Wayne Gordon, a sound director for a large sound studio in Los
"There are differences in how they record and edit sound, but [making the
sound] is still done the same way it's been done for years and years," Gordon
says. "There's pretty much no chance of it changing because they still have
to create those sounds."
Geoff Turner, with four decades of experience in foley work, agrees wholeheartedly.
"You can't mimic human beings," says Turner. "For real drama -- we're talking
about a relatively good quality production -- foley is always a definite part
"The ways of inserting it into the show have definitely taken advantage
of the modern digital technology, but the basics [require] actually having
an artist in the studio. All of our shows still get a real person doing foley....It
definitely is alive and well," he says.
When Hollywood made the transition from silent to talking movies, it came
up against a hurdle it hadn't anticipated. Actors moving across a set without
the sound of footsteps seemed unnatural. A microphone couldn't pick up the
sound without becoming part of the shot.
It was Jack Foley, a Hollywood sound effects artist, who came up with the
solution. He created the foley stage -- a room where artists can recreate
the sound of footsteps or the movement of props, all in sync with the picture.
Today, a foley artist's work goes well beyond footsteps. They're expected
to come up with sounds for the rustling of clothing and even the squish of
dinosaur dung under a hero's feet. In order to capture these sounds, the foley
stage must be acoustically dead so no other sounds can contaminate the effect.
"Every day, you have to figure out how you're going to do this," says Gregg
Barbanell. He did foley for Dumb and Dumber and hundreds of other films. He
works for a post-production company in California. The firm has a creative
team of 50 editors, mixers, sound designers, engineers, foley artists and
The list of sounds to be put on a track is almost endless: footsteps, car
doors slamming, gunshots, even the rumble of an aircraft launch. You might
think it wouldn't be long before all those sounds could be stored in a database
and reused, but Barbanell doesn't think that will happen -- at least not for
"If you did that, it's going to sound very sterile. It will lack that human
element," he says, noting that not every angry footstep sounds the same. "But
I imagine eventually it will happen, especially for TV work."
Foley artist Lise Wedlock agrees. Wedlock has worked on productions for
the government and television.
In the past, foley was only used for big-budget feature films, but now
it's used for just about everything -- creating a big demand for them in the
"There aren't very many of us, but all of us are working hard," says Wedlock.
She was the foley artist for the feature film Agnes of God and the popular
kids' series Are You Afraid of the Dark?
One new trend is an increase in sound intensity. Ten years ago, a gunshot
was relatively quiet. But with today's at-home theaters, people expect to
be blown away when a gun goes off.
"Film has a reality unto itself," says Barbanell. "In real life, a gun
sounds like a little pop or crack. Like sharp firecrackers. But in films,
that doesn't cut it. We have our own reality and that's bigger and bolder."
Says Wedlock, "I don't remember using the elaborate props we have now.
I used to go down to the studio cafeteria and [record that sound], or grab
a stapler from a desk and do that sound. Now the nuance has to be so much
more precise -- almost enhanced. The soundtracks are getting more and more
elaborate every day."