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A still from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, Amblin Entertainment, 1982). Image via Amblin.com
Stories & Ideas

Wed 17 Mar 2021

The strangest Foley sounds in cinema

Behind the scenesFilmThe Story of the Moving Image
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Amber Gibson

ACMI X Community Coordinator

That brutal crack of a jaw heard during famous fight scenes might actually be the sound of smashing walnuts into a chicken carcass.

In the post-production of a film, TV show or videogame, Foley artists use ordinary objects to create extraordinary sound effects. Foley is a sound effect technique used to record audio that syncs to the on-screen action and brings the soundscape alive. The sound of breaking bones, creaking floors, squeaking doors, footsteps, falling bodies, fire and basically any sound that is not dialogue or music, is Foley.

The use of Foley dates back to the early 1920s when radio studios created sound effects to be played off a monograph during broadcasts – a technique that was adapted for films by Jack Foley (hence the name) during the transition from silent cinema to talkies. Born in New York in 1891, Jack was at the forefront of the film industry when sound was introduced to motion pictures. Rumour has it, he reversed a burp and looped it for the effect of creating a comical motor sound in Frank Capra’s Submarine (1928).

Foley artists throughout screen history have continued Jack’s tradition of using peculiar and surprising actions and objects to create sonic soundscapes. We've compiled some of the most weird and wacky below.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Everyone knows E.T. is sweet and cute, but did you know that the sound of the aliens’ movement is the product of playing with jelly, popcorn and liver? When director Steven Spielberg requested that E.T. sound "liquidy and friendly", Foley artist Joan Rowe went on a quest to the supermarket. “It’s hard to put words to sound," she says. "I walked through some stores and listened to the movements of the packaged liver in a flat container. It had a ‘cheery little sound’”.

It became one of the sounds of E.T.’s squishy body and movements. Fellow Foley artist John Roesch recalls, “The liver would go bad, so Joan would have to pick up more every other day. The guy behind the counter eventually said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ”. As well as raw liver, Rowe and Roesch used Jell-O to ensure E.T. also sounded ‘funny’ as requested by Spielberg. “Joanie and I went to lunch, and somebody ordered Jell-O,” Roesch explains. “And as the bowl was thrown onto one of our trays, and it was wiggling away, we just looked at each other and started laughing. Joan went home and cooked up a huge pot of Jell-O, and I took my T-shirt and taped the neck and the arms, turned it upside down, and poured all this Jell-O into it.” And the result of all this playing with food? The film won two Oscars for sound, including Best Sound Effects Editing.

Fight Club (1999)

During an interview with Filmsound.org, sound designer Ren Klyce recounts director David Fincher requesting to create a completely new library of sounds for the film’s brutal fight scenes. There’s no doubt that they delivered, producing original audio for the savage jabs, punches and other blows to the face and body of the would-be revolutionaries. Many movies use the one punch sound repeatedly, however, a wide variety of opinions during post-production made it hard for the Fight Club team to agree on the perfect sound for the bare-fist fights, painful punches and breaking bones.

"We've experimented with all sorts of different things," says Ren Klyce, and those different things included the team shattereing chicken carcasses with baseball bats, cracking walnuts inside them, smacking around slabs of meat with pigs' feet, and then processing them to add to the collection. Foley artist John Roesch also recorded a few hard knocks for temp tracks, playing with heavy bags, leather items, pieces of meat and even punching himself or other props.

Avatar (2009)

To create the sound of the Mountain Banshees in James Cameron’s Avatar, supervising sound editor Christopher Boyes scouted out the "strangest creatures you could ever imagine". Also known as ‘ikran’ in the Na’vi language, Banshees are Pterodactyl-like aerial predators used by Na’vi for travel and hunting. The clucking, trilling and cries of these creatures' vocals came from a mixture of two to three-day-old baby swans, horses and reptiles. You can see how both specific and random the hunt for the correct sounds can be. Boyes said the swan’s sounds were so unique that it’s impossible to tell they were birds when heard as a recording, much like it would be hard to know the Banshee's guttural breathing was horses and reptiles.

Inside Out (2015)

Family-favourite animated film Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter, invites audiences inside 11-year-old Riley’s mind. Ren Klyce was recruited to create an experimental soundscape and was tasked with producing an ethereal, organic soundtrack to help people associate with what it sounded like to be in a little girl’s mind. To create the sound of this world inside Riley’s head, Ren Klyce recorded crabs walking in the sand. Supervising sound editor Shannon Mills recalls “one of the biggest surprises was something Ren did, that put some microphones on the sand and recorded these crabs. This became the ambiance of the mind.”

“It was just a very strange, interesting sound that had movement and character, but it didn’t stick out,” Mills explains.

There was also a focus on textured sound, for example recording kelp underwater to add to scenes associated with Riley’s memory. Inside Out is a great example of Docter creating sounds associated with emotions like sadness, darkness and happiness, which demonstrate the scope of invention and respective challenges Foley artists tackle during postproduction.

The Exorcist (1977)

William Friedkin's award-winning supernatural horror The Exorcist – based on William Peter Blatty’s screen adaptation of his own novel –is considered one of the most terrifying movies ever made – largely thanks to Regan (Linda Blair), the 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon who makes her behave very much unlike a 12-year-old girl. In one of the most memorable scenes, Regan's head twists an unnatural (and deeply unnerving) 360 degrees. According to Vulture, sound technician Gonzalo Gavira created the snap of her neck by holding an old cracked leather wallet up to the microphone and twisting it with some credit cards inside. Friedkin recounts that Gavira borrowed the wallet from one of the sound crew: “We’d open the mic and he would use his body and objects and things… he created a lot of the sounds that you hear in the film”. Actress Mercedes McCambridge is said to have regurgitated a mixture of chewed apple and raw egg to produce the sound of Regan's infamous projectile vomiting.

Amber Gibson

To create your own amazing sound effects to scenes from Round the Twist (1990–2001) and Li’l Elvis and the Truckstoppers (1997–98) and then take them home on your Lens, visit our Foley studio in The Story of the Moving Image.

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