By: Adam Bloodworth
Before I meet Ciaran Smith, Foley engineer at London’s Hackenbacker Studios, I’m sent a warning. “Our work isn’t all glitz and smashing watermelons,” he tells me by email, as if to manage my expectations.
Ciaran’s reference will make sense if you’ve already got an understanding of the film and TV industry – but for those of us that don’t work in the business, it’s likely to be incredibly confusing.
Speaking in broader terms than the odd smashing of a watermelon, Foley is the term for one key part of the sound effects created for post-production for film and TV. It typically describes the process of creating ‘everyday’ sounds to layer into the sound mix. Foley is mixed with the sounds of the actors’ voices, typically recorded on set, and the sounds added by another sound effects team, to create the finished audio product.
Foley is essential because it’s nigh-on impossible to record the sound of real, everyday life when working on a television or film set. So that we can clearly hear the words spoken by the actors, post production studios add the background sounds after the shoot has wrapped.
Footsteps, cans being opened, chairs being sat on, handshakes, clothes being donned and tea cups clinking on saucers are some of the typical sounds created by Foley studios. Then there’s the more sinister side: the punches, the neck-breaks, the body drops and the eye gouges. Sounds like doors slamming and planes taking off are more uniform and easier to digitise, therefore more likely to be created by sound effects designers than in foley studios.
What’s interesting is that in an industry that moves at a breakneck pace thanks to the advancement of digital technology, Foley almost stands still. The methods and techniques used to create the sounds you hear on TV today are made largely using the same items that were used decades ago in a pre-digital time. Such as that watermelon.
“Sometimes you’ll see someone on screen pulling a knife out of someone’s head and we’ll say, ‘Let’s get a really nice melon for that,” says Ciaran, sitting at the mixing desk at the Hackenbacker studio in north London. Through the control room window in the Foley studio, where the Foley artist ‘performs’ the sounds, cupboards and drawers overflow with odds and ends used for the recording process. One stuffed lion toy peers curiously out of its drawer. In another corner, a car door leans against a ragged old armchair. In another, a pile of dozens of every type of shoe you could possibly imagine are piled high.
“You’ve got to do the picture justice,” says Ciaran, gesturing out across at the props. “They look amazing on screen and you have a duty to make sure you’re doing that justice. If there’s a dress dragging along the floor on screen, you want to hear the layers, you want to hear the corset interacting with the bottom of the dress. That texture is a small detail, but in a world of small details, it’s quite crucial.”
One sartorially-minded character Ciaran and his team have recently completed Foley work for is Villanelle (Jodie Comer), the psychotic assassin from Killing Eve. “One of the big things with Killing Eve straight from the off was we wanted to distinguish when Villanelle was being her assassin self: creeping around and being very catlike. Once she’s walking away from having done the deed, there’s this real moment of relief from tension and some sass comes into play.”
Ciaran has a process for achieving Villanelle before and after a kill. “You keep her in soft trainers to give her a presence, but when she walks away you put her in your heels. You walk away like you’re proud of just killing someone. Making sure there’s these two sides… That happened throughout the process.”
“I really enjoyed Villanelle, I got into her very easily,” says Foley artist Paula Boram, who’s also in the room. We all laugh nervously. “I’m not going to go and assassinate anybody, not just yet.”
“I like to actually do what the character is doing, that’s just my way,” she continues. “In scenes where I have to cut food, I have my eye on the screen, I don’t have my eyes on my hand. I wear leather gloves to give me extra protection. If they’re pouring a kettle on screen we boil a kettle, because boiling water sounds different to cold water due to its density. I’ve got my eye on the screen as I’m pouring. You just have to be really careful.”
In order to achieve the height of drama, in this case the height of violence, as seen on screen in shows like Killing Eve, there’s collaboration between Foley and the wider sound effects team. “When the crack [of a neck] happens, it’s not only Foley,” explains Ciaran. “Sound effects will do some bones breaking, and we’ll try and make it sound real and cemented so you’re not just hearing a sound effect – you’re hearing this Foley to help bed in this horrible sound.
It’s typical for Foley artists to precisely recreate what is happening on screen so as to feel as close to the character as possible when recording Foley sound. But surprisingly, it’s not always ideal for sound effects to actually sound realistic. That’s because what we expect to hear isn’t always true to how the actual experience would sound in the real world, explains Ciaran.
“Your brain expects to hear the strands of the eyes coming out in a violence scene, for example, so we use a lot of fruit and veg. It’s not what eyes would actually sound like popping out, but fruit and veg have water in them, texture to them, different forms of texture that mean you can get some really gross sounds of it.”
It’s not all gore and guts. One of the more family-friendly shows on the Hackenbacker portfolio is Downton Abbey, which required a different approach. “A key part of that show is the whole upstairs/downstairs divide,” says Ciaran. “So you want upstairs to be really delicate and posh.” Paula chimes in: “Posh, beautiful, lovely, not too creeky. The downstairs can be a bit more creeky, a bit rougher.” Ciaran agrees. “You want your armchair to sound different to a sofa to sound different to stalls. We have up to ten different types of leather which we twist and contort to achieve the different sounds of characters sitting down.”
It’s all an exercise in discretion. “The gold standard is if they can’t hear Foley on TV, and they don’t know that we’re doing our jobs: then we’ve done our jobs really well. You want them to be so intrigued in the show, you don’t want someone to start thinking about us.”
Foley is so discrete, it’s likely that some of the A-List actors in the shows Hackenbacker produce aren’t aware of the Foley process, which exists tucked away deep in post-production, far away from the set.
Nevertheless, there’s always the temptation to wonder how it would feel to watch an on-screen actor take to the Foley studio to perform their own feet. “It’d be very meta,” admits Ciaran. “Very mind blowing, if I saw an actor doing their own feet…”
Killing Eve debuts new episodes on BBC iPlayer every Monday from 6am, and airs on Sundays at 9pm on BBC One – check out what else is on with our TV Guide