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Posted by on Dec 17, 2013 | 5 comments

An Interview with John Roesch

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In  over 30 years working in sound, Foley artist John Roesch has amassed an impressive list of credits, including major films like “Inception” and “The Matrix” and games like “Final Fantasy X” and “Dead Space.” With over 400 credits to his name, John was awarded the MPSE’s Career Achievement Award earlier this year. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with John on his Foley stage on the Warner Brothers Studios lot in Burbank, California to talk about Foley, how he got into the business, and where he sees things moving forward.

Designing Sound: Would you like to introduce yourself a little bit?

John Roesch: Sure. I’m the lead Foley artist at Warner Bros. Studios, and have been with Warner Brothers for 22 years, along with Mary Jo Lang, my Foley mixer, and my partner Alyson Moore. I still love what I do today, after 36 years in total.

DS: How did you end up working in Foley?

JR: People ask, “What’s your story, how did it happen that you got into the business.” And I just say pretty much just one word: Serendipity. I was an actor in high school, and I thought that was going to be my thing. Then I thought, “You know, I don’t know that actors can really support themselves.” I did enjoy making films, and in fact had made some in high school, so I thought I’d stay with the acting thing for a while. I went out to a place in San Diego, called the United States International University School of Performing Arts. While I was there, as an actor, I made a film with some other friends there, and we won the San Diego film festival in 1972.

From there, I went to the New York University Film School, and from there I went to the American Film Institute in California, then it was in Beverly Hills. This whole time was kind of a learning experience, but I did not know that a) there was Foley or b) that I wanted to be a Foley artist. I just knew I wanted to be in the arts, and I kind of thought I was an actor, maybe a director, but I was open to other things.

So, a gal who was helping me on my AFI film asked, “I’m going to do sound on a show, could you help?” I said “Sure”, because you know it’s quid pro quo when you’re a student. I helped her, and it was interesting. You know, broke down FX and stuff, back in the old days of 35 mm sound. Then they said, “Hey, we need somebody to do some Foley on this, can you come help us?” So I said “Sure, I don’t know what it is but, I’ll help.” So, I did, and thought, “Well, that’s kind of a silly job.” Afterwards, her husband called me and asked “Hey, I really like what you did, can you come help me?” So, I said okay.

As I was leaving, the woman who was managing my apartment building was walking by, she asked where I was going, I said “going to the Foley stage,” thinking  that she’s not going to know what that is. She said “You know what, Johnny, they just fired somebody where I work at, I’m a Foley artist, and I know they need somebody, maybe they’ll hire you!” So I thought, “Gee, this gal seems kind of wacky, I’m not really sure.” I got home that night, and the film I was going to do Assistant Directing work on (I realized I liked doing many things) got pushed back a couple of months, so I called her up. Joan Rowe is her name, and she’s an excellent Foley artist in her own right. I went in Friday, met the head of the studio, Ted Gomillion and his wife, was hired that day, and never looked back.

I was open to, when the door is there, to not be afraid to walk through and try.

DS: How do you go about shooting Foley, what’s your workflow like?

JR: Well, you know, there’s four different subsystems, if you will. There’s features, there’s television, there’s commercials, and there’s video games. Each has their own unique logistics. Of course, I’m just one component of the team. My partner Alyson and mixer Mary Jo Lang are just as important, because together we can really make something happen. On feature films, we look at a reel and decide who’s going to do what footsteps. Typically, I’ll take one character all the way through a film, as will Alyson, et cetera. Then we’ll go back and divvy up the props amongst ourselves, between Alyson and I. Once we finish that, typically we’ll play back either with a client or, if not, for ourselves unless we really have no time (sometimes there’re really budget challenged shows). Towards the very end of the picture, we’ll end up doing the movement. The movement’s a necessary evil, because there could be all sorts of reasons why holes need to be plugged with just movement. There could be ADR, or it could be CGI, who knows? We like to wait until the very end because hopefully the picture’s in a locked state, or at least close to it.

Television is a little bit of a different animal; we’ll do movement first. We’re on something today in which we have one day. So, we’ll do the movement first, I’ll do it with Alyson running the cue sheet, making notes to make sure we know what’s happening. Again, we’ll take the same character all the way through, and then we’ll divvy up the props. We might or might not have time to playback.

Commercials are kind fun because you really just focus in on it that day, because it’s either a 30 or 60 second spot. Then, video games are a mixed bag. The key to those is determining if we’re doing in-game or cut scenes. Cut scenes are like features. In-game is, well, a cape could be on this character and he’s using it to fly, so there could be 80 million permutations of that sound. But, all told, that’s really the workflow; we start with looking at a reel, looking at the work we’re going to deal with, and then divvy it up.

DS: How does the dynamic work between you, the Foley artist, and your mixer?

JR: You know, Mary Jo is responsible for the correct recording of elements in the right places, having it set up correctly, and then having it delivered correctly. But, that’s really doing her job an injustice, because her ear is just as important as mine or Alyson’s. Just today, there was a character that is very skittish. They came in off stage to talk to another character. I made them kind of come in fast, but then Mary Jo reminded me that this is a character that’s coming in to apologize. Giving it some thought, Mary Jo’s right, she would not come in fast, she’d really come in very slowly. So, we call kind of share that; in other words, if Alyson saw something like that, she might mention it, or I might mention it to her, there’s a nice symbiosis amongst all of us.

She also understands layering, that is, a good overall Foley job is not unlike mixing for a song. You know, you lay down the drums, then you lay down the keyboards, put all those things together, and when you play them back, hopefully you have a nice harmony so you don’t really have to move a lot of the faders. It just all plays at a particular level. And of course, if we’ve done our job correctly, you don’t know we’ve done it.

DS: What have you found to be some of the biggest challenges in doing Foley?

JR: The thing to overcome as a Foley person is to understand that getting sync for a character when they walk is not actually then the end game for a characterization; in fact, it’s just the beginning. What you want to do in the characterization of footsteps is have it be as real as possible, and that’s something that just develops over time.

For me personally, there were probably 3 to 5 particularly difficult pictures. One would be The Abyss, which had some, well, a lot of water work. It was very, very difficult in that respect. Another was The River, which also had a lot of water work, a lot of rain and flooding. We actually had a fire hose out on the stage.

Also, Who Framed Rodger Rabbit was a combination of live action and animation, and that was the old type of animation, not the computer type. Fortunately, I was working with Chuck Campbell, who was the supervising sound editor; he really had a good finger on the pulse of what it was that we could do Foley-wise. Being an actor himself when he was starting out, he really knew how to talk to us. He understood that within the context of the scene you want to find out what the dramatic moments were, how we could mush this along dramatically or comedically.

A couple of pictures were difficult to work on just because of the nature of what was inherent within them, Schindler’s List being one. It was just very, very brutal, but it was an incredibly good picture, a great picture, actually, a story that needs to be told so that history does not repeat itself. And funny enough, the last really difficult picture was John Carter, because you had so many different beings/races that were on camera, and they all needed to have a unique sound. That was difficult.

DS: You kind of touched on this when we were talking about workflow, but what have you found are the biggest differences between doing live action and animation or video games?

JR: There’s not much difference between live action and animation as far as features go. We approach both the same way. Television is a different animal because of the time involved in it. I don’t actually do animation for television, because typically they don’t even have the money even to have two Foley artists, which personally I dislike, not that I think I won’t work, but I just think that two heads are better than one. Certainly, you could say that there’s no guide track in animation, so if I want to key in on something that’s in the track, I can’t do that. But, typically, it’s evident visually.

We worked on Frozen recently, and that’s a good example of where Foley can play a small but hopefully good part. They specifically requested that certain areas be very cold (the name of the picture is Frozen), so they wanted the snow to have a certain characterization to it in certain areas, which we did.

With games, you just have to get your coffee on and know that you might literally be doing this one character doing walking, running, jumping, et cetera, on 20 different surfaces, and giving a lot of variations of that, which is very taxing. But, it’s all part of the job, so it’s no big deal.

DS: I’m sure you’ve got some humorous stories, any you’d like to share?

JR: Richard Anderson, who I worked with on Raiders of the Lost Ark, said he had a smaller picture that was coming up, asked if I could help him, and I said “Sure.” He told me that it was at what was then called PSS Studios, on Highland. I knew that they had some issues as far as transients and low-end frequencies getting onto the stage and getting onto the track, so I expressed that to him. I said, “You know, we might have some issues.” He says, “Yeah, I know, but that’s really all the money we have for it. But funny you mention that, they want to meet you.” I said, “Who wants to meet me?”

“The producers.”

I said, “Really? The producers on the film want to meet me?”

“Oh yeah. They heard you had said something about the facilities.” Oh, great…

So, down I go to this place, and I mention my name to the gal at the desk downstairs in this huge building. I said, “Hi, my name is John Roesch.”

She goes “Yeah, yeah, John Folio!”

“No, it’s John Roesch.”

“Yes, Mr. Folio, it says right here, Folio. Go to the elevator, go on up.” So I go up, I walk out, and there’s another receptionist there.

She goes, “Oh, Folio, good to see you!”

I say “Um… John Roesch.”

“Ah, yes, yes, yes.” So I’m thinking at this point, is this kind of a gag or something? “He’ll see you in a moment.”

The next thing I know, these two doors open up, and this huge gentleman walks out, saying, “Oh, nice to see you Folio!” So I thought I’ll just go with that. “Come on in, we want to talk to you, and I want you to meet my partner.” They called Richard in, and we started to talk about the whole situation about the facility. I said, “Well, look, please don’t mistake what I’m about to say, but that’s really not one of the better Foley stages in town.”

“Ha,” he laughs, “Folio, don’t worry about it. We’re not one of the better companies in town!” And I just looked over to Richard Anderson, he rolled his eyes, and I did too, and we were just like “Okay!” And that is, in fact, where we did it. The name of the film is Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype. We did it, and it turned out okay. Oliver Reed was in that film.

DS: Do you have any closing thoughts?

JR: Well, I think one of the things that’s troubling to me is the fact that there’s really no apprenticeship for up and coming Foley people. It truly is a catch-22. If I was to pull somebody on, to take the time to teach them, I couldn’t do the job I do, and that just wouldn’t fly. So I wonder and I worry about these people out there and how they’re doing. Hopefully they do well. I really don’t know how that problem can be addressed to be perfectly honest.

Then of course the business itself is undergoing, or has undergone over the past 15-20 years, a major shift from the “sprocket” technology to digital. Because of the sprocket technology, you had only so many players because they were the only ones who could afford the infrastructure. Now, anybody can set up in their garage and have a Foley stage, have an ADR stage, do a dub, and that’s all well and good, I’m not saying anything where I’m worried about competition. But, who is mentoring those people? Outside of some God-given, incredibly innate talent, which is wonderful, which I’m sure people have, how are they going to carry the torch forward to have a show be as wonderful as Gravity or that type of thing? That concerns me.

Also, people ask me “What about digital technology? Isn’t that going to take over your job?” Well, maybe. I mean, that’s possible, but the irony is, when we think of Foley, we think of just that word, “Foley.” But, that’s not what we do; we do custom sound effects. And a custom sound effect is just that; pulling something from a digital library, might work great. But, I know that something I do customized for that particular shot is going to be at least as good, I would think. Maybe better. Hopefully better. And I don’t say that to be defensive, worried about myself, going “Oh my gosh, is digital going to take over?” It’s just going to be interesting to see what happens in the next 10-15 years from a technological standpoint as to what that does to my job. But again, ultimately, people want a certain quality of product. In a sense, it really has to be done at the moment.

5 Comments

  1. key take-away from the magnificent Mr. Roesch: “We do custom sound effects”.

    The more that is custom, and never before heard, the better the track will be. you can quote me on that.

  2. Thanks for this important story. Such a important thoughts about what ART OF FOLEY is. Thank you, John!

  3. Inspiring read :) Thank you for sharing!

  4. Great read, it’s always a pleasure to work with John and his team!

  5. This interview was very helpful and inspiring!
    As a recent graduate of IPR and aspiring sound professional, it worries me to hear from Mr. Roesch that there are not apprenticeships for the next generation. As John said, now anybody can set up in their garage and have a Foley stage. With this being true, is it all on us to learn as much as possible on our own and hope to be in the right place at the right time like Mr. Roesch?
    Thank you so much John for the great words of wisdom!

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