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Shake, Rattle and Roll:
The Reel Sound of Foley

In the movie Washington Heights, a stabbing scene was accentuated by the sound of a knife cutting into flesh. But the sound wasn't real. It was Joe Diehl, plunging a chisel into a honeydew melon.

Diehl was working his Foley magic. Foley is the recreation of sound in synchronization with a picture on screen. It can be anything from the sound of footsteps to china and silver clinking on a dining table. Foley is about synchronization, Diehl said. "You're creating that illusion in sync with the picture, which is really just still pictures moving fast."

Diehl is a Foley artist working as an independent contractor under Goldcrest Post Productions. Despite the technological boom of the film and sound production industry, the manmade sounds generated through Foley art have survived. And the technique is here to stay, Diehl said.

Jack Foley invented Foley art in the 1950s by adding sound effects to film for the first time. In Foley's days, and before the advent of computers, Foley artists worked directly with the 10 pound film reels. Now, their work is digitally recorded.

Diehl said there are three main categories of sounds that Foley artists create in their post-production studios.

  • THE FIRST IS FOOTSTEPS, which Diehl recreates with the help of his "Foley floor." Diehl's "Foley floor" has three different surfaces: cement, gravel, and sand. Each surface is about a yard long. To create the sound called for, he walks on the surface that best matches the scene in the movie.

  • THE SECOND IS THE MOVES that accompany footsteps -- like the swishing of a skirt or the creak of a swinging arm clad in leather.

  • THE THIRD IS THE OTHER SOUNDS that might be called for in a movie. Diehl calls these sounds "specifics." The stabbing sound in Washington Heights, which premiered at the TriBeCa Film Festival in May, falls in this category. In the same movie, the sound of a hammock swinging is really Diehl twisting a leather jacket. "When you're getting the props," Diehl said, "it's like a scavenger hunt." Among the props in his West Village studio in Manhattan he has an assortment of beer bottles, bells, coins, and a backgammon set.

Diehl fell into Foley art after he had been producing music for films and television. One day he watched a director substitute a stapler for a clipping sound. "That was a real insight into thinking," Diehl said. He began to add in sounds at directors' requests and, over the course of 25 years, he developed his technique.

Likewise, Nancy Cabrera, a Foley artist at Sound One, a New York post-production company, also fell into the profession by accident. The former dancer was looking for a career change and saw an advertisement for a Foley artist in the paper. "I didn't even know what Foley was," she said. Cabrera regularly walks miles in many different shoes. The 12-year veteran has worked on movies like A Beautiful Mind and television shows like Ed.

Cabrera's current project is Drumline, a Fox feature film about a marching band. She said the Foley work could take longer than the eight days that were budgeted, since the film involves a lot of footsteps that she has to recreate by herself. Cabrera recently stood at the back of Sound One's cranberry-colored 15- by 20-foot Foley studio, facing a large screen. She had on a pair of shoes, which she had taken from a shelf stacked full of several dozen different types of footwear. She was clad in black pajama pants and a black T-shirt over a long-sleeved cotton shirt, to minimize the sound of the movement of her clothes.

She watched the film for her cue, and the red Record sign lit up underneath. Cabrera started to step deliberately in sync with Devon, one of the film's characters. A microphone pointed at her feet amplified her footfalls, so that the technicians sitting in the booth behind her could hear. During the course of the next two hours, Cabrera swished a nylon jacket, rustled money, rattled ice in a glass, slapped her own hand, and walked in four different pairs of shoes. She even had to fill in the sound for the blurry guy in the background as he sat down at a table.

Ryan Collison, a Foley engineer, and a freelance Foley editor, William Sweeney, sat in an enclosed booth behind Cabrera. While Collison operated the computer and sound panel, Sweeney directed her through each sound and decided if each sound was good enough. Sometimes the sound was too big, too poppy, too dull, too sharp, or too high-pitched. Each sound usually took more than one try.

The amount of Foley in a film depends on the budget, Sweeney said. The lower the budget, the less Foley used. Computers actually help the process, Collison said. "They make it a lot easier and faster. You get a better visual sense as to where the sounds are," he said.

A sound library is stored on Diehl's computer with hundreds of sounds stored on it, for when he can't go out and get the sound. If he needed a 9-mm. Beretta gunshot, for example, he would go in and choose one of six or seven different gun shot sounds.

Diehl often uses substitutions, like yards of recording tape that stand in for rustling leaves. "You don't have to be the real thing as long as it sounds like it, feels like it when you see it. A lot of people wouldn't know the difference." But he added, "For the extent that you make it real, you do."

Both Diehl and the Foley team at Sound One agree that Foley will never become extinct. "There are certain things that are too specific to pull out of a library," Collison said. "You can do whatever kind of shoe you want here." Foley gets the job done with a little more ease and finesse, Diehl said. "Thank God for Jack Foley."

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