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The Right Sound for the Scene

Foley artists, low-tech noisemakers for movies, are busier than ever in the computer age. It's not easy to simulate the sound of a waddling E.T.

April 04, 2006|Richard Verrier | 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.

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