The Art of Creating a World with Sound

What is Foley? The art of recording a unique sound to match a piece of video, like a scene in a film or commercial.

With a bucket full of random oddities from his years as a sculptor at the Maryland Institute College of Art, Matt Davies can make the sound of everything from a mechanical dragon flapping its wings to a horde of marching insects. He's captured sounds that would never be heard by the naked ear-such as the sound of ice freezing-and fastened together 3 slinkies to test what kind of reverberations he could record by dropping the contraption off a 3 story building.

Davies is a sound engineer and Foley artist at Studio Unknown, one of the few post-production audio studios that still offer traditional Foley-recording unique, individualized sounds in real time to match a visual image.

Foley gets its strange name from one of the very first sound designers, Jack Foley, whose methods and habits-he would carry around a piece of cloth in his pocket to create sounds of actors' clothing-became the starting point for the development of the whole industry. During the transition away from the silent film era to the infamous "talkies" of the late 1920s, Foley landed a job at Stage 10 at Universal Pictures, where he and his crew performed the sound effects in real time while the film was projected on a big screen.

Can you guess what object

was used to make this sound?

Today, Foley artists capture sounds on carefully engineered sound stages and use computer equipment to sync the sound effects with the visuals, but the basic method of recording sound to picture has remained the same. Dane A. Davis, the sound engineer of the Matrix movies, manipulated the sound of rain falling into a barrel to create the sounds of the Matrix code zipping across the screen. During the creation of the animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, sound engineers created the squish of hamburgers falling on a dock using wet mops.

Tricking the Brain

Few people read the long-winded credits at movies, and even fewer pay attention to the names listed in the sound design section. But the work of sound designers is crucial to our experience of the film. Some of the most well-known Foley examples, spooky sounds of spaceships zooming to earth, alien probes and weapons firing, make our favorite science fiction films seem tangible and real.

Last year, a team of neuroscientists reported that emotionally intense music, whether it is happy or sad, affects the brain's dopamine receptors in the same way as food, sex and drugs, causing the same craving you might feel for something you're addicted to. Moments of emotional fervor can be amplified by certain sonic patterns, including the musical device known as an appoggiatura, a note which clashes with the overall melody-used liberally in Adele's hit song "Someone Like You."

A film audience's ability to suspend disbelief and feel connected to the world of the film is based largely on sound as well. Daniel Blusteim, one of the co-authors behind a recent study of animal sounds in movies, points out that "good composers and those putting the entire soundtrack together are tapping into a common mammalian, and probably avian, phenomenon -- that certain types of sounds evoke certain sorts of emotions."

As the science behind the way sound affects people continues to develop, snakes, lions, hippos, birds, whales, dolphins and even fish are now being recorded for film soundtracks. Gary Rydstrom, the man behind the dinosaur sounds of Jurassic Park, recorded koala bears at the San Francisco Zoo for the sounds of T-Rex. The sounds of a horse snorting became raptor breathing, in the iconic scene where the raptor shows up and looks in the window of the kitchen.

These soundtracks are so powerful because we are biologically wired to pay attention to unpredictable noises, particularly animal yells and human baby cries, as a survival mechanism, according to Blusteim's study.

A Dying Art?

With the advancement of recording technology and falling cost of digital sound libraries, traditional Foley is a threatened art. Even Davies admits, "It's easier in some cases to have a library of sound effects that you know are professionally recorded."

Despite the extra cost and time, Davies insists that it's worth it to create something new, rather than rely on sounds that have been recycled for hundreds of films or commercials. In a recent project for upcoming film Lovely Molly, Davies spent hours recording growls and rattles to create the sounds for a horse-like equine demon that the audience never actually gets to see. "Once we dropped it in the film and starting using it as a sound effect as a film, then it really fit in… and all of a sudden we made a creature," he says. "And it's invisible, but you feel it. You feel its presence through sound."

By: Monika Wysocki