6 Tips for Implementing Foley/SFX into Short Films

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Short films—gotta love them! If you’re just starting out in the world of sound design, these will be your bread and butter until you get noticed by the big, gatekeeping fish. They usually don’t pay much, but they’re incredibly rewarding. Why? Because if you make them sound good enough, the director you’re working with has a better chance of scoring a feature; and if that director is loyal, you have a chance of getting hired for that higher-paying project.

One way you can make a film sound better is with judicious employment of sound design—specifically, Foley and sound effects. Foley, here, refers to diegetic, non-dialogue sound that’s custom-made to sell a scene. If you need the sound of someone getting slapped in the face, and you mic yourself slapping your own face to get the sound, that’s Foley. Sound effects encompass a more general meaning, involving any sound that isn’t dialogue, music from a composer/music supervisor, and isn’t Foley. An explosion could be a sound effect. So could footsteps, if you snapped the sound from a sound library.

Here are some tips for implementing Foley and sound effects in your production.

Nothing beats the bespoke touch Foley. To get good Foley, all you really need is a decent mic—say, the RØDE NTG2—a portable recorder (the Zoom H4n, for instance), and a little ingenuity on your part.

RØDE NTG2 Battery or Phantom-Powered Condenser Shotgun Microphone

Where does that ingenuity come from? Look around you! Do you need footsteps on gravel? Do you have a clean litter box at home? Put a mic on your shoe and step in the kitty litter (clean the box first).

I once got the sound of a freshly smelted sword by recording myself pouring boiling water into a hot frying pan. Your environs can provide all sorts of inspiration. Do some Internet sleuthing for ideas on how to achieve a specific sound, put the mic up as close as you can, and record a couple of takes. If it helps, loop the scene in your headphones without the effect to learn its timing, and perform the effect in time, as best you can.

Get a Sound Library

I work with libraries all the time. If I need to pull up the sound of a high-heel walking on pavement, wood, or carpet, I use free software like meta-digger to search my database for the right sound.

Check out libraries like Best Service Studio Box Mark III Foley and Ambiances, or all the offerings from KeepForest. They can complement your Foley to give you a broader palette of sounds. A DAW like Logic Pro X also includes sound effects, many of which are high quality.

Best Service Studio Box Mark III Foley and Ambiences Sound Effects Library

Be aware that these effects will need massaging. You’ll have to time everything perfectly to line up with the video. You’ll want to EQ the sample to fit the sonic space, adding the appropriate ambiance, too. A whole article could be written on how to do this with various tools in various types of scenes, but for here I’ll just say this…

Go outside and listen to sounds around you. Take a notepad and write down how you hear things, in terms of stereo placement, EQ (is it bright? Brassy? Bass-heavy?), level, and ambiance (is a brick wall occasioning a slap echo?). This will prep you for the next step: picturing the scene you’re sound-designing, and working out how you’d like to hear it in your head. When you sit down to mix, you’ll find your job is much easier, since you’ve already worked out how to go about doing it.

Define Your Purposes

After we source the sound effects and Foley, we must ask ourselves, in what situations do we want to use such sounds? Here are some rules of thumb:

  • If a sound pushes the story forward, lavish it with attention. Bolster it with Foley/sound effects if it wasn’t captured in camera.
  • If you want a scene to feel both naturalistic and professional, little touches of Foley will go a long way toward selling it. As a character leans forward, we should hear the rustle of their garment—and a leather jacket will make a different noise from a winter coat. Doors opening/closing will draw us in to the specific location of the scene. Setting the tableau in a cramped New York apartment? Noise from neighborly televisions, edging in through thin walls, will help tell the story. All these things should be considered, and many of them can be accomplished with Foley and sound effects.
  • If background music is imperative to the scene, you may not need sound effects for footsteps and cloth rustle, because the music may carry you through.

Define Your Approach Against Your Context

Think of a scene involving a train. It could be handled in so many ways, depending on the emotionality of the scene. We could use the sound of an actual train. If this were some sci-fi jaunt, perhaps the train would sound more futurist, with synth risers and weird warbles. Perhaps music evocative of a train is in order. Remember that context is key, and to illustrate that point, here’s a story.

I worked on a short film called Future Genesis. For the initial scene, in which an astronaut realizes he’s about to crash into an Asteroid, I had to create the ship’s various alarms. The director heard my first pass and said, “They sound too digital. I want them to sound mechanical.” On the second pass, he said, “now it sounds mechanical, but something’s not right.”

I noticed that he loved the emotions behind the musical score and realized something: the sound of a literal alarm? That wasn’t as important as the alarm in the pilot’s head. So I made a decision to turn elements of the score into alarms, using iZotope Iris 2’s spectral editing capabilities. The result? A phone call: “This is not what I was expecting, but I love it!” It’s what you hear in the film.

iZotope Iris 2 - Sample-Based Virtual Synthesizer

Try to Limit Effects Tracks for Organizational Purposes

When you’re mixing the scene, try to keep your effects tracks limited in number, lest your session careen to more than 100 tracks. Commit to the equalized, processed sound of an effect on a region basis than run a ton of tracks.

You can use AudioSuite for this, in Pro Tools, or you can bounce the processed track in place, and then move the region to a corresponding effects track.

Avid Pro Tools Software

The workflow would look like this:

You line up a scene’s effects in a single track. Using clip gain on a per-region basis, get the levels of each effect right. Then, drop one effect into a separate track. Next, manipulate its EQ, ambiance, and directionality until it fits the scene. Finally, bounce the track and put the new, processed region back where it was in the original effects track. Rinse and repeat with each effect—it will save you CPU in the long run.

Keep Delivery Media in Mind

People will view the film in various locales. Computer speakers, tablet speakers, various types of headphones—these are all possible avenues of enjoyment. You need to make sure your Foley and sound effects translate to all of them.

When you’ve finished your first pass of the film mix, listen to it on various speakers and headphones, with an ear tuned to the translation of your Foley and sound effects. Is everything audible? If not, you may need to play with levels and equalization to make sure it is.

I advise taking notes with a pen and paper for playback medium. Then, take the average: If an element is too quiet on a variety of headphones, it should be raised. If it’s too quiet on headphones and barely audible on tablets/computer speakers, you may need to play with EQ.

That’s all the room we have here. However, there’s so much more to cover! What do you think we’ve left out? Post in our Comments section.

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