The Art of Foley: John Roesch Honored by MPSE
COW Library : Audio Engineering : John Roesch : The Art of Foley: John Roesch Honored by MPSE
His credits include this past summer's blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises as well as its predecessor The Dark Knight, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, all three films in the Matrix trilogy and Inception. Roesch previously received two Golden Reel Awards for The Dark Knight and The Matrix, alongside more than a dozen nominations.
He studied filmmaking at New York University and was a Directing Fellow at the American Film Institute. He is a member of Local 700, Motion Picture Sound Editors, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
John Roesch spoke to Creative COW about the art of Foley and his extensive experience in creating sound effects.
I've been a Foley artist almost 36 years, but I call this a mid-career achievement award. As the first Foley artist to get this award, I hope it gives validation to all people who work in Foley. We're a small cog in a big wheel, and a small professional community as well. In Hollywood, there are probably 40 to 50 Foley artists tops, and maybe 300 worldwide. In the era of Facebook, we've managed to "meet" each other, and there are Foley artists in France, Brazil, Argentina, and Finland who I've talked to via email, Skype or Facebook -- and that's made our world a little smaller. With the Internet, you don't just get a disembodied voice, but you get to see their environment.
I got into Foley in a circuitous way. I was an actor in high school, and I went to the United States International University, a college in San Diego that had a School of the Performing Arts. There, I made a film there with some peers that won the San Diego Film Festival in 1972. I used that to springboard to the NYU Film School to study directing, and made a film there that I used to gain entrance into the AFI as a directing fellow. A woman there asked me to help her do sound on her film, which was a commercial release, and I said sure. I was a runner at the time and there was a lot of running in this film, and I discovered I had a bit of a knack for Foley. I mentioned what I did to the manager of my apartment building, and it turned out she was a Foley artist. Four days later, I got hired at the company where she worked and I never looked back.
Foley looks easy but to really be a master at the craft is extremely difficult. I know in my development, the first ten years were tough; I got lucky and got with people where I learned a lot, so I was able to hone the craft. I worked with supervising sound editor Gordon Ecker Jr., who left Universal to work at an indie facility, and Charles L. Campbell, and learned a lot from them. Chuck was very much open to letting us in Foley try things that could be potentially seen as sound FX; he wasn't afraid to have more than one arrow in his quiver.
In Back to the Future (1985), Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly cranks up the knobs for the sound amp, turns on the key of the amp, clicks and knob turns - all Foley! Universal Pictures.
A perfect example is the opening of the original Back to the Future, where Marty turns the key on the amplifier and dials up the beeping sound so when he has one stroke on the guitar, the amp blows -- that was all Foley. There were some sound effects, but the clicks and knob turns, the tink of the indicator going up, the beep sound and tone -- all done on the Foley stage.
When I got into the business, learning to do Foley was all through experimentation. There were some unwritten rules, but only for footsteps and maybe glass up and down. A lot of it was trial and error. The beauty of Foley is that the sonic return, if you will, is instantaneous. You know right away if it's going to work.
Interestingly enough, the most difficult thing to do -- that looks the easiest -- are footsteps. Unlike having a police officer from down the alley running to us, we may be running on a square of concrete that's 6x6 feet. Yet we need to make sure it sounds acoustically like someone who runs from far away and then past us. We use a lot of tricks to do that. We run into coffee grounds, the universal "dirty" sound that creates a grittiness when we run on concrete. I'd start off microphone, run towards the mike and when the character is closest on screen, run into the coffee grounds and then out of it. To do all that isn't an easy task. And we do that for every cue -- every footstep you see.
When I got into Foley, certain things weren't done. That's partially because the original production track that's recorded during production back then wasn't as bad as it is today. Back then, they would try to get good sound on a sound stage. Of course there were holes that needed to be filled. And we also had foreign versions, which we called "doing the foreign." If the princess says, "Stop!" and her dialogue has to be replaced, then the sounds of her gown rustling aren't there. We would fill those holes.
Star Wars changed everything. I remember sitting in the theatre and when Princess Leia's starship raced by, being attacked by the Star Destroyer, film for me had changed sonically. And it's been proven time and again after that. In fact, George Lucas said that 50 percent of every one of his films is sound. He recognizes the importance of it.
As we entered into the era of Star Wars, as I like to call it, this kind of content also coincided with the desire and the ability to have better sound in the theatre. That meant the Foley artist would be charged with doing things that hadn't been done before. From a technological standpoint, theatrical sound continues to get better and better. Dolby just came out with Atmos, which will blow your mind. (But as with any technological advance, it's not necessarily cheap, and there's only so much of the pie to go around in today's economy.)
Inception (2010) Warner Bros. Pictures
From our standpoint, knock on wood, when we're asked to do a film like Inception or the last Batman movie, we're given a proper amount of time to enable us to do what we do to add to the overall sound job. These films each took between 20 and 25 days. Other films can be somewhat less, sometimes dramatically less, depending on the budget.
The decision of what to Foley is made by the supervising sound editor, not us. Not only are supervising sound editors tasked with cutting sound and being sound designers, they also have to be extraordinarily good business men/women. They know how much they've got to spend on the film and they have to make it work. The good news is that we're all in this together and try our very best to make it happen.
Foley in its purest sense is custom sound effects. We do what is seen on the screen in that moment, whereas cut effects, which are wonderful, are recorded at another time and cut against the film. My point is that there is a soul or feeling to Foley that you can't emulate in a strictly digital domain or cutting it from a digital library. How would one even do that if one is assembling a special weapon that's only used in space and has interlocking chambers? I'm sure there are some sound effects that could be used, but we can detail it out. I think for a film to truly have total sonic palette, it needs to cover all aspects, Foley being one. You can't skip on that. If you do, there's a sonic price you pay. That being said, there are some TV shows that cutting effects in places where it used to be Foley and not always for reasons of budget. That has changed. But the actual creation of the sounds is still the same: it's all organic. Someone is performing them, and that performance is detailed to the picture at that moment.
Learning Foley is very convoluted. I see today that some people getting in the business today have worked in small indie houses, have a knack for it and have continued to grow, jumping into openings. In the last 10 years, there are college-level courses that have Foley in their instruction. I know Chapman University does. I've seen their Foley stage; I have not utilized it but I was impressed by what was there. The potential to do good work is there, so one could learn there. And the professors there have been in the film business.
Unfortunately, there is no apprenticeship program for Foley. But if someone has a question, they can ask me. I'm happy to give pointers to people. It's the most wonderful job in the world -- you get a paycheck to play in a sandbox!
John with his sound effects tools.
Title Graphic: L-R: TOM HARDY as Bane and CHRISTIAN BALE as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures' and Legendary Pictures' action thriller 'THE DARK KNIGHT RISES," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. ™ & © DC Comics. Photo by Ron Phillips
© 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
ACADEMY AWARDS® is the registered trademark and service mark of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. ALL RIGHTS ARE RESERVED.
Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece.