Creating the Perfect Sound Effect
by Jon Tewksbury
Clip, clop, clip, clop, clip, clop. Can you hear it? The sound of a stately horse trotting through the drunk-filled streets of 19th century London, England.
It’s not easy being a “foley artist”–an audio engineer who creates believable audio effects to compliment the on-screen action of a film or television programme. It takes a lot of skill and intuition to exactly match anything and everything in a movie, from a wild horse meandering through a meadow, to a thoroughbred galloping down a racetrack. Now, after years of experience as a foley artist, I have perfected the art of sound effect creation and wish to share my techniques with you. Luckily, there are really only a handful of things you need to create a majestic audio soundscape–a good microphone, a quiet room, and two coconut halves.
The world of foley art is a beautiful but harsh reality where audio magic is limited only by time and budget. Working with a director who is trying to achieve a particular vision for their film can make for many long nights for the foley artist and can force one to come up with some inventive techniques. On one film, I actually spent two weeks creating an amazingly complex series of sound effects, however the director chose to go with someone else for the foley work as he did not share my coconut-based sound effect vision for his gritty political thriller. Still, I am quite proud of what I was able to achieve in that climactic courtroom scene.
When starting out, people often shout, I don’t have a coconut, can I still make movie sound effects?! Hold on. First of all, you can’t simply “jump in” and start “making sound effects” without years of training and career-building in the cinematic arts. Okay? As for creating sound effects (or SFX, as we say in the industry) that’s definitely something you can experiment with at home, with or without coconuts. Do you have a couple of small wooden bowls or a dried honeydew melon? The audio fidelity won’t be as good, but it will do in a pinch. If possible, it is always best to get your hands on a pair of professional sound effect coconut halves (available on my website). You’ll want to make sure that you grip the coconut halves firmly, as you don’t want them to flop around in your hands, creating a “retarded horse” effect. Here’s a tip: For a rain-soaked cobblestone street, try dabbing a small amount of mayonnaise onto the coconut edges. It makes for a messier foley recording session, but you’ll really be able to hear the creamy moistness on playback.
For studio foley artists, there are a number of techniques we utilize to garner a large range of hoof sounds from coconut. For beginners, I recommend the “open tap” method (see demonstration video on my website) which produces sharp, realistic sounding equestrian audio. This method is a less complex motion to grasp, and it’s a great way to start out before moving onto more advanced sound creation techniques, like “fast horse” or “horse fall.”
Remember that powerful scene in Seabiscuits where the horse, I can’t remember his name, jumps over that thing and everyone cheers? Try watching it again with the sound effects option turned off on your dvd player. Not as powerful, is it? Now, turn off your TV and watch it again with only the sound effects turned on. The scene visualizes in your mind and becomes powerful without even watching it, doesn’t it? Now, once more, turn the TV on, turn the movie audio off, and turn the “color” setting all the way down so that the movie is in black and white. See? That’s what movies used to look like. Okay, now put the TV back to normal. Or not.
Now you know how to create the perfect sound effect for any situation. I wish you luck and success in your filmmaking endeavors.
Note: Jon Tewksbury is an audio “engineer” who has never worked professionally and is not associated with the Motion Picture Sound Editors or any industry union or guild. As of the printing of this article his website is no longer available.