Meet the Foleys

Just a few tools of the Foley artist's trade

Just a few tools of the Foley artist’s trade

When a movie ends, audience members either dab away their tears, try to get some feeling back in their legs, or rearrange their clothing.  Some wake up from the best sleep they’ve had in days.  Hardly any of them are paying attention to the names and titles that are rolling up the screen.

If you’re among the minority who stay through the end credits of a film, you probably can guess what the Costume Designer’s function was, or what the Production Accountant did, but you may have wondered — what the heck is a Foley Artist?

Well, it’s a person who specializes in performing sound effects to augment the audio track of a movie.  Strangely enough, the original production sound recorded in the studio or on location can sometimes seem artificial, or be missing altogether.

When there’s a scene involving a brawl, for instance, obviously the stuntmen aren’t really punching each other.  The noises you hear in the finished film were created by a Foley artist smacking a phonebook or a slab of meat.  During post production the original footage is played back, scene by scene, and the artist syncs up with it, adding a kiss here, a slap there, the rustle of a cape, or footsteps on creaky stairs.

Foley stages have an array of props and floor surfaces to generate those effects, and a technician at a sound board records them as the artist produces them.  With that sophisticated equipment, the pitch of a piece of wire swinging through air can be adjusted by an octave or two to create the illusion of, say, an alien spaceship.

It’s not a coincidence that the first Foley artist was named Jack Foley.  Born in 1891, he had found his way to Hollywood and in spite of the fact that he did not have a degree from a prestigious film school — there were no film schools then — he talked his way into the movie business.

Jack Foley worked as a stuntman, directed a couple of silent films and had writing credits on several others, including “The Perils of Pauline”.  He was employed at Universal Studios in the late 1920s, when Warner Bros. had changed the business by introducing sound to motion pictures.

Foley and some of his colleagues basically taught themselves how to use sound recording equipment, and he developed techniques that are still in use today.  He never received screen credit as a Foley artist, but he worked in that capacity until his death in 1967.

One of Jack Foley’s specialties was “walking”, matching the stride of the on-screen actor with his own footsteps.  The 250-pound Foley admitted that women were more difficult for him to imitate, since their steps tended to be quicker and closer together.

Around the same time that Jack Foley’s name became a job description, another Foley got a similar sort of anonymous fame.  Frederic Foley was born one week before Jack, but took a very different career path.

That Foley graduated from Yale and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.  Although he doesn’t seem to have been specifically trained as a urologist, his name is associated with his invention:  a device that is threaded through the urethra and into the bladder.  The Foley catheter (as the tube and its accessories are known) is often used on surgical patients.

It is also used for other medical procedures on that part of the anatomy.  Patients who are not under anesthesia when the Foley catheter is inserted usually supply sound effects that, thankfully, are not recorded.

3 responses to “Meet the Foleys

  1. so interesting

  2. Always interesting stuff, Mr. Reeder. Sometime when you’re looking for an easy column, give us some stuff about Inspector Lugar…and James Gregory…always one of my fave character actors. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Gary. For those who don’t know, James Gregory played the recurring role of Inspector Frank Luger on Barney Miller. The character had lots of twitchy mannerisms, in contrast to the actor, who was an easygoing, affable guy. Jim already had a long list of credits before I got acquainted with him; in contrast, Barney Miller was my first writing gig.

      As the new kid, I was too intimidated to attempt socializing with the actors — I sort of kept to myself. So Jim Gregory came over and struck up a conversation with me! On that first meeting, he told me a joke that is unprintable here, but I still remember it, partly because it implied a familiarity between us that really didn’t exist at that point — but helped me feel like a peer, a colleague.

      Over the next few seasons, I wrote several episodes in which Inspector Luger appeared. Jim reliably delivered the laughs that were on the page… and some that were his own unique inventions.

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