What is Foley Sound Design? The Process Explained
April 25, 2022
Foley sound is a special field of sound design. It is used in movies, television shows, video games, advertising and other audio visual productions to add depth and realism to recordings.
Foley sound design focuses on creating realistic, organic atmospheres using sound effects that match the environment. Every foley sound serves a purpose, adding to the authenticity of movie scenes.
The foley sound design details need to recreate sounds that make sense with the scene's visuals. For example, if a scene takes place in a library, the foley sound designer would record library sounds like the sound of books being shelved and librarians whispering in the background.
As well as recording, foley sound designers spend time reading scripts, planning scenes, researching sound design techniques and sometimes assisting on set.
Accommodating all of these elements while keeping within a set budget, timeline and technical restrictions is no easy feat.
That’s where professional artists come in. A foley artist is a specialised audio engineer with the skills required to create immersive sound effects for a production.
Origins of Foley Art
Foley was originally used for live radio play broadcasts in the 1920s. During live broadcasts, foley artists were hired by radio studios to create sound effects on cue.
Foley sounds were created in real-time, since sound effects played from 1920s sound technology, such as a phonograph, were often low-quality.
One of the most famous radio sound artists was Jack Foley, who was hired regularly to create authentic sounds for live broadcasts. Jack then moved on to sound in film production, bringing with him sound design methods and techniques for creating authentic sound effects.
Many of these techniques are still used today. This is why ‘Foley’ is called ‘Foley’.
The Foley process
The Foley art process involves recreating everyday sounds that enhance the authenticity and immersivity of films and other kinds of media. This can include creating audio recordings of footsteps, door creaks, wind, and other atmospheric sounds.
These sound effects are then incorporated into relevant scenes during post-production.
While no two forms of Foley sound design are entirely alike, for the most part, the process of Foley can be divided into two main areas: Pre-production and Production.
- Pre-production: where the sound design team determines the foley audio needs of the film or project.
- Production: where the sound design team records, produces and processes the foley sounds.
A great example of pre-production Foley sound research can be seen in the below clip of Dune, where the sound design team experiment with sound recording techniques on sand dunes to research authentic desert sounds.
Types of Foley Sound
Foley sounds can be split into 3 main categories:
- Footsteps: This is the most common type of foley sound. Foley artists create the sound of footsteps, as this can be surprisingly difficult to capture naturally when shooting a scene. Artists recreate the sound of footsteps using different types of shoes and surfaces, producing sounds that match the visual aspects of the scene appropriately.
- Movement: In film, the sound of movement can completely transform a scene. From the sound of speeding cars, to the sound of characters simply bumping into one another - the subtle sounds of movement can be used to evoke certain emotions from the audience.
- Scene-specific sounds: Foley sound is used to add depth and realism to almost every film scene. Specific sounds can include things like a creaking door, screams, rain, and many other sounds that add realism.
How Foley sound is made
Foley sound is recorded at a Foley stage, where artists use objects and surfaces to recreate sounds for film, games and other productions.
In order to make sounds that fit accurately with the visuals of scenes, Foley artists are usually given access to film footage. The Foley artists will watch the film and figure out what particular sounds are needed in order to make the scenes more authentic and immersive.
Once the Foley artists have determined which sound effects will be needed, they will gather the necessary props and accessories required to recreate particular sounds. The audio is then recorded in the Foley stage studio. When the Foley sound team has gathered suitable recordings, these can be added to the film as necessary during post-production.
Historically, Foley sound designers recorded sound effects for film on cue as the film rolled in one long take. Thankfully, modern film production technology allows Foley artists to record multiple takes, as well as edit and enhance sounds using digital audio workstations (DAWs).
What’s a Foley stage?
A Foley stage, or Foley studio, is a large room specially designed with ceiling and wall broadband absorption and hard-surface flooring. The flooring has several pits sized around 3 or 4 square feet. These contain different walking surface materials, used for recreating different styles of footstep sounds.
Foley stages are also equipped with several props, objects and textures needed to recreate sounds for film. You’ll usually find a Foley stage within a post production studio.
Recording Foley for film
During a recording session, Foley sound designers will recreate sounds in real time alongside each scene of the film. This is to ensure that sounds are properly synced with the visual footage. This could include creating anything from footsteps, to car doors and the sound of kitchen utensils.
If there is a scene where characters are running through a jungle in the rain, the Foley sound designers would recreate the sound of footsteps on a soft and bushy surface, as well as recreate the sound of rain. There will also be other sound elements that could enhance the scene, such as the sound of wind, or jungle insects - each of which would intend to make the scene more authentic and immersive.
These sounds may be captured naturally, but elements might need enhancing or re-recording if the original audio recording does not capture them well enough. Foley is also used to add in authentic sounds where the scene was not shot in a natural location, for example, if the scene was created using a green screen.
How hard is it to record Foley audio?
Foley art involves varying levels of difficulty depending on the scene. Some sounds are easy to recreate, whereas some are a lot more complex. For instance, recreating the sound of chewing gum is as easy as the Foley artist chewing on gum, whereas recreating the sound of a mythical creature that doesn’t exist in the real world is more complicated.
Foley is a real art that requires a lot of creativity at times. Sound designers are met with the challenge of creating sounds for things that simply don’t exist in real life. A notable example of this is the creation of dinosaur noises in Jurassic Park.
This was actually done by recording a jack russel’s bark, and using layering and pitching to edit the sound into the form of a dinosaur roar.
Ways Foley Effects Enhance a Film
- Makes scenes more realistic - Foley’s most important role in sound design is to make film scenes more realistic. There is never a moment of everyday life that is completely silent - background noise is natural and expected - and this must be incorporated into film in order for scenes to seem realistic. Foley is often used to create diegetic sounds in film.
- Makes scenes more immersive - Foley can help draw the audience into the story, using sounds to evoke emotions and a greater sense of intimacy with characters.
- Enhances ambient sounds - Field recordings don’t usually capture background and ambient sounds loudly enough. Foley can be used to recreate this.
- Scenes are too quiet without foley sounds - Since background and ambient noise is natural, scenes can seem far too quiet without the addition of Foley sounds. Films would be totally awkward without being produced with Foley sound effects.
- Creates sounds that couldn't be made in production - Foley sounds can enhance films in ways that natural field sounds can’t. This is especially true for sounds that physically cannot be made in a natural setting - for example, the sound of a lightsaber.
Do all movies use foley?
Movies still commonly use foley artists to recreate natural sound effects. Sounds are recorded by foley recordists and mixers, and refined by foley editors. Foley artists are a part of almost every high-budget movie, TV series or video game production.
Foley is a process that adds sound to a film, game, or virtual experience. The goal of this sound design is to make every sound believable, which makes the scene feel more real and immersive.
The work of Foley artists is not limited to adding sounds to a film or video game, but also covers the process of recording and creating the sounds that are needed.
So, if you’re interested in this type of work, here’s what you need to get started:
- A comprehensive understanding of sound design, including the core concepts and key elements of a scene.
- A willingness to experiment and fail, which is crucial for any type of sound design.
- Experience working with sound design in a film, TV, theatre or video game production.
- An aesthetic sense that allows you to know what works and doesn’t work in a scene.
Tips for Foley Sound Design
- Listen to the sounds of everyday life and make notes of every sound you want to use in your foley sound design.
- Start experimenting with Foley sounds in your DAW.
- Don’t be afraid to fail, as it will only make you a better Foley artist.
- Explore the use of virtual tools, like VR tools and SFX libraries.