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No. 3009:

by Andrew Boyd

Today, sound thinking. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Modern film-making is a decidedly high-tech venture. But when it comes to sound, sometimes the answer's so low-tech we can only smile.

Movie directors will tell you there's one overriding factor when it comes to sound: hearing the dialogue. So microphones are placed with dialogue in mind. As a result, many sounds get lost in the background, like the closing of a door. Sometimes our ears want a sound louder than it really is. Car crashes and squeaky iron gates fall in this category. And sometimes we want to hear sounds that really aren't there. Did you ever actually hear an arrow make a loud whoosh?

[whooshing sound]

The people entrusted with creating such sounds are known as Foley artists. Some sounds are easy to make. If you want the sound of a breaking glass, break one. But if you want the sound of a medieval knight riding through the forest, what do you do?

Foley artists take their name from Jack Foley, who worked at Universal Studios when talkies were replacing silent films. Foley found he had a knack for noise. One of his specialties was footsteps, and Foley artists are sometimes called Foley walkers. Synchronized footsteps remain a staple of the trade, but the skills go far beyond walking.

If you entered a Foley artist's studio you'd probably be surprised. On one side of a glass wall you'd find a modern audio mixing console. On the other, who knows? Broken file cabinets (they're good for crashing metal sounds). Gravel (it's used for footsteps). Hot water bottles (rubbing them against a tabletop proves perfect for the screech of skidding brakes).

[skidding brake sound]

A hot water bottle used to replicate the sound of skidding brakes. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

That's one of the secrets of the trade. You don't need skidding brakes to make the sound of skidding brakes. A lot of creativity is tied up in finding how to successfully imitate hard to create sounds.

Food has proven a natural for horror films. Squished fruit makes wonderful gooey sounds for all sorts of alien monsters. A cracked rib of celery is popular for the sound of a breaking bone. Cracking hollow, uncooked pasta in your mouth yields a more muffled bone break.

When Alfred Hitchcock filmed Psycho, he needed the sound of a knife repeatedly stabbing the movie's heroine. In an effort to get the desired effect, Hitchcock called for a watermelon. But knowing Hitchcock's fussiness, the man sent to buy the watermelon returned with an assortment of melons. Eyes closed, Hitchcock listened as knives were thrust deep into the helpless fruit. "Casaba" he pronounced when the audition was through. And to this day, Casaba melons remain a popular choice for stabbing.

Casaba melons and cantoloupes, popular choices for stabbing. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Like magicians, each Foley artist has his or her own set of tricks. Some tricks are well known. Others are unique to the artist. But whoever the artist, Foley is used everywhere. Next time you go to a film, listen carefully and see what you can hear.

[footsteps in snow]

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

C. Lehmann-Haupt. "Books of The Times; 'Casaba,' He Intoned, and a Nightmare Was Born." New York Times. May 7, 1990. See also: Accessed May 21, 2015.

This episode was first aired on May 28, 2015