The Secret World of Foley, One of Cinema's Most Magical Arts
COW Library : Art of the Edit : Tim Wilson : The Secret World of Foley, One of Cinema's Most Magical Arts
The Secret World of Foley is an evocative, wordless witness to one of the cinema’s most magical arts, known as “Foley” – the addition of sound effects in post. This short film is also one of the most beautiful things you’ll see this week.
Named for Jack Foley, the man who introduced these techniques over 90 years ago, the idea behind foley is simple: artists create sounds that weren’t, often couldn’t possibly have been, recorded while shooting pictures. Not just trying to capture realistic sounds. Persuasive sounds. Compelling sounds. Sound that sound better than the real thing.
The idea behind The Secret World of Foley is likewise simple. Rather than explain even as much I just did, Director/Producer Daniel Jewel just shows it.
Starting with a spectacular film – honestly, “composed” is the best word – for the occasion, set in the fishing village of Clovely on England’s Devon coast (lensed by the Devon-born James Watson who suggested the location, and graded by Nadya Gorodeskaya), we follow along in the studio as artists Peter Burgis and Sue Hardy work their magic.
It’s delightful to see their razor-sharp concentration appear to soften into wonder at the beauty of the images – a beauty of its own for us as we watch them watching. We watch the images unfold together, while those of us in the audience can watch the illusion take its auditory shape in front of us.
Cutting back and forth between the two of them on the Pinewood soundstage and the footage from Devon, it’s still impossible to believe that the sounds we’re hearing weren’t recorded on the locations we’re seeing. It’s a case of knowing how the trick is performed making the trick better.
This aligns with Daniel’s own experience as both a filmmaker and a filmgoer. As he started to learn about the art of Foley, the scope of what he found amazed him.
“I had always remembered that as a child that when I closed my father's car door, that it never made the same kind of satisfying 'clunk' that car doors do in the movies,” he says. “I was blown away to find out that every feature film that I had watched previously, had had every footstep, every movement of a character's clothing, clink of a teacup, and clash of swords and helmets, separately recorded with Foley sound effects in post-production.
“I soon realized how dull and lifeless films would be without the Foley Artist's work and that these interpretive artists were really involved in telling the story, getting the character movements and sounds exactly right and timed precisely to the action on screen.
“I also was interested that Foley was largely a secret and mysterious world, that even people in the film industry didn't know much about,” Daniel adds, which underscores an amazing fact: in hundreds of films over his nearly 40-year career, Jack Foley never once received a screen credit for his sound work.
Even toward the end of his career, a director as savvy as Stanley Kubrick had no idea that such work could be done, and that Jack Foley had been doing it for decades. Dissatisfied with location sound on Spartacus, Kubrick was preparing to head back to Italy to gather hundreds of extras to re-record the march of the Roman army (alternate versions of the story have it as a large group of slaves) when Jack Foley grabbed a set of keys and started marching to demonstrate how easily he could mimic the sound of entire scene himself.
Lobby card for Spartacus (1960), via
Of course, mimicking the sound of multitudes of footsteps would require multiple long takes. Foley estimated that he walked over 5000 miles in his career, all of them in character. A legion of Roman soldiers is one thing, but a specific, individual actor was another. "Rock Hudson is a solid stepper,” said Foley. “Tony Curtis has a brisk foot; Audie Murphy is springy; James Cagney is clipped; Marlon Brando soft; John Saxon nervous." (At 250 pounds, he admitted that women’s footsteps were tougher for him to recreate.)
The fact is that we’ve seen many portrayals of Foley artists over the years (especially in portrayals of radio drama, who very quickly latched on to Foley's innovations), even if we didn’t know that "Foley" is the name of what we were looking at. Even these bare glimpses suggested people who combined precision with imagination to use very dissimilar methods and materials to recreate the sounds that persuade us that we’re really seeing what we’re seeing.
As Daniel puts it, "I felt that rather than making a 'talking heads' documentary and to have 'this is how to get the sound effect' sequences, which could feel a bit gimmicky and wouldn't give Foley the respect it deserves. I thought we could instead create a specially shot short film and we would then film the Foley Artists interpreting that film, with props of their choice and then cut between the two 'films'.
"So without any words, we would get the sense of what Foley Artists do to bring a films to life. We could then create a really cinematic experience – allowing the audience to just let the experience wash over them, so they could enjoy the delight of watching the Foley team at work, as if they were sneaking into a live Foley recording session.”
As for the artists whose work is featured in The Secret World of Foley:
Peter Burgis is one of the giants of the British film industry, working on over 150 feature films and earning 15 nominations from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, including Kingdom of Heaven, Batman Begins, Children of Men, Casino Royale, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, with Golden Reel Award wins for Slumdog Millionaire, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Along the way, he has also earned two Emmy Awards, for Generation Kill and Band of Brothers.
Among the over 100 films he’s worked on not mentioned yet are a handful of MPSE-nominated projects on which he worked with Sue Harding, including The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, In Bruges, Quantum of Solace, and the Ridley Scott-produced TV series Klondike. Sue earned an Emmy for her work on the TV series Sherlock (the episode “His Last Vow”), and, as part of her six MPSE nominations, she won the MPSE’s Verna Fields Award.
The combination of their skill, their joy in their work, and their teamwork is among the great pleasures of The Secret World of Foley, so we’ll stop talking now, and let them weave their spell.
By the way, you saw his name in the credits, but for a film that takes such an intimate look at the work of two Foley artists, the Sound Designer for The Secret World of Foley deserves special note, Glen Gathard. Indeed, his work on this film earned two Music + Sound Awards for Best Sound Design. It was through Glen that this production gained access to Pinewood’s Foley soundstage and props.
Like Peter and Sue (with both of whom he’s worked before), Glen’s filmography is well worth exploring. You’ve seen dozens (likely many dozens) of their efforts, individually and together, and if you’re the sort who still owns movies (we know you’re out there!), we promise that you’ve bought more than a handful of the projects they’ve worked on.
You’re also going to want to dig deeper into the life and work of Jack Foley. He’s a true character: a stuntman, screenwriter, humorist, and much more. Here are some terrific articles to get you started.
And of course, you’ll want to take a closer look at production site for The Secret World of Foley, where we found some of the information and stills posted here.
Finally, our thanks to the Vimeo Channel of Short of the Week for posting this film.