“A Foley studio is a pretty weird place,” says Sandra Fox. Her workspace at Footsteps Studios in Ontario, Canada, is quite austere; she describes it as a “massive soundproof room with 20-foot ceilings and no windows.”
There, she’s busy creating tons of sound effects for the scenes in your favorite movies and TV shows. That includes Vikings, The Handmaid’s Tale, Schitt’s Creek, 42, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Chappie. But more recently, she’s been spending her time on a highly anticipated sci-fi remake that debuted last week: Dune.
Foley artists like Fox specialize in creating and performing sound effects for film and TV shows. Typically, a Foley artist records their sound effects in a studio while watching scenes from the production that they’re working on. That way, the audio effects are in sync with the footage. “I’m the one physically making the sounds in front of the microphone, while a Foley mixer records the sounds, and a Foley recordist fine-tunes with editing,” Fox tells Popular Mechanics.
Working on Dune was no small feat, she explains. The sound effects for the sand, alone, required her team to test out about 15 different materials, from chia seeds to quinoa, to get it just right. And they had to get it right: sand is literally everywhere, and is central to the plot of the film—most of the action takes place on the desert planet Arrakis, and the main conflict hinges on a valuable material, called “spice,” which must be extracted from the sand. Even in the trailer (above), you can hear the sand whooshing from the outset.
“It’s basically every difficult thing about Foley put together. Sand doesn’t really vary much from step to step, no matter how you step, so it’s really hard to express a performance and capture that expression in a recording,” Fox says. “Dune was a pretty monumental project for us. It challenged us to find creative ways to turn Foley’s most inexpressive surface into sounds that convey the dynamic emotion in that story.”
We spoke with Fox about the artistry that Foley work requires, what a career in the field looks like, how you can try your hand at it, and most importantly—what it was like to create the sound effects for Shai-Hulud, the behemoth sandworm in Dune (skip ahead to the 2:40 timestamp in the trailer for a sneak peak).
The Tools of the Trade
Like every skilled craft, Foley requires a few tools to create high-quality recordings. You don’t need a bunch of equipment, Fox says, but the tools that you do need are highly specific to the field.
High-quality microphones top the list. “We generally use the same shotgun mics that are used as boom mics on set,” Fox explains, adding that the Sennheiser MKH 60 seems to be the most common pick.
“Mark Mangini [an award winning sound designer] turned us onto the Sennheiser MKH 8020 when we were working on Dune, and it’s becoming a staple around the studio for capturing pristine detail,” she says. Part of what makes the MKH 8020 so impressive is that it’s an omnidirectional mic with the ability to flawlessly pick up signals from instruments, as well as voices, with incredible depth.
Next is audio-editing software, which is used to tweak and perfect audio files. “Pro Tools is a definite must in audio post-production,” Fox says. “There are a few other contenders for digital audio workstation (DAW) software, but at the end of the day, everything has to be delivered as a Pro Tools session in sync with the picture, so most people just choose to stick with the same software.”
“Most entry-level gear is pretty capable of recording high enough quality sounds for a good Foley track,” Fox explains. “Here at the studio, we use a Zoom H4n [portable recorder] to record from time to time, so whatever you can get your hands on is probably something you can work with.”
The Technical Details
Even with premium tools, it can be difficult to nail some of the most common, gentle sounds, Fox says, “like when people rub their hands together, or someone scratches their head.”
The delicacy required to make these types of sounds means that sometimes a Foley artist will have to hold their breath for an uncomfortably long time to get the sound just right without any additional noise—like breathing (!)—ruining the take.
Fox says another tough sound to perfect is writing on paper, but that the hardest is creating realistic footsteps.
“It takes a long time to learn how to ‘walk in place,’ as it’s called,” Fox shares. “When we perform footsteps for a character on screen, the microphone stays in one spot, so we have to walk in one spot in front of the microphone and make our footsteps sound like they're moving like the characters on screen. It’s actually the Foley Mixer (the recording engineer) who moves the sound around in space as we’re performing.”
According to Fox, this is achieved by balancing the main microphone with other microphones that are mounted throughout the room.
“The rest of the magic depends on our ability to get into character and perform the footsteps as the character on screen. It’s just like acting [but] with shoes,” Fox says, although sometimes a Foley artist will need to go barefoot, too.
Sandwalks, Sandstorms, and Sandworms
If realistic footsteps are tough to perfect, Fox says recreating realistic footsteps in the sand was even more nuanced and took several attempts to get it just right.
“Visually, you can see that whenever a door is opened, sand blows inside, so we incorporated a fine layer of sand in interior spaces as well,” Fox says.
Recall that she and her colleagues tested out 15 different types of materials to see which would most closely resemble the sound of shifting sand. “The top picks we used in the movie were birdseed, rice, quinoa, sesame seeds, and sifted sandbox sand,” Fox says. “But the big winner was chia seeds.”
“[Goro Koyama, another Foley artist] discovered this layered combination of chia seeds and rice that really helped capture the sand’s depth. From there, we could convey varying weight more dynamically by focusing on the textures as feet sunk into the sand, rather than focusing on the impact of the foot hitting the sand. Heavier feet sink deeper, lighter feet stay closer to the surface,” Fox explains.
Fox also says there was some performing incorporated into her recording sessions because it was crucial to act out certain motions to get the sounds just right.
“Performance was an important element, especially for the sandwalk, which is that special way the characters move about the desert without tipping off the sandworm. This goes down in my books as the trickiest sound ever made in Foley. It’s all the stuff I said above about sand, plus the added element of performing sounds for characters who are trying to not make any sound.”
Fox also found a challenge in creating the sounds for the Dune stillsuits.
“They had to be lightweight, yet durable, but not leather, yet organic-sounding. There’s this mechanism inside the suit that’s powered by footsteps,” she explains. “So every time someone wearing one of these suits takes a step, liquid circulates ever so subtly and slightly throughout the suit.”
The nature of Fox’s work, especially on a behemoth of a project like Dune, is typically collaborative. Fox credits Mangini and Koyama, fellow Foley artists, with perfecting the sound effects for the film.
“When it comes to sounds like the sandworm, we focused on the finer details between the big sounds, while [Mangini] designed the sounds of the worm boring underground through the desert. We added details like sand falling off the worm when it rises from underground and the characters shaking in their boots. In silent moments, we made the sound of their thin scarves flapping in the wind and [Mangini] designed the sound of the wind.”
Fox says that the Foley crew took a lot of their inspiration straight from Frank Herbert’s Dune novel.
“Before we started working on the project, Andy Malcom [a Foley artist and Fox’ mentor] noticed that there are a lot of sound descriptions in the original book and he noted passages that we referred to quite a bit as we worked,” she says.
“I’ve also come to really appreciate the dynamics that mixers are working with these days on films like Dune. When the sound ranges from near silence all the way to rattle your bones, it’s a whole different kind of immersion for the audience," Fox says. “It gives us so much space to get into the details and challenge ourselves to create new ways of doing things.”
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Daisy writes for Runner's World, Bicycling, and Popular Mechanics. She received her MA from ESU and loves all things pop culture, dinosaurs, cooking, and reading.