Monday, August 31, 2009

Open Magazine feature: Foleys

There are men who enjoy recreating the sounds of everyday life. The best ones are good listeners. They know that a walk is never just a walk, that a splash is hardly just a splash. These men have been around for two decades now, applying their observations to film, adding realism to absolute turkeys. They are sonic anthropologists. The film industry calls them Foley artists.

“Watch this,” Sajjan Chouwdhry, a Foley artist at Aradhana Studio said, picking up a pair of tattered shoes from a messy pile of worn-out footwear that carpeted the studio floor. Scattered around him were props to create sounds that end up on film: a cage fan, a creaky leather sofa, a rusty car bonnet, glass bottles, a fake door with a knob and latches, wicker baskets, a cupboard of jewellery and bangles. Putting them on, he stood still beside a microphone wrapped in cloth on a surface of ageing wooden planks. “Ready,” he said. A moment later, a large screen came alive with Gulshan Grover, dressed formally, strolling down a boardwalk. Chouwdhry walked in place, in step with Grover, tapping his feet hard to create the cold, formal beat of a corporate man’s shoes. As Grover slowed down, so did Chouwdhry, finally turning with his soles scraping the floor as Grover turned to sit down. “The extra sound”— a regular swish—“is because I’m wearing pants,” Chouwdhry said, implying that he walks for movies without his pants. Which is just as well, for Foleys can be found in the farthest reaches of recording studios, where they are left alone to pursue an ambition considered unsexy. They are happiest there, among musty props and familiar recording equipment, grounding characters; away from unwanted attention.

Karnail Singh, a large and genial man who works with Chouwdhry, has done this since 1986. He is now considered a master. “If I tell you to put down a phone, you’ll put it right down. But we look at the character. Is he pensive about the call? If he is, his hand will search for the cradle. The phone cord will pull and jar on the desk’s edge. That’s the difference between a good Foley artist and someone who’s in it for the money.”

Until recently Singh was called a sound effects specialist, but then, somehow, people started calling him a Foley. “Even I didn’t know what it meant,” he says. The word is a tribute to Jack Foley, who spent a lifetime squeezing sounds out of props for movies. An uncredited article about Foley has his technique described by George Pal, an Oscar nominee seven times over for his cartoons: ‘Jack’s technique was to record all the effects for a reel at one time… Jack added the footsteps, the movement, the sound of various props, all in one track. He used a cane as an adjunct to his own footsteps. With that cane, he could make the footsteps of two to three people. He kept a large cloth in his pocket which could be used to simulate movement.’ (The sound created by rubbing two bits of cloth mimics the sound of human motion, of arms and legs flexing or relaxing.)

Foley art arrived in India in 1971 at Prasad Labs in Chennai, when a mandolin player and a studio assistant were assigned by the sound engineer of Sigappu Rojakkal to recreate the sound of birds (using bamboo strips) and sea waves (with mustard seeds on thick paper). They were paid Rs 250 for their efforts. But this was at Prasad Labs. In the Hindi film industry, sound effects were the work of amateurs and the disinterested. “All attention was paid to music, background music and photography, which is not surprising. The sound recorder’s work we heard at mixing time,” says Raj Sippy, who began directing in 1977. This meant anybody could pass off anything as sound effects. Dishoom, for example, is believed to be the work of a fight master who used the sound informally to guide actors. “I cannot believe how people took to the sound back then,” Sippy says. He once snuck a recording device into Excelsior to record the punches in a Charles Bronson movie. He then gave the tape to his filmmaker friends.

“I was not very happy with how my seniors did things,” says Singh, “but they were my seniors, so I had to keep quiet. They did things the wrong way. The director was focused on the hero and the dialogue. Between dialogues there was nothing, just empty space.”

After landing a permanent gig at Aradhana, they worked on Discovery of India. They were then roped in for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Arun Patil, a sound effects man who specialised in explosions, came to them with a problem: create sounds for a South Indian swing that creaked and had bells attached. “That was the toughest thing we ever did,” Singh says. Chouwdhry nods. Now, they say, nothing puzzles them. One scene in Vikram Bhatt’s horror flick 1920, showed a cat being eaten. To get the right amount of crunchiness, Chouwdhry ordered a roast chicken for the sound session. Chouwdhry, the brawnier of the two, says he’s more suited for “macho sounds”, such as a man’s walk, a thump, a punch, a fall. Singh, he says, is fine with “lady sounds”: the tinkle of an earring, bangles, sandals. Singh smiles and says nothing.

Since the community of Foley artists in India is small—between 10 and 15 in Mumbai—there’s no shortage of assignments. But Nitin Chandy, the sound engineer at Blue Frog’s recording studios, says they will have to evolve. He believes that the advent of digital sound, which included digital libraries, transformed the landscape for sound designers. To pull out a sound earlier meant destructive editing—cutting from tape. “Foleys were in trouble when it became non-destructive.” Now every designer has access to libraries. “Now it’s a dying art.”

Foleys disagree, of course. A freelance Foley who worked for Ram Gopal Varma says digital libraries aren’t everything. Singh and Chouwdhry think about it for a moment before declaring that there’s more than enough work. They turn to a silent screen playing Varma’s next film. The protagonists run through the jungle, and all you hear is the crunch of leaves and the splash of water. Then it ends, promising a sequel. Varma alone could keep Foleys in business.

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