This episode was written & produced by Abigail Tannebaum Sharon.
When you listen to a movie, everything the actor touches sounds crisp and clean. However, none of it was recorded on the movie set. Go behind the scenes with some of the unsung heroes of our movie experience. Featuring Fred Newman and Skywalker Sound’s Foley Team, John Roesch, Shelley Roden, and Scott Curtis.
MUSIC FEATURED IN THIS EPISODE
A Great Mess by Watermark High
This Place by Watermark High
Brighter by Roary
A Fresh Start by Wildwood
Something Beautiful by Tim Halperin
Merry Folk by Generdyn
Flower Upon Dirt by Wilhelm
Washedway by Evlov (Theme Music)
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View Transcript ▶︎
From Defacto Sound, you're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor. This is the story behind foley.
[movie foley clip]
Take a moment to really listen to a movie scene. Anything an actor touches, moves and walks on, it’s clean and super detailed. But what you think you’re hearing, isn’t always what it seems. And none of it was recorded on the movie set.
Foley is the live performance of custom-made sounds set against picture. These everyday sounds brought old-time radio to life [old radio show clip], and are the heartbeat of today’s movies.
Foley artists create these sounds out of everyday objects to make them feel real.
Fred: Foley came from this guy, Jack Foley, really invented it. They were going to Showboat and needed some sound effects and they used radio sound effects. The way they would do clomping shoes [clomping SFX] and water paddle wheels [water paddle SFX] and things like that. That was really invented then for the talkies.
That’s Fred Newman, and even he has a hard time describing what he does.
Fred: I don’t really have a title. I think scam artist is the best I’m just doing what I used to do as a kid. That’s what I do. I honk for a living, that’s what I do... I honk for a living.
Fred’s techniques offer a rare glimpse into the artform that inspires today’s foley artists. It’s really a hybrid of old radio and acting.
Fred: What I really do jumps over foley…
Making sounds are all in a day’s work for Fred. He performs sound effects live on the radio variety show “A Prairie Home Companion.”
[A Prairie Home Companion clip]
Fred: As I do so much of the sound effetcs live with an audience, but I always think must be discombobulating, but It works.
I asked Fred, what’s the best, most versatile tool he uses to make sounds on the fly?
Fred: The mouth ends up being the best soundmaker that I can come up with [mouth SFX]. Hearing is feeling and you’ve gotta give the feeling of it. That goes to the heart of acting and storytelling. You don’t want real, you want what works in the service of the story.
Fred’s a trailblazer when it comes to telling stories through sound. So I wanted to know what’s his most memorable moment on A Prairie Home Companion?
Fred: Just before we went out on stage, Garrison said, I think I’ll have Guy Noir go to a chiropractor, he says to me. I’m thinking “ok, undoubtedly we’re thinking spinal adjustment, ok what do I do?” So I’m walking out on stage and I grab one of those ribbed water bottles and a terry cloth towel, grabbed that and some tape that I put around it. And I walked out there, the bottles half full of water, “I’m going to take your left arm and put it over your head here,” and he grimaces a little bit, “I’m going to put my right arm over your chest, and I’m just gonna twist your back…” I didn’t know what it was going to sound like, but I put that water bottle up to the microphone and I just twisted it, but it had enough muffle of the terry cloth that it sounded internal and you hear [crunch] and the audience goes “Oh!” And they all turned in their seats, yeah, you nailed that sound! It was a roll of the dice.
We’ve got so many technological advancements today, yet at the very core of this experience is still just good ‘ol fashioned storytelling.
Fred: I jump back certainly to the older radio, but go back even further to just sitting around a fire telling stories [camp fire SFX], and all around the world most of these stories in most cultures were told with sound. We got to get back to where people just sit and listen. That’s in our DNA. It’s in our culture, that’s what bound us together.
As a master storyteller, Fred’s work is timeless. So when Hollywood needs an obscure, random, tailormade sound effect for a movie, Fred gets the call.
Fred: “We have got this film, do you do a frog?”... I said yeah I do a frog. “Can you do a frog throwing up a wedding ring?”...yeah ok [frog sound effect]. He goes, “ok you got the job, can you be here by 9:30?”
So I asked Fred, what does it take to be a foley artist?
Fred: They’re a curious mix of science and emotion. They have to be actors. They’re moving with the person they mimic that energy whether it’s footsteps or animal growls. But, it’s something in between music and acting. It’s this lovely not quite understood even by the people who do it.
From the golden age of radio, to the modern motion pictures, it’s foley sounds that immerse us in the story. To find foley artists on the cutting-edge of big time movie making, I reached out to these folks…
Shelley: I’m Shelley Roden, Foley Artist.
Scott: Scott Curtis, Foley Mixer.
John: John Roesch, Foley Artist and we’re all at Skywalker Sound.
Skywalker is one of the most well known audio facilities in the world.
John: There’s no limit to one's imagination and that’s very true with foley, also.
At Skywalker Sound, this team is responsible for supporting some of the greatest film stories of all time.
John: Star Wars was a watershed moment where you had combinations of sounds that were never even seen or heard before.
[Star Wars clip]
Shelley: Foley has evolved so much because the modern films are very loud and there’s a lot of music so, we have to think in terms of what we’re playing against and how much sonic real estate we have. So, we usually listen to the track and see what effects is done, what music is doing and what can we do to make this moment shine.
While these artists do improvise, and use their gut to guide them, there’s also a ton of planning and rehearsing that goes into their performances.
John: We are customized so what you’re seeing on screen at that moment, is indeed, hopefully the best possible sound that can be created. Just by the virtue of that live process.
Shelley: We work in a roomful of junk that we treasure. We pick up from the roadside or we’ve collected over the years. Or things that have been handed down to us from earlier foley artists we create sounds with them. And we also create sounds using our feet and our body and we play in the dirt and we play in water. It’s a very fun project.
To create these sounds, Foley artists need a very special space. John, Shelly, and Scott will tell us about their space after the break.
To get a sense of how the foley artists create, you need to get a picture of the space.
Shelley: When you first walk into the Skywalker archives Foley Stage, Curtis’ wonderful face greeting you, and his giant board, he can see through the pane of glass, he can see us if he wants to, and then open the sound proof heavy, heavy, heavy door and you behold a gigantic room and a screen in front of you, you see a giant dirt pit and then something that looks like a tub on the right. And all these props, so that’s what our environment looks like.
I asked how they typically start a project...
Scott: We’re given a roadmap of what it is that we’re tasked to do for the day.
John: If it’s at the beginning of the film, basically we’ll establish the characterizations of the footsteps. Just for the record, probably the hardest thing to do correctly are footsteps.
Shelley: Yeah, especially because there are so many variables. The grit and how it interacts with the shoe [footstep SFX]. There’s the room mic and how much balance of the room mic Scott wants to use. [footstep with different mic SFX]
Scott: So we’re both doing two independent performances that have to sync up to picture…
John: There is no right or wrong, it’s just what our ears collectively go “that’s correct, that’s great” and that’s the beauty of working as a team.
To construct a place out-of-this-world, it takes painstaking attention to detail. On Finding Dory, Shelley tell us how she made the water-sound just right.
Shelley: We were tasked to determine how to manipulate water in many different ways because there’s a lot of water, there’s a lot of different fish so, we want to figure out how to make them all sound different.
I just went to the 99 Cent Store and I spent fifty dollars buying, for example, one of those old fashion juicers that you just put on top of an orange and push down. That was little baby Dory’s up and down movements because it allowed for the water to just escape in a certain way through the holes and it sounded really cute.
[baby Dory's swimming movements]
When we’re telling the story with our sound, then we can have a connection with the actor that helps us perform it appropiately.
Scott: Whatever the circumstances are that this particular character has, John and Shelley will essentially get in his head and take that character over and perform whatever is necessary as would that character.
John: And again through all the help, with Scott and then Shelley because she’ll do her characters the same way so we help support each other to where hopefully, you the audience, believe what are you seeing.
We want whatever you’re seeing on that screen be totally real and to that end you have to give it some soul. Certainly in the feet and then even in the props, we want to get the detail there. We want to create a world that works within itself and do it in such a way that you, the audience, don’t know we’ve done it. In fact, that’s the actual key rule of Foley, being that there is really no rules of Foley expect for this one, whatever we do has to be done believable in a way that you don’t know that we’ve done it.
Scott: Working with Shelley and John is so much fun it’s fantastic that we’re as collaborative as we are. I truly believe that that’s a main component as to why the material that we do generate is so, so good.
Part performance art, part storyteller, part science. You could say that these foley artists, mixer and editors are some of the unsung heroes of our cinematic experiences.
They carry on their craft with a quiet pride, and impact us in ways we’ll never see. Foley is subtle and often unconsciously noticed, however these tiny details can create a long and lasting impression on our stories.
Twenty Thousand Hertz is presented by Defacto Sound, a sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound insanely cool. Find out more at defactosound.com.
This episode was produced and edited by Abigail Tannebaum Sharon and me. With help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Jai Berger.
We’d like to thank Fred Newman and Skywalker Sound’s Foley team; John Roesch, Shelley Roden and Scott Curtis.
All of the music in the episode is from our friends at Musicbed. They do a lot more than license great indie music. Their website in loaded with awesome content like in depth interviews with creative minds, award winning short films and live sessions with their incredible musicians. Dive in at blog.musicbed.com.
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