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CLIP: You want to cook with a broken arm? Next step, CO2. Do it.

This is a scene from Season 4 of the TV show Breaking Bad. One of the main characters is being forced to cook meth at gunpoint in a lab underneath an industrial laundromat. The mood is tense, and there’s not a lot of dialogue. But that doesn’t mean it’s silent. The jingling of handcuffs… ominous footsteps on a concrete floor… the twist of a key… the mechanical lurch of a freight elevator.

Those sounds match the characters’ movements so precisely that you might think they were picked up by a microphone on the set. But they were actually added in post-production, by a guy with a bunch of makeshift props and a suitcase full of shoes.

BARBANELL: My name is Gregg Barbanell. I’ve been a Foley artist for about 46 years.

As a foley artist, Barbanell is responsible for creating the smallest and subtlest sounds in film and television — from the the swishing of a character’s pants to the clink of a coffee cup being set down on a saucer. In a Hollywood that has become increasingly digitized, it’s a job that still depends on the human touch.

BARBANELL: You’re getting on the floor. You’re picking up this chair. You’re moving it over here. You’re grabbing a car door. You’re throwing it on the ground, you’re jumping on it. You’re taking a bat and you’re hitting so-and-so. You’re getting in the dirt pit on your hands and knees.

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett.  Today: Movie Sound Effects.

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When a movie or a TV show is filmed on set, the only audio that the production team worries about is the dialogue. Most of the sound effects you hear are added in later on. These sound effects fall into two general camps. First, you’ve got what are called “hard” effects — things like honking cars, thunderstorms, crickets, gunshots, and big explosions. In most cases, these are digitally produced, or come from sound libraries: an editor in a dark room pulls a pre-recorded file off a hard drive and mixes it to fit the scene. But other sounds have to be more closely matched to the movements of the characters onscreen. And those call for a professional foley artist, like Gregg Barbanell.

BARBANELL: It’s all faked. So, the footsteps you hear for the actors have been done after the fact. The down on the table has been rerecorded after the fact. The movement of their clothing, as they get out of a chair or reach for an object, is added after the fact.

Even something like a gun will involve a little foley work.

BARBANELL: We’re not going to fire that rifle or a pistol; that’s 100 percent dedicated sound effects. But everything else around those sound effects — like picking up the rifle or the pistol, loading it, cleaning it, dropping it, putting a new clip in — we do.

The art of foley traces its roots back to the late 1920s, when sound was a relatively new phenomenon in film. An assistant director at Universal Pictures named Jack Foley built a special stage with a bunch of props and started adding sound effects to films in post-production.

He drew inspiration from radio producers — they used coconut shells for horses’ hooves and a fan in a metal washtub for a car’s engine. Decades later, the profession that bears Foley’s name is largely unchanged. Barbanell’s path into the trade began in the 1970s, when he was a student at the California Institute of the Arts. At first, he wanted to be an actor.

BARBANELL: Halfway through my first year, I realized that I pretty much sucked. I was told, you know, “You probably could make it as a television actor but, beyond that, good luck.”

Barbanell eventually moved behind the scenes. The summer after his senior year, he and some classmates made a Western on a shoestring budget and he was tasked with adding the sound effects — footsteps, the clomping of horse hooves, and the clinking of metal spurs.

BARBANELL: I just started doing it. And I was fortunate enough to kind of have a knack for it.

Barbanell had such a knack for Foley he ended up doing it for the next five decades. He’s worked for Walt Disney Studios, Warner Brothers Studios, and NBCUniversal. And in the process, he has amassed nearly 600 credits, including TV shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and movies like The Revenant and —

CLIP: My biological clock is ticking like this — and the way this case is going, I ain’t never getting married!

My Cousin Vinny.

The foley process begins with a supervising sound editor, who goes through the entire film and timestamps every cue that needs a sound effect.

BARBANELL: They’ll tell us specifically, “In reel one, at 14 feet, 23 frames, this character’s footsteps from here to here.” Or: “Pick up the rifle on this track, load the rifle on this track, from here to here.” 

Once the cues are identified, Barbanell goes to a foley studio in Burbank, California that’s equipped to create any sound imaginable. He usually joins up with a second foley artist for his sessions. A sound mixer sits in a separate room, and the three of them work through the long list of cues.

BARBANELL: There’s thousands of cues. So, the session itself, as you can imagine on a feature film, is huge. 

Some of the sounds on his list might seem easy to recreate — but there are also certain sounds that aren’t so straightforward. For the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” Barbanell had to create the sound of an old beat-up VW bus.

BARBANELL: I had a bunch of props on the stage for the bus. There was like a big car hood, and there was a car door thrown on top of that, with some other weird metal thing on it. And I happened to step on this pile and it made this incredible metal, deep metal groan, you know? I went, “What? Oh my God. That was awesome.” And, you know, it came to me, what we need — this would be perfect for when they first start pushing the bus.

Greg KINNEAR character: I’m putting it in gear!

The job isn’t always about creating a perfect replica of what something sounds like in real life.

BARBANELL: My job is to go beyond what things actually sound like. To embellish a little bit — make it a little more dramatic or a little more scary. If I needed to recreate a McDonald’s ice cream machine, I would not go to a McDonald’s and listen to it. Film is its own reality. I can make that machine sound however the hell I want.

Making things sound however the hell you want requires a lot of weird props. Barbanell’s studio is lined with plastic boxes full of tools, guns, suitcases, and old telephones. He has spent years scouring metal junkyards and swap meets for contraptions that make strange noises.

BARBANELL: Hand me the meat grinder. This is an old school countertop meat grinder. You put the meat on the top. You crank it. The end that you grab with your hand has a little plastic sleeve on it that rotates and it sounds like this — here you go — So I’ve used this for a whole lot of things. Mostly when someone turns on a tap in their bathroom. But also in a lot of animated things — someone’s pulling a little wagon or something, and I’ll use that to add an element of squeakiness to the wheels.

To recreate the sound of a character leaning back in a leather armchair, Barbanell uses an old ammo pouch he found at a surplus store.

BARBANELL: They had a pile of these and I went through them until I found the one that was — you breathed on it and it would make an incredible leather creak.

If he needs to replicate the sound of a screen door opening, he uses a pogo stick from the 1960s.

BARBANELL: You got to really put your weight on it.

And for machinery, he’ll sometimes blend together sounds from multiple different props, like this flour sifter.

BARBANELL: I use that in this one scene in Spirited Away. That weird guy down in the basement with all the moving machinery parts and everything — part of his ongoing machinery sound, that was one element of it.

Blood and guts also require some special tools. When Barbanell was working on the zombie apocalypse show The Walking Dead he had some go-tos.

BARBANELL: The main ingredient — a really good chamois. It’s like a thin calfskin. When you get it wet, it becomes this blob of material that retains water. And if you squeeze it, it’s incredible the sounds you get out of it. One of my favorites is walnuts. I put 1 or 2 under my foot and slowly apply pressure until they crack and crunch, like a bone snap. Another favorite is lasagna noodles dry out of the box. 

Sometimes, actual meat is used to mimic the sounds of human flesh. The foley artists for the 1999 film Fight Club hit chicken carcasses with baseball bats to replicate punches. Barbanell used to employ similar tactics — but those days are behind him.

BARBANELL: Back in the day I literally got half a pig or something. It stunk up the stage forever. Let me tell you: it wasn’t worth it. 

There are all kinds of stories like this in the world of foley. For E.T., Foley artists used raw liver and jello to simulate the sound of the alien’s body. The sound of hatching dinosaur eggs in Jurassic Park was a combination of crushed ice-cream cones and a hand plunging into a juicy melon. In The Exorcist, an old leather wallet was twisted to mimic the sound of a rotating human head. But creating strange and unique sounds isn’t actually the most important part of a Foley artist’s job. It’s the mundane stuff that matters the most.

BARBANELL: What separates the men from the boys in the Foley world is how you do the footsteps.

That’s coming up.

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After a movie or TV show is filmed on set, there are often lines of dialog that need to be fixed in post-production. Sometimes, the director doesn’t like the delivery, or there’s some kind of noise, like an airplane, in the background. When those lines are re-tracked in a studio, all the other tiny sounds that got picked up on set are lost. Which is why Gregg Barbanell spends a lot of his time in the foley studio recording the sound of clothing.

BARBANELL: In the final mix, there might be too quiet a moment in a very intimate scene, two lovers on the sofa and they start going at it and there’s no dialog. I just manipulate the cloth and I follow their movements, and it’s one of those super subtle things that most people wouldn’t even hear. I use basically long sleeve shirts. All the buttons are removed. You can’t have any clicks or ticks.

Barbanell’s perfect cloth sounds something like this:


Some jobs do require speciality cloth. And Barbanell has all the bases covered.

BARBANELL: Behind me is a huge clothing rack. It’s got coats, jackets, leather. It’s got raincoats and all kinds of, you know, super thin silk. 

After the cloth work is done, the next — and perhaps most important — job is the footsteps. In a typical film, you’ve got characters with all different types of shoes, walking on all different types of surfaces. They have different gaits. They’re walking, running, maybe dancing. Foley artists have to record the appropriate sound for every single foot that touches the ground. Barbanell’s studio is equipped with every conceivable surface material. He can do footsteps on concrete, grating, wooden boards:

BARBANELL: Okay — kind of a hollow wood deck…

And, on dirt. To get the job done, Barbanell also has a huge arsenal of shoes.

BARBANELL: At the peak, I had a garage half filled with shoes. I had my favorite work boot or fireman’s shoe. Or general men’s shoe, tennis shoe, ladies’ flats, ladies’ heels…

For Barbanell, footsteps aren’t just a technical addition — they’re a way to convey personality.

BARBANELL: It takes years to develop the subtlety in being able to nail not just the character but the emotion of the character in how you perform the footsteps. 

Some film stars’ movements are harder to track than others.

BARBANELL: I did a couple of Jackie Chan movies. Utter frickin nightmare. Because, you know, in most of his movies there’s a great deal of fighting. And the problem with Jackie Chan is he’ll, like, bounce between buildings, fire escapes, windowsills, cars, hoods. So he might hit a fire escape with his right foot. The next foot is going to be on a metal pipe. The next step is going to be on a brick wall, instead of just going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, all on one surface. You know, I have to break it down into minute little pieces to get it just right. You know, given the time and you want it to be just right, you want to hear the metal, Tink, Bang! Boom! I literally wanted to check into a hospital after working on some of those.

All of this work is very time consuming. Doing foley for a film like Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse can take 20 to 30 days and require multiple sound crews. An intensive TV show like Breaking Bad used to take Barbanell two to four days per episode. Studios have tried to replace foley with advanced sound banks, digital layering, and software programs. And in recent years, there have been rumblings about how artificial intelligence might shake up the field.

In 2020, researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio developed a tool called AutoFoley, which uses deep learning and neural networks to analyze film and create accompanying sound effects. But it hasn’t yet been used in a commercial production. And, at least for now, Hollywood is sticking with humans. Humans who play with lasagna noodles and go to Goodwill to find the perfect heel.

BARBANELL: In the studios, they would love to do away with us if they could. You take the human element out of it, and it’s just not the same. We walk the character. Is the character frightened? Or arrogant, or what have you? We put that into our performance. You’ll never be able to duplicate those kinds of things. I think what might happen is in television and lower budget, it’ll be digitally done because they’re gonna dumb down the audience, if you will, to accept it. But I think on the higher end shows — the big budget movies and all that — it’ll be kind of a specialty craft. They can with pride say this Foley was done by humans, you know?

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by me and Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. If you’re interested in the visual side of special effects, check out episode 277 of Freakonomics Radio: It’s called “No Hollywood Ending for the Visual Effects Industry” — you can find that in your podcast player. See you next time.

BARBANELL: There are many times where we’ll go, you know what? You’re asking for the guy licking the ice cream cone 300 feet away. Forget it, we’re not doing it.

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