Mind Those Background Noises

Do you ever find yourself noticing the everyday sounds that occur in the background of TV shows and movies? Things like the click of footfalls, closing doors, rustling fabric, jangling keys? I never used to, until I watched a live recording of A Prairie Home Companion, the variety show created and hosted by Garrison Keillor. It wasn’t the first time Foley art had hit my radar, but it was the first time I’d really seen it in action.

When you’re in the audience of Prairie, you get to watch all of the behind-the-scenes stuff going on: the synchronized ballet of production crew, musicians, performers, cue cards, microphones, miles of cords and the frantic gesturing of a stage manager that are all required to pull off a live show. Not surprisingly, Foley art is a big part of this process.

It’s utterly fascinating, too, especially when it’s done well. (If you ever get the chance to watch a Foley artist at work, I highly recommend it.) On a radio show, it tends to be more obvious than it would be on TV or in movies, but that’s on purpose: since the majority of people will only be listening, not watching, you have to color in all the visuals for them, and often that means being slightly exaggerated. And sometimes you need it to get the laugh.

What’s most amazing to me is that often times the objects used to generate the sound have no relation at all to what the sound actually is. Footsteps and closing doors are just that: shoes and doors. But what about a leaky faucet? Thunder? A car crash? Someone throwing a punch? A mouse squeaking? These are things that aren’t always readily available, nor would they all be easy to capture on an audio track. But when recreated by a Foley artist (and done well), you will scarcely notice them – they will simply add realism to the item or event you’re experiencing. Conversely, when they’re not done well, you’ll be left wondering if that noise is some guy hanging out in the back of the theatre, hitting a sauce pan with a spoon. That’s the skill inherent in this art form: knowing what objects go with what to get the desired sound effect so that the end result is an authentic sense of immersion for viewers or listeners.

But why is it called Foley art? Naturally I was curious, so I had to look it up. Here’s what Wikipedia had to say:

“Jack Donovan Foley (1891-1967) began what is now known as Foley art in 1927. He had started working with Universal Studios in 1914 during the silent movie era. When Warner released its first film to include sound, Universal knew it needed to get on the bandwagon and called for any employees who had radio experience. Foley became part of the sound crew that turned Universal’s then upcoming ‘silent’ musical Show Boat into a musical. Because microphones of the time could not pick up more than dialogue, other sounds had to be added in after the film was shot. Foley and his small crew projected the film on a screen while recording a single track of audio that captured their live sound effects. Their timing had to be perfect, so that footsteps and closing doors synchronized with the actors’ motions in the film. Foley created sounds for films until his death in 1967. His basic methods are still used today.”

I love that this work emerged because of an exciting advancement in the film industry, and that it has continued to evolve and gain more sophistication with time. And in case this wasn’t obvious by my post, Foley art is something I’d relish the chance to try my hand at. How cool would it be to be given the task of recreating a specific sound, or group of sounds, and have to figure out a clever and resourceful way to do it? I’ll answer that for you: ahh-mazing.

2 Comments Mind Those Background Noises

  1. Amy

    I have always had a love and admiration for this art. Oh to be an observer (and maybe even a try-er) of this craft at a studio one day!


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