Student working on the Foley room of the Vancouver Film School. Image Source: Flickr
While director Stanley Kubrick was filming Spartacus, he went to Europe to record combat scenes. He chose to shoot in Spain, and there, just outside of Madrid, he filmed his armies of Romans marching across the country’s flat, dry plains.
Thousands of Spanish soldiers paraded in Kubrick’s Roman army, but when the sound arrived back in the U.S., it was in such bad condition that it was unusable. With a production price tag already hovering in the tens of millions, going back to Europe and filming it all over again would have been a very expensive remedy.
The solution to Kubrick’s dilemma came from a man named Jack Foley, a New Yorker who had moved to California and worked for Universal Studios. Upon hearing Kubrick consider the idea of reshooting the march, Foley is claimed to have run to his car, fetched a big set of keys and jangled them in front of a microphone to recreate the sound of the army’s metallic armor jostling during a march. It worked — very well, in fact — and the movie was released in 1960.
By the time Foley saved Spartacus, he had already been working with sounds for decades. For Operation Petticoat, a 1959 film, he recorded his own belch and played it backwards to imitate the sound of a submarine. Foley’s innovative work marked the beginning of an art that, when done right, goes unnoticed. It also marked the formal emergence of a new creative cadre: the Foley artists.
Sound artists had existed since the early 20th century, but since the 1960s, Foley artists have worked to recreate two types of sound. First, they add the sound that is not recorded when filming, such as the sound too soft to be heard or that accompanies movies when dubbing. They also create the sound that is not made by anything but that the audience needs for cinematic effect. For instance, Foley artists made the footsteps of E.T. more believable, the moving sounds of R2D2 more entertaining, and the flapping of birdwings in Hitchcock’s classic The Birds more terrifying.