On Custom SFX, Foley for Fincher, and Walking in Bane's Footsteps

Next month, the Motion Picture Sound Editors (MPSE) will present John Roesch with its 2013 Career Achievement Award. It’s a crowning achievement for the veteran Foley artist, whose career spans more than three decades and over 400 films, including such classics as The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises, the Matrix trilogy, The Green Mile and E.T.

Although many aspects of filmmaking have changed radically in recent years, Roesch practices his craft in much the same way that Jack Foley did when he began creating sound effects for movies in the 1920s. Roesch and his collaborators, Foley artist Alyson Moore and Foley mixer Mary Jo Lang, work at Foley stage number one at Warner Bros. Studios, where they produce and record sound effects live while working to projected images of film scenes. The tools of their trade include their very fertile imaginations and a vast and incongruous assemblage of props that range from shoes and door hinges to bowling balls and potato chip bags.

“We bring drama to what you see on the screen,” Roesch explains. “It’s called Foley, but literally what we create are custom sound effects. Cut effects [effects drawn from sound libraries or produced electronically] work great, but Foley effects work incredibly well because they are custom-designed for one specific moment on screen. When these two are combined, you can achieve an incredible sound track."

“Even today, there is no digital methodology for doing what we do that can give it that something extra,” Roesch adds. “You still need a live Foley artist — people bring something to the screen that has soul.”

Roesch said he was introduced to Foley to pure chance. He was serving as a directing fellow at the American Film Institute when another student asked him to help with the sound for the film she was working on.  At the time, Roesch hadn’t even heard the term Foley, but he pitched in. That led to further requests for assistance with sound and, in short order, to a job offer. From there, Roesch says, “I never looked back.”

Roesch typically begins a project by reviewing an edited version of the film with his team and noting Foley requirements for each scene. They then divvy up responsibilities based on their personal experiences and predilections. Often one of their first tasks is to record footsteps, a seemingly routine task that is actually full of complexity and nuance. The gender, size, mood, movement and shoe style of the character factors in, as well as a variety of environmental conditions. Roesch recalls getting feedback from David Fincher on footsteps he Foleyed for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The director asked him to “make it more Bruno Magli.”

For The Dark Knight Rises, Roesch created footsteps for the evil behemoth Bane, a character a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than him. “If I had just tried to create footsteps by walking as hard as possible, I would have ended up with a sprained ankle,” he recalls. “In those cases, we apply some of the tricks we’ve developed over the years. For Bane, we placed the microphone on the same surface that I walked on to allow the sound to travel up the mic stand. The surface was not reinforced, so it resulted in a huge boom sound. Normally, putting the microphone where we did is taboo, but that’s the beauty of Foley. There are no rules.”

Someone walking into Roesch’s Foley stage at Warner Bros. might look around and think its contents are leftovers from a garage sale or refuse from an attic, but all of its strange and far-flung objects have been carefully selected for their ability to produce useful sounds. “99.5 percent of the time, we have the ability to come up with the right sound with the props we have on the stage,” he says. “It may involve a literal translation — using a bag of potato chips for a bag of chips on the screen — or it may be abstract — using that same bag of potato chips to produce a funny, squeaky sound for an animated film.”

Occasionally, the right prop is not at hand and in those instances Roesch and his crew go on a scavenger hunt. “In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there’s a scene with a train pulling into a station and Ren Klyce, the supervising sound editor, wanted to hear the rails breaking the ice to indicate the cold,” Roesch notes. “We didn’t have anything to create that specific sound, so we went onto eBay and found four old ice cube trays, the kind with a handle to separate the cubes. And that’s what’s in the film.”

Having practiced his craft for so long, Roesch has developed an uncanny sense for sound. He visualizes sound in much the way a painter visualizes color when looking at a blank canvas. “When I look at a film that is projected with sound turned off, I nonetheless hear it. I hear the footsteps. I hear the actor put his key into the car and open the door. All I need to do is translate what’s in my head with my hands and my feet into the microphone. It’s call being an audial.”

Looking forward to being honored by his peers in the Motion Picture Editors Guild, Roesch says he is grateful not only for himself, but also for other Foley artists who practice his unique craft. “I’m pleased that the work we do is receiving this recognition,” he says. Roesch adds, however, that he would like to suggest a slight modification to his award: “I consider it a Mid-Career Achievement Award,” he says. “I still love what I do.”

The 60th MPSE Golden Reel Awards will be held February 17, 2013, at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Suites in Los Angeles.