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Close-Ups

Matt Davies, Foley Artist

The clip-clop of horse hooves, a bone cracking, the rustle of cloth — Foley artists like Matt Davies make details like those come to life on screen 

October 28, 2019

Alongside script gal or clapper boy, Foley artist is one of those job titles that conjures up 1930s Hollywood. So it was very disorienting when I arrived at Studio Unknown, a post-production sound facility in Burbank, and Matt Davies wasn’t in high-waisted pleated trousers and suspenders making horse hoof sounds with coconut shells strapped to his hands. Not everything is a Coen Brothers movie, it turns out.

Instead, the very bearded Davies was contemplating where items will go when Studio Unknown completes its Foley stage construction after its move from Baltimore is finally over. Tape on the floor marked the location of future dirt and water pits (for Foley artists to make dirt-y and water-y sounds), and shelves were being built along each wall to house what looked like leftovers from the show Hoarders: metal tubes of all sizes, thrift store size-12 high heels, chain-link fencing, hubcaps.­

That pile of junk is Davies’s arsenal. His work as a Foley artist requires him to use all the resources at his disposal to make the everyday sound effects we see in movies and television feel more visceral — everything from doors closing and heavy breathing to legs being gored by monsters. He’s done Foley on Netflix’s Paddleton, as well as the films Body at Brighton Rock, The Wind, and The Vigil, a horror film that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019.

After a film or TV show is edited, it’s then passed on to a Foley artist like Davies, who performs sound effects as seamlessly as possible with the edit as it plays out on-screen in the Foley studio. These can be exhaustive performances — sometimes taking up to twelve hours — and everything about them must be invisible. They’re typically seen by an audience of one (the Foley mixer), and if Foley artists have done their job well, film and TV viewers will never know that Foley artists are the reason every foot fall and rustle of cloth sounds like it’s there in the room with them. Believability has been the goal of the Foley artist since Jack Foley himself brought the practice from radio to film in 1927.  

In this interview, Davies sheds light on one of the film world’s most behind-the-scenes careers by telling us what makes good Foley, acknowledging the community of Foley artists on YouTube, and listing the myriad uses of slime from the dollar store.

Kerry McLaughlin: Is Foley typically a two-person operation?

Matt Davies: The average Foley team — and there's differences between independent films, studio films, things like that — is a two-person job in terms of the recording process. During recording, you need the Foley artist, who's doing all the performances, and then you need your Foley mixer, who's recording, mixing . . . often leveling between two different microphones. Those two people — the Foley artist and the mixer — are the ones responsible for recording, making sure items are covered, and the performances are good, that things are sounding great.

Larger studios and blockbuster films sometimes have two Foley artists. That can offer a lot of benefits because it's a very physically exhausting craft. I've never had the same level of tiredness that I've had at the end of, like, a twelve-hour Foley day where creatively I'm fried, and physically I'm exhausted, and you have nothing left.

So, having two Foley artists and a mixer gives the artist the ability to be able to work in shifts, divide their talents — maybe who has a vision for this scene, maybe one artist is handling props for this, but the other artist is handling props for the other scene. That’s the model most Foley stages aspire for, so you can keep things fresh and diverse. But there’s incredibly talented people out there working on high-level films that are just [one Foley artist and one Foley mixer].

And there's at least two other jobs in the Foley art department that are very important too. In some cases, you might have a Foley supervisor who oversees everything. You also have a Foley cuer, somebody who is tasked with going through the film front to back and creating cues for where Foley needs to happen. Before we start rolling, all of that cueing needs to be finished so we can prep for a recording day.

Supplies for Foley artists

Kerry: So, where does Foley fit in with the larger sound team?

Matt: Usually at the beginning of the process of working on a film, [the sound team does] what's called a spotting session. We figure out what sounds need to happen when, the general aesthetic, the storytelling device. It's a way for the supervising sound editor or sound designer[, who guide the sound team,] to get on the same wavelength as the director. During that process, the wheels are turning for the supervising sound editor as to what's gonna be done by whom.

For example, we did a film where the biggest component happening was that a character was shackled throughout the entire film. That's a big story element. From day one, everybody knew that Foley was going to be an integral part of the storytelling. The most important separation between Foley art and other aspects of audio post is that Foley art is a [recorded] live performance. What's really valuable about the Foley artist is that they’re taking an actors’ cues, and they're performing sounds — much like an actor — to support [the] character. It really ends up being a question of what's the most effective way to produce sound for an action that's happening [on screen], and usually Foley is where the more nuanced, physical sounds are most well performed.

Kerry: So, with a Foley performance, you do everything in real time with an edit of the film?

Matt: Yeah. The Foley art process is very much based on that live performance. So, in Pro Tools, we have the film and the footage on the timeline, and I'm getting a feed of that on the Foley stage, and as we're popping through all of the cues and shooting them, I'm watching the footage of that moment.

So, if there's a cue that's “Bob's footsteps on concrete,” I'm watching footage of Bob walking down a city street and maybe it's a one-take where, as he's coming towards the camera, there's different things that are slowing him down, like a cyclist rides in front of him or somebody throws something down on the ground, and all of those little acting things that the actor did to give Bob character then become a top priority for the Foley artist, because maybe we want him to be a little awkward and fumbling. Like, he takes like a half step back and then kind of scuffs forward.

. . . that's a really core part . . . being able to interpret physical things that you see and have your body react to it in a controllable manner that's not just knee jerk.

I'm watching all of that in real time and trying to respond to it. We might end up needing to do a few takes of a cue because maybe the first time I do things in a clinical manner where I technically nail all of the sync-specific footfalls, but I'm, like, "Eh, it was missing some soul," and we'll go back and do another pass where I'm looking for the whimsy in the character . . . I might lean a little bit more heavily on a foot to give it more awkwardness, or if it's like brushed concrete with a little bit of gravel, I might try to make sure that my foot hits some looseness on the outer edges so I can make it sound like he's less steady-footed.

Kerry: It seems like having an incredible sense of timing is important. Are there specific traits that make someone a good Foley artist?

Matt: Nowadays people come from more diverse backgrounds than they used to when the industry was smaller, but in the past, you had a lot of people from dance backgrounds, which makes a lot of sense — being able to follow somebody else's timing, being creative with it, having your brain running on autopilot almost and your body just moving as an extension of reaction.

And that's a really core part of it, being able to interpret physical things that you see and have your body react to it in a controllable manner that's not just knee jerk. So, it's very much mimicry in that way, but the difference is that you also have this constant narrative in the back of your head of, like, "Okay . . . how am I gonna throw things in here to make it more interesting?" And that's the improvisational aspect.

For me personally, I don't have a dance background. I started becoming a musician before high school, but the two, in my mind, haven't really intersected. I was a bass player. You could argue that's part of the rhythm section, so the two come together. But the way I feel about Foley versus whenever I've done music is that it's more about perception and intuition, like I'm perceiving what's happening and I need to respond to that and interpret that.

A level of empathy is helpful too. It's, like, "Okay, this character is feeling a certain way, and I need to support that,” and — this is getting deep all of a sudden — but in order for me to support their actions, I need to understand them on a level where I'm taking that on personally and then putting it in the recording.

Also, if you're aware of your surroundings and walk through life observing the world around you, you get so much inspiration for Foley because you're constantly cataloging. It's not something you can turn off. Sometimes, in public spaces, if I'm walking with a bunch of people, I might catch somebody walking a certain way. I might try to mimic them, which is really creepy when you think about it, but it's a way to learn, like, "Hmm. I would’ve never thought that shoe on that surface would make that noise if I hadn't witnessed it."

Kerry: That's cool. With all these unseen Foley performers, is there a YouTube subculture of Foley performances?

Matt: There's a small group of us on the internet — YouTube and Instagram. You know: “I'm gonna film today and throw it online!” What ends up happening is that it gets popular because they're objectively fun videos. I recently posted videos of me with this set-up I'd created for making stomach gurgles. I created a silicone bag filled with twelve pots of slime from the dollar store and then ordered a pneumatic plunger on Amazon with different changing heads. Then I put a hydrophone underwater microphone into the slime, sealed the silicone bag up, and then plunged it.

There's also — it's important to mention — the ASMR community [autonomous sensory meridian response — sound-sensitive, often whispery, videos people watch to trigger relaxation]. I'm really thankful for them because they have, in such a left-field way, [shone] a light on sound appreciation and generated this whole massive community of people who love just listening to weird sounds. And that splashed over into the Foley community. Whenever there's a sound we've made that has that ASMR quality to it — somebody scratching a beard or whatever — we usually will tag the ASMR community, and they want more of that.

Kerry: Oh, that's awesome. I wouldn’t have made the connection. Is there such a thing as a typical route into Foley?

Matt: To my knowledge, there's no direct route, but I also think there's no direct route for any of the sound fields. You can go to a trade school or film school or whatever to study sound editing, sound design, Foley, and as soon as you get out into the real world and start finding a job, it's then that you start to realize what you actually wanna do.

I went to art school to do sculpture because I wanted to do creature effects for films. I wanted to do prosthetics. After the first year, I went hardcore into film, took a couple of semesters to discover sound, and then a little longer to discover Foley. It was a really roundabout way. My experience was that there was only ever one sound person in all my film classes. So, I ended up being that person, which was great, because then I got to flex that muscle with multiple people, and that becomes a valuable lesson, you know? You're not an island with just your one thing; you have to work with many people.

Often what professional Foley artists recommend to younger people or people trying to break into Foley art, is develop your chops, build your prop library, build your hand/eye coordination or interpretation of things on, like, student films or indie productions that are looking for people that will work for cheap or free. It sucks always having to work for free, but at some point, your need to develop a skill ends up outweighing that.

Shadowing is helpful; you make good connections. Act professionally. You visit Foley artists; learn [by] being a fly on the wall.

Yeah, it's not a very clear path. John Roesh, a very legendary Foley artist at Skywalker [Sound], always uses the factoid of, “There are less Foley artists than there are astronauts.”

Kerry: Is it really competitive then? If there's less —

Matt: Foley is and isn't a competitive field. I don't feel like Foley artists are competitive with each other. It's more about if you can get the work, then you're fortunate enough to get it. You've worked really hard to get it, and then you continue to work. This is why I love being a Foley artist and being in the community of Foley artists. It's one of the most supportive fields I've been involved with in sound.

“There are very few ways to scare audiences anymore, and sound still has that effect, especially with gore.

 

It really helps to find a niche and getting known for a certain kind of Foley or being aligned with a certain region that needs it, because you're ultimately hiring somebody based on their performance, very personal aspects of them. You're hiring an artist versus just hiring somebody to push buttons. Trying to carve out a piece of the field for yourself is part of the challenge.

Kerry: Do you have a niche?

Matt: I would say that my niche is more stylized fare that involves sci-fi or horror sounds. I've done a good number of horror films, and I love doing gore for them. There are very few ways to scare audiences anymore, and sound still has that effect, especially with gore. These aren't sounds that people are used to hearing in day-to-day life, so not a lot of people know what having an arm cut off sounds like, thankfully.

For whatever reason, I've done three to four films in the last six months that have involved fingernails or toenails being ripped off, which I hate. I still do the thing, but I hate that and anything involving teeth. I'm always looking for a reaction from myself because if I'm having a gross out reaction after spending hours of constructing the sound for it, then it must be working.

Kerry: OK, last question: Is there a Wilhelm scream of Foley where you hear it, and you're like, "Oh, yeah, I know that one"?

Matt: Celery is kind of a good example. It works really well to represent bone. If you take a single stick, it's the size of a small bone or a finger. If you take all of it together, it sounds more like a complex part of the body like a neck or spine or something. Much the same way with the Wilhelm scream, you can usually tell that it's celery, but it's also acceptable that it is.

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A bad celery recording has a little bit of squeak in there too, like if the celery is not quite ripe and crisp, or it's been left out and it's droopy. What helps it not sound so much like celery is other layers of things to have that nice crunch in there. To try and avoid the cliché-sounding celery, I've used really crunchy bell peppers. With a bell pepper, it's got this hollow cavity, and there's some variability inside, and depending on the size, it can have a different pitch. The larger it gets, the lower the pitch. So, it has this really great deep sound that I think is a bit more unexpected.

Then, I think coconuts are the classic. You can get away with coconuts for some horse Foley, but you really have to work hard to give it the right context. If you just take two coconuts and clip-clop them on cobblestone, it might sound surprisingly great, or it might sound like coconuts. That would be automatically, like, "Okay, is that a joke?"

Kerry: So you go to farmer's markets for totally different reasons.

Matt: Yeah. I mean, going shopping with a Foley artist can be fun or annoying depending on your perspective, but we're always picking things up and listening to them. We don't really care what things look like, although it is fun when they look cool. I can't lie that if I'm shoe shopping for the Foley stage, and if there were two shoes and there was a leopard print shoe and just a plain black shoe, and they both made the same sound, I'd go for the leopard print. You gotta go for the fun.

Kerry McLaughlin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. In the past, she wrote and edited at various magazines and websites, including Allure, XLR8R, and Vice. In recent years, she’s worked in narrative and documentary film as an editor, script supervisor, and researcher. Besides that, she teaches a media literacy workshop to kids, volunteers with the homeless and developmentally disabled communities, hikes long distances, and climbs tall mountains.
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