Jack Sharkey. August 29, 2013.

Without the Foley artist, movies would be, well, boring. And very quiet. Field recording during filming is good for picking up dialogue, but even the most expensive microphones are not capable of recording sound in an uncontrolled environment in the same way as the human ear hears them–because of that incredibly powerful Signal Processor called the human brain. Add to that the expectations we movie fans have about how our favorite films sound and you get the unheralded Foley artist.

Sound field design ranges from knocking two coconuts together to simulate the sound of Moe smacking Curly and Larry's heads together, to filling a soccer stadium with people and asking them to chant, as Peter Jackson did for the Lord of the Rings

Foley, the specific art and science of sound field design for movies, is named after Jack Foley, who offered his radio experience to Universal Studios in 1927. Warner Brothers had recently released the first film to include sound (the talkie) and Universal knew if it was going to compete it was going to have to release a film with sound as soon as possible. At the time, Universal was in production on the silent film "Showboat" which was turned mid-production into a talkie. Foley's crew projected the film on a screen and added the sound effects in real time, making sure each door slam or footstep was in perfect synch with the on-screen action. Foley continued as a pioneer in the field of motion picture sound field design until his death in 1967.


Watch this short video clip of the Three Stooges:

Notice how the Foley artists only used one way to mimic the sound of the mud slap. As you watch the video, take a mental note that regardless of distance or energy (or what surface the mud hits), each and every mud slap sounds exactly the same.


Now watch the clip again.


This time, you knew the slaps were fake, and your perspective of what you were watching completely changed.


The fun thing about sound effects is that most of the time your brain will not question what it's hearing in relationship to what it's seeing. Then, once the unnatural connection is pointed out, you cannot "undo" the information, changing your enjoyment of what you're seeing and listening to.


In this clip, we get some fascinating insight into the sound field design of the first Indiana Jones movie:

So the next time you watch a movie and it sounds great, thank your friendly neighborhood Foley artist.


The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of KEF or its employees.