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Career Overview: A Foley Artist performs custom-made sound effects, props and footsteps for film and television. They differ from Sound Editors who take pre-recorded sounds and make them fit the picture.
Average Annual Salary: $105,000
General Salary Range: $60,000 to $180,000+
Become a Foley Artist
Emmy Award-winning Foley Artist Gregg Barbanell explains why foley is performed: “There are two basic reasons for foley. One, even if it’s recorded well on the day, we’re going to do it again because, that way, they’re going to have every single sound isolated and they can control it in the final mix. The sounds recorded on set are all on one track and it’s focused on the dialogue. In that process, you might hear the feet and the props, etc., but it’s not in the proper perspective and it’s married to the dialogue so there’s no control over levels. Once you perform foley, if leaves are rustling too loudly, we can lower it because foley now has the leaves on their own track.”
The second reason for foley is to provide what is called an “M&E” (a Music and Effects track). This is for foreign-language versions of the film or show. Barbanell breaks this down for us: “The final mix contains three tracks: a dialogue track, a music track, and a sound effects track. Part of how a show or film makes its money is by marketing the piece all around the world — they have to make foreign language versions. For those markets, they deliver the mix, drop the dialogue track and send the M&E track only to the various countries. Then, say in Germany, they will record the German dialogue and add it to the M&E.” In essence, the second reason for Foley is that even if something is extremely well recorded on the production track, if it’s on top of English dialogue, it has to be replaced because once you take out that dialogue track from the final mix, all the other sounds will be gone. Barbanell sums this up: “For the domestic version, foley allows complete control over every sound. For the foreign version, Foley offers a full M&E track over which they can add their new dialogue.”
Under supervision from the Sound Supervisor or Sound Designer, Foley Artists work in teams of three: two Foley Artists and one Mixer. It’s a tight, collaborative effort. Barbanell explains that the Mixer needs to clearly understand the goals and manipulate microphone placements to ensure they’re solving all the sound issues and perspectives. The Foley Artists are the ones physically out on the stage creating what is needed and performing the sounds. Barbanell paints a picture of their incredible work environment, explaining that Foley is done on a dedicated, specialized foley stage: “It’s a recording studio but it’s different from your typical music or V/O studio because built into the floor are all types of different surfaces: cement, gravel, dirt, different types of wood such as boardwalk, solid wood, high-end wood floors, old farmhouse floors, you name it. We have linoleum, smooth concrete, blacktop, street asphalt and rougher stuff.”
Barbanell describes the three basic things that Foley Artists record: “Number one: feet. We see what a character is wearing, what surface they’re walking on and we have to get a shoe that is going to sound right and perform the steps in such a way that it works for their weight and their speed. We also have to inject the character — are they scared, are they tentative, are they old, are they confident, angry…all these matter when we perform the feet. It’s a combination of shoe, surface, performance and mic placement so it all blends with the production track. Our job is to deliver a seamless recording that sounds like it was supposed to be there. People shouldn’t ‘hear’ foley.”
Getting the sound of the feet right is an art form unto itself, and the nuances are endless: “We have slight Foley Artists and heavy-set Foley Artists so really it’s an art that revolves around pressure. We have to get the right ‘character’ into the feet; you want to either hit hard or hit medium or hit soft. A good Foley Artist will be able to perform anyone very successfully.” It turns out that all Foley Artists have huge collections of shoes — Barbanell’s shoe bag weighs over 100 lb! “Of course, it doesn’t matter what they look like, it’s all about what they sound like. I may have a woman’s heel that isn’t a woman’s heel at all, it’s a man’s shoe that happens to sound like a stiletto. And I do also have women’s shoes. Does it work, does it fit, do we buy the sound? — those are the tests.”
The next major aspect of the Foley process is the props. Barbanell allows us a glimpse inside his world: “In the foley stage is a collection of thousands of items that we surround ourselves with. Piles of metal and plastic and wood and every imaginable prop that might come up. Within reach, we have full kitchen sets, cooking utensils, books, paper, glassware, binders, anything that might appear in a film.” Of course, making the sound of props is not as simple as it first appears: “Some sounds are simple enough: putting down a pencil, writing on a piece of paper, setting a coffee cup on a table. These are items where you can actually use the prop you are mimicking. But there are far more complex things, sounds that are not everyday. That’s where we need to get creative and solve a problem. The process is really simple: one, what should that sound like? Two, how do I make the sound I want? Then we actually have to try it out, poke around and experiment a little bit.”
Barbanell describes the process for the more challenging sounds in a movie or TV show: “For complex sounds like someone driving a car into a building, something we do a lot is ‘layering’ — we’ll make a sound or an element, say a metallic element, then add more of an organic part. Then we’ll add specific taps and we play them all together and it makes that one sound you were looking for. We can spend hours layering different elements for a car smashing into a building: the wood, the glass, things falling on top of the car, things hitting cement. Then there are science fiction and horror sounds where you’re creating things that don’t really exist. That’s where things get complicated and interesting and fun because you’re coming up with things that will compound the emotion, making sounds that you never hear.”
Foley is performed live to picture so Foley Artists can’t start duplicating sounds from a bank. Taking pre-recorded sounds and editing them to make them fit is the job of a Sound Editor. Barbanell elaborates, saying that Foley Artists are super-precise: “There are many ways to put a coffee cup down — it might be rim, then base, or it might slide a little or the character might be angry or it might be set down very quietly. That’s why we never use pre-recorded sounds. Our job is to perform it precisely for that scene, with that emotion, with that amount of pressure.”
Barbanell also describes something all Foley Artists do called a “cloth pass”: “We actually do this first, live to picture. Essentially, we sit down with cloth in our lap and we do a complete pass through the whole show of nothing but movement, mimicking the friction of the characters’ clothing. So, if someone reaches their arm out, you’d hear a little cloth movement there. Or, if they’re walking, you’ll hear a rhythmic pants noise. That’s the third subtle aspect of what we do.”
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Barbanell says there is no clear path to becoming a Foley Artist, and his own was a roundabout, organic route: “I was a Sound Editor with my own editorial company in the ‘80s, and we did the complete sound editing package. I ended up getting on the Foley stage and it turned out I had a gift for it and performed all our Foley. When I sold the company, I was trying to figure out my next step and my phone started ringing from my competitors and they asked me to do their Foley. And I did. And I’m still here, still trying to figure out what to do next!”
Ultimately, Barbanell is content with where he is, and he has been a Foley Artist for over 38 years. Once you become a Foley Artist, as long as you are happy doing it, you are set. As Barbanell reminds us, “I have a job and I wake up very happy to be doing it.”
Education & Training
Barbanell laments that Foley isn’t taught specifically at film schools. However, “There are some schools that have dedicated Foley stages. I teach masterclasses at the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University; their Foley stage is professional quality, it’s remarkable. They offer a Foley class and you can learn to do your own Foley on the stage. There are other schools with facilities but, in the majority of cases, the stages are horribly low-tech.”
In terms of building an education specific for Foley, it’s all about finding a way to get hands-on experience. Given the relatively few well-put together facilities, the best way is to shadow a working Foley Artist and find your way in through that entry-level. The Foley Department really still operates in an old-school way, as Barbanell explains: “Foley is the last of the low-tech arts in filmmaking. We’re still doing things the same way the radio sound effect artists were doing it in the ‘30s and ‘40s.”
Experience & Skills
Barbanell has a practical idea for anyone considering becoming a Foley Artist: “If you think you might be good at it, switch on your TV at home and turn the sound off. Put on a pair of firm shoes and stand on a wood or tile floor (not carpet). Then, you literally stand there and as people are walking around, see if you can match their steps. Props are a little easier, but what really separates the cream from the milk is footsteps. If you find that you can synch footsteps perfectly, stop when they stop, catch that weird hitch in their walk, most people can’t do that and that’s a brilliant start. Then you have to layer in the subtleties, the softness, the emotion, the ability to stop and shuffle and get that twist of the foot and knowing that when you start to walk your pressure starts slowly and then as you gain speed, you start to hit a little bit harder…these are all things that you learn over time. If you want to see if you’ve got what it takes, experiment with the television.” Barbanell likens Foley Artists to musicians: “Sure, anyone can learn to play, but that doesn’t mean you’re great. It’s something inherent, built in, and it’ll take years to find out.”
Barbanell sees all different types of people in the Foley world, but beyond a firm work ethic, there is one element that is vital for anyone looking to make a success of the career: “It’s a team effort. You want to be open to suggestions and collaborations so when someone asks you to try something a different way, you have to be ready for that. You need to be collaborative in that way.”
Barbanell has seen the time constraints and working days shift enormously over the past decade: “We’re now asked to do an awful lot in very little time — the number one challenge is the clock. We have to make a lot of decisions — do we have time to do this prop or these background feet? If we can get overtime approval, then we will, but if we can’t, we have to do the best we can with the time we have. Time management is such an important part of what we do. Being creative takes time — you have to try this, try that — and it’s time-consuming. Some shows give you lots of time. I did all of Breaking Bad and they gave us a tremendous amount of time, two and half days on average per episode, and you can tell. Everything is precision done and they used all of our Foley. But that’s a luxury.”
Barbanell is currently at Universal working on shows such as SVU, Chicago Med and Chicago PD where they have very tight deadlines: “We basically have 8 hours to do everything. So you just can’t compare the shows because we had three times more time on Breaking Bad.” In features, he says, it varies greatly: “We used to have twenty days to do a film. These days you’re lucky if you get ten. Obviously, bigger A pictures give you more time, but the majority have a rapid turnaround.”
Saying all this, Barbanell finds television satisfying because you have to be good and fast all at the same time. “I don’t buy the traditional feature/television hierarchy that some Foley Artists subscribe to. It’s a fallacy that you have to be doing feature films to be considered a quality Foley Artist.”
Barbanell reminds us that Foley is a physical job: “You’re standing all day, pushing car doors around, lifting heavy metal, getting up and down off the floor. And when you’re rolling, every muscle is fired and ready to react. Eight hours of that is enough! On top of that, there are no Assistants to clear up our mess — I wish we had them! It’s just two Foley Artists smashing glasses, concrete, everything, so there’s a ton of mess.”
To rest, Barbanell has one secret: “I sleep to maintain work/life balance!”
With regards to finding employment, Barbanell recommends contacting Foley Artists to say that you just want to observe them at work. One way of finding their details is by taking out a subscription to IMDB Pro. Barbanell suggests asking, “Would you let me stop by and spend an afternoon just watching you at work? Tell them you won’t get in the way, and then it’s up to you to ingratiate yourself to the people and, hopefully, come back and do it again. If they like you, they might invite you to come back in and try cueing a session (cueing is when you make a list of the Foley sounds that are needed in a ProTools session).”
“There are hundreds of Foley Artists in town these days”, says Barbanell, “and there’s only so much work so it gets competitive. Really, it’s a highly specialist art form, especially as shows and features are beginning to digitize Foley. It sounds like crap, it’s very robotic, but it does happen. The human element that Foley brings is beautiful and necessary.”
So how has Barbanell made such a resounding success of his Foley career? “I’m lucky having worked pretty much non-stop for forty years. I have around 565 credits on IMDB — it’s insane. I look at that and think, ‘How the hell did I do all of this?’ Well, I never say no, and that’s my reputation. I do independent projects all the time; I squeeze them in. I’m happy working on projects of all sizes and I get called all the time to do smaller things.” That kind of approach will stand anyone in good stead as they break into the industry.
The most up-to-date wage and salary scales are freely available at the Editors’ Guild website. The average weekly salary is just over $2,500, or the hourly rate is just over $50. Barbanell says, “Foley Artists are independent so you have to negotiate your fee on each job. The union does guarantee minimums, but unless you’re working regularly, it’s a hard road — you have to be ready to go down that path.”
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Foley Artists are part of the Motion Picture Editor’s Guild, the IATSE Local 700. Barbanell advises that “You have to have a union gig in order to join the union and then you have to report around 400 hours bi-annually to keep your health benefits. It’s a tough one if you’re not working regularly, but the healthcare is excellent if you’re managing to clock the hours.”
- Contact working Foley Artists to see if you can come in and observe them (quietly!) at work. That hands-on experience is the only way to learn.
- Attempt to match the effects you’d see and hear on TV by turning the volume down and trying it out at home.
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Turn on the television, mute the volume, put on some firm shoes and practice synching your footsteps to the picture. If you can do that after a few tries, you might have something.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Younger people come in and dramatically undercut their rate to get the gig. That really upsets people and it undervalues you. Find out what people are getting and ask for the same thing. Sure, drop it by twenty bucks, but don’t do anything silly by cutting it in half. That gets everyone in hot water.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“Is this for me? You have to ask yourself that question. But if it is, if you love it, jump right in!”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Tenacity. Just keep plugging away. I wouldn’t sit idly — poke around and find out what people have got coming up.”
Gregg Barbanell gained a BFA in Film from the California Institute of the Arts, then went on to own and run Mag City Inc. between 1979 and 1986, a major post production sound company.
Barbanell has won an Emmy Award and has been Emmy-nominated 10 times. On top of that, he has 8 Golden Reel Award wins and 29 nominations to his name. His decades-long career has garnered him an unprecedented 564 credits on IMDb.