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 (which it often isn’t), there is often something hollow or thin about the sound – the action lacks aural depth. The answer could be that the film makers did not add Foley sound effects to the soundtrack.
Foley effects are sound effects added to the film during post production (after the shooting stops). They include sounds such as footsteps, clothes rustling, crockery clinking, paper folding, doors opening and slamming, punches hitting, glass breaking, etc. etc. In other words, many of the sounds that the sound recordists on set did their best to avoid recording during the shoot.
The boom operator’s job is to clearly 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 sound effects.
For example, an introductory shot of a biker wearing a leather jacket might be enhanced if we hear his jacket creak as he enters the shot – but do we really want to hear it every time he moves? By adding the foley sound fx 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 (assuming their feet are off screen!) and for the boot-crunching to be added during Foley.
Foley is usually performed 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 specialized 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 sound fx to, and they perform their sound effects while 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 while closely observing the screen to ensure their sound fx are appropriate to the vision.
Increasingly, many simple Foley sound fx are done without Foley artists – the sound effects are stored electronically and performed by the post production sound engineer on a keyboard while watching the visual. 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 to create the foley sound effects.
Without Foley, a film sounds empty and hollow – the actors seem to be talking in a vacuum. The sound recordist, if they did a good job, has given us the dialogue and excluded everything else, but our films needs more than this for the picture to come alive. We need to hear the little sounds of clothes, furniture, etc – but we need to control those sound effects so they don’t obscure any of the dialogue.
Another common use for Foley sound replacement is adding it to documentary footage. Old historical film seems lifeless when it is screened without sound, and adding foley to 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 sound fx, mostly footsteps, behind the narration.
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 sound 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 and variously molesting such objects as cabbages, celery and sides of beef, Foley artists can record unique and much more ‘realistic’ action sounds.
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”.
No. 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.
And that’s what you want, isn’t it?