The Weird, Analog Delights of Foley Sound Effects

E.T. was jello in a T-shirt. The Mummy was scratchy potpourri. For Foley artists, deception is an essential part of the enterprise.

Anna Wiener
June 27, 2022
The New Yorker

The salvage yard at M. Maselli & Sons, in Petaluma, California, is made up of six acres of angle irons, block pulleys, doorplates, digging tools, motors, fencing, tubing, reels, spools, and rusted machinery. To the untrained eye, the place is a testament to the enduring power of American detritus, but to Foley artists—craftspeople who create custom sound effects for film, television, and video games—it’s a trove of potential props. On a recent morning, Shelley Roden and John Roesch, Foley artists who work at Skywalker Sound, the postproduction audio division of Lucasfilm, stood in the parking lot, considering the sonic properties of an enormous industrial hopper. “I’m looking for a resonator, and I need more ka-chunkers,” Roden, who is blond and in her late forties, said. A lazy Susan was also on the checklist—something to produce a smooth, swivelling sound. Roesch, a puffer-clad sexagenarian with white hair, had brought his truck, in the event of a large haul. The pair was joined by Scott Curtis, their Foley mixer, a bearded fiftysomething. Curtis was in the market for a squeaky hinge. “There was a door at the Paramount stage that had the best creak,” he said. “The funny thing was, the cleaning crew discovered this hinge squeak, and they lubricated the squeak—the hinge. It was never the same.”

Petaluma is a historically agricultural town, and that afternoon was the thirty-ninth annual Butter and Egg Days Parade; the air smelled of lavender and barbecued meat. Inside the yard, Curtis immediately gravitated toward a pile of what looked like millstones, or sanding wheels. He began rotating one against another, producing a gritty, high-pitched ring, like an elementary-school fire alarm. “The texture is great,” Roden said. She suggested that one of the wheels could be used as a sweetener—a sound that is subtly layered over another sound, to add dimension—for a high-tech roll-up door, or perhaps one made of stone. “It’s kinda chimey,” she said, wavering. “It has potential.” A few yards away, Curtis had moved on to a shelf of metal filing-cabinet drawers, freckled with rust. “We have so many metal boxes,” Roden said, and walked away.

“It’s kinda the squeak I was looking for,” Curtis said softly.

“Hey, guys, remember the ‘Black Panther’ area?” Roden called out. “Wanna explore?” She led the group past a rack of hanging chains, also rusted; Curtis lightly palmed a few in sequence, producing the pleasant rings of a tintinnabulum. Roden pointed to the spot where she had found a curved crowbar to create the sound of Vibranium—a fictional rare metal unique to the Marvel universe—before zeroing in on a rack of thimbles, clamps, nuts, bolts, and washers. The trio began knocking and tapping hardware together, producing a series of chimes, tinks, and clunks. Roesch, who calls himself an “audile”—someone who processes information in a primarily auditory manner, rather than in a visual or a material one—had unearthed a sceptre-like industrial tool with a moving part, and was rapidly sliding it back and forth. “Robot,” he said.

The bulk of the sound in film is typically added in postproduction. “I always say there’s sound effects, like footsteps, and then there’s music,” the director David Lynch, whose films are famous for their inventive, evocative sound design, said. “And then there’s sound effects that are like music. . . . They conjure a feeling.” Traditionally, “hard effects” cover ambient noises such as traffic or rain, or the more mechanical, combustive sounds of explosions and gunfire; they are usually pulled from libraries, or electronically produced. Foley effects are custom to a film, and are synchronized to characters’ movements. They might include the sound of someone walking across a room, rolling over in bed, stirring a pot, typing, fighting, dancing, eating, falling, or kissing. The line between the two kinds of effect is thin: Foley artists record the sound of a hand twisting a doorknob, but not the sound of the mechanism turning within. Foley is subtle but suggestive, capturing offstage bedsprings, or the shuffle of a clumsy intruder. In the past hundred years, technology has changed the process of recording, editing, and engineering sounds, but the techniques of Foley have remained stubbornly analog. Behind any given Foley effect, no matter how complex, are one or two people contorting their bodies in a soundproof room.

Foley artists have historically worked in pairs. (Certain sounds are so complex that they require the labor of four hands.) Roden and Roesch are two of the masters in their field. David Fincher, the director of movies including “The Social Network,” “Gone Girl,” and “Mank,” told me that Foley is “a very strange calling,” and “a dark art” foundational to filmmaking. “You’re trying to make beautiful sounds that make their point once and get the hell out of Dodge,” Fincher said. “The people who do it really, really well are few and far between.”

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Sound + Image Lab: Creating a Successful Anthology TV Series, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS Season 3

Glenn Kiser, Director of the Dolby Institute
June 21, 2022
The Dolby Institute

Season 3 of the eleven-time Emmy winning series LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS hit Netflix on May 20th and we are delighted to sit down with creator Tim Miller, supervising director Jennifer Yuh Nelson, and supervising sound editor Brad North to discuss how they managed to succeed where so many others have failed — creating a hit anthology television series.

“It really comes down to who’s doing the shorts. There’s been a lot of care trying to match-make: The shorts, the stories, the directors, and the studios. You’ve got a whole lifetime of experience with people and studios that Tim has worked with at Blur. People that have been doing incredible content, that maybe haven’t had the opportunity to do a feature yet, because of the size and experimentalism of that particular place. And to be able to hook them up with really good, solid stories that they can put all of their effort into making that, actually, great. You’re not spinning a lot of wheels here. You’re doing amazing. Everything goes right to the screen.” — Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Supervising Director, LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS

Watch LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS on Netflix

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Love, Death & Robots: Layering Sounds of Terror

August 9, 2022
Still Watching Netflix

Soundstage Access: Gwen Yates Whittle, Supervising Sound Editor

Brando Benetton
June 6, 2022
Soundstage Access

For this masterclass on the Art of Sound in film and TV, we welcome on the show Gwen Yates Whittle, a 2-time Oscar-nominated sound professional whose credits include this summer’s Jurassic World: Dominion, Saving Private Ryan, Top Gun: Maverick and the upcoming Avatar: The Way of the Water.

In today’s conversation, the Skywalker Sound member and I break down some of Hollywood’s biggest sound moments. We discuss Gwen’s beginning in the industry and why the prospect of sound editing intrigued her in ways that sound mixing never did; her relationship with detail-oriented directors like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, Benjamin Button, Gone Girl); the process of layering animal sounds to create the dinosaur voices in the Jurassic World franchise—as well as how the pandemic suddenly impacted Gwen’s work. All of this… and much more!

Gwen’s newest movies Jurassic World: Dominion and Top Gun: Maverick are now in theaters across the world, with Avatar: The Way of the Water opening in December 2022.

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Conversations with Sound Artists: Dialogue Editing and ADR with Gwen Whittle

Glenn Kiser, Director of the Dolby Institute
September 21, 2015
SoundWorks Collection / The Dolby Institute

Editing dialog and working with the original recordings from the set is one of the most under-appreciated arts in cinema sound. In this episode of “Conversations with Sound Artists,” two-time Academy Award nominee Gwen Yates Whittle talks with the Dolby Institute’s Glenn Kiser about why George Lucas thinks dialog editing is one of the most important parts of the process, why she loves working on low-budget independent films (“They talk more,”), and why David Fincher and Meryl Streep love doing ADR.

I am Sitting in a Room, Listening to Mank

Cormac Donnelly
October 2021
Screenworks

This video essay examines the innovative use of sound recording and mixing in David Fincher’s Mank (2020). Whilst Mank received a limited theatrical release, the film is most widely available via the Netflix streaming platform. The essay takes as a starting point the rerecording and spatialisation of the soundtrack, with a focus on the home viewing experience. Donnelly argues that the re-recording process used on Mank’s soundtrack could potentially suggest a method by which films released into the domestic market could retain the reverberant sonic signature of cinematic exhibition. The published screenwork draws upon interviews with Fincher’s sound designer Ren Klyce, as well as the work of experimental composer, Alvin Lucier in order to better understand the experience of listening to Mank in our own rooms.

Watch the video essay and read the research statement

Read the original in-depth interview with Ren Klyce:

Making Mank’s Vintage Hollywood-Magic Sound

In conversation with Donald Graham Burt, Erik Messerschmidt and Ren Klyce

John Horn
April 13, 2021
Netflix Awards FYC

A conversation with Production Designer Donald Graham Burt, Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and Sound Designer Ren Klyce on behalf of Mank. Moderated by John Horn.

Watch the full conversation

The ‘Mank’ scene that best encapsulates its 10 Oscar nominations

Christopher Rosen
March 30, 2021
Gold Derby

No movie received more Oscar nominations in 2021 than David Fincher’s “Mank,” a Hollywood throwback about Herman Mankiewicz (Best Actor nominee Gary Oldman), Marion Davies (Best Supporting Actress nominee Amanda Seyfried), and the writing process behind Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane.” With 10 total nominations — including Best Picture, Best Director for Fincher, Best Actor for Oldman, Best Supporting Actress for Seyfried, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Hair & Makeup, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, and Best Score — the lavish black-and-white Netflix film is just the 96th feature in Academy Awards history to receive double-digit citations and the second-most lauded Fincher effort behind only “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

With a project comprised of so many academy-endorsed contributions, it might be difficult to imagine one single scene representing the sum of the whole. But nestled within the complex structure of Jack Fincher’s time-hopping screenplay is a sequence that combines all 10 of the “Mank” nominations and shows how each department and performance elevated the next: Mank and Marion’s stroll through San Simeon.

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Scene at The Academy: Mank

Oscars (YouTube)
March 6, 2021

Mank director David Fincher, actors Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, the cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, production designer Donald Graham Burt and sound designer Red Kyle walk you through a boisterous San Simeon house party sequence and the recreation of William Randolph Hearst’s famed zoo.

Director David Fincher discusses Mank with Aaron Sorkin

A DGA Virtual Q&A

February 6, 2021
The Director’s Cut. A DGA (Directors Guild of America) Podcast

A disillusioned screenwriter in old Hollywood gets a shot at redemption in Director David Fincher’s biographical comedy-drama, Mank.

Fincher’s film takes place as film 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles hires scathing social critic and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz to write the screenplay for his masterpiece, Citizen Kane.

On February 6, Fincher discussed the making of Mank in a DGA Virtual Q&A moderated by Director Aaron Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7).

During their conversation, Fincher spoke about his love for “the altar of cinema,” the communal aspect that can come through film. “For me, what I love about cinema is going into a big dark room with 700 people and through their laughter and through their surprise and through their shock and through their reactions you realize, I’m not alone. I’m the same. I’m wired into this group in the same way just organically and I’m picking up on all these other cues. That is what makes the cinema, or a great grand theater, an almost cathedral-like experience.”

Fincher’s other directorial credits include the feature films Se7enThe GamePanic RoomZodiacGone Girl; episodes of the television series House of Cards and Mindhunter; and countless commercials and music videos. He has been nominated for the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Theatrical Feature Film for The Curious Case of Benjamin ButtonThe Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In 2013, he was nominated for the DGA Award for Dramatic Series for House of Cards, “Chapter 1” and has twice been nominated for the DGA Award for his Commercial work with Anonymous Content in 2003 and 2008, winning the Award in 2003 for Beauty for Sale (Xelibri Phones), Gamebreakers (Nikegridiron.Com) and Speed Chain (Nike).

Fincher has been a DGA member since 1991.

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The Magic of the Movies: Behind the Scenes of David Fincher’s Mank


Netflix Film Club (YouTube)
February 28, 2021

Join acclaimed director David Fincher, actors Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, and the cast and crew of Mank, for a peek behind the curtain of Netflix’s black-and-white ode to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

That Classic Sound. The Sound Design of Mank

Netflix Film Club (YouTube)
February 1, 2021

David Fincher‘s longtime sound designer Ren Klyce discusses the soundscape of Mank, conceived as a companion piece of sorts to Citizen Kane (no pressure). What is it about a classic movie that makes it sound, well, classic? From filtering frequencies to adding elements like optical flutter and overlaid reverb, learn about the work that went into making the film sound as if it was booming from the screen of a grand movie palace.