A big aspect of what goes into a movie is the sound production. If the sounds aren’t convincing or are a bit off, it can take a viewer out of a movie. There wasn’t much of a need for sound effects during the early years of Hollywood since the films were silent, but once Hollywood started to gear toward making films with sound, studios needed to be ahead of the others to revolutionize the market.
Because of this, Universal Studios looked towards those that had worked in the radio department, which was the preferred method of entertainment for people at the time. One man in particular that had worked to add sound effects to radio productions was Jack Foley, who worked with Universal during the 1910s, but films were still in the silent era.
It wasn’t until the second half of the 1920s that Warner Bros. was able to create the first film with sound, “The Jazz Singer”. Universal decided to catch up to the new change quickly, and Foley was instrumental in making it happen. They recorded a film called “Show Boat”, but the only sound that the microphones could record vocal tracks. It was difficult with the technology at the time to pick up other sounds and to add layers of sound, so Foley’s job wasn’t an easy one.
On top of the dialogue track that came from the original filming, there was one track of background sounds. Foley set up in a recording studio and started to recreate the sounds of footsteps, doors and other ambient sound effects. He was such a master at his craft that they even named the art of dubbing in sound during post-production after him, and Foley artists are still used today.
It’s interesting to see a Foley artist at work. They’ll recreate the sound of horses galloping by talking halves of coconuts and hitting them on a table or snapping a piece of celery in half to signify a bone breaking. If you were to watch a movie and the Foley recording at the same time, it would be quite hilarious.
But what about the history of the man that changed Hollywood forever without much fanfare? Well, Foley came from Yorkville, New York, where he was born on April 12, 1891. Early in the 20th century, Foley was working at the docks of New York City where he happened to meet future Hollywood superstar Cary Grant, who himself was a street performer at the time.
The long winter months took a toll on Foley, and he had aspirations to get into show business like his friend. Foley took a chance on himself and headed to the west coast, settling in Southern California. Before working in sound, Foley was actually on-screen, becoming an early Hollywood stuntman, eventually heading off to World War I.
Foley returned to Hollywood after the war and wanted to focus on becoming a director instead of putting himself in harm’s way. On the side, Foley felt that sound was the future of film, and took it upon himself to work in radio and start recording sound effects that could be used in films. The rest, as they say, is history. Foley was a man that was well ahead of his time, and his name is the most famous one in sound production throughout all of Hollywood. Though it’s not the most glamorous position in filmmaking, it’s one of the most important, and Foley’s name lives on as a job title more than 50 years after his death.