Silent film was, in fact, not silent. In order to create a realistic scene, filmmakers use an art form called Foley, the recreation of sounds in the post-production process. The “silent” refers only to the lack of spoken words; scenes featuring running horses or a gun being shot would have been accompanied by the clomping of hooves or the bang of the pistol. The sound of footsteps can be simulated by recording someone walking on a similar surface to the character on-screen; the sound of the person’s pants brushing can be replicated by rubbing cloth together near a microphone. Other sounds are not so easily recreated. For example, one would not break someone’s arm in order to produce that sound. Instead they must turn to more creative methods, such as crunching a head of frozen lettuce.
Foley, named after its creator, Jack Foley, has changed dramatically since its advent in the early 1900s. Today, a Foley artist has increasing options—most notable of these is the computer. But how were sounds recreated for early films? A lot of this information has been lost; most film studios did not keep a record of what they used to make their sound effects. Jessica and Jennifer Davison have been figuring out how turn of the century filmmakers recreated their films’ sounds. They selected two movies: The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Suburbanite (1904). Using a mix of literature and trial and error, they have been attempting to simulate the sounds used in the original production. In order to keep the Foley authentic, Jessica and Jennifer only use objects that would have been around when the films were made. Of the experimental part of the process, Jessica said: “We go to stores, play with objects, and read how other Foley artists recreate sounds for current films. We have found that a balloon makes a very convincing gunshot noise. Once you like a sound, you then have to check to make sure that it would have been around during the date the movie would have aired.” When the film required the sound of a human body hitting the ground, Jessica and Jennifer tried recording several different types of balls hitting the floor in a bag. They tried tennis balls and golf balls before discovering that baseballs served the sound the best.
Once the method of simulation has been decided, the Foley artist must figure out the timing so that what the audience hears coincides with the action on screen. “Getting timing down requires us to know the movie perfectly, which takes a lot of practice. You learn counts. For example, there might be three counts after he walks in the door, then a hit, then another count, and then he hits the floor. You have to know the counts so that the sound and the movie are in sync. This is called “catching the falls.” Every time you add one sound you go back and add another; the idea is to give the movie as many layers of sound as we possibly can.”
Their project unites two fields within their department: cinema and theatre. “The theatre and cinema department at Virginia Tech wasn’t always one department, and there is still a very large disconnect. With this project we are trying to bridge that gap. We are using films to create a theatrical experience. Doing Foley is fun to watch and, if you stage it properly, you can have a cinematic experience as well as a theatrical one.”