Electrical tape, old coconuts and removable doors: the magical sound world of Foley artists

New BBC4 horror story The Dead Room shines a light on the art of Foley work, the sound effects technique that's been enhancing film and radio storytelling for decades

(Getty)

Mark Gatiss’s new radio-themed BBC4 ghost story The Dead Room is full of weird and wonderful supernatural details – but one of the most memorable scenes is actually far more mundane, following the efforts of a sound artist called Joan as she creates realistic sound effects using an array of odd objects.

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As Simon Callow’s narrator describes walking through undergrowth, she pushes her feet through old electrical tape; as he mentions turning a key, she produces a specially-made locking mechanism to create the proper sound; when his story involves running, she scampers over some concrete slabs placed on the floor.

And while it might seem strange to watch, all of Joan’s techniques are pretty usual in the realm of Foley work, the art of creating specific, non-verbal sounds for films and radio – even if that sometimes means using some very strange items to create particular noises.

“The sound effects are often created in very odd ways, and they do have an extraordinary power of evocation,” Susan Penhaligon, who plays Joan in The Dead Room, told us on set earlier this year.

“They suddenly take you into somewhere else, another place.”

For those not in the know, Foley is named for Jack Foley, a sound effects artist who in the early 20th century developed a unique method for performing ambient sound effects “live” during the postproduction of films and TV shows.

Essentially, Mr Foley would watch along with previously-shot footage – a horse clip-clopping down a manor lane, for example – and then produce items to record new audio in concert with what was happening onscreen. In films, this allows for controllable sound effects that sound like the real thing (oddly, sometimes the real sound of things doesn’t sound right when recorded) when on location, and when on set it allows directors to create a fuller audio world, a soundscape that audiences wouldn’t even notice unless it was taken away.

Susan Penhaligon, Simon Callow and Anjili Mohindra in BBC4's The Dead Room (BBC)
Susan Penhaligon, Simon Callow and Anjili Mohindra in BBC4’s The Dead Room (BBC)

“People seem to think that a lot of the sound effects that we do are automatically recorded when they shoot a film, and in reality they get the dialogue and dialogue only,” American sound engineer Bub Asman told me when I spoke to him on a similar topic last year.

“So pretty much everything, from footsteps to cars to everything else, is all added later. I think most people would be surprised to know of what they’re hearing, how much was not there when they shot the film.”

And then there’s radio, which unlike TV and film requires the use of Foley because the actors DON’T actually act out the physical actions being described. Enter people like Joan, real-life Foley artists whose job is to convince the listener that they are actually hearing a fully-fleshed out experience, and not just an extended conversation.

The now-defunct BBC Maida Vale Studios, where The Dead Room was filmed and set, is a treasure trove of Foley techniques, a legacy of the decades of radio plays that have been recorded there. One room is filled with different types of doors, ready to be pulled into work depending on what sort of house the characters are entering; another door has a special catch where production staff can affix different door handles and knockers, for the same reason.

Step through another doorway and you’ll find an overstuffed kitchen – but it’s not properly plumbed in, all four of the microwaves don’t work properly and you couldn’t actually cook anything in there. No, this room has been created solely to record the sounds of a kitchen. Water running, microwaves “ping”-ing, cupboard doors slamming – it’s all here, but just for show and tell.

And then there’s the prop room. Want the sound of someone handling keys? This dusty, slightly mildewed row of metal shelving units has multiple variations of keyring. Need someone mounting a horse? There’s a special saddle.

Tiny bells, old rotary dial telephones, boxes of cereal, digital cameras, mobile phones – there’s an endless supply of stuff here, catalogued erratically for the Foley artists to pick up and use at a moments’ notice. And with these tools, they can take the listener anywhere, much more easily than any TV show having to tell a similar story.

“Someone said once you can go anywhere on radio,” Penhaligon said. “It’s a place of magic, in a way.”

“It’s a wonderful medium,” agreed co-star Simon Callow.

Sometimes, though, creating sound effects is a little more challenging than dangling some keys near a microphone, with Foley artists using all sorts of weird and wonderful objects to create unusual or otherwise tricky effects – and sometimes, they even work better than the real thing.

“It’s amazing, all that stuff – like trampling on magnetic tape for [the sound of] foliage,” The Dead Room’s writer and director Mark Gatiss told us.

“It all still works – in fact it’s better! Coconuts are better than real horses’ hooves, that’s the weird thing.”

Long-running BBC radio soap opera the Archers is famous for the use of such techniques, with its animal and farm-based storylines proving particularly tricky to dramatise without some very clever audio trickery.

“Giving birth to lambs is rather a messy, squelchy business,” Archers sound engineer Andy Partington revealed at the Radio Times festival in 2016.

“So the poor spot effects person will be in the studio in their dirtiest clothes with a very wet towel on their shoulder. And they’ll have an industrial quantity of yoghurt…”

Essentially, the unlucky birther has to squeeze yoghurt through gloved hands, before dropping the wet towel onto more electrical tape to simulate the newborn falling into the straw. Lovely.

Other old Archers tricks include sticking a wet thumb into an old wine bottle to get the distinctive “pop” of it being uncorked, flapping a pillowcase around the simulate the sound of falcon’s wings and squeezing a latex glove full of cornflower for the sound of crunching snow.

(At this stage, you do have to wonder how many different things they tried before they found what worked best, and how many goes it took before they landed on “latex glove full of cornflour = snow.”)

All together, the Foley work of expert sound engineers, whether they’re working on film, TV or radio performs an essential, immersive service for audiences – and none of it would be possible were it not for one specially sound-proofed room where an awful lot of the sound effects end up being recorded.

You may have heard the room’s name once or twice before, because it is in fact the Dead Room.

The Dead Room

“It’s the heavily insulated room in which you can’t hear anything,” Gatiss explained to us. “It’s an amazing title for a ghost story!”

“You don’t get all the echo that you get off the walls or the ceiling of a normal room,” Partington said.

“You can have an actor standing on one side of it and another actor just a few metres away and if you yelled at the top of your voice, I would just about be able to hear you – it’s that good at soaking up the sound – and that’s what enables us to get the sense of real distance outside [on The Archers].

In other words, the real-life Dead Room is a place where no-one could hear you scream, even if they weren’t already too busy making audio magic with yoghurt and old gloves to notice you.

If anything, it’s hard to believe no-one thought of it for a horror setting earlier…

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The Dead Room airs on BBC4 on Christmas Eve (Monday 24th December) at 10.00pm