Foley artists make scenes sound right


Critic's Corner -- Film


On screen in Poseidon, the coming remake of the 1972 disaster movie about a capsized ocean liner, actor Kurt Russell jumps into the water to swim for his life.

Off screen, John Roesch sits in a bathtub, splashing to match Russell's motions. An editor in a recording booth captures the sounds on tape. When Russell dives beneath the surface, air rushing out of his lungs, Roesch puts a garden hose to his lips and blows bubbles.

"It's a silly job. What can I say?" quips Roesch, who at 52 is one of Hollywood's top "foley artists." His job is to be heard but not seen, and over the years, his squeaks, slams and yelps have enlivened more than 300 movies.

You might think that Roesch's profession, born with the "talkies," would be a casualty of computer-generated cinema. After all, foley artists -- invented in the 1920s by stuntman and director Jack Foley -- pride themselves on being low-tech.

But thanks to improvements in digital recording equipment and computer animation films that lack ambient sound, foley artists are important players in movie production. In the past 10 years, demand for foley artists has doubled to about 100, mostly in Los Angeles.

Several Hollywood studios have upgraded their foley soundstages, known as "pits," to make noise the old-fashioned way. They stomp on cereal boxes, crush pine cones with hammers, whack car doors with crowbars. Why synthesize a sound, they argue, when you can have the real thing?

Last year, Skywalker Sound, a division of Lucasfilm, built a foley stage with 25 surfaces for its artists to work with, from gravel to concrete to glass. The place is busy -- and loud.

"Right now, it's more than I can handle," said foley artist Jana Vance, who works on eight to 12 movies annually. Her recent jobs included Munich, Ice Age: The Meltdown, Cars and Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith. Although some film schools offer courses, foley can't be learned in a classroom. Practitioners develop skills by apprenticing to veterans.

"We can do almost anything," said Gary Hecker, Sony Pictures Studios supervising foley artist.

The 27-year veteran spent hours listening to gorillas before recording himself grunting and growling for the 1995 movie Congo. Similarly, some horse snorts in Seabiscuit are Hecker's voice, deepened by digital recording equipment.

Foley also was pivotal in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The movie included 15 groups of sound effects and battle scenes with thousands of computer-animated creatures that needed sound to bring them to life.

"Foley has saved us in ways I can't even begin to tell you," said George Watters II, supervising sound editor at Walt Disney Studios, which produced the movie with Walden Media.

Further fueling the foley renaissance is foreign markets. When a film is dubbed into foreign languages, the English dialogue must be removed. With it goes the surrounding ambient sound, which must be reinserted.

This means work for people like Roesch, whose credits include Schindler's List, Braveheart and Black Hawk Down.

Roesch, a senior foley artist at Warner Bros., broke into the business 23 years ago after studying film. He'd wanted to be a director, but found more work doing sound effects.

"If we've done our job correctly," he says, "you won't even know we've done it."

The man for whom foley artists are named was a former dock worker from Coney Island, N.Y., who went West during the silent film era. Jack Foley worked as a double and stuntman in Hollywood before moving his family to Bishop, Calif., during World War I.

Foley returned to Los Angeles after landing a job at Universal as a director of silent films at the dawn of the sound era. Universal tapped Foley to add sound effects to the original footage of the 1929 movie Show Boat.

Foley died in 1967.

Richard Verrier writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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