Photo of Catherine Harper: Actors of Sound, A Foley Art Documentary

When it comes to movies, the visuals get all the fanfare. Everyone “oohs and ahhs” over painterly sunsets or the digital artistry of CG films. Yet sound is a significant and essential element to the cinematic experience.

Recently, I had the pleasure of introducing the Entertainment Set Design and Decoration students, in my film production class at FIDM, to the art and craft of Foley. Pioneered by Jack Foley, it’s the process of adding sound effects to films and TV shows. The subtle sounds you hear, like a creaking bed, the whispery rustle of a gown on stone steps or the tinkling of cutlery on china plates, are created after the film is edited by a foley artist. High-impact sounds, like explosions and car peel outs, are added by the sound effects editor.

Two of the leading foley artists in the field, Catherine Harper and Gregg Barbanell, performed a demonstration for us. In a sound studio that included a water pit, different types of flooring—wood, linoleum, carpeting—and a dizzying array of props from which to make sounds—piles of leather belts and purses, metal pots, techno gadgets—these audio wizards created layers and layers of effects for a historical show they were working on.

Sound effects add depth and richness to the visual experience. Without them a scene can feel remote and less dynamic. Catherine played us a clip of two men running through woods with only the production sound track—audio recorded during filming. Since the goal when shooting is to capture the clearest dialogue possible with body mics or a boom, sounds of stamping feet and swishing through bushes, were muted. Consequently, the scene’s sense of urgency was diminished. After the foley tracks were added, the scene fully came to life.

Whether you are consciously aware of hearing sound effects, you feel them. And when they’re not there, you sense that something is missing.

Catherine topped off the demo by giving us some cool insights into the props used for the Revenant (bear attack, yikes!) I watched the movie again. This time it was a whole new experience, listening to the sound effects and appreciating how intricately they were created.