Acts of Impact

Jack Foley and the Sound of Cinema

May 01, 2023 Nicholas Hill Season 2 Episode 4
Jack Foley and the Sound of Cinema
Acts of Impact
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Acts of Impact
Jack Foley and the Sound of Cinema
May 01, 2023 Season 2 Episode 4
Nicholas Hill

On today's episode, we'll explore the incredible story of Jack Foley, a film-maker whose inventive style of creating sound effects for movies revolutionized Hollywood. 

We'll discuss the unique history of how sound effects came to the movies, how Jack's inventive techniques led to some of today's most creative sounds, and how Foley Artists use everyday objects to sensationalize the stories we see on screen.

I hope you enjoy today's episode. 

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Voiceover acting by Art Brown.  
Music by Alex Grohls.

Show Notes Transcript

On today's episode, we'll explore the incredible story of Jack Foley, a film-maker whose inventive style of creating sound effects for movies revolutionized Hollywood. 

We'll discuss the unique history of how sound effects came to the movies, how Jack's inventive techniques led to some of today's most creative sounds, and how Foley Artists use everyday objects to sensationalize the stories we see on screen.

I hope you enjoy today's episode. 

To learn more about the show, view transcripts, and more visit:

Voiceover acting by Art Brown.  
Music by Alex Grohls.

Nicholas Hill  0:00  
Listen closely and tell me what you hear...

you might have guessed that you were hearing rain, but what you're actually hearing is the sound of frying bacon being held next to a microphone. This is a commonly used effect to make the sound of rain in movies. Another commonly used method is to gently shake a bottle of rice.

By recording and adjusting these everyday sounds, you can create a convincing illusion of rain falling. Let's try another one. What do you hear

now we've added the sound of thunder to our rain. But what you're actually hearing is thick aluminum foil being shaken in wavy motions up and down next to the microphone. Let's do one more. What do you hear

if you're a Monty Python fan, you've probably guessed this one. It sounds like a horse galloping across the plains. But what you're actually hearing are two halves of a coconut being hit against the kitchen table. The next time you go to the movies, I want you to listen to the sounds of your favorite scenes. See, almost every sound you hear at the movies that isn't spoken words or music is a sound effect. And what's surprising about the sound effects is that they are not recorded on location. So the sound that you're hearing isn't actually recorded while they're filming the scene. Instead, it's artificially created by a team of individuals called foley artists, who personally record every sound that you hear after the filming is done. They use a wide variety of their own props, household objects, unique combinations of effects, and unbelievably perfect timing to create everything from footsteps to gunshots from the faint rustle of clothing, so the protagonist is beating heart. foley artists are named after one man who started at all. With his creativity and ingenuity, he brought life to movie scenes in a way that was never before possible. His work would go on to influence a generation of filmmakers and sound artists. Even though he has never appeared on the big screen. His impact is felt today in every film that we watch. His name is Jack Foley. And today, we tell his story. You're listening to acts of impact. I'm your host, Nicholas Hill. Let's get started.

Jack Foley was born in 1891 to Catholic Irish immigrants, he grew up in the vibrant Coney Island area of New York. With his magnetic personality and sharp wit. Jack quickly gained a reputation as a born entertainer. As a young man he dabbled in various professions from newspaper photographer to variety skit performer, constantly seeking new creative outlets. But the New York weather didn't sit right with him. So he moved across the country to the town of Bishop California. 300 miles north of Los Angeles, and Bishop Jack's creative spirit flourishes. He becomes an active member of the local theatre scene, writing and directing original plays that captivate audiences. His artistic talents also extend to drawing comics and writing columns for the local paper. But as the 1920s roll in, Jack notices the farming economy that sustains this town is faltering. Bishop needs a new direction if it's going to survive. So Jack has an idea. He is a huge film lover, so to help stimulate the local economy, he gets together with other business owners in the area, and leads a publicity campaign to bring the film industry to Bishop and it works. Bishop is perfect for filmmaking. It's 300 miles north of Los Angeles so it's easy to get to for film crews. It's dotted with beautiful and diverse mountains, hills and valleys. It offers an ideal backdrop for Western movies. And in fact, a lot of the famous Westerns Starring Roy Rogers, Jean archery and John Wayne are filmed in and around the bishop area. Jack ends up helping out as a location scout or film productions, and eventually, he's hired to work at Universal Studios, where he does everything from stunt work to eventually directing his own movies. Now, in the late 1920s, things are changing for the movies. See before now all films were completely silent. Silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Mary Pickford roll the scene. Here's one of the most famous scenes from the silent film era. But the landscape of cinema was about to change forever. On October 6 1927, a film called The Jazz Singer is released. It is the first feature length film to include synchronized dialogue, and becomes known as the first talkie. Here are the first words ever spoken in a movie. 

Media  5:57  
Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothing yet? You ain't heard nothing you want to hear? All right, all right, good, good, good day three, and a third chorus, I will give it to him.

Nicholas Hill  6:15  
As a movie lover myself, this is something I really wish I could have been there to experience. For the first time seeing a movie not have to cut away to text on a screen for dialogue. But actually having the word spoken on the film is amazing. It was completely out of this world. It revolutionized film, and the jazz singer became a huge commercial success. This is now the way audiences wanted to experience the magic of the movies. And this created a huge problem for Jack Foley. Because at the time, Jack was working on his own movie. It was a silent film called Showboat. And it was an adaptation of a Broadway musical. Yeah, you heard that right. It's a silent picture based on a musical. So when Jack and the team saw The Jazz Singer, they realized that they were completely outmatched. Jack later wrote about this,

Jack Foley (Voiceover)  7:15  
the Warner kids at the neighboring ranch had just come up with a sound picture the jazz singer. While the hard ridin Cliff hang and shoot from the hip boys on the yo Ranch, will complacently rounding up the last few scenes at the Great American musical Showboat. A silent picture. faces around here was so red, someone asked, Are we still in business?

Nicholas Hill  7:38  
So Jack and the directing team started scrambling to add dialogue to their silent film. But they quickly ran into a problem. They realized that the atmosphere was all wrong. You couldn't hear any of the sound effects that you would normally hear in the moment. So they had to solve a new problem. How do you synchronize the sounds of the environment with the moving images on the screen? Let's think about this for a minute. You can't record the sounds on location. Because the microphones would be in the shot. You would have had to hide microphones everywhere next to their boots while they're walking next to trees rustling sales being raised on chips, pencils, writing on paper, all of it. It's just not feasible. You have at most one microphone that you can hide in the shot. And the priority for that microphone is obviously the actor's voice. So the sound of the scene is completely left behind. This is when Jack devised the solution that would revolutionize the industry. You start by recording the video. Then you put the video up on the screen. While the film is playing. You use props to make the sound effects live for Showboat. This man adding sounds like laughter and cheers while the orchestra played live. Here's Jack writing about the excitement of creating this first fully seen.

Jack Foley (Voiceover)  9:00  
Stage tense swayed to the rhythm of a 40 piece orchestra under the direction of Joe ternasky As he scored showboat and the rest of us watch the screen with him, putting in the sound effects of the showboat that old river and the laughter and cheers is it just kept rolling along and was showboat on its way. Other pictures on the silent stages came in for sound shots too.

Nicholas Hill  9:26  
This is a pivotal moment in Jack's career and cinematic history. By the early 1930s sound has become a standard feature in movies, and Jack has shifted his career to focus entirely on creating sound. In 1931 Jack is hired to work on the set of Dracula, making famous sounds such as the flapping of bat wings and the chilling sound of Dracula's children. I am

Listen to them. The music. Jack quickly develops a reputation for creating realistic sound effects with everyday objects. In the 1960 movie Spartacus, Jack is tasked with recreating the sound of a Roman army marching. The filmmakers had actually recorded the marching on location, but the recording was damaged and the filmmakers needed to replace the sound. Jack devises an unconventional solution. He takes a set of keys and jingles them in front of a microphone to produce the sound of metal clashing, which mimics the sound of the Roman soldiers armor and weapons plinking together as they march. Pretty simple, right? They record several versions, layer them on top of one another and synchronize it to the visuals of the marching soldiers to create a convincing sound of marching.

This example perfectly captures Jack's approach to fully art using readily available objects and inventive techniques to create realistic sound effects for movies. And if you walk into a Foley studio today, you'll find a complete whirlwind of the most random objects and props used to create sounds. If you want the sound of a punch, you can punch raw meat or you could just punch an old phonebook. For bones breaking just crack some celery. And if you really want to get gruesome, you can use a walnut for cracking skulls. Or honestly just start grabbing all the fruit in your fridge and start squishing it. For atmosphere, a balloon makes for a nice creaky door. Or a rusty hinge can be used to simulate a creepy swingset. You can use bamboo for arrows, cellophane for a crispy fire even a hot water bottle for a car skid. But the most common sound of all is footsteps. And foley artists have shoes of every size and every type with all of the surfaces imaginable, such as concrete, gravel, or grass. These effects may not seem like much, but as you listen to the following story, see if you can identify the objects behind the sound and imagine what it would be like without them. The night is thick with tension as storm clouds loom overhead. An archer and a gunslinger stand at opposite ends of a field enclosed in a ring of blazing fire. In the distance. A rumbling thunder signals the impending battle and then there is only quiet

suddenly, the gunslinger pulls his gun and shots echo through the night. The Archer responds letting loose his arrows which tear through the gunslingers flesh. He Sprint's to the Gunslinger and his fists connect with a sickening thud with otherworldly speed he grabs his arm pulls it behind his back and breaks it in a deafening snap. Pushing them to the ground the archer delivers the killing blow, stomping his skull in a sickening crunch. The Archer lives to fight another day. Okay, admittedly, that was a lot of fun. Let's get back to Jack. Jack was an avid writer. He had a running column in the Universal Studios newsletter called and that's the way I heard it. It was a humor column, and Jack would regularly poke fun at Studio people technicians, actors, stuntman and executives alike. Jack wrote under the synonym of Joe Hyde. Now Joe Hyde was actually a real person, he was a janitor. So everyone thought this janitor was also the writer of the funniest column they knew. And Joe was in on the joke. He enjoyed the notoriety of everyone believing him to be the columnist. This would continue until Joe passed away. And after that Jack revealed Himself as the true writer and continued his column. Jack's Foley technique was unique. He would record at all of the effects for a real at once in one take. He could do footsteps movement prop sounds everything. Through the use of his own two feet and a cane he can make the footsteps of two to three people at once, and he knew exactly how to recreate the footsteps of all the famous stars of the age.

Jack Foley (Voiceover)  15:20  
Rock Hudson is a solid stepper. Tony Curtis has a brisk foot on Eddie Murphy is springy. James Cagney is clipped, Marlon Brando soft,

Nicholas Hill  15:33  
Jack kept a large cloth in his pocket to simulate movement. He emphasize that as a foley artist, you have to act the scene, you have to be the actor get into the spirit of the story the same as they do. Creative work like Jack's laid the groundwork for the entire genre fully. And today, fully artists work in specialized studios filled with a plethora of props and materials, each chosen for their own unique sound qualities. Let's think about a few iconic sounds that have been made by foley artists through the decades. First in the original Star Wars in 1977. You have the introduction of the famous lightsaber.

foley artist Ben Burtt created the iconic lightsaber sounds by combining the hum of a film projector motor with the buzz and feedback from an old television set. Four years later on the set of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, fully artists were trying to mimic the massive boulder that chases Indiana Jones.

Ben Berg did it again. He records the sound of his Honda Civic coasting down a gravel hill to get the effect. Oh, and the actual opening of the ancient Lost Ark. That was a toilet seat lid. In 1993, you have the release of Jurassic Park, and with it the infamous T Rex to make the thunderous T Rex footsteps. foley artist Gary Redstorm would slam down large sections of redwood tree.

To make the sound of ETs movements, fully artists roe and Roche landed on raw liver, which slid around in its package and jello wrapped in a damp t shirt. For the character's body falls row recalls using a novelty sized bag of popcorn. Roche remembers using a pillowcase filled with rice and cereal. During the climax of Titanic, in which Kate Winslet floats shivering on a piece of debris. foley artists peel back layers of frozen lettuce to add texture to the sound of her crisping hair tag.

Jack if I had $1 for every time I've been able to use that scene from Titanic in this podcast, I'd have $2 which isn't a lot, but it's weird that I've used it twice. Let's get back to our man of the hour Jack Foley. When the movie pink submarine needed a comical motor sound. Jack is reputed to have reversed a burp and looped it for effect.

The director of a mellow drama had a step rigged to make a squeak when the leading lady descended a flight of stairs. After many unsuccessful takes Jack was called in. He explained how to do it. 

Jack Foley (Voiceover)  19:03  
I wanted to Creek until the film has been cut together into a rough print. Then I'll park my shelf in an old rocking chair in front of a microphone. And when the lady's foot hits the fourth step, I'll just rock my shelf back slowly.

Nicholas Hill  19:18  
Jack imitated plenty of leading ladies he once said.

Jack Foley (Voiceover)  19:23  
Women are the toughest to imitate their steps are quicker and closer together. I get winded doing leading ladies might be in 250 pounds probably has something to do with that. Gene Simmons is a fastest on her screen feed and all the Hollywood she stopped only by June Allison. I can't keep up with June at all.

Nicholas Hill  19:45  
fellow workers say that the results of a Jack Foley session were as good as what young editors get today cutting 20 tracks together. Towards the end of his life. Jack calculated that he had walked over 5000 Miles make same sounds for films. Jack Foley passed away on November 9 1967. At the age of 76. Foley's career in the film industry spanned over four decades, during which he worked on more than 500 films. His legacy lives on through the art form that bears his name, and has left an indelible mark on the world of cinema. So the next time you're watching a movie or TV show, take a moment to appreciate the subtle sounds that bring each scene to life. And remember Jack Foley, the man who started it all. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. Today's show was directed and produced by me with music from Alex girl, and voiceover acting by Art Brown. If you liked today's episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts and consider leaving a review, as it will help us to spread the word about the show. You can view more information about today's episode online at acts of Thank you for listening