Building a Foley Sound Is Like Spending Thirty Hours in Labor, then Giving Birth to the Same Child Five Times in a Row

The next time you’re watching the runaway stage coach scene on Maverick, shut your eyes and listen. Try to forget what you were just looking at—panicked horses dragging Mel Gibson (who’s hanging from the back of the stage coach by a swath of leather mesh) across dirt and cacti, with wooden wheels exploding through bumps in the terrain just feet from his head. What does that sound like?

It’s amazing how many noises don’t sound how you think they sound.

When I was assigned to explore the sound of a pony and trap (a.k.a. horse and small carriage) for The Woman in Black, I thought, “Hey, this will be easy. Coconuts for hooves, then something heavy and wooden to roll around like carriage wheels.” Easiest idea-birth ever.

Except that’s not what a horse and carriage sounds like.

Thirty Hours in Labor. Coconuts, sure; everyone knows that’s a winner, thanks to a certain search for the Holy Grail. But the carriage? I spent two days rolling things around on my living room carpet, my kitchen floor, my parking space, the grass behind my apartment, the little stretch of shed floor not covered in mattresses or surf boards or Haagen Daz ice cream freezer. Nada. I tried wood, metal, plastic—nothing.

Because what do those wheels themselves really sound like? A rhythmic rumble. Rhythmic because the thickness and quality of the wood often varies from side to side, rumble because that’s what wooden wheels do when they hit dirt or stone. A rhythmic rumble—that’s really it.

Or so I thought.

Birth #1: And so I put some rocks in a box and shook it around. When paired with the coconuts, it made a decent rhythmic rumble. Problem solved. Clearly, I was a foley genius, the quickest and most in-tune audio savant on the planet, a shining beacon of lighthouse proportions to foley artists everywhere.

Only, when I presented my brilliant solution to the foley team, it became clear that my lighthouse was more of a spluttering laser pen. My box of rocks got some polite, encouraging smiles—but no one else could hear the pony and trap rattling around in there.

Stick that baby back in there—she’s not done yet.

Births #2-4: After that first attempt, the whole foley team decided to collaborate on the pony and trap sound. (Yes, the sound effect now had many parents. Don’t dig too deeply into the childbirth metaphor.) What were we missing? Creaking wood, the jingle and slap of the harnesses, and something—something—for those cuss-swear wooden wheels. I won’t describe every iteration, but I will tell youthat, at one point or another, the would-be sound effects involved a leather jacket, an old kitchen chair, a wooden plank with hinges attached, and me, biceps seizing up as I shook my beloved box of rocks somewhere in the background.

We shared our work with the rest of the Woman in Black cast and crew. The results? Complicated, messy, impossible for the microphones to accurately pick up, and, ultimately, not all that similar to the sound of a pony and trap.

Birth #5: Days went by, then weeks. (I began to sympathize on a very superficial level with those pregnant women who want the baby out, out, out!) The coconut halves were a constant, but everything else was cast aside. The foley team became fixated on the concept of those blasted carriage wheels—they were so vital, weren’t they? We debated the importance of wheels for multiple rehearsals. The wheel sound WAS the carriage sound, wasn’t it? It made up half the sound effect, didn’t it? We couldn’t just cut the wheels out, could we?

We did. The box of rocks, cylindrical garden hose holder, and every other wheel sound lay forgotten, replaced by a truly miraculous find (courtesy of a pro sound guy named Cameron)—the backpack. The rustle of its canvas! The sweet, sweet jingle of its zippers! The giant pockets, capable of holding all manner of heavy, noise-making thingies. It weighed a quarter of the box of rocks, and it even had a handle!

It was a little difficult to give up my original idea, but this one was much easier, more developed, simpler. (Yes, I just said that when the foley team finally, collectively gave birth, the kid was easy and simple. But people like her, dangit.) But a foley artist must continuously push her boundaries.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to clean the plungers.

– Andrea Knight, Folio Artist

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