A few months ago, Comedy Central released a video depicting the (fake) Foley art of the make-out scenes from The Bachelor: raw chicken cutlets slapped together; a man jamming his fist into a giant jar of mayonnaise. It’s not how the experts really do it, obviously — so how do they achieve the sounds of sweet, tender (or not) lovemaking for the big and small screen? We talked to several Foley artists about how they create the sounds behind sex scenes. The explanations are at once more pedestrian and more interesting than you might imagine.
Setting the Mood
As Joanna Fang of New York–based Alchemy Post Sound puts it, Foley art is “basically the human element of a soundtrack.” These are sounds too specific to an individual performance to be pulled from a sound-effect library: footsteps, eating sounds, picking up props. Or, in the context of sex scenes: kissing, touching, the sound of a headboard banging against a wall.
The basic Foley elements of most sex scenes are the same: A Foley artist will, for example, rub their hands against their arms for skin-to-skin contact between two people. They’ll run fingers through hair (theirs or someone else’s) or against facial scruff (ditto). A creaky bed or sofa is a must — the best way to create the squeaks needed, explains Foley artist Alyson Dee Moore, is to sit on the bed and press down with your hands. Kissing? Centuries of teenagers practicing their make-out skills have it right: lips, meet back of hand.
Where the art in Foley art comes in is how these basic sounds are altered and assembled to convey the emotion and character dynamics in a sex scene. As put by Alchemy’s Lead Foley artist Leslie Bloome, “if it’s an intimate scene where two people are gently making love, it’s going to sound a lot different than two people banging the shit out of each other.”
“The most interesting thing about doing Foley for sex and intimacy is that there’s definitely a communication of bodies that’s happening when actors perform,” notes Fang. She cites a sex scene she worked on for Derek Cianfrance’s 2016 film The Light Between Oceans. Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender play Isabel and Tom, a married couple who are having sex for the first time after Isabel’s miscarriage. Watching the scene, “you can feel the shame and guilt they’re feeling, but they’re both trying. They love each other. So how do you communicate that with Foley? You can’t get the sense of that from a library effect. You have to have someone like me sit there and perform it.” Fang performs her work in sync with the scene, watching it on a screen while being recorded.
In the case of this The Light Between Oceans scene, Fang sat in a room with a shotgun mic pointed at her — the distance of the mic generally depends on framing of the scene itself — and rubbed her hands against her arms to provide the sounds of the characters touching each other. “I had a piece of old dress shirt over my shoulder, in case her hand goes up into the sheets,” Fang explains. “I’ll do all the sounds of the skin for his character perspective, and then I’ll flip it and do her character.”
Isabel’s hands are smaller, so the sounds Fang mimicked for her touching Tom were “poppier” — a light hit of hand to forearm, there and away — “whereas his hands are more full, so I used the entirety of my hand, and I flexed my muscles a little bit.” Then there’s a pass on the “bed” where Isabel and Tom have their tryst — in reality, an old, creaky couch covered with a “thicker, more textured, less comfortable sheet,” so the sounds of creaking bed frame and rustling sheets matched the visual aesthetic of a rustic lighthouse in the early 20th century.
In crafting the specific sounds of the characters’ lovemaking, Fang explains, “I couldn’t just hit [my arm]. It needed to be full of texture and life and love, but at the same time [have] a certain forcefulness … There needs to be a firmness in the hand, but you still need to actually create a sound.” By way of demonstration, she slaps her arm, then drags a hand across her forearm. “I think people forget that sex isn’t purely pleasure and reproduction,” she adds. “In film, sex is used in dramatic ways.”
Kissing and Telling
Bloome’s key for kissing: Don’t make it sound like your characters are chewing gum. Because in reality, a kiss doesn’t sound like much of anything. As Moore puts it: “You really just hear the release” — of lip from lip or, when it’s done by Foley artists, of lip from arm or back or hand — and “you don’t hear much of the kissing part.”
But when kissing gets particularly “lustful,” Fang says she’ll make “eating sounds” into a microphone: “smacking and lip clicks.” “Kissing sound are funny, because they’re surprisingly gendered,” she adds. “Men kiss differently than women. For the most part, men have a sucky, puckering sound [to their kissing],” — fuller, more exaggerated — “whereas women mostly have more of a [lighter] smooching sound.”
How Real Is Too Real?
An ongoing question that Foley artists ask themselves when scoring sex scenes: How much is too much?
Moore says there are certain sounds that she’s asked to re-create that would “literally change the rating of the film” if they were included in the finished product: “We’ve been asked to do [Foley sound for] oral-sex scenes before. They never play it. They just don’t! Because it’s not a sexy sound.”
In re-creating the sounds of cunnilingus, Fang notes, she’ll “use kissing sounds instead of disgusting licks. Because you want a mouthy sound, but you still want it to have this gentleness and this sweetness. And if you’re just licking your hand, it’s like a pudding pop. That’s not sexy or tasteful. It’s just going to sound like you’re licking your hand.”
“Stay away from gooey, wet sounds, because it usually doesn’t contribute to the scene and make it romantic,” cautions Goro Koyama, whose Foley credits include Blade Runner 2049 and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. “Unless they’re trying to make it sound gross” — in which case a wetter, more gooey sound, like the Foley artist manipulating half a grapefruit with their hands, may be called for. But certain sounds, explains Koyama, are actually emphasized as a way to increase the intimacy level and bring the viewers into the emotional mind-set of the characters. Like, for example, the sound of flesh rubbing on flesh.
And let’s address the fruit-sex elephant in the room: the peach scene in Call Me by Your Name. Fang guesses that the sound was created using the manual manipulation of the inside of an overripe plum, peach, or grapefruit, “probably mic’d pretty close to get all that high-end squish to it.” Moore guesses it was done with a cantaloupe, “because you need a bigger sound” than what you’d get with a peach.
When Somebody’s Tastes Are More … Singular
The realism question gets even more complicated when it comes to sex acts that are more, er, unusual. Moore cites a sex-adjacent scene from Californication wherein a character sticks his hand inside a Fleshlight. Since, presumably, a fair amount of viewers don’t know what that sounds like, the point is less to accurately imitate the sound than it is to sell the comedy of the moment. That means, in this case, a squish — a sound created by Moore putting a wet chamois in a plastic cup and manipulating it with her hand to create a “weird, wet suctioning sound.” “Sometimes it’s not what it might really sound like,” she explains, “but it’s what the audience will buy. You don’t want to take the audience out of their watching experience.”
Oftentimes, says Moore, “we don’t use the same prop that’s onscreen, because it simply doesn’t sound that good.” For the Fifty Shades movies, Moore notes — she worked on the final two — “we basically went to a hardware store and got a bunch of different grades of chain.” From there, they manipulated the chains against furniture, flesh, or each other to create the appropriate sounds. “It needs to sound pretty,” she says. “It can’t just sound like a bunch of hardware.”
Chamois Is Essential
Apologies to any fans of the trilogy, but I’m about to make the Ben Wa scene in Fifty Shades Darker a lot less sexy. Here’s how Moore recreated the sound of those Ben Wa balls being inserted into Ana Steele: moistened chamois. Yes, the soft sheepskin you use to dry your car. “It has a heft to it, almost,” Moore explains. “And it is skin, when you buy real chamois. It’s not that far from what you’re really using.”
In fact, in speaking to each of the Foley artists, the chamois emerges as the not-so-secret star. Depending on how wet it is, the sound it makes when it’s manipulated reaches different levels of (apologies in advance) juiciness, making it a preferred tool for creating the Foley sounds of, per Fang, “eating, fucking, and fighting.” (The sounds, she notes, are remarkably similar when you get right down to it.) The homoerotic mud-wrestling scene in the hazing drama Goat: chamois. A hand job: usually it’s a Foley artist rubbing a lotioned-up hand against their forearm, but if you’re looking for a more gooey sound … yup, chamois. Moore puts is succinctly: “It’s chamois! It’s all chamois. It’s very unglamorous and unsexy.”
On the more disturbing side, there’s Gone Girl. At one point, Amy penetrates herself with a wine bottle to make it look like she’s been raped before slitting a man’s throat with a box cutter midway through sex. The bottle scene utilized various layered sounds — mainly, Moore manipulating a bottle in her hands. But also? Wet chamois.
Again, it goes back to using sound to tell a story and create a mood. “I don’t know what that sounds like. I hope I never know what that sounds like, and honestly you would only hear that sound if your ear was very close to that body part,” Moore says. That scene and the carnage that followed immediately after were “really disgusting and unpleasant to do, but you have to make it not sound as disgusting as it is. Because it’s still this weird sex scene, you know what I mean? But really, the bottle scene, you do have to make that cringeworthy.”
In the end, that’s what crafting Foley for sex scenes comes down to — utilizing sound not to illustrate particular sex acts, but to convey a particular emotion to the audience: tenderness or disgust, amusement or love. “In real life, sex is mostly sweaty, big movement physicality,” says Fang. “It’s not even a sound. It’s a feeling. If we can communicate that, then we win.”