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If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Did a Foley Artist Create the Sound?

By: Liz Clift

If you read this blog regularly, you know I listen to a lot of podcasts. Recently, 99% Invisible ran an episode called “Sounds Natural,” focused on the ways that the nature documentaries that we watch might be altered from real reality. For instance, there’s the now-infamous scene in Disney’s 1958 documentary White Wilderness that shows lemmings plunging from a cliff—which has led to a lot of lore and sayings about lemmings. As you may be familiar though, the entire scene was staged.

Lemming emerging from a den

As you might have guessed by the titled of this podcast episode, the majority of the episode examined the “natural” sounds in nature documentaries.  These sounds are often created by foley artists, and 99% Invisible focused on a foley artist named Richard Hinton. An animal walking through snow, for example, might be created by squeezing a bag full of powdered custard. An elephant’s footfalls, although we frequently hear them on nature documentaries, are actually nearly silent.

Silence, at least to our human ears, is often the sound we’d actually hear if an animal was approaching—especially in the snow—or perhaps, in other climes, the sound of leaves rustling, a chuff of breath, a sudden cessation of bird calls, or a cacophony.

Wolf moving through snow

The link above will take you not only to the podcast episode, but an accompanying article (listen to the podcast first), along with several videos that show a foley artist in the midst of creating sounds to go along with the scene. You can watch the full 13-minute film of one of those clips here.

But what about animal calls, you might ask. The podcast explains this too—and it’s more involved than you might initially expect.

Foley artists exist not just for documentaries, but for pretty much everything you watch (I can think of a few that use music—often symphonic—in place of the sounds we’d normally associate with nature, or which intentionally use silence throughout).

Foley artist at Vancouver Film School

Confession time: Foley artist is a career I very briefly considered at some younger point in my life, after watching some newsy television program that featured one. According to John Roesch, a master foley artist, there are more astronauts than foley artists. The job is difficult, requires thinking outside the box about every day objects, and very precise timing.

So, a question for you: what do bird wings sound like up close? From farther away? What sound does a deer make when it approaches you in the woods? Or in a prairie? What would a robot’s feet sound like? Exactly what sound does a horses hooves make on a race track? In a meadow? In the snow? Now, watch a documentary or a favorite film, and consider the work that went into making all the sounds that help keep you in the world created for you on screen.

Horse hooves in light snow

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