The Art of Foley Sound

Table of Content

            The expression that says, “There is no business like show business”, speaks volumes about the impact of entertainment in people’s lives all over the world. What makes this possible is the utilization of various multimedia in order to deliver shows and movies to people everywhere. Thus there is no one exempted from the far reaching influence of the various forms of multi-media. The effects can be seen in the last fifty years as a force that can even transform society. This is just unbelievable.

            With regards to multimedia, leading the pack of course are television and movies. These are the major means of communication not only because of its reach but due to their capabilities of which other forms of media could not offer. With the TV and movies, visuals and sounds could be experienced in one package. Contrast this to radio which only carries sounds and no visuals. The same is true with print where one can only see visuals but could not experience sound. This is the reason why TV and movies are so influential and can really create an impact in the lives of individuals. But this is not an overnight success.

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            It all began from the invention of projectors that can show moving pictures. This in turn fools the eye into thinking that images are moving and appear life-like. But what was seen was jerking movements that one wonders if they only know how to shoot comedy during those days. But it was a start. Then improvements were made, technology was used to the hilt. It used to be that movies were associated with funny movements, and then afterwards the producers were able to achieve a degree of realism. This was made possible when technicians were able to control the speed of the moving pictures into an optimum 24 frames per second.

The Sound of Music and Others

            Creating realism in human movements was not the only technological breakthrough that made movies such a box-office hit. In addition to creating life-like movements on screen, movie makers were also able to improve the quality of the sound. But it was not an easy task. As usual technology brings with it the roses as well as the thorns. Tomlinson Holman in his book, “Sound for Film and Television”, made a case regarding the difficulty in integrating sound in films – a feature taken for granted in the 21st century – and he wrote:

The coming of sound (to silent films) had brought distribution headaches to an industry that enjoyed simple means for foreign distribution. All that had to be done to prepare a foreign-language version was to cut in new title cards translated into the target language. The coming of dialog spoiled that universality. (182)

But the industry was able to solve this problem and moved on to more complicated goals. In the modern age of movie making technology has brought the industry to unprecedented highs that producers in the bygone era of silent films would have just considered as daydreaming. A sample of advancements in the audio aspect of film production was given by Branston:

            The sound designer attempts to create a “sound image”, which means that every person who speaks and every significant sound (a footstep, a phone ringing etc.) is heard clearly,      but also in the context of a believable background – a city street, a busy office etc. (328-        329)

Jack Foley

            Today, putting in sound effects to movies – that helps make it so believable – is routine practice. This is in large part due to one man’s tireless effort. The person responsible for ushering a new era in film production – with respect to audio – is Jack Foley. Mr. Foley was instrumental in the transition period between silent films to films with sound. His genius led to the development of a distinct method of creating sound effect that is aptly called “Foley Sound”.

            An example of Jack Foley’s pioneering effort was seen in his work with Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. In this film classic Kubrick wanted to re-shoot a scene because he was not satisfied with the ambient sounds they picked up while shooting. According to Punter it is at this crucial moment when Foley demonstrated his uncanny ability to produce sound that is just perfect for a particular sequence and she wrote, “Foley ran out to his car and retrieved a large ring of keys, which he then jangled in sync to the march step, creating the rhythmic “ching” of the armor and saving production the expense of a two-day shoot with soldier extras” (par. 4).

            This technique was described more succinctly by Gary Anderson in his book about video editing and post production:

Foley is the process by which sync sound effects are replaced or added during audio post-            production […] requires the use of a synchronizer, an audio-tape recorder, and a VCR to             play back portions of a scene to people on a sound effects stage (called foley walkers). The sound effects concerned cold be actual effects that sound false on the production tracks (gunshots are a good example), effects that may have been lost because of improper use of production microphones or location noise…(155)

In the Beginning

            The birthplace of Foley sound is in the Universal Studios where Jack Foley worked for 33 years as a pioneer in sound design (Punter, par. 1). The discovery of his gift came about when the studio experienced serious difficulty with the advent of “talkies”. So in order to market films to foreign countries the studio had to employ groups of actors specific to a foreign language. This has become so tedious according to Holman that finally foreign-language dubbing was invented (182).

Then another level of difficulty surfaced as movie makers and audiences are becoming more sophisticated, Holman described the problems as follows:

The difficulty with these foreign-language dubs was that they lacked all the low-level    sounds of the actors moving around the set, sitting down, pouring a glass of water, etc. […] the stage was set for the invention of Foley recording. The idea was that many sounds        could be recorded “to fit” the time that they appear on the screen by simply performing the action in sync… (182)

Success and More Breakthroughs

            According to historian Paul Monaco, Jack Foley began experimenting and mastering this “highly specialized skill” in the 1940s but found limited use of it even at the end of the 1950s (106). But all of these began to change following a radical change in film production’s standard operating procedure that slowly transformed this art form; here is another commentary of that era in the history of sound design, “At the beginning of the 1960’s […] there were only six Foley artists working regularly in Hollywood. That situation changed radically as filming moved away from controlled environments of Hollywood studios and backlots. By increasingly going on location […] feature filmmakers fueled the need for Foley artists to create sound in post production…”(Monaco, 106).

            Ben Long and Sonja Schenk in the Digital Filmmaking Handbook gave an up to date definition of Foley’s technique as, “… the process of recording special ambient effects in real-time while watching your picture. Door slams, footsteps […] and all sorts of ‘everyday sounds’ that might not have been recorded during your shoot can be added by a Foley artist” (348).

            So, not only do Foley techniques help in significantly lowering down production costs, it also contributed in creating much desired improvements that added to viewing pleasure.

The Foley Stage and the Foley Artists

            The success of this method is also due in part to the invention of ground-breaking equipment and the specialized skills of the artists or crew that was trained by Jack Foley. An example of a primary tool in the creation of Foley sound is a specially built structure called “Foley Stage.” Here is a description from Ashley Shepherd:

            Foley stages are usually larger rooms with a very low noise floor and low reverberation   times to allow uncolored recording with medium distance miking (3-6 feet). There can be          pits in the floor that are filled with different materials, such as dirt, concrete, tile, woods,            glass […] The Foley artist can walk, jump, and throw things into the pits in order to create       all kinds of sounds. (116)

            The more modern way of doing things was described by Holman as likely to involve, “…a multitrack recorder or workstation so that different record passes can be used to add layers of different effects building up to a complete whole. (And this is done) by people involved in producing a Foley track: 1) The Foley artist; 2) The Foley editor; and 3) The Foley recordist” (182).


            Now that the facts are out, there is now no denying that Jack Foley was truly an unsung hero in the filmmaking business. It may be too late now to give him the sort of posthumous awards given during Oscar’s night. It may be better to give him credit in some other way. And this honor is long overdue because without his work, there could have been no classics such as the Godfather, Star Wars, Saving Private Ryan to name a few that relied on this specialized technique. Without Foley sound there is no way to make this film believable. The bullets and the laser could not be audibly heard. The other movements and other actions would not be emphasized and the emotional thrill that is brought about by a heightened degree of realism would be non-existent. And the movie industry would probably not have grown in the way it has in the past 50 years.


Punter, Jennie. “Film’s Unsung Hero.” 8 May 2005 Toronto, Canada 7 September

            2006 ;;.

Holman, Tomlinson. Sound for Film and Television. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Publishing, 2002.

Monaco, Paul. The Sixties, 1960-1969: History of the American Cinema. CA: University of

            California Press, 2001.

Shepherd, Ashley. Pro Tools for Video, Film and Multimedia. Boston, MA: Muska ; Lipman

            Publishing, 2003.

Branston, Gill. The Media Student’s Book. (3rd ed.). New York: Routledge, 2003.

Anderson, Gary. Video Edition and Post-Production: A Professional Guide. Woburn, MA:

            Butterworth-Heinemann Publishing, 1999.

Long, Ben and Sonja Schenk. The Digital Filmmaking Handbook. (2nd ed.). Hingham, MA:

            Charles River Media, Inc., 2002.

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The Art of Foley Sound. (2017, Jan 18). Retrieved from

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