Heikki Kossi is an illustrious Foley artist and supervisor from Kokkola, Finland. He and his colleagues at H5 Film Sound have provided bespoke Foley since the year 2000 for numerous feature films, shorts, video games, TV-dramas, documentaries and animations, amassing hundreds of credits (Heikki has 40 to his name in 2017 alone!). These include “Beguiled”, “Bill Nye: Science Guy”, “A Cure For Wellness”, “Birth Of A Nation”, “The Idealist”, “Quantum Break” and “The Little Prince” for which he received a MPSE nomination. He recently embarked on a series of performances in which he performed live Foley to picture, alongside musicians, in front of an audience. He was kind enough to answer our questions about this latest endeavor, the next show of which actually takes place at the Barbican in London the day this article posts.
As English is a second language for Heikki, he graciously gave me permission to make minor changes to his answers where we felt it might better clarify his meaning.
Designing Sound: Getting to perform Foley in front of an audience is pretty special, how exactly did this opportunity come up?
Heikki Kossi: It started in 2012 when the director Juho Kuosmanen told me he was going to shoot the short film “Romu-Mattila and a Beautiful Lady” (aka Romu-Mattila ja kauris nine, a story based on true events about an elderly man faced with eviction). He planned a screening with live music and Foley and asked me if I would be interested. I surely was! So the first of these silent short films we’re currently performing screened a few times with live Foley before we took a brake. Juno then made another amazing short film this year called “The Moonshiners” (a remake of the sadly lost first ever Finnish fiction film from 1907, a farce centered on a subject ever-important to the Finns: distilling spirits). Over the last year we’ve done ten screenings/performances of these films as a pair, which works out to about a one hour show.
DS: Is this the first time you’ve performed Foley in front of an audience?
HK: Yes it is and I’m very happy to have this opportunity. It feels a bit like going back in time to Jack Foley’s era, back to the roots. You only get one take and you need to focus on just the right sounds. While I’ve done live workshops before, this is different. With the screenings, the film and story is the most important thing but with workshops it’s more educational, a presentation.
DS: Do you have a background in performance? Were there any similarities to performing a musical instrument live and were you nervous at all?
HK: I do have a background as a musician, and yes, I’m nervous every time. Being nervous is something which maintains that fresh feeling. Back in 90’s I played upright and electric bass in a small blues band called Keystone Cops (funny co-incidence). So I have the experience of performing on stage with an audience over thousands of gigs. The big difference between music and film is that with film people have come to see and experience the film as a whole, while with music they come to see the band (maybe not the bass player;). In film I’m just part of the whole thing and doing my best to tell the story along with picture and music. I also see my daily work as a Foley artist in a studio with a Foley mixer as kind of performing every day. After every take there comes immediate feedback of the performance.
DS: Sound is an invisible art and often most powerful when an audience isn’t aware of the hands (or feet) at work. What was the goal or artistic intent of having Foley performed live? Was it more a practical demonstration or did it serve a more artistic end?
HK: The whole idea of using live Foley came from director Juho Kuosmanen, so you can tell he is director that’s into sound. The thought behind using live Foley is to use sound as a storyteller. I feel that people are there experiencing the films and the story and not looking at me. We perform these two films as a pair and quite often I have had the feedback that during the first movie the audience is looking more at me and my Foley setup, but by the second film they just concentrate on the picture and story. I feel that I’m just there helping people focus on right things within the story, just like we do at my Foley studio.
DS: What was the planning process like? Was each performance similar or was there a lot of improvisation? Did you have any form of notation to remind yourself of what prop you needed next?
HK: When I started going through “Romu-Mattila and a Beautiful Lady” I spent three or four days just trying different things, finding which sounds are vitally important, what I have time to do, and how and when I would be able to change props. I end up with a pretty exact plan of the performance for each film. I have exact places for each prop on the table. But cause we are talking about live Foley there is also room for improvisation. Sometimes it’s just differences in performance or maybe some sounds I feel at the moment I’m able to do. With off-screen sounds there is more freedom. And of course the band is playing a bit differently with each show so I’m also following their mood. I haven’t done any notation but I have two photos of my setup I check before each film. After that it’s an adventure. The most important thing is to tell the story, feel the character and texture of these films. One of these films is more emotional while the other is a comedy. That’s also something I try to support with Foley. I feel that there most of the sounds are kind of classical Foley where performance has huge role to play.
DS: How did the interaction between you and the musicians work?
HK: The fascination of live performance are the differences between each screenings. Sometimes they play louder and I need to be loud as well. Or if we are in the mood of being more quiet and sensitive. This is something which goes both directions. The band is listening to the Foley and vice versa. This is especially important when there are rhythmical accents or hits in picture where we need to be tightly together.
DS: What sorts of props did you use for specific actions on screen?
HK: The main thing when choosing the right props is that they need to sound loud and clear and that they’re easy to play. One of my favorite props is for the carriage in “Romu-Mattila and a Beautiful Lady” which is huge old suitcase together with an old wooden box filled with some metal crap and the metal squeak for the wheels movement. It needed to sound like this guy is carrying the whole world with him. It’s funny how many different kinds of feelings it’s possible to create combining these elements like the rattle of the carriage, squeak and feet. One big limitation is that when I’m flying with these props I need to think about what I’m able to carry with me. I feel that it’s a good limitation and makes me make decisions in terms of focusing on the right things.
DS: Were you constantly having to change shoes? What surfaces did you have available?
HK: I have three pits. One for wooden floor, one for dirt/gravel and one for asphalt. The only change of shoes is between the films. For “Romu-Mattila and a Beautiful Lady” I use men’s walking shoes. They sound good on a wooden floor and asphalt but on dirt it doesn’t matter much what I wear. “The Moonshiners” only has dirt and snow which I perform with sneakers because there are running sequences and I need to be able to control my feet really carefully within quite a small pit. Most of the feet for “The Moonshiners” I’m doing with one foot so I want to be able to have a steady position while performing.
DS: How did you mitigate feedback issues while being in the playback space?
HK: The feedback was almost always an issue. I’m using two NEUMANN KMR-81 shotguns and they are a little bit tricky when it comes to feedback. I’m using one for props and the other for feet. Placing my setup carefully in relation to the monitors and PA system helps. And of course the skills of the house mixer come into play as we don’t have our own live mixer with us which we should have. Hopefully in the future we are able to do so.
DS: Were there any unpleasant or fortunate surprises of things you thought would work but didn’t, or any happy accidents?
HK: Two funny accidents come to my mind, though they didn’t feel very funny in the moment. Both of them happened at the Midnight Sun Film Festival where we had the most amazing audiences so far. People were laughing and yelling through the films which gave me goose bumps and cold shivers running up and down. I had a glass window frame tucked under a table which broke into sharp pieces while I was doing the sound of closing the door. It was dark on the stage and I couldn’t see under the table so every time I reached for the window I was quite afraid of what could happen. The second time was just last June with “The Moonshiners” when I did the sound of rattling bottles and one of them broke and all that water spilled all over the table where I also had other props like poker cards and paper money. So while I continued to perform I tried to save these paper props from the water as if they got wet they wouldn’t make any sound. So there was water and pieces of glass all over the table and it was rollin. Well, nobody noticed anything…
DS: What sort of reactions did the audience get from seeing the process and were they given a description of what they were going to see or what the Foley process was prior to the screening?
HK: It’s already written on program that these two films are performed with live music and Foley. Some people know what Foley is and after the show everybody is aware about this amazing art form. I always feel that hearing the Foley for the first time is kind of a magical moment. For me and the audience. However I feel that the screenings of these amazing two short films is not about live Foley or live music or the black and white old-looking image. They are two amazing stories and for the audience it’s an experience and you just need to experience it.
A big thank you to Heikki Kossi for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find out more about him and his work at www.h5.fi.