Foley key to good

What is it about the sound in many student or amateur films that makes them sound so … well … amateur? Even if the fidelity or clarity is good, there is often something hollow or thin about the sound – the action lacks aural depth. The answer could be that the filmmakers did not add Foley to the soundtrack. What is it? Foley effects are sound effects added to the film during post-production (after the shooting stops). These include sounds such as footsteps, clothes rustling, doors opening and slamming, glass breaking, etc. Many of these sounds are the ones that sound recordists on set did their best to avoid recording during the shoot. Most times on set, the boom operator’s job is to record the dialogue, and only the dialogue. At first glance it may seem odd that we add back to the soundtrack the very sounds the sound recordists tried to exclude. But the key word here is control. By excluding these sounds during filming and adding them in post, we have complete control over the timing, quality, and relative volume of the sounds. By adding the sound in post, we can control its intensity, and fade it down once the dialogue begins. Even something as simple as boots on gravel can interfere with our comprehension of the dialogue if it is recorded too loudly. Far better for the actor to wear sneakers or socks and for the boot-crunching to be added during Foley. How is it done? Foley is usually created by Foley artists. Ideally they stand on a Foley stage (an area with a variety of possible surfaces and props) in a Foley studio (a specialised sound studio), though any post-production sound studio will do with a little modification. The Foley artists can clearly see a screen, which displays the footage, they are to add sounds to, and they perform their sound effects whilst watching this screen for timing. The actions they perform can include walking, running, jostling each other, rubbing their clothing, handling props, and breaking objects, all whilst closely observing the screen to ensure their sound effects are appropriate to the vision. Increasingly, many simple Foley effects are done without Foley performers – the sounds are stored electronically and performed by the post-production sound engineer on a keyboard whilst watching the vision. Done poorly this type of “Foley” sounds bland and repetitive, and it is nowhere near as flexible as the real thing, but it is much cheaper than renting a Foley stage and paying Foley artists. Why? Without Foley, a film sounds empty and hollow – the actors seem to be talking in a vacuum. The sound recordists, if they did a good job, have given us the dialogue and excluded everything else, but films needs more than this for the picture to come alive. We need to hear the little sounds of clothes, etc – but we need to control them so they don’t obscure any of the dialogue. Another common use for Foley is adding it to documentary footage. Old historical film seems lifeless when it is screened without sound, and adding it helps bring those long dead images to life. Next time you watch a history documentary that uses silent archival footage, listen closely and you should hear at least minimal Foley effects, mostly footsteps, behind the narration. Adding even basic Foley sound effects, such as footsteps, clothes rustling, and prop handling is within the reach of even the low-budget film maker. Even if you have to be your own Foley performer, try to add Foley to your film. Sure, your average audience member may not know the meaning of the term “Foley”, but they will notice an indefinable realism and professionalism to your film/documentary that sets it apart from the others. Foley can also be used to enhance comedy or action scenes. Watch most comedy films and you’ll notice that many of the sounds are enhanced for comic effect, and sometimes the Foley effect is the joke. As for action, most fist fights do not involve the actors really hitting each other, and even if they did we would not be able to record a satisfying punch sound. By punching such objects as cabbages etc, Foley artists can record unique and much more ‘realistic’ action sounds. Why is it called Foley? The technique is named after Jack Foley, who established the basic modern techniques still used today. Like most terms that are named in honour of a person, it is customary to spell Foley with a capital “F”. Foley for the future Digital equipment has given more options to alters sound in certain ways, drops it in octaves, make it bigger or give it more depth to get giant, dynamic sounds that in the old days no one was doing. The equipment includes sound effects processors, reverb units, equalizers and pitch shifters. Often Foley mixers will utilise sonic bending software programs called plug-ins within a digital audio workstation, such as Digidesign Pro Tools. In addition to added creativity, these digital tools have increased the speed of the Foley process. Editors can begin adjusting tracks immediately. That ability removes any questions about sync or how it’s going to sound with the production track. These days it is possible to record right into Pro Tools and see it, hear it and adjust it right off the bat. That doesn’t mean that Foley is a whiz-bang-boom proposition. Many big-budget productions still offer Foley artists up to six weeks of time for creation and editing of the tracks. The interesting thing about Foley is that even though the technology changes in terms of the recording process, the actual process of Foley artistry is still the same. Adding personality to a specific movement is the spirit of Foley and that takes both time and talent. It is not something that can be done with a CD of sound effects. Digital Foley has made inroads into the television world but for features, it does not yet have soul. ASIAIMAGE

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