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Obscure Careers: Foley Artist

When audiences watch a movie, they are often so caught up in the dialogue or action that they do not notice the creaking of a door or the clank of a cup against its saucer. That is by design, or else the audience might notice that that creaking sound actually came from a rusting swivel chair in a studio somewhere. It is also the mark of a skilled Foley artist, a rather obscure-seeming occupation that could probably be filed under "unusual careers."

Music Production

Foley artists get their name from Jack Foley, a celebrated sound editor who actually launched his career during the silent film era but continued working during the transition to the "talkies." Foley was a master at creating background sound effects. The microphones used during filming are made to capture dialogue only; all the other sounds that bring an unsung realism to the film are created and edited in later. Foley artists working in this computer-driven age capture and edit sound much differently than Jack Foley did, but to the same end. Yes, they must be able to use a variety of technical equipment but must also produce audio that fits the mood and purpose of a film. Foley artists understand that the footsteps of a character who just landed a great new job sound much different from the one who lost it the week before.

Behind the scenes: What Foley artists really do

According to the Moving Picture Experts Group, Foley artists usually work at a special sound studio or on a stage called a Foley stage. Their low-sound directional microphones are designed to pick up the slightest hint of sound, which means on a Foley stage, silence is king. New York-based Foley artist Leslie Bloom told the Motion Picture Editors Guild that just breathing or a rumbling stomach can ruin a take entirely, so artists must be able to shut everything out except for the sound they intend to capture. After capturing the sound, they use synthesizing boards and special editing software to adjust and finalize the clip, which, upon approval from the film's director or lead editor, is mastered into a film's soundtrack.

Outside of their sound equipment, Foley artists need props to create sound effects, and this is where things can get especially interesting. When an artist is asked to deliver sound for, say, a kissing scene, they do not simply record the sound of two people kissing. According to the MPEG, artists usually create such sound effects by kissing the backs of their hands, preferably without an audience. Other sounds are produced using unexpected props, such as gloves for the flapping of birds' wings. Knowing how to manipulate props to create specific sounds is a skill that requires experience and a true understanding of audio production, not to mention a heaping dose of creativity. Perhaps this is why these professionals are called artists rather than Foley editors. It is also why Sound Works Collection suggests that a Foley artist's studio may look more like a garage sale or attic than a functional work space.

Pre- and postproduction: Foley artist career, training trends

Being a Foley artist is a creative career, but it can also be demanding. According to the BLS, these professionals spend a great deal of time on their feet, often running back and forth between props and computer equipment. Hours can be long and irregular, especially in the beginning when artists are establishing their expertise: They spend an average of 10 to 15 days on a feature-length film, and about a day per hour of TV production. Yet despite the profession's challenges, this unique sect of sound editors has the opportunity to flex its creative muscles and watch the fruits of its labors on the big screen, which can make it a uniquely fulfilling career. Of course, Foley artists must first master their crafts.

The MPEG reports that there are a number of ways Foley artists enter the field. Some study multimedia, broadcast journalism, directing or even acting in a formal school, while others learn almost exclusively on the job or are at least partially self-taught. In either case, Foley artists usually begin their careers working under a mentor and continue to work in pairs through much of their careers. While continuing education is not typically required, working Foley artists may benefit from taking courses now and again that keep them up to speed with the latest technologies affecting their craft, including equipment or software.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track typical earnings or make career projections for Foley artists but reported in 2011 that those represented by the Motion Picture Editors Guild earn a guaranteed wage of up to $2,000 per week, $340 per day or $42 per hour. The report notes that other data point to a typical wage of $400 to $450 per day for established union artists, and $200 a day for inexperienced or non-union artists. As with many careers, training and experience can go a long way toward improving one's career and earnings potential.

Becoming and being a Foley artist may sound like a weird job, but the career fulfillment these artists often receive from their work, in addition to being well-paid for their efforts, can make it an occupation worth looking into.

Sources:

Motion Pictures Editor Guild
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Sound Work Collection

 
Aimee Hosler is a writer and mother of two living in Virginia. She specializes in a number of topics, but is particularly passionate about education and workplace news and trends. She hold a B.S. in Journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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