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.”

Read the full profile

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.

Listen to the podcast on:

Apple Podcasts
Spotify

Soundcloud
Google Podcasts
Stitcher

Soundstage Access on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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.

The cinematography of “VOIR: Summer of the Shark”

January 2022: Weathering the storm

Mark London Williams
January 2022
British Cinematographer

We open this year’s column with a kind of meta reflection on cinematography itself, as contained in the recent Netflix series Voir.

Continentally savvy readers already know “voir” means “to see,” but this is a series about “seeing” movies, cinema, in the broadest sense, which is to say, what films mean, and what effect they have on both individuals, and the world at large. It’s done in a series of visual meditations, usually on the specific film in question which sent the various narrators into their respective futures as essayists, bloggers, reviewers, and makers of the medium. 

From producers David Fincher and David PriorVoir dropped with vastly less fanfare accorded to something like a new Cobra Kai or Witcher season, perhaps because it’s non-fiction, or more likely, because each episode averages about fifteen minutes. They are shorts in other words. About movies.

We caught up with cinematographer Martim Vian, who shot four of the series’ six episodes. The one we wanted to really talk to him about though, was the first one (if simultaneously dropped episodes can be said to have an order), called Summer of the Shark

Read the full article

Voir. Cr. Netflix © 2021

Cinematographer Martim Vian Shares the Importance of Eliciting Nostalgia in Netflix’s Voir

January 19, 2022
ProductionHUB

David Fincher and David Prior are producers on Netflix‘s latest upcoming series Voir— a series of visual essays celebrating Cinema and the personal connection we each have to the stories we see on the big screen.

Each episode celebrates various aspects of cinema through interviews and personal anecdotes from historians and filmmakers. The series’ cinematographer, Martim Vian, spoke exclusively to ProductionHUB about his specific vision for the series, the importance of personal and historical anecdotes, and the impact of Vior on the viewer. 

Read the full interview

Director David Prior Talks ‘The Empty Man,’ ‘Voir’ & Netflix Becoming “Custodians To The Cinematic Experience”

Andrew Bundy
November 5, 2021
The Playlist

There’s a specificity of intention to David Prior’s “The Empty Man” that eludes most studio horror projects. Inspired by the Boom Studios! comic (created by writer Cullen Bunn and artist Vanessa del Rey), Prior’s debut could have been a success story were the movie released under different circumstances. Inherited by Disney following the Fox merger, and dumped into theaters mid-pandemic, “The Empty Man” certainly wasn’t given the A24 Ari Aster treatment, which is a shame, as Prior’s film would make an outstanding, grief-tinged double feature with “Midsommar” or “Hereditary,” though its shape is far more chimerically hypnotic. 

Laying somewhere in the cosmic ether between David Fincher’s serial killer films, “Se7en” and “Zodiac,” Prior’s sepulchral vision slithers like a paranormal odyssey in the guise of a J-horror procedural a la Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s “Cure,” veteran character actor James Badge Dale aiding in making detective work look effortless through a mesmerizing lead performance. “We go looking for things we have lost… More than that, there is no such thing as loss,” a mysterious cult leader, played by Stephen Root, preaches

Audiences missed out on “The Empty Man,” but it’s deservedly found a devoted following. “If the price of making the movie I wanted to make meant getting abandoned by the studio and left to be picked up by passionate people who saw it on their own, that’s not a bad outcome.” Prior told us, “At least it’s the movie I wanted to make. It wasn’t some highly compromised, shortened, messed up version of that probably would have gotten more support from the studio but it would have vanished from everybody’s mind as soon as they saw it.”

Prior was later approached by David Fincher (for whom he used to direct documentaries) about a new film appreciation series, titled “Voir.” Scheduled to debut at AFI Fest this month, Netflix’s video essay project spotlights “passionate voices that love movies… highlighting the elements that get people excited about cinema.”

In a time when streaming services threaten to swallow up the theatrical experience, “Voir” is an essential look back at what makes film uniquely hypnotic. “Movies cornered the cultural conversation throughout the 20th century.” Prior told us. “It was the art form of the 20th century… [movies] don’t hold the same place in cultural thinking they used to and there’s a lot that’s important being lost.”

No great film deserves to be forgotten, and Prior is keenly aware platforms like Netflix now hold the keys to Hollywood’s kingdom, as “custodians to the cinematic experience.” “The Empty Man,” may not have mopped up box office dollars but revealed its director to be as impassioned and skilled a filmmaking scholar as David Fincher. We were fortunate to sit down for an extensive chat with him ahead of “Voir’s” upcoming premiere. Eerily, both his debut film and new Netflix series stemming from an obsession with Jaws,” the legendary Steven Spielberg, a fervent supporter of his film appreciation project.

Read the full interview

Pop Culture Confidential: Arliss Howard (“Mank”)

Christina Jeurling Birro
November 13, 2020
Pop Culture Confidential

Don’t miss this exclusive and compelling conversation with actor, writer, and director Arliss Howard (Full Metal Jacket, Natural Born Killers, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Amistad, Moneyball, Manhunt)

A journey into his process, his brilliant performance as MGM’s Louis B Mayer in David Fincher’s new epic feature ‘Mank’, working with Fincher, Kubrick, Spielberg and Stone and so much more!

Mank’ premieres theatrically in some territories on Nov 13th. On Netflix Dec 4.

Arliss Howard (2001, Evan Agostini)

Light The Fuse: Liz Hannah Interview (Writer of ‘The Post’, ‘Long Shot’, and ‘Mindhunter’)

Charles Hood & Drew Taylor
July 20, 2020
Light The Fuse – A Mission: Impossible Podcast

For this very special episode we are joined by screenwriter Liz Hannah (“The Post,” “Long Shot,” “Mindhunter”). We find out why she loves the franchise (especially “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), her appreciation for Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa and what she wants out of the two new movies. She also talks about working with David Fincher. And we also get Liz – and her husband – to rank Tom Cruise’s hairstyles!

Listen to the podcast on:

Apple Podcasts
Stitcher
SoundCloud
Spotify
Google Play
YouTube

Or listen here on our website!

Pop Culture Confidential: Liz Hannah, Writer/Producer on Mindhunter Season Two

Christina Jeurling Birro
September 3, 2019
Pop Culture Confidential

This week on Pop Culture Confidential we are thrilled to have screenwriter Liz Hannah in conversation about the incredible new season of Mindhunter, as well as working with Steven Spielberg on The Post and more!

Liz Hannah burst onto the scene a couple of years ago when her first screenplay, a spec script about Washington Post owner Kay Graham and her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, was picked up none other than Steven Spielberg. That became The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Liz Hannah went on the write the critically acclaimed comedy Long Shot starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen.

Now she is onboard Mindhunter season two as a writer and producer. Liz Hannah talks to us about her career, working with David Fincher (exec producer and director on Mindhunter), writing and staging one of the most intense episodes of TV this year, the Charles Manson episode, getting into the heads of serial killers and much more.

In Conversation with Jennifer Haley, Writer (Mindhunter Season One)

The Curious Development History of ‘Benjamin Button’

Adam Chitwood
January 3, 2019
Collider

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is, at first glance, a unique entry in director David Fincher’s filmography. It’s an epic romance of sorts; a sweeping love story told through the ages, one which would appear to be at odds with what many view as a cold and cynical worldview that permeates Fincher’s other films like Se7en, Fight Club, or Zodiac. But upon further inspection, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button fits right in with the rest of Fincher’s darker films, as it’s really the story of a man whose entire life is surrounded by the reminder of death.

Benjamin Button hit theaters on December 25, 2008—almost exactly a decade ago—and was the biggest hit of Fincher’s career until Gone Girl, grossing over $330 million worldwide. It received mostly positive reviews and was nominated for 13 Oscars, winning three for Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects. It almost certainly paved the way for Fincher to next make The Social Network, another successful Oscar-winning film, but actually creating The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was arduous, and the road to getting the film off the ground in the first place was a decades-long journey.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button itself is based on a short story in an F. Scott Fitzgerald book published in 1922, and the central premise caught Hollywood’s attention in the late 1980s: the story of a man born old who ages backwards and dies young.

The first director attached to the project was Frank Oz, with Martin Short attached to star. But after working on the script for a few months for Universal Pictures, Oz left the project. He couldn’t quite crack how to turn this short story into a compelling drama, as the central premise lacked significant conflict.

So Universal’s president of production at the time, Casey Silver, next turned to screenwriter Robin Swicord, asking her to attempt an adaptation. She turned in a first draft in January 1990 and her contribution was so substantial that on the finished iteration of the film directed by Fincher, Swicord received a “Story by” co-credit.

Read the full article

Steven Soderbergh: ‘There’s no new oxygen in this system’

The American director discusses his long-awaited return to feature filmmaking with Logan Lucky.

Interview: Matt Thrift
Illustration: Robert Manning
Little White Lies

It’s been four years since Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from filmmaking, slamming the door on his way out with an impassioned cri de coeur on the state of the industry at the San Francisco Film Festival. In the event, it turned out to be more of a working-vacation, what with his 2013 TV movie, Behind the Candelabra, and two seasons of The Knick released in the interim. Now he’s back on the big screen with Logan Lucky, one of his best films to date, bringing with it a new fight against the system with the film’s experimental distribution model. We sat down for a long chat with American cinema’s most restless workaholic, the original Sundance Kid.

Read the interview

Thanks to Joe Frady