Foley artists are hidden in plain sight.
That sickening crunch of bones breaking in The Revenant? That was the snap of lasagne sheets. Those gooey intestines squelching in The Walking Dead? A chamois full of water getting squeezed dry. Gregg Barbanell, a foley artist who’s created sounds for around 540 projects during his 37-year career, is proof that creating sound is more than just banging a few coconut shells together, Monty Python-style. Working on Breaking Bad (yes, he was the fly), The Walking Dead, The Revenant and more has equipped the master Foley artist with the strangest tricks and props in the business, and we caught up with Gregg to get a peek behind the scenes.
A lot of people have probably never heard of Foley. How would you describe it?
Foley is a process which puts in sync sounds effects into a finished film or television show. We perform all these sounds as opposed to a sound editor, who would take a pre-recorded sound effect from a library. We do all the feet, the props, everything they touch and move and sit on… everything. Including a track for just the sound of their clothing, as they move around.
So you actually physically perform the sounds as they’re happening? Why do you do that instead of just cutting and editing sounds afterwards?
What we’re doing is the same thing that the sound guys used to do for the old Radio Mystery programs in the 1930s and 40s. We’re even using some of the same props. This is a very old, low-tech approach and there’s two reasons why we still do it. First of all, when they shoot they are miking everyone for dialogue, so they get basically one track. You might hear the glass that they set down, footsteps or the gun being dropped on the floor. But it’s all on the one track, so if they raise the level of the dialogue, everything else comes with it. We record every sound separately, which gives the people who do the final sound mix which includes the dialogue, effects and music, complete control over every single sound.
The second main reason is for the foreign versions. Here in Hollywood, they’ll shoot everything in English and when they finish the final mix, they have basically a three-track master. Dialogue, music and sound effects. When they want German or Italian, they just drop the dialogue stem, but they still have the sound effects and music.
What are some of the most difficult sounds to recreate?
The more difficult ones are things that get more into sound design, like science fiction or horror films. We’re creating sounds, beings or creatures that don’t exist, so what does that even sound like? I’ve done a lot of video game stuff where there are orcs and dragons and we get so particular that we are doing a track with the scales and claws of a dragon. That’s where it gets a little tricky.
The stuff that’s really difficult is the really small, very quiet moments. I did all of Breaking Bad, it was probably the most interesting television experience I’ve ever had in my life. Each episode we were given 2-3 times the time that most television shows give you. Each episode was treated like a small feature film.
The cool thing about Breaking Bad was there was very little music and the Foley was a major player through the entire series. I had a sit-down talk with one of the sound supervisors who said they were going to be asking for some really unusual things. Right away there was an establishing shot of the desert, and the camera is put down on the ground. And you can see the ground stretching away from you, all the dirt and sand, and there’s a queue on the script that says ‘stick bug footsteps.’ And we were like what? Sure enough right in the foreground, going right to left across the screen was a stick bug.
How did you make the sound for the bug?
I think I got two paperclips, opened them up and went into the dirt pit. I put the mike like an inch or two away and very carefully used the paperclips in the exact right kind of dirt, to do the bug’s feet. There was another episode called The Fly, where they are stuck in the superlab, and Walter White had shut the cook down because there was a fly in the lab. The opening scene there’s a close up of the fly, and it picks up its feet, rubs them together and flutters its little wings, did a few hops and steps. We spent about forty minutes doing the sounds for that one shot.
What did you use?
A lot of the stuff we just used to go on the fly, no pun intended. I think we used super-light tissue paper which I held a small piece of in one hand to go BBBBBRRRRR. A similar approach to the stick bug’s feet, something soft like blunted toothpicks. That’s the kind of detail we went into.
There’s another episode called The Train where they rob all this liquid. They jump on the train and they’re undoing all the big iron, huge metal hatches and fortunately, they’d sent me the picture like a week in advance. So I saw all this gigantic metal and huge heavy chain stuff and I went to a few different metal junkyards and spent hundreds of dollars buying props specific to that episode. Normally when you do a television show you turn up, they play it and you do the best with what you have, but not Breaking Bad.
I guess that’s why you were able to do some of your best work?
Exactly. That’s why Game of Thrones wins every time, no show can compete with the amount of time and budget. They have three weeks to edit the sounds, whereas most of us have three or four days. Games of Thrones kills it every time and everyone in the industry is like, OK when the hell are they gonna shut that down so we can get back to evenly distributing these awards?
You work on The Walking Dead, how do you make all those gruesome sounds?
Oh yeah, we love the gross sounds. There’s a few main tools for Foley artists for this kind of work. The big one is a chamois, you know like the cowhide thing you use to wash your car? You soak them in a bowl of water, then you squish it and they make the best sound. If you want to get more gristly, ripping up celery stalks for big bones, or for short bone stuff lasagne sheets snap and crunch really well. Lettuce heads, cabbages, all that kind of stuff works. We have blades, swords and bayonets.
You must have a massive personal collection of props?
I do, for 20 years I had a huge two car garage filled with racks and bins, and my car was never in there because the entire thing was filled with my personal collection. One of the things I’m known for is my crazy prop collection.
Is there a particular sound you’re really picky about?
I worked on a couple of Westerns and I do have a great deal of horse tack, reins and bits. I went online and bought all these spurs, the modern ones don’t sound good. The old ones from the 1800s and 1900s made from iron and steel, especially the Spanish style, sound so awesome. I went nuts and bought like ten different really cool spurs. One of the things I do really well is horse feet.
Oh yeah, with coconuts?
I do use coconuts, most people do, but mine are a little different. When you use coconuts the coconut shell itself is thin, so it’ll have a thin and hollowly sound if you don’t do something with it. A friend of mine told me to try something which works exceptionally well, you take the empty coconuts and make automobile Bondo, which is material used to fill in dents on your car.
So I poured Bondo into each half—just the right amount—and as it started to set I took a big fat Navel orange and pressed it in so it formed about a half inch thick wall on the inside of the coconut. It’s heavy, dense and I’d file it down so it didn’t stick out. I cut a notch in it, because when you take a coconut and smack it down on the dirt all the air is trapped, which makes that kind of cupping sound which is a little too much. So I filed a notch into each one so when the impact with the ground happens the air comes out. They sound perfect.
Is there a particular scene you’re really proud of?
There so many of them in Breaking Bad. The final scene in the last episode when the trunk pops open and the machine gun starts firing, then we cut inside and everything is being destroyed. There’s no dialogue, it goes into slow motion, everyone’s diving, there’s machine guns rattling, bullets zinging and hitting every conceivable object and boxes are flying and poker chips are going everywhere. That’s a really, really good scene that we spent a tremendous amount of time on and it’s all Foley.
Going back to around 1980, one of my very earliest efforts, was John Carpenter’s The Fog, the horror movie. Adrienne Barbeau is up on the tin roof of the lighthouse and she’s scrambling with her feet and hands and the ghost guy with the metal hook starts clanging—that scene is 100% Foley and that was the very beginning of my career.