Foley on a Shoestring

by Fred Ginsburg C.A.S., Ph.D.

The post-production process known as “foley” refers to the art of recording “live” sync sound effects to picture. It is akin to looping the dialogue, but instead of recording the actors performing their lines while watching themselves on screen – skilled craftspeople known as “Foley artists” will walk, run, and act out any sync sound effects to match what the actor is seen (or implied) doing in the picture.

Back in the golden era of Hollywood cinema, this was done routinely for three reasons. First off, because the microphones deployed on those early sound stages lacked sensitivity, and were lucky enough to just pick up the loud dialogue of the actors on the set. And yes, in those days, the actors performed all of their lines in a robust “stage voice”. Even the “whispers” could be heard across the room! As for the quieter sounds (sound effects) that the actors made, such as footsteps, guns cocking, pens scribbling, pages turning, and so forth – the mics could barely pick them up from the distances above the actors’ heads where the mics were positioned.

Secondly, due to the insensitivity of these early mics, or due to loud background noise – the dialogue was often “looped” back at the studio. The looping or ADR process replaced the voices, but not the sound effects of the scene. So all of the sync sound effects had to be added to the soundtrack.

The third reason for foley is somewhat related to the second, in that studios wanted to edit their films with foreign distribution in mind. If you dub an actor’s voice from native English to anything else, then you will need to replace most of the sound effects as well (at least any of them that were recorded simultaneously under the dialogue).

Adding foley sound effects will add dimension and texture to your soundtrack. Sometimes, the sound itself becomes a critical part in the storytelling. For example, we see an actress hiding for her life in a closet. But we hear the footsteps and creaking floorboards of the intruder…

If you are a major studio, the process of foley recording involves a specialized recording studio known as the foley stage. The foley stage includes some manner of projection (film or video), along with the ability to record audio in sync with the picture. The studio itself features acoustic wall panels that are hard surfaced on one side (so that “interior” scenes will have some “hard-walled edge” to the sound), as well as a non-reflective soft side (for echo free “exteriors”). The floor of the studio is divided up into a grid pattern of foley pits.

Foley pits are small areas covered or filled with a particular “surface”, so as to be able to simulate footsteps. Examples of foley pits would include carpet, hardwood, marble, cement, loose wood planking, metal sheeting, ceramic tile, loose dirt, gravel, sand, and water.

In addition to the pits, foley stages also contain an assortment of common props and hardware, including doors, latches, light switches, drawers, and a ton of miscellaneous “toys” for simulating any noises that appear onscreen.

All that is wonderful if you have a large production budget. But what can be done without renting an elaborate facility?

Let’s break down what we need and how to achieve it. To start with, the heart of recording sync sound effects to picture is to be able to SEE the picture. Some computerized editing systems have the capability of allowing you to record audio while playing back the timeline. However, unless your edit bay is a private suite, that’s not going to help you all that much. You will need a quiet and spacious environment to record in. A small edit room may be too cramped to work in, and the noise of the computer and cooling fans may pose serious obstacles.

So let’s get the heck out of Dodge, as they say. For picture playback, you could use a portable laptop computer. Even better if your editing software will work on it, and if your software allows you to record audio while watching the picture. In that case, you would connect the line output from a mixing panel to the line input on your laptop, and record audio directly to the editing program.

But if your editing setup is not that sophisticated, there are ways around the problem.

A simple way to screen your picture for the Foley artist is to make a DVD copy. Break the timeline into short segments, and make each of these its own “book” so that it is easy to re-play each segment. Play back your DVD on a laptop, or use a small DVD player and a portable video monitor (TV set with RCA inputs!).

To record your new sync soundtracks, use a camcorder along with a small mixing panel and some sensitive microphones. Shotgun mics are a good choice. We are re- recording your playback video (which might even include timecode numbers on screen) along with the new audio so that it will be easy for you to line up the foley with your original timeline later on.

If your picture playback system (DVD or laptop) can provide an RCA or S-Video “analog” video feed to your camcorder, then we will set the camera to VTR mode and re-record your picture playback via the external A/V inputs. Do not use the firewire in/outs, as that will not allow you to bring in separate audio from picture!

If we are bringing in the picture via the external A/V inputs, then we have to use a mixing panel because the audio side of the A/V inputs wants to see LINE LEVEL audio, not mic level. In order to have the most control over the audio recording, I strongly recommend that you use a small mixing panel so that you have lots of gain (volume) for your mics (you are recording very subtle sounds) and some tone controls to make the recording sound “dramatic” when desired.

When you use the external A/V inputs in the VTR mode, the camera lens and the normal XLR or stereo mini EXT MIC inputs of the camera are disengaged. The camera acts strictly as a recording deck, and will only record what is connected to the A/V inputs!

If you cannot patch the output of your video playback directly into the camera (say, because the only video output of your computer is for a VGA or DVI computer monitor), we will go to Plan B.

Do not switch your camcorder to the VTR mode. Leave it in CAMERA mode. Just aim the camera lens at the computer screen or video monitor (TV set) to record your playback. Patch your audio into the normal XLR MIC inputs of your camera.

Now this is where you need to be careful.

If you are plugging your microphone directly into the camera, just use the regular mic input settings. If you are plugging the output of the mixing panel into the camera, then set the MIC INPUT selector switch to LINE INPUT.

But if your camera does not have a switch for mic/line selection, then you have to use an audio adapter to reduce the output level of your mixing panel down to mic level. Some mixing panels offer you a choice of output levels via a switch. If not, then use an AUDIO ATTENUATOR (a small XLR to XLR barrel that will reduce your audio level by minus 40 or 50 dB).

If your camera does not have XLR inputs, but only has a stereo mini mic input, then you can use the audio adapter boxes such as those made by BeachTek or Sign Video to easily bring in an XLR LINE level signal.

Or, if you are using a simple XLR to stereo mini adapter cable, then you could use the ATTENUATOR described above to go between the output of the mixing panel and the camcorder.

Alright, then. We have a way of projecting our picture, and a way of recording the new audio in sync with that picture. Let’s talk about some tricks for creating foley….

Unless you are working with a very talented and agile dancer, it is usually a lot simpler to re-create footsteps, dancing, martial arts, or fancy footwork with your hands or fingers! Put the shoes over your hands rather than on your feet!

The sound of multiple actors is often best simulated by using your finger tips! If you need more texture, wear metal thimbles, baby shoes, or doll shoes.

Your desktop foley pit only needs to be a small surface. One foot square single tiles work very well. For the sound of wood, try a large “grilling plank” normally used for cooking fish.

The sound of footsteps in the forest can be achieved by walking your fingers atop a bowl of uncooked rice. Add the sound of leaves and twigs by sprinkling some corn flakes over the rice, and then “walking” your fingers thru the mixture.

As you can imagine, you will want to keep your mics very close to the desktop, within several inches at most. Monitor carefully through a good pair of headphones.

Here are some more foley tips.

  • Body stabs can be inflicted by driving a knife into a soft fruit, such as a grapefruit or small cantaloupe.
  • The unsheathing of a sword can be enhanced by the sound of drawing the blade across a sharpening rod as the actor draws his weapon. (Sorry, but in real life, unsheathing is silent.)
  • A gun being cocked sounds like a ratchet wrench clicking.
  • A metal dog leash rattles just like chainmail.
  • Boiling oatmeal sounds like bubbling volcanic lava.
  • Electric fans can sound a lot like airplane engines.
  • Velcro can sound like clothes ripping.

You would be amazed what sounds can be created from just the junk in your desk drawer. Use your imagination and be creative. Close your eyes and listen to the audio from the headphone jack of your mixing panel or camcorder. Play with the tone controls.

Remember, if you are planning to slow down a sound effect later on, all of the original audio will lose the high frequencies and gain in the bass range, so start off with more highs and very little bass when you record it.

Foley on a Shoestring

Foley on a ShoestringFred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D.,  is a highly experienced and award winning professional sound mixer whose decades of work includes features, episodic TV series, national TV commercials, corporate, and government. He is a member of the Cinema Audio Society and the University Film & Video Association. Fred holds doctorate, graduate, and undergraduate degrees in filmmaking; has published more than 200 technical articles along with a textbook, instruction manuals,  and hosts an educational website. Fred instructs location recording and post-production sound at Calif State University Northridge.



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