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?
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.