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By far one of the most important yet overlooked parts of the movie and animation process is sound engineering – the incorporation of music and sound effects into a film to enhance the realism and atmosphere of a scene. This is very important when it comes to animation, particularly as the sounds the viewer experience help to create the overall tone for what is to come. Audio can be as important to animation as the visuals.
The person tasked with this overlooked process of finding, depicting and recreating sounds using everyday objects is called a foley artist. Requiring a strong knowledge of timing, rhythm and sound, the foley artist is responsible for making that crisp audio in post-production that for the most part just isn’t possible on location in film, and of course, is not possible in a cartoon character. The foley artist, appropriately named after Jack Foley – a sound effects pioneer, uses a number of props to create everything from wind and fire to walking and running.
The best foley artists can expertly integrate sound effects into the film so they blend seamlessly with the onscreen movements. Wall-E is a great example of this. For a film with very minimal dialogue, it is important for the sound design to be spot on, the choices just right for each nuance of movement. And as technology has progressed, so too has the foley capabilities.
In Wall-E, objects are used to create completely different object sounds, a fascinating way to build a dynamic soundscape. A laser sound in the film was created using a slinky, the toy mimicking the high/low frequency transition that we have come to think of as that of a laser beam. Meanwhile, often times in animation, entire mechanisms are constructed with the sole purpose of creating a controlled sound replication system such as rain, one that can be deployed at different levels of intensity. In Wall-E, older classic foley techniques such as sheet metal – often used for thunder effects – were deployed to signify a rocket taking off. Also, pieces of wood and metal were used to simulate creaks, examples of how foley artists find what best works for a scene and develop accordingly.
In the older Disney cartoons, there was a particular focus on music within the foley artists’ arsenal. Classic animations would often incorporate instrumental sounds as effects. For example, a character smashing through a window may be followed by a cymbal crash or a heavy drum beat. It was all very melodic. Hundreds of props were created and built to help produce the necessary sounds.
In those earlier days, recording quality wasn’t as good as it is now and the equipment was far bulkier. Because of this, it was essential the artists simulate the sounds through gadgets in the studio. A wallet bending could create footsteps on a creaking floor like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or a bow running across a string could be deployed to create the ribbit of a frog’s croak. It was the ingenuity of these older methods that paved the way for modern foley development.
When a foley artist gets to work, they will usually first look at the clip that needs to have audio recreated, identify all the small sounds and then in the recording stages, (methods of course vary from studio to studio) break up the clip into parts, selecting the correct footwear for the character’s steps and highlighting any sounds that will allow the sound mixers to create a soundtrack that drives the film’s narrative forward. Corn starch in a leather pouch can create the sound of snow, frozen lettuce can be used to make bone breaking sounds, feather dusters can provide a bird flapping effect. It is such an incredible, yet often overlooked art.
We take sound for granted in our everyday lives, but it is a part of our world that enhances our perception of a medium, be it in film or animation. The need for foley artist rose drastically as international releases became more prominent. Even in the case of dubbing, sounds are needed. It is a hidden art, that is both mind bending and awe inspiring. If you want to know more, I suggest you look up some foley related videos. You won’t be disappointed by how these unsung heroes of cinema perfect their amazing craft.