Day 902: The Guy Who Made Movies Sound So Damn Good

originally published June 20, 2014

If I were to venture west (okay, mostly south and just a little west) to stake my claim on a Hollywood career, I might end up as Channing Tatum’s body-double (or, more likely, Danny DeVito’s), or if I’m lucky, as Steven Spielberg’s on-set beard-groomer. Either way, I’d be looking at professions that have existed for decades – hardly anything original.

But when Jack Foley moved west to Los Angeles, he couldn’t have possibly foreseen the mark he’d have on the industry, especially since the industry as we know it didn’t technically exist yet. There were movies being made, but none containing the element for which Jack would come to be known: sound.

I think most people are aware by now of the existence of Foley artists – those inventive folks who stomp in gravel pits and slap cuts of steak in real-time in order to sprinkle our movies with legit-sounding effects. This sounds like a job that should be streaked with sepia, a faded relic from a time when Mothra destroyed model cities and spaceships still sported a thin line of fishing wire as they cruised through the stars. But despite the omnipresence of meddling computers, these guys still exist. And they still function behind the scenes as some of the most inventive and unheralded geniuses in the movie game.

And it’s all because of this guy:

Jack grew up in Yorkville, New York, attending public school with James Cagney and Arthur Murray. He moved to California with his wife for the same reason most people did – the weather. He hooked up with the movie business for the same reason so many Californians did – it was the most exciting thing going at the time. Well, that and necessity. When the farmers of Bishop, California sold their farms to the City of Los Angeles for water rights, Jack helped to save his local economy by promoting the area as a sweet location for shooting westerns. Jack had his first film career: a location scout.

Just like that, he was in. He directed a few silent films, sold a few more to the major studios, and picked up some extra scratch by shooting insert shots. An insert shot is a close-up that gets plopped into the middle of a scene, like a hand picking up a matchbook, or a book on the shelf that a character suddenly sees. These are often shot separately because paying top-tier directors and actors to spend a few hours on the perfect hand-shot is a waste of studio money.

Then one day, the industry changed with a thud so loud even the eventual advent of color wouldn’t compare. The movie was called The Jazz Singer, and with it Warner Brothers ushered in the era of sound. Immediately, every other studio went into a panic. No one wanted to be the last schmuck on the block spewing out silent flicks while everyone else was yapping and singing and punching one another with a satisfying thwack. Universal had been working on an adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel Show Boat, which was currently one of Broadway’s biggest hits. Before the film could get released, they decided to “fix” it.

About 30 minutes of the film was re-shot with dialogue and singing. Except the songs were not taken from the musical hit – something which Universal execs suddenly realized might piss off a portion of their audience. So a prologue was shot, featuring the Broadway cast singing some numbers. Jack was brought in to help out. In Studio 10 on the Universal lot, conductor Joe Cherniavsky led a 40-piece orchestra, while Jack stood off to the side, recording the sound effects and laughter in real time to sync up with the film on the screen.

The art of Foley was born.

Jack was suddenly in tremendous demand. Studios were still figuring out what the hell to do with this sound technology; microphones were tucked into flower boxes or behind furniture until someone figured out how to dangle it from a long pole. If you watch most sound films from the late 1920’s, you’ll notice a dominant sparseness between the actors’ lines and an unnatural absence of ambient sound. Jack was brought in to fix that. He’d record one reel at a time – roughly eleven minutes non-stop.

He kept a sizeable strip of cloth at the ready to simulate the sound of pant-legs rubbing together as someone walked. He used a cane to add depth to his footsteps in order to create the sound of multiple people walking at the same time. Jack would immerse himself in the film – no doubt watching him at work would have been a performance unto itself. For more complex sequences he’d employ the hapless prop guys who would bring him supplies. He’d be creative, but always in service of the art.

When Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus required the distinctive sound of slaves marching in leg-chains, the director was set to redo the sequence just so they could record the effects. Jack took care of it himself, using in-studio footsteps and key chains. When another director needed a specific stair on a staircase to squeak, Jack dropped himself into a rocking chair and eased back just as the actress stepped on her mark. The man came to know every Hollywood actor’s gait, as he’d be the guy reproducing them with a microphone three feet from his shoes.

Noticing Foley work defies its purpose. Realizing that almost every non-human sound you hear in movies or on TV is artificially added after the fact takes away from the magic, so as an audience we collectively let that knowledge go. Jack Foley helped to make that possible, and the Foley artists who have entered that industry since have maintained the illusion of reality. And while computers continue their sweeping takeover of the industry of effects, it’s comforting to know there are still pupils of Foley’s trickery out there, MacGyvering our on-screen worlds to make them more real.

That gruesome bone-break? Probably a frozen head of romaine lettuce being crushed, or maybe a walnut being smashed on a parquet floor. Need to shmush some thumbs into someone’s eyeballs, Mountain-style? Gelatin and hand soap will give you that squishy splurt sound to lay down underneath the requisite screaming. Monty Python fans already know that coconut halves stuffed with padding can recreate the clip-clop of a horse.

And Jack’s innovations stretched beyond the Foley pit. Sci-fi sound designers have employed a similar makeshift creativity in coming up with the ideal sounds to liven up their films. A hammer smacking an antenna guy wire sounds suspiciously like the blasters in Star Wars. Luke’s landspeeder is just the L.A. Harbor Freeway recorded through a vacuum-cleaner pipe. That giant boulder that chases Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark is simply the sound of a car tire advancing slowly along a gravel road.

Jack Foley brought a handyman creativity and a remarkably inventive zeal to sound films. And thankfully, the spirit of his approach is still alive today.

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