When they shoot the visuals for a movie, often the best they can do for the sound is getting the dialog.  The sounds of everything else tend to be lost – or they turn out much less impressive or descriptive than they need to be.  In the case of a fantasy or science fiction film, there may be no way to get the sound at all.  What kind of noise do Iron Man’s repulsors make? What happens then?  Enter the Foley artist.

“Foley” means to recreate sound effects for a movie or television show in the studio using props or devices, to make what we see sound as good or better than what really happened on the set.

The first Foley artist was a guy whose name actually was Jack Donovan Foley.  The grandson of Irish immigrants, Foley ended up doing sound effects for westerns when the town of Bishop, California needed a new source of revenue to keep it going.  Foley knew of the newly formed movie business in Los Angeles and managed to persuade several small time studio bosses that the town of Bishop would be ideal as a location to shoot westerns.

Sound effects for radio plays were being done in traditional ways that had been used in theater for centuries.  A big piece of sheet tin with a handle on the top end is shaken, and you get the sound of thunder.  A hollow box filled with with dried peas and a bunch of vanes and projections on the inside produces the sound of rain (like a rainstick, only bigger).  Galloping horses? You guessed it.  Coconut shells.

The tricky part is that it’s done to a real time projection of the raw footage, so that it matches exactly. In this video, Supervising Foley Artist Gary Hecker for Todd-AO Studios explains how he does it and how this important part of the magic of cinema happens.

Watch, and be edified.

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