The Hidden Art of Sound Design

You might not know what Foley is, but you will have witnessed it. You may have witnessed it today; you will certainly have witnessed it in the last week. The point of Foley is that you shouldn’t notice; it’s a hidden art. It’s only successful if you don’t know of its presence. But, once you start looking for it, it crops up in some surprising places.

Many of the sounds in the last film you watched will have been manipulated in some way. The sounds could have been recorded again, separately after the event, or recorded using another object in a studio acting as a surrogate for the original sound. This process is called sound design.

“When I tell people that I am a Sound Designer they don’t know what that means.” Tom Joyce explains as he sits in front of a mixing desk at Factory Studios, not far from BBC Broadcasting House, London. I had asked Tom to explain sound design to me, and one part of it in particular, Foley.

“When you record a film it isn’t always possible to record sound at the same time. Especially not sound that is good enough quality to be used in the film. There may be people shouting behind the camera, crew members making noise, and obviously this can’t be used in the final film.” If no sound is recorded, or the sound that is recorded isn’t good enough, it needs to be recorded again. This is out-sourced to independent sound design companies like Factory Studios. “Sound designers often have to recreate reality for clarity of sound. When you recreate reality there is flexibility to improve it; there are slight manipulations of reality. The way I think of sound design is making it three-dimensional. But we’re also highlighting more than reality.”

Tom shows me an advert for the RSPB a colleague of his had been working on. He removed the voice over and music leaving only the background sounds. “So we have atmos, these are the environmental sounds; birdsong, wind, sounds you would expect to hear when you are outside. These are real recordings that we keep in our libraries. But we also have the rustle of a hedgehog. This would have been a Foley sound.”

Foley is the process of adding sounds that were not recorded at the same time as the footageor sync-recordedto film, television and radio in post-production. Typically Foley is used on incidental sounds, things like closing doors and footsteps, and will be recorded in a studio. Sometimes, as is the case with footsteps, it’s just a matter of recording the same thing again, but there is also the opportunity to be inventive with Foley.


Image Credit: vancouverfilmschool (via Flickr)

Tom shows me another advert, this time one he had worked on. “This is an animation so obviously there was no original sound. What it means, though, is that we can be more original. For example, the sound we used on this bird we made by scraping two bits of wood together. We just played around until we found something that worked.”

Going back to the RSPB advert: “We add all these things in because you would expect to hear them even though in real life you would never hear any of these sounds clearly. If you saw this hedgehog, in reality it would sound something like this.” Tom turns the rustle sound right down so that it is almost inaudible over the birdsong. “We’re highlighting more than reality. When it all comes together it makes sense. In combination you can’t tell that there are so many things going on, but without them, people would notice the absence. If people notice what you have done, that’s a bad thing, but if you do it right, people don’t know.”

Foley originated in feature film making, and has been used as long as sound has been played in film. Sync-recording was only widely developed in the 1960s, so before this all sound would have been added in post-production, including dialogue. But although it’s a technique most frequently associated with cinema, it’s used extensively in radio and TV, in everything from 30-second adverts to 90-minute documentaries. It makes sense for sound to be manipulated in this way. If you think of science-fiction soundsspace ships, lasers, aliensthese things don’t exist in real life, so a sound has to be manufactured for them. And as a rule of thumb, the spacier the sound; the more simple the source. The sound of the sliding doors in Star Trek, for example, was created by sliding a piece of A4 paper out of a paper envelope.

But Foley isn’t restricted to the world of science-fiction. Wildlife documentaries use techniques that are more at home in Hollywood. Why? Because to make something as cinematic as a major BBC wildlife documentary you have to treat it as a feature film. Manipulations of footage in wildlife documentaries have made the headlines in recent years. I want to see how far this manipulation goes, whether anything in the documentaries we watch is really reality, and whether manipulations of the minutiae are a deception worth making. But that’s for another time.


Having established that much of the sounds we hear in television and film are manipulated in post-production, I wanted to see how far this practice is used in wildlife documentary. Chris Watson, with many years experience as a sound recordist for TV and radio, specializing in natural history programmes, was the perfect person to give me some insight. “Traditionally the method has been to sort out the sound in post-production. Sometimes that’s by commissioning location recordings—not often—sometimes it’s by Foley work which is the artificial reproduction of sounds to go with an image. Normally they have always been sounds that people thought were impossible to achieve such as extreme close-ups, sounds at a nest or the movement of animals or very small, quiet calls, which is of course exactly what I am interested in recording. They’ve simply been overlooked and it’s simply for ease of production.” “Interestingly, the people like David Attenborough went straight out and started recording on location in the 1950s. So that’s why I’ve got the greatest respect for him, because he saw straight away in wildlife filmmaking what you needed to bring to the audience wasn’t just moving images of the behaviour of the animals and the habitat, but the sound of those places, because that’s the thing, like in a piece of music, that captivates an audience.” If you take a close look at exactly what you can hear in a wildlife documentary you will notice some consistent characteristics. There are actually very few natural sounds and sounds of the environment. In the example below (Africa, episode 4, 2013) there are passages that are silent, with only occasional incidental sounds. The use of classical music is widespread in most forms of wildlife documentary, so much so that it’s hard to think of an example of a series without it. For Chris, the ubiquity of music is a sign only of laziness.

“It’s easy filler; you put a CD on basically. If you’ve got a lot of money you commission a composer or orchestra. It’s basically like leading people by the nose and feeding people how to feel at certain moments. Wildlife films are image-led so the sound, like in many films on television, is a bit of an afterthought. So it’s stuck on afterwards with not much enthusiasm, sometimes with not much imagination or even skill. A lot of producers have very little aspiration for what they can do with the soundtrack because they are too concerned with the images. They’re just concerned with having a sound to fill the gap.” “It’s not cheating, it’s filmmaking. It’s an illusion and with natural history and with particularly BBC natural history, it’s so good that people will suspend their disbelief to the point where they actually believe what they are seeing is a view of reality.”

But of course, you have to manipulate footage for it to fit the medium. Images have to be edited to create sequences that fit with the narrative. First and foremost, wildlife documentaries are films, and follow filmic conventions. “At the very least time is compressed. You cram in the lifecycle of an elephant or a mosquito into 48 minutes. It entertains, it informs, but it is not reality. And I think that is the difficulty particularly with organisations such as BBC Natural History is that they are so good at it but when people realise that they have actually been watching a film that’s been constructed—they’ve not been cheated—but they are naturally outraged because they imagine what we see and hear all the time is happening in front of us.”

In The Life of Birds, an Attenborough series Chris worked on in the 1990s, the producer Peter Bassett wanted to ensure that in a particular sequence of close-up shots of birds singing the footage was as accurate as possible. He asked Chris to sync-record the sound to the footage and when he did so he noticed it didn’t quite look how he expected. “A bird’s sound production mechanism—its syrinx—comes from in its chest. What birds do is they open their beak and then the sounds come out. The way that we are communicating now, our lips have a synchronous relationship with the sound, it’s actually not the same with birds because they open their mouths and then the sound comes from within. They don’t have lips they don’t form the sound with the exterior part of their body like we do, so in actual fact when you film and record birds synchronously singing it actually looks wrong. It looks like the sound is delayed. In some cases you have to slip the synch otherwise the audience will say ‘clearly that’s not right because I can see the bird open its mouth and there’s no sound.’ InThe Life of Birds we kept it as the original. The one thing people would learn from that, even though it wasn’t explained is that it might not look right, but it is right.” So even when producers and sound recordists go to great lengths to ensure accuracy in their films, the product may in fact look misleading. In The Life of Birds they ensured the footage was accurate, even if it didn’t look right, but Chris told me in other series they would slip the sound out of sync to meet the audience’s expectation. This is an example where accuracy ultimately led a deception, even if it had honest intentions. So what is the point in aiming for accuracy? Is it enough to imitate, to maintain the illusion, if public expectation dictates how the film will look anyway? In the final part of The Hidden Art of Sound Design I will look at whether science needs to be truthful or if being deceived matters at all.


Image Credit: Chris Watson


“If in doubt; everything is fake. In the world of sound design, everything is up for grabs.” Matt Wilcock, Co-owner of Zelig Sounds, a London-based sound design company, tells me over a coffee in Pret. Our quick chat had turned into a 2-hour dissection of where the line between fiction and fact lies, and whether it matters.

In a new series on the BBC, Hidden Kingdoms, dramatic narratives of the lives of small animals are manufactured using techniques we would normally associate with Hollywood blockbusters. This programme traverses the boundary between fact and fiction. Blue-screens, composites and constructed sets helped to capture the behaviour of the animals. The effect is a highly stylised, cartoony portrait of the animals. It’s a long way off the blue-chip series that have come to define the genre, but it’s an intentional divergence.

“It’s not about the literal capturing of the scenes, that’s not the importance of the show per se,” Wendy Darke, Head of BBC’s Natural History Unit, told BBC Radio 4′s The Media Show. “It’s about inviting the audience into those animal character worlds.” The intention isn’t to compete with blue-chip documentaries for the same audience. “Hidden Kingdoms is at the other end of the spectrum of what we do in natural history programme making.”

In Hidden Kingdoms a decision was made to use sounds that were unnatural to highlight the constructed, caricaturised style of the show. Lizards start running at the sound of a gunshot, camera zooms are accompanied by swooshing; it’s an intentional effect and one that should be fairly clear is not an attempt to deceive.

The programme relies on tropes familiar to us from fiction films. In one scene, an owl opens its eyes accompanied by the metallic shzingof a sword being unsheathed. This is in itself a lie because when a sword is unsheathed it doesn’t make a sound. There is no metal lining the sheath, otherwise whenever you removed your sword it would go blunt. But the audience expects to hear this sound in films. It is a trope so ubiquitous it would look wrong not to include it. So in the example of the owl, the sound played over it opening its eyes is a made-up sound based on another made-up sound.

“The BBC and Mike Gunton [the Executive producer of Hidden Kingdoms] have very high ethical standards, but this… is all about maintaining viewers trust in the BBC.” Added Chris Palmer on The Media Show. Having worked for many years as a natural history filmmaker in the US, Chris has written extensively on the behind-the-scenes of wildlife filmmaking.

“My own view is that the BBC should have included an on-screen disclaimer up-front stating something like ‘many of the animals in Hidden Kingdoms were captured and controlled and the natural history is dramatised’, because […] without such a disclaimer the average viewer will likely imagine that the whole film is natural, authentic and genuine and when they find out that it isn’t their trust in the BBC will be diminished.”


Image Credit: Chris Watson

But is this discrediting the intelligence of the viewer? In a programme that is so obviously stylised has anyone been deceived? When we watch films we suspend disbelief, we allow ourselves to become absorbed in the world in front of us. Because so much of Hidden Kingdoms is constructed, embellishment becomes a small part in a larger aesthetic and any intention to deceive is lost.

“It’s not fiction or factual, it’s some blurry line; it’s an editorial.” Matt concludes before we leave the cafe to head back to his office. “Films are constructed, whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster or a documentary for TV. At some stage an editorial decision is made about what goes in and how the film should look.”

“There’s a voice actor in the states who does voices for cartoons, but who also imitates famous actors. If they need to dub dialogue into a film but are unable to get an actor back in—because it’s too expensive or they’re away on another film—then he does an impression of them and they use that. You might be watching a film with Tom Hanks in, but with someone else’s voice dubbed over. Is it fake? Probably, but this sort of thing happens all the time. That’s sound design.”

The next time you are watching wildlife on TV take a moment to ask yourself if you really believe what you are listening to is truthful. Impossible shots with minute sounds may seem too good to be true. But then ask yourself if it really matters where these sounds come from. If you knew how constructed a Hollywood film was would is diminish your enjoyment of the film? Probably not. Natural history documentary is first and foremost entertainment. It follows the same rules that apply to any feature film. When you sit down to watch a film, sound is just one of the ways in which you are being deceived.

This article first appeared in three parts on Refractive Index (30/1/2014, 20/2/2014, 3/4/2014).

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