What is a Foley Artist? | The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama

What is a Foley Artist?

Theatre Sound Course Leader Donato Wharton explains Foley sound creation, including what a Foley Artist is, and performing Foley for theatre, film and TV.

Image of foley artist, learning the art of creating foley sound

By Donato Wharton, Course Leader for Theatre Sound at Central.

What is a Foley Artist?

A Foley Artist is someone who makes ‘Foley’. But what is Foley? In film, Foley is used in post-production to create sounds for the most part, of people moving. So footsteps, rustling of clothes – all these sort of close, intimate sounds that need to sync up exactly to the image. Those sounds are not recorded live on set while the image is being shot, but they’re recreated later in the studio by a Foley Artist. They’ll be watching the screen and then choosing the right sort of shoes, and flooring for instance if you’re doing footsteps, and will then literally pick characters in the image and create these sounds in real emulating the movements of the character on screen. 

Foley outside of filmmaking

Foley can also extend to other types of sound, so if you’re watching a nature documentary for instance and you’re wondering how on earth they were able to record the sound of this polar bear pup in the polar bear’s lair, being licked by its mother – well, there wasn’t a microphone there! The sound that you’re hearing was what the Foley Artist in the studio has imagined this would sound like, and has then created this sound using whatever objects and materials they have chosen for this specific task. 

Foley as Performance

It’s a high form of artifice, of imaginative sound creation in real time, and that makes it very performative. If you see Foley Artists making these sounds, it’s like watching a performance, it’s a very physical thing. Doing a fight scene for instance, the Foley Artist might be wearing a rucksack on their front and literally grappling with the rucksack so that it sounds like two people grappling in a room. 

Foley in Theatre

So Foley is part of the overall sound design of films, and in recent years the art of Foley has been appropriated for theatre as well. There are productions where actors will be creating the sound effects that you’re hearing live on stage, and you can see them creating these sounds. They will have been taught how to do that by a Foley Artist. Or, a Foley Artist might be employed by a theatre production to create sound effects in real time on stage. 

There is also a genre of theatre productions that will include live filming. That would be an area where a Foley Artist might be included in a theatre production, so that, for instance, an image is being created on one part of the stage, and the sound for that image is being created in an isolated box somewhere else on stage, and these two elements are being put together for the audience to view on a projection screen.

Pictured: Foley class at Central

In this picture, the sound design students are performing Foley live in real time to an image that they’re watching. Foley was taught by Foley Artist Ruth Sullivan, but the person in the picture is Helen Skiera, a professional Sound Designer who also supported the project. They’re manipulating objects to create the sounds that the objects they’re seeing in the film would be making: in this case there are little clocks and bits of metal in order to be able to create the sound of the clock mechanisms.

It’s almost like watching a percussionist in an orchestra – percussionists often have these tables with all their different percussion instruments that they pick up at the right time, make a sound and then put it back down silently – the object of this class is for the students to learn about and experience the precision of timing and sound creation required for Foley – but by extension also for all sound design and performance work.

Find out more

If you like the idea of Foley Artistry, you can learn more about it on our Theatre Sound, BA course.

Donato Wharton, BA, MSc

Donato Wharton is Course Leader for Theatre Sound at Central.