For the last 6 months or so I’ve been an avid reader of Stephen Follow’s blog. I stumbled across it when I was looking for some ideas for a class I was teaching and I’ve been hooked ever since. Amongst other things Stephen writes about the business of making films and offers a tantalising glimpse into the murky world of budgets and film finance.
Beyond some of the more eye-opening content on there (Iron Man 3’s 3,310 strong crew for one) I was drawn to a few sound related stats e.g. the average size of sound departments and also the proportion of a £1 million film budget which is allocated for sound (£16,882 in this particular case). Clearly there’s nothing like a good stat to confuse the issue and a figure like this presented on its own means very little but it did get me thinking about the economies of film sound and for this month, the specifics of the business of Foley.
Foley is perhaps one of the most easily accessible and understood aspects of film sound by the general film going public. Part art, part performance, (part grind?), it enjoys a public profile which is probably a result of the machinations involved in its creation. Broadsheets write articles about it and films are made about it. In my experience students fall in love with it to the exclusion of all other aspects of post sound. The combination of props and performance, the synchretic blend of picture and crafted sound makes Foley fascinating.
But reading Stephen’s blog I began to wonder how Foley is faring as a business in modern TV, film, and game production? Considering it is an aspect of post sound which is all but invisible at its best, I couldn’t help but wonder if the people holding the purse strings might begin to equate this sonic transparency with eventual redundancy, especially when technology can deliver alternate sources of Foley which may be less consuming of time and budget?
In search of some insight I got in touch with Phill Barrett, Managing Director of Universal Sound. I asked him first to give a little background on the studio.
Phill Barrett: Universal Sound has been involved in sound post production since 1973, originally as dubbing theatres, but over the last 20 years we’ve specialised solely in Foley, building three dedicated Foley studios in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, UK.
Designing Sound: In that time how has the technology being used to record/edit Foley changed? Has the process of Foley performance changed much? The actual nuts and bolts work done in the studio?
PB: Over the last 20 years or so the recording process has changed in terms of recording hardware, but the process of actually creating the sounds by the the Foley artist has remained pretty much the same. Originally we recorded Foley on 16mm or 35mm film, often only using two or four tracks. We then moved on to recording on Tascam DA88 tapes allowing for 8 tracks, then Akai and currently Protools with 16, 32 or more tracks not being uncommon. The biggest change has been the ability to accurately fit the Foley on Protools both to the picture reference and the guide audio.
DS: Have you noticed a change in the nature of the projects you’re working on over the last 10 years?
PB: Moving to our new studios enabled us to provide Foley for high budget films as well as the medium and lower budget ones and of course Foley for television programmes. In the last few years we’ve noticed an increase in the amount of television requiring Foley. It used to just be drama productions and natural history that tended to use Foley, but recently we’ve been providing Foley across the whole range of television including documentaries, sitcoms and soaps.
DS: How much do computer games feed into your roster of work?
PB: Initially we thought computer games would create a lot of work. We’ve tended to find however that a games company come and record sounds with us once but then reuse those sounds on future games as opposed to creating new sounds with us. I think the difference is that game sound is largely dependent on user input so lends itself to individually stored sounds where as film and television, being linear, require a completely new soundtrack every time.
DS: How do you view the current state of film sound? There is a burgeoning low budget film scene but can films on these limited means afford Foley?
PB: The majority of low budget films still seem to be able to afford Foley. Sometimes the budget doesn’t allow for a full Foley track but then we can just cover important scenes, or sometimes provide footsteps while the editor lays up effects from library. The complexity of Foley cover can be adjusted according to budget. A high budget film allows the Foley to be layered creating intricate sounds and being more akin to sound design, where as with a lower budget film the Foley can be less detailed but still really help to bring the film to life.
PB: I don’t have a lot of experience of plugins but have tried some over the years. Programs to allow sounds to be triggered and played have been around for a long time, though the advent of Protools and plugins has of course made it easier to integrate them. They have their place as a tool for someone wanting a few footsteps to fill in a section of a programme, but are no match for the traditional Foley process. Using a Foley artist allows for exactly the right sound and nuance to match the performance of the actor and to heighten the drama or reality of the production. Using a plugin also requires the footsteps or fx to be triggered by a midi or qwerty keyboard, and then adjusted to fit the picture, which is actually more time consuming that recording a Foley artist walking in sync with a character or recreating the fx for the scene.
DS: What is the future for Foley?
PB: Foley will remain an important element of sound post production for the foreseeable future. Over the past few years we have seen a large increase in demand for Foley as productions have seen how much it can add and also how it can make the mixing process easier. Its a relatively inexpensive part of the post process but adds a lot both in terms of reality and dramatic effect, and also importantly allows for production of music and effects tracks for international sales. No doubt the way it is recorded will continue to evolve and improve, but it will always be very hard to replace the human touch a Foley artist can provide.
My thanks to Phill for taking the time to answer my questions and reassure me that whilst it might be an invisible art, Foley is not an endangered one just yet.