One of my favorite cinema stories is about KING KONG and the trouble it ran into with the censors even in that pre-Code time of 1933. It wasn’t Fay Wray in her slinky satin negligee, it wasn’t dinosaurs tearing each other apart. No, the only censored bit of KING KONG was the sound of Kong squishing a hapless New York pedestrian fleeing from his rampage. It was deemed too disturbing for audiences. Not the sight of it, mind you, but rather, the squish. That is a perfect illustration of the power of sound, and the perfect tribute to those Foley artists who create just the right sound is found in Lalo Molina’s ACTORS OF SOUND. More than just talking heads reliving the high points of amazing careers, it’s an appreciation of why this art form is as important as cinematography in creating a dynamic film capable of moving an audience to laughter, tears, and a gazillion other emotions. That, we come to realize watching this documentary, is what sound does. It captures the underlying emotion of a moment in something as elaborate as a car crash, or the sound of a specific kind of footstep in a specific kind of environment.
Most of what we hear in films is created in post-production. As boom mics gave way to body mics, the ambient sound was lost. What is picked up on the set is the actor’s voice, anything below the vocal chords is lost. This isn’t such a bad thing. I never fail to be irked, for example, by the sound of Garbo’s gem-encrusted gowns scraping the floor in QUEEN CHRISTINA. It does create an interesting paradox, though. For the Foley artist to succeed, his or her work must be, metaphorically, invisible. Yet knowing that those are not the sounds of Liza Minelli’s dance steps in CABARET doesn’t diminish the impact of the scene, or the aesthetic enjoyment. It does fill one with enormous respect for whoever did such an amazing job of synching it up. One can only imagine the gratitude the producers of SPARTACUS felt when another Foley artist was able to save them when the sound portion of an enormous battle scene was lost. Re-shoots overseas with a cast of thousands in full Roman armor and mounted on horses? Not necessary when a simple household item, in the talented hands of a Foley artist, saved the day.
The film is full of great stories involving where the term Foley artist originated, how sounds are made in studios that look like junkyards, and the inordinate attachment these artists have to the instruments of their trade. One is shown just after rescuing a toy car from a dog, gleeful that it can still make that particular soft squeak that is, apparently, very hard to produce. We might not notice, but the people who have made sound their work wax rhapsodic about the different sounds that paper produces, or how heightening the sound of a cup placed on a saucer just the right amount changes everything.
The difficult subject of real-time sounds in an increasingly digital world makes a refreshing case for low-tech, even before we find out that digital technicians despaired of ever being able to recreate the sound of cloth rustling. Which brings up the question, why should they try? There is a performance aspect to what these artists do that digital sound, for all it’s precision can’t match. Perhaps it’s that very precision that gets in the way. Consider the comeback of vinyl over digital music.
There is something irresistible, too, about spending time with people who are living their dreams. Obsessed with sound, endlessly imaginative in finding ways to create the perfect one for any given cinematic situation, including playing in mud when necessary, they make how they do it even more magical than the effect on screen.