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The Hardest Sound I Ever Created

Shelley Roden and fellow Foley artist John Roesch performing on Skywalker Sound’s Archives Foley Stage. Photo: Vulture and Photo: Courtesy of Skywalker Sound / Greg Grusby

The California campus of Skywalker Sound, a subsidiary of Lucasfilm, is filled with rooms of junk that have been turned to treasure — some car doors, collections of wood, heaps of dirt, selections of knives, a lot of shammies, pools of water. There’s a bin of heavy metals, where you’ll find Thor’s hammer, but also a litany of other random surfaces that can be used to bash things or be bashed upon. All can be dragged onto a soundstage where men and women stomp, whack, slam, scratch, and tap on it all. It’s a Foley artist’s playland.

Foley artistry is the invisible performance contained within most every movie and episode of TV. So many footsteps and leaf rustles, so many meetings of a drinking glass and hard wood, the sawing off of limbs, even the collapse of Wonder Woman’s shield onto a bad guy or the slosh of a CG monster through swamplands — behind many of these sounds is a Foley artist with an enormous collection of odds and ends working to build what we hear from scratch. At Skywalker Sound, they’re the team members most likely to be found stomping their boots on dirt heaps and thwacking a sheet of metal with just the right mallet or hammer or other carefully selected piece of metal. They report to a supervising sound editor on campus, who oversees a team of sound mixers, sound designers, and Foley artists. But sound effects — and they’ll tell you! — are not the same as Foley work.

“Sound effects is design based on what you can record in the field and what you can get from the sound library,” Skywalker’s Shelly Roden explains, “where Foley is creating in a fixed space, which is a Foley stage, and we perform live to the picture.”

Indeed, Foley artists — named after the first of their kind, Jack Foley — work in sync with mostly edited versions of films and TV shows, creating and enhancing the sounds that might otherwise have gotten lost in the shooting of a scene, or were never there to begin with. In describing the breadth of her work (from period dramas to animated films), Pinewood Studios resident Zoe Freed says she sometimes finds herself “putting a teacup down beautifully” and other times “farting in a letterbox.” (Yes, flatulence is one of the sounds Foley artists make with their mouths.)

None of the artists Vulture spoke with described themselves as actors outright, but each emphasized the importance of performance in their work. They think deeply about how a puppet creature messily shoveling porridge into its mouth should sound or how they can re-create the specific intensity of Tom Cruise’s sprinting footfalls — and how those slight sounds might work in a movie’s broader sound environment. “We don’t go through the process that an actor would put himself through to form a character,” says Peter Burgis, who also works at Pinewood. “But it’s absolutely crucial that we understand what the actor was trying to do, what the narrative is doing, what the director wanted, even sometimes what the costume department wanted and what the set builders wanted. So we do get a really overall rounded understanding of the project.”

Foley artists are quick to praise the technological advancements that have made their jobs smoother over the years — precise and powerful microphones, digital layering technology — but they will emphasize that no computer could ever deliver the nuance a human can. “The performance of it will never be replaced by anything,” says Roden. “To infuse my soul and my feeling into every performance is something that you can’t cut out of a digital library.”

Here are six different Foley artists on the most soul-splitting work of their careers:

Midsommar (2019), the bludgeoning of a head

Jay Peck, Stepping Stone Foley Inc. (Bone Tomahawk, Roma, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gangs of New York): When Christian runs out of that sex scene and into this barn where his buddy is hanging from the ceiling, his lungs are exposed. So we had to make the sound of the lungs filling, because he’s alive. The lungs are hanging out of his body, and to make the sound of the air going in and out through the lungs — breathing, basically — that was a challenge. I spent a lot of time on it, and I used this really large shammy made from animal skin. It was a really big piece soaked in water, and I spread it out on a flat concrete surface and plastered it down to the ground to create a kind of suction. Then I picked it up by the middle, and, as it pulled off, there was a scchhhheeew. That was a pretty good one.

I don’t think you even hear it in the movie, ’cause there’s a lot of music there, but you have to not take things too personally, as far as getting critiqued. Like, “Boy, I worked hard on that!” — and then there’s this big rock-and-roll song in the middle of it or it ends up on the cutting-room floor. But yeah, I think I tried probably five other things before the shammy, like breathing through tubes or blowing through different things. You just try stuff, especially when things aren’t really in real life or they don’t even make a sound at all.

And again for Midsommar, when the head gets pounded, there’s really nothing else you could use besides a big side of beef. We did happen to have a pig head available at that time. I think I used a wooden stump to hit it, and it was pretty grisly. You know when you hit something, often you get little particles that fall? Yeah. So then it’s like, “Oh boy, I need to wash up after that!” We would do some hits on the ground and some up in the air. You never know what you’re going to get out of an impact, so if we do ten of them in a row, the editor can pick out one we like the best.

Photo: Courtesy of Jay Peck

And we actually brought the pig’s head in for another movie, The Dead Don’t Die. I kept it because we were finishing that movie before Midsommar came in, and I was like, “We’re gonna need that pig’s head!” That was an interesting project because there were different zombies: There were the fresh zombies, kind of, and then the old, crusty ones that were filled with dust. We tried a lot of different things for the zombie heads falling off, especially for the woman in the jail cell. It kind of bounces into a real close-up, and it’s not an old zombie head; it’s like a newer one, right? So we tried all kinds of different fruits and basketballs and bowling balls, and the Foley editor and mixer Matt Haasch was the one who had the idea that we should try a pig’s head. So we went crazy with the pig’s head, and it was great, ’cause it had the weight and it had the flesh and it was very gross. Actually, my wife and I one night with the mic set up were rolling the pig’s head and tossing it to each other across the room. It was pretty worked over by the end. I was happy to get rid of that pig’s head.

Godzilla (1998), the giant lizard’s cry

Gary Hecker, Sony Pictures Post Production Services (The Empire Strikes Back, Venom, Big Trouble in Little China, Tombstone, Pacific Rim): I use my voice for Foley, which a lot of people don’t do. That’s a little advantage I have. So I was able to branch off doing custom creatures for some huge films. The big one for me that was definitely monumental was the sound designers trying to figure out the voice of Godzilla. What they typically do is take, like, lions and cougars and walruses, and they slow them down and they mix all these different animals. Well, they were having a hard time making the voice unique. I was doing the Foley at the time, and I was able to take a big, screechy piece of metal and then pitch my voice down. I’ve always practiced animal sounds and stuff like that, so when they came to my studio and I did it in sync to the picture, they said, “You got it.” Then I’ve done a bunch of stuff after, like the aliens in Independence Day. So when I’m doing Foley, I use my voice a lot on certain tracks layered all together, which helps come up with these sounds.

Just recently, one that was really, really hard was the Warner Bros. film Justice League. I’ve done so many superhero films. I’ve got all the Spider-Man films and I’ve done a lot of the Zach Snyder films, but Justice League was huge because it had Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, a metal robot character called Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash. It was a very, very intense movie for me and for Foley. I mean, it really took the life out of me. It ground me down because my mission was to come up with a unique sound for each one of those characters. Wonder Woman’s got a sword, a metal shield, light armor, and then a whip like a rope lasso, and that’s just one character!

For her shield, they didn’t want it to be like a tin can, so you can’t use a trashcan lid because that’d be too tinny. They wanted it solid steel, but that was hard to deal with because I had to get really heavy metals and it’s hard to manipulate stuff like that. Then you’ve got Batman with his big, thick leather cape. I had underwater Foley for Aquaman. Cyborg was really challenging because he’s made of metal, but there’s a movie going on with people talking so you can’t just be cranking on loud metal. And they wanted his feet making really thick chung-chung-chung kind of Robocop sounds. Then his body movements were really hard to deal with because I had to go through all the kinds of metals to make it right.

The sound supervisor on that was actually my brother, and he said to me, “Look, I want to be able to go into your stage and close my eyes and you play me a character and then I know exactly who that is by the sound.” So that’s what was cool. Each one of those characters had to be different, and that was really challenging to come up with.

The Dark Crystal : Age of Resistance (2019), the footsteps of hand puppets

Shelly Roden, Skywalker Sound (Black Panther, Brick, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War, Dunkirk): It was such a challenge and a pleasure to work on The Dark Crystal, because I grew up with it. I was like 11 when it came out, and Foley was very important in the show. First of all, it has a lot of hand puppets, and hand puppets don’t have footsteps so we had to create the sound of them walking. The challenging thing was the hand puppeteers might move them up and down as if they’re taking steps, but they also might not, and instead of forcing a heel-toe sound to bring these characters to the life, we kind of did brushstrokes — like impressionistic, big brushstrokes with a scuff here and a foot fall there that would sound realistic instead of dun-dun, dun-dun. It’s also an organic world. There are all these creatures in the forest, and they all have specific sounds. They were crawling on trees, or they were pill bugs that were driving a carriage. One of my favorite props to use is those wooden-beaded car-seat covers, and I wanted variation out of the pill bugs’ footsteps so I took some different-size hooves and hit them against the seat cover, which was layered over cement. It sounded like there was a mechanism of movement instead of just one single note, and it gives you a sense of whirring. For those pill bugs, I also used napkin rings because they sounded cool clacking against each other.

There are also these beautiful little sweet creatures that come out of the center of trees at some point, and we created their body movements and their mouth movements. We were even eating for them! There’s one scene where a puppet character is getting up in the morning and putting his shoes on and combing his hair and spilling oatmeal all over himself, and that was all us. I had a wet shammy in my right hand and my left hand in a bowl of oatmeal, squishing it around, and I ate it for him, too. When you look at these creatures, you analyze them and think, What do I want to hear? That’s basically my job, to look at something and be like, What will sell the life of the character and convince people that what they’re hearing is true? We just did everything to make these creatures sound alive, and it was a full spectrum of sound.

Hereditary (2018), a trail of ants

Shaun Brennan, freelance Foley artist (Russian Doll, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Purge: Election Year, Europa Report): I live in a fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan, but I eventually hope to have my own basement studio somewhere. I work freelance in a number of studios, and the sound supervisor or sound-recording mixer will put together a crew of freelancers for a project. Before I get there, the crew — usually like the director, the producer, the mixer, the Foley supervisor — will watch the film together and put together a list of things they want to be covered. It’s called a spotting session. Sometimes I’m involved in the planning session, but oftentimes it’s kind of a fast and furious. I’ll show up and the supervisor’s already gone through and spotted all the Foleys, and if I’m lucky I’ll get to watch the movie once ahead of time!

In Hereditary, there’s the sound of the ants crawling on the boy’s face at one point. We don’t know what that sounds like, so you just think about the different elements you want and for them to have some impact — something that’s going to give you a chill. I wanted to have the footsteps of the ants and their legs have an impact, to have some weight even though they’re so light. I used paper clips on concrete to give it a little bit of a pounding sound that the feet might make, just like click click click click. Then I had a piece of garlic and a fork, and I was digging the fork into the garlic cloves to give it a crunchiness. For the ants moving around, I also used this really soft old cellophane to sort of give the body movements a little bit of a human’s cloth-rustle sound. And since I brought up the cloth rustle, that’s probably the most boring thing for somebody who’s visiting a Foley stage to witness, but that’s a staple that we do with every film that helps bring the person to life onscreen, to hear their clothing move as they walk or make any kind of movement at all. You help to build a character based on what kind of cloth you choose to use for their rustle and what kind of shoes they’re wearing. So those little things go a long way.

But back to Hereditary: For the woman cutting her own head off, I bought a raw chicken and a thin metal wire that’s kind of long with handles on it, and I put the wire underneath its wings to give it something to hang on to. My coworker was steadying the chicken as I was cutting into it with the wire in sync with the movie, and it kind of squished at first. Then it gets into the muscle of the chicken and then eventually to the bones. I buy raw chickens frequently and ham hocks and steaks. They work great for the gory human stuff, but bones breaking are usually some kind of a vegetable. To get that bone-crunching sound, you twist a bunch of celery, and that comes up a lot in films.

Shaun Brennan’s foley essentials. Photo: Courtesy of Shaun Brennan

I have a suitcase full of shoes that I always use, and it has a couple of wigs in there, a purse with various makeup items, a switchblade, handcuffs. You know, some of the custom sounds where it comes in handy to have that prop. Since I move around to different studios, I’ll just carry the suitcase with me to each place I go. The police do random searches in the subway, and I’m waiting for the day I get stopped. They’re going to have a field day with me.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018), the kelpie

Peter Burgis, Pinewood Studios (Harry Potter franchise, Slumdog Millionaire, Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Casino Royale): I’m quite well known within the industry for my meaty kind of army sound effects, because I did Band of Brothers and then bigger, kind of more involved movies. I did all the Harry Potter films, and I was very privileged to be asked back to do the Fantastic Beasts — and they are fantastic beasts!

That was an amazing challenge and great fun because nobody really had a firm idea as we went into the project what they wanted things to sound like. That was wild, just to have complete free rein over a film like Fantastic Beasts to create what I thought the creatures should sound like, and I had such good fun doing the kelpie. I was in the river pit, arms full of plants and seaweed, splashing around like a mermaid. I had the best day, and I had to create the sound of this really big creature by putting in the same kind of energy and physicality into the performance as the creature itself.

And while every job is a standout challenge, I’m quite a big fan of director Alex Garland; and since I like to make big noises, Ex Machina was a real turnaround for me. It was just one of those moments where I had to put away all of my beloved big-sound noises and start thinking about how quiet I had to be. What we wanted to do was make sure that any footsteps you had were absolutely reflective of the environment, so we had to build some glass walls on either side of me so that my footsteps were reflected off the glass walls of Eva’s cell.

Even though I didn’t walk on it and we weren’t close to the glass, the sound was bouncing off it. And also creating a robot that didn’t sound like a robot, and creating a new sound for skin. I’d actually just come off Edge of Tomorrow, so I had come from an alien war movie into Ex Machina, one of the quietest movies, and those were two very big contrasts for me.

Watership Down (2018), the subtle differences of rabbits’ feet

Rebecca Heathcote, Pinewood Studios (Angel Has Fallen, Serenity, Hellboy): One particular challenge was we did the remake of Watership Down, which was really fun. It’s animated, you know, so it’s a completely different experience, and there are no people. It’s all rabbits. So usually when we’re playing a variety of characters, we can change shoes. We can change outfits, but when you’re being 14 rabbits in a field, it’s quite a challenge to make them all sound different. We changed up the surfaces and textures. One of the most fun bits for me is that it’s kind of like acting, but nobody has to watch you. But the physicality of being a rabbit meant that we were crawling around on the floor. We would use our hands to do the rabbit paws. We made sure that each character had a separate rhythm. Some of them had limps, for example, and you use that to affect your performance for each, even when they all look quite similar. But it was very demanding, as we’re crawling around in the dirt for weeks, so you kind of do feel like a rabbit by the end of it.

For any other Foley artists who have a great hardest sound story to share, let us know at stories@vulture.com.

The Hardest Sound I Ever Created