The Hidden Art of Sound Design | Part One

You might not know what Foley is, but you will have witnessed it. You may have witnessed it today; you will certainly have witnessed it in the last week. The point of Foley is that you shouldn’t notice; it’s a hidden art. It’s only successful if you don’t know of its presence. But, once you start looking for it, it crops up in some surprising places.

Many of the sounds in the last film you watched will have been manipulated in some way. The sounds could have been recorded again, separately after the event, or recorded using another object in a studio acting as a surrogate for the original sound. This process is called sound design.

“When I tell people that I am a Sound Designer they don’t know what that means.” Tom Joyce explains as he sits in front of a mixing desk at Factory Studios, not far from BBC Broadcasting House, London. I had asked Tom to explain sound design to me, and one part of it in particular, Foley.

“When you record a film it isn’t always possible to record sound at the same time. Especially not sound that is good enough quality to be used in the film. There may be people shouting behind the camera, crew members making noise, and obviously this can’t be used in the final film.” If no sound is recorded, or the sound that is recorded isn’t good enough, it needs to be recorded again. This is out-sourced to independent sound design companies like Factory Studios. “Sound designers often have to recreate reality for clarity of sound. When you recreate reality there is flexibility to improve it; there are slight manipulations of reality. The way I think of sound design is making it three-dimensional. But we’re also highlighting more than reality.”

Tom shows me an advert for the RSPB a colleague of his had been working on. He removed the voice over and music leaving only the background sounds. “So we have atmos, these are the environmental sounds; birdsong, wind, sounds you would expect to hear when you are outside. These are real recordings that we keep in our libraries. But we also have the rustle of a hedgehog. This would have been a Foley sound.”

Foley is the process of adding sounds that were not recorded at the same time as the footageor sync-recordedto film, television and radio in post-production. Typically Foley is used on incidental sounds, things like closing doors and footsteps, and will be recorded in a studio. Sometimes, as is the case with footsteps, it’s just a matter of recording the same thing again, but there is also the opportunity to be inventive with Foley.


Images Credit: vancouverfilmschool (via Flickr)

Tom shows me another advert, this time one he had worked on. “This is an animation so obviously there was no original sound. What it means, though, is that we can be more original. For example, the sound we used on this bird we made by scraping two bits of wood together. We just played around until we found something that worked.”

Going back to the RSPB advert: “We add all these things in because you would expect to hear them even though in real life you would never hear any of these sounds clearly. If you saw this hedgehog, in reality it would sound something like this.” Tom turns the rustle sound right down so that it is almost inaudible over the birdsong. “We’re highlighting more than reality. When it all comes together it makes sense. In combination you can’t tell that there are so many things going on, but without them, people would notice the absence. If people notice what you have done, that’s a bad thing, but if you do it right, people don’t know.”

Foley originated in feature film making, and has been used as long as sound has been played in film. Sync-recording was only widely developed in the 1960s, so before this all sound would have been added in post-production, including dialogue. But although it’s a technique most frequently associated with cinema, it’s used extensively in radio and TV, in everything from 30-second adverts to 90-minute documentaries. It makes sense for sound to be manipulated in this way. If you think of science-fiction soundsspace ships, lasers, aliensthese things don’t exist in real life, so a sound has to be manufactured for them. And as a rule of thumb, the spacier the sound; the more simple the source. The sound of the sliding doors in Star Trek, for example, was created by sliding a piece of A4 paper out of a paper envelope.

But Foley isn’t restricted to the world of science-fiction. Wildlife documentaries use techniques that are more at home in Hollywood. Why? Because to make something as cinematic as a major BBC wildlife documentary you have to treat it as a feature film. Manipulations of footage in wildlife documentaries have made the headlines in recent years. I want to see how far this manipulation goes, whether anything in the documentaries we watch is really reality, and whether manipulations of the minutiae are a deception worth making. But that’s for another time.


William Park is Co-Editor of Refractive Index and currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.