The Films Are Alive With the Art of Foley

BY Lauren Knapp and Saskia de Melker  February 18, 2011 at 2:16 PM EST

 

In a movie, some elements are designed to stand out and take center stage. Yet Oscar-winning sound editor Richard King says he’s done his job well when the sound works to enhance the picture, not draw attention to itself:

“The audience should believe that everything they hear was recorded the day the movie was shot,” says King.

That’s far from what actually happens in a feature film. The majority of the sounds that make up a scene has to be recorded and inserted after production by a team of sound designers. The art of recreating sound effects on a stage for a film is known as foley art.

Gary Hecker is a veteran foley artist who uses a myriad of objects to create organic sounds in sync with what unfolds on the screen. Thousands of sounds are layered together in a single scene. The goal, according to King, is to underline the emotion of a scene, be it terror, suspense or sorrow.

King is a sound editor who has won numerous awards for his work, including two Oscars for Master and Commander and The Dark Knight. He was nominated for an Academy Award this year in the best sound editing category for Inception:

 

Hecker has worked as a foley artist on more than 200 films, including The Road to Perdition, the recent Spider-Man movies, and Master and Commander.

 

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome once again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Today I’m joined by two of Hollywood’s leading sound designers. Both have worked on a long list of movies. Richard King is nominated this year for his work on “Inception.” Gary Hecker is one of the industry’s leading Foley artists, and I’m going to let him explain that in a moment, but first welcome to both of you. Richard King, I wanted to start with a basic question to help us understand your world a bit. What exactly is a sound designer?

RICHARD KING: Well, sound designer is in charge of creating a comprehensive approach to the film’s soundtrack. Soundtrack is at least 50 percent of the film-going experience, and the sound editor needs to come up with a comprehensive approach to what the different locations the characters inhabit sound like, and depending upon the needs of the movie, what a tidal wave sounds like, what a dragon roar sounds like, what the Bat-mobile sounds like, and also to coordinate all the sound departments — the Foley department, the dialog editing department, sound effects and so on — so that the film gets completed on schedule.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gary Hecker, I referred to you as a Foley artist. Tell me what that is by way of explaining the same question about the sound designer, what it is you do.

GARY HECKER: I work on a stage and they project an image of the film that we’re working on onto a screen, and I have live microphones and hand props and different things that I use to create sound effects. And I watch the picture and mimic movements of the actors and also whatever is being portrayed on the scene of the film. I have to come up with sounds organically and live to the picture so to speak, and we record those sounds in sync to the picture and we do those sounds one by one and try to canvas the film with sound.

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard King, there was a video I was watching of your work from “Inception,” the two main characters are sitting in a cafe while the world basically around them explodes. Can you describe the various layers of sound that you worked with there?

RICHARD KING: The idea with the Paris cafe scene is the Ellen Page character isn’t aware that she’s in a dream. As it slowly dawns on her that she is dreaming, she begins to panic and the dream begins to break apart. We wanted to create a sonic analogy to that and to basically follow her emotional arc as she realizes the dream that she’s in and begins to freak out. Chris Nolan wanted the sound of the scene to be very frightening, very terrifying to emulate the terror that she’s feeling, firing bits and pieces of debris, pebbles, metal, glass, using a slingshot or crossbow, firing it by a microphone to get the sounds of objects whizzing by, debris whizzing by and just try to make the sound as lethal as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gary Hecker, speaking of the director, how much does the director in a sense direct the sound portion of the film? You’re describing a lot of work that goes on in post-production, explain the relationship with the director here.

GARY HECKER: There’s visions that we portray to the film, what we think, and then they also have what they feel they want to hear, and they usually come together with the sound people. Usually it’s portrayed through both parties to arrive at the sound track. They usually have a few things would you say, Richard, that they want to express, that they want to hear in a film, and then some of them turn us loose and let us do what want to do.

RICHARD KING: My experience has been that the best kind of direction I get from directors is emotional cues, such as this scene should sound make you feel sheer terror, or this scene should mildly uneasy, unnerving without you really knowing why. When I get those kind of emotional cues, then I can use my own creative process to come up with what I think would work. The directors I’ve been lucky enough to work with are very much involved in the sound, they understand how much sound can bring to the process and want to squeeze every ounce of impact they can out of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Kind and Gary Hecker on the art of sound in the movies. Thank you both very much for joining us.

RICHARD KING: Thank you, Jeff.

GARY HECKER: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m Jeffrey Brown for Art Beat, and thank you once again for tuning in. Bye.