How the Sounds You Hear in Movies Are Really Made: Discover the Magic of “Foley Artists”

Have you ever worked as an “extra” on a film or tele­vi­sion shoot, one of the anony­mous many some­where in the back­ground while the main char­ac­ters advance the sto­ry up front? If so, you know that to be seen but not heard onscreen requires doing exact­ly that. Even though a crowd­ed par­ty scene, for instance, real­ly does sound like a crowd­ed par­ty scene in the final prod­uct, the shoot hap­pens in some­thing close to silence. Only the stars speak, and indeed make any sound at all; every­one else just mimes their live­ly con­ver­sa­tions. Sound design­ers add the crowd noise lat­er, after the shoot, just like they add music, foot­steps, doors open­ing and clos­ing, crack­ling of fires and the whip­ping of winds, and pret­ty much every oth­er sound you hear besides speech.

“The Mag­ic of Mak­ing Sound,” the Great Big Sto­ry video above, reveals the work of Foley artists, some of the most lit­tle-known crafts­men in the enter­tain­ment indus­try. We usu­al­ly think of real­ism as a pri­mar­i­ly visu­al qual­i­ty, prais­ing some­thing that “looks real” almost as often as we com­plain about what “looks fake,” but much of what makes dra­mat­ic action onscreen feel real hap­pens on a com­plete­ly unseen lev­el.

Foley artists (named for ear­ly sound-effects design­er Jack Foley) cre­ate all the inci­den­tal sounds you’d expect to hear in real life, so if and only if they do their work well, nobody in the audi­ence will notice it. (Min­i­mal Foley work, com­bined with dia­logue dubbed in a stu­dio instead of record­ed dur­ing the shoot, con­tributes great­ly to the “dream­like” qual­i­ty of some old­er films, espe­cial­ly from Europe and Asia.)

The Great Big Sto­ry video, along with the short pro­file of vet­er­an Hol­ly­wood Foley artist Gary Heck­er just above, show mas­ters of the trade employ­ing a vari­ety of its tools: bags of corn starch for snow, gloves with paper­clips taped to the fin­ger­tips for dog paws, and for that inevitable (if implau­si­ble) schwing of a sword being unsheathed, a kitchen spat­u­la. Just like visu­als, sound requires a cer­tain degree of not just imag­i­na­tion but exag­ger­a­tion to achieve that “larg­er than life” feel­ing. Still, the Foley craft has its ori­gins in noth­ing more grand than the sounds made by hand to accom­pa­ny radio dra­mas in the 1920s. The pro­fes­sion may have moved on from the coconut-shell horse hooves of near­ly a cen­tu­ry ago — these videos show the cur­rent indus­try stan­dard, a jer­ry-rigged look­ing device made of plunger cups — but most of its equip­ment has remained reli­ably unchanged. How many oth­er kinds of film-and-tele­vi­sion tech­ni­cians can say the same?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How the Sound Effects on 1930s Radio Shows Were Made: An Inside Look

Hear 9 Hours of Hans Zim­mer Sound­tracks: Dunkirk, Inter­stel­lar, Incep­tion, The Dark Knight & Much More

Why Mar­vel and Oth­er Hol­ly­wood Films Have Such Bland Music: Every Frame a Paint­ing Explains the Per­ils of the “Temp Score”

240 Hours of Relax­ing, Sleep-Induc­ing Sounds from Sci-Fi Video Games: From Blade Run­ner to Star Wars

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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