The Right Sound for the Scene

Times Staff Writer

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

Off screen, John Roesch -- who makes noise for a living -- sits shivering in a bathtub, splashing his hands to match Russell’s motions. A sound editor in a nearby recording booth captures the commotion on tape.

When Russell dives beneath the surface, air rushing out of his lungs, Roesch, wearing only a bathing suit, puts a garden hose to his lips and blows bubbles into a specially miked pool.


“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. A personal favorite: using a wet T-shirt crammed with jello to simulate a waddling alien called “E.T.”

You might think that Roesch’s profession, which got its start with the birth of the “talkies,” would be one of the first casualties of computer-generated cinema. After all, foley artists -- whose craft was invented in the 1920s by an enterprising stuntman and director named Jack Foley -- pride themselves on being low-tech.

But thanks to improvements in digital recording equipment and the boom in computer animation films that lack ambient sound, foley artists are becoming increasingly important players in movie production.

In the last few years, several Hollywood studios have upgraded and expanded their foley soundstages, known as “pits,” to help artists make noise the old-fashioned way. They gleefully 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?

In the last 10 years, increasing demand for foley artists has doubled their ranks to about 100, mostly in Los Angeles.

At Sony Pictures Studios, the volume of foley work has doubled in the last three years.

“It’s become more valuable to every film that we do,” said Tom McCarthy, Sony’s executive vice president in charge of sound editing.

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 2,” “Cars” and “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith.” For the latter, she cranked an old farmer’s seed dispenser to conjure the sound of battle droids.

One of her proudest achievements was Puss in Boots’ hairball hacking scene in “Shrek 2.” Vance composed the hacking scene by combining separate tracks of her own retching with, among other things, the splatter of a soggy piece of cake hitting the floor.

Although some film schools offer courses, foley can’t be learned in a classroom. Young practitioners develop their skills by apprenticing under the watchful eyes of veterans.

Because of their small numbers and multidimensional jobs -- which combine acting, stunt work and sound editing -- foley artists have not been unionized. Although some belong to the Motion Picture Editors Guild, many are independent contractors without guaranteed union pay or benefits.

All that is about to change, however. Underscoring foley artists’ growing clout, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates for studios, recently agreed to recognize them as members of the editors guild.

That inclusion, to take effect this summer, will give foley artists the same union protections as their peers.

“It’s high time they have recognition,” said Ron Kutak, executive director of the guild.

Last year, the artists finally took center stage, if only for a night, during the Foley Show, an American Cinematheque program at the Egyptian Theatre that featured live demonstrations.

Before the early-'90s onset of digital recording, movie studios largely viewed foley work as an afterthought, a two- or three-day process that was mostly about the closing of doors and pattering of footsteps.

Today, foley artists typically take four to six weeks to create elaborate, multilayered collages assembled from hundreds of distinct sounds.

“We can do almost anything,” said Gary Hecker, Sony’s supervising foley artist. “I can blow up a bank.”

He can also do a pretty mean gorilla impersonation.

The 27-year veteran spent hours listening to actual gorilla noises before recording himself grunting and growling for the 1995 movie “Congo.” Similarly, some of the horse snorts in “Seabiscuit” are actually Hecker’s voice, deepened by digital recording equipment.

But it’s films that use computer-generated imagery that have turned up the volume on foley work.

“You have to invent a whole sound world when you work on a CGI sequence,” said sound design director Randy Thom at Skywalker, which has supplied foley for several Pixar Animation Studios productions.

Foley also was pivotal in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” The movie included 15 groups of sound effects -- from howling animals to crashing boulders -- 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.

To be sure, some fear a downside to technological innovation, with studios potentially building massive digital sound libraries that could one day make foley artists obsolete.

For now, however, filmmakers say the unique sounds that match and enhance mood and character require the human touch.

“Everyone wants their movies to sound real and dramatic,” Watters said.

In “Memoirs of a Geisha,” for example, Hecker created a rich array of water sounds by dripping, pouring and splashing water on various surfaces: umbrellas, tatami mats, even xylophone bells he picked up in Hawaii.

Further fueling the foley renaissance is the growing importance of foreign markets. When a film is dubbed into foreign languages, the English dialogue must first be removed. With it goes the accompanying sound, which must be reinserted.

All of which means more 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.

“I just kept getting calls, so I figured it must be my calling,” he says.

Early on, Roesch developed a reputation for innovation. An inveterate collector, he often relies on his private stash of noisemakers: 80 pairs of shoes, 20 swords, 6 car hoods, 12 feather dusters and a couple of air compressors, among other things.

Roesch has a knack for matching sounds with characters. For “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” for example, he used a dusty, wooden instrument known as a “boing box” to create the sound signature for the lead character, a bouncing bunny.

More recently, he crushed piles of pine cones and walnuts on concrete to create the cacophony of swarming bugs in the Keanu Reeves movie “Constantine.” Not that you’d have a clue.

“If we’ve done our job correctly,” he says, “you won’t even know we’ve done it.”

Foley work can be grueling, and sometimes dangerous. While working on the Mel Gibson drama “The River,” Roesch was nearly knocked out by an errant blast from a hose. Skywalker’s Vance dislocated three ribs while lugging heavy gear and military boots for a scene in Steven Spielberg’s war drama “Saving Private Ryan.”

The man for whom foley artists are named was a former dockworker from Coney Island who came west during the silent-film era. Jack Foley worked briefly as a double and stuntman before moving his young family to Bishop, Calif., during World War I. There, he took a job at a hardware store and was active in the American Defense Society, a political organization that mobilized to protect Los Angeles’ water supply from sabotage.

When farmers sold their water rights to Los Angeles and Bishop’s future was in doubt, Foley recruited Hollywood filmmakers to shoot in the area.

Through his new contacts in the movie business, 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 1929’s “Show Boat.”

Foley would do similar work for other movies. By the end of his career, he estimated he’d walked 5,000 miles mimicking the footsteps of the stars.

“Rock Hudson is a solid stepper,” Foley once told an interviewer. “Tony Curtis has a brisk foot; Audie Murphy is springy; James Cagney is clipped, Marlon Brando, soft.”

Foley’s granddaughter, Catherine Clark, remembers as a child coming upon him dropping keys, ladles, spoons and other utensils on the Formica kitchen table in her family’s Sherman Oaks home.

“I was thinking, ‘What in the world was he doing?’ ” Clark said.

Later she learned that her grandfather wasn’t just fiddling around. He was working, helping director Stanley Kubrick avoid a costly reshoot.

Kubrick was unhappy with a scene in his 1960 film “Spartacus.” The sound of the Roman legions marching wasn’t right, though he was loath to gather all those extras together again for another try.

Foley got down to work on the kitchen table, determined to evoke clinking armor. In the end, the cookware lost out to a set of keys, whose jangle can still be heard today.

Foley died in 1967. Clark believes he’d be proud of the industry he created.

“I think he’s sitting up there smiling,” she said.