Foley spe­cial­ist Gregg Bar­banell tells us about the se­cret art of cre­at­ing sound ef­fects for ac­claimed films and TV shows in­clud­ing The Revenant, Break­ing Bad and The Walk­ing Dead.

Sound ef­fects supremo Gregg Bar­banell is a main­stay of the Warner Brothers Stu­dios in Bur­bank, Cal­i­for­nia, where he and his small team know just how to recre­ate the sound of snap­ping bone, mil­i­tary ma­noeu­vres and even rustling bear fur

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How did you get into Foley, Gregg? It was kinda by ac­ci­dent. I was right out of the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of The Arts and I started a sound-edit­ing com­pany, and one thing we did was Foley. I be­gan do­ing that, learn­ing as we went, and when I sold the com­pany af­ter about five years, I started get­ting calls from my old com­peti­tors ask­ing me to do Foley work for them. I fig­ured I’d do that un­til I worked out what I wanted to do next, and I guess I never fig­ured it out be­cause I’m still do­ing Foley.

How does it all work? Foley is a process of record­ing sound ef­fects and foot­steps live, synced to pic­tures as the pic­ture rolls. Where a sound editor will take a pre-recorded ef­fect and edit it to make it fit the pic­ture, what Foley artists do is cus­tom per­form those sounds.

Where do you do it? On a Foley stage, which is a cus­tom-built record­ing stu­dio that has all these dif­fer­ent sur­faces built into the floor. There’s a dirt pit and gravel and sand and hard wood and planky wood and ce­ment and linoleum, and it’s filled with thou­sands of props – ev­ery imag­in­able every­day item is in there.

Why don’t they just use the sounds that are picked up dur­ing the shoot­ing of the movie? When they are film­ing a scene, the sound recordist on set is pri­mar­ily con­cerned with record­ing the di­a­logue, but yes, they will also record dif­fer­ent sounds, like if a guy drops a pan on the floor. But a lot of things aren’t picked up well – like foot­steps. There are two rea­sons why Foley is still be­ing used to­day: one is that by re­plac­ing ev­ery sin­gle sound, the sound mixer has the abil­ity to con­trol the lev­els of ev­ery­thing that hap­pens so that when they are do­ing the fi­nal mix with the mu­sic and the di­a­logue they can ad­just ev­ery­thing.

And the sec­ond? For­eign-lan­guage ver­sions. If we shoot some­thing here in Hol­ly­wood and it’s in English, when they strip that di­a­logue sound­track out, all the sounds that were recorded with it are gone, which is where what we’ve recorded comes in.

What un­usual things do you use for some com­monly heard sound ef­fects? One of the things that ev­ery­one gets a kick out of when I’m work­ing on some­thing like The Walk­ing Dead is that the gory stuff is of­ten done with a chamois leather, a calf­skin thing you’d use to wash your car. It re­tains this in­cred­i­bly gushy

sound that we use for all kinds of things like rip­ping hearts out of bod­ies, even med­i­cal surgery scenes. We also use cel­ery stalks for break­ing bones – that or un­cooked sheets of lasagne.

What kind of films do you like work­ing on? The hor­ror films are a lot of fun, and I re­ally like come­dies. If we’re do­ing a dra­matic thing, you have to be pretty true to what is ex­pected, but in a com­edy you can go over the top and even add sounds that will get a laugh on their own.

Is there a par­tic­u­lar sound that’s al­ways foxed you? That’s a very good ques­tion. The one that comes to mind is when some­one gets hit in the head. That’s al­ways very tricky – not if it’s a com­edy be­cause you can get away with be­ing ridicu­lous, but if it’s a se­ri­ous piece that’s one thing I don’t even know what it ac­tu­ally sounds like. And I’m not about to find out!

What’s your best mem­ory of work­ing on The Revenant? We were asked to do what I con­sider the most crit­i­cal and mem­o­rable scenes, in­clud­ing the bear-at­tack scene and the one where he cuts open the dead horse and crawls in­side.

The most dif­fi­cult part of that scene was when it was the morn­ing, and ev­ery­thing was frozen, and he had to get out. So try­ing to cre­ate the sound of frozen hide crack­ing and break­ing open was a chal­lenge.

How about the bear at­tack? We were on that for two full days: that’s a good ex­am­ple of break­ing things down and do­ing layer upon layer upon layer. We were record­ing tracks of just the bear’s fur and then the claws and then the bear’s feet. It got very deep and in­tense.

We didn’t do the bear it­self: that would not be done on a Foley stage, it would be done by the sound de­signer, and what he used for that I couldn’t tell you, but I guar­an­tee it was more than just bear growls.

It must some­times feel – even when you spend three or four weeks on a film, as you did with Sui­cide Squad – that you’re just a tiny part of the process. Oh, for­get about shoot­ing and ev­ery­thing that goes into the pro­duc­tion, just my world that I’m in, which is post-pro­duc­tion sound, goes way be­yond Foley. We’re just one el­e­ment of the sound­track.

It’s an in­tense process, and some­times a lot of what you cre­ate just won’t get used. Other times they will rely heav­ily on it, like they did in Break­ing Bad, which I did from the pi­lot to the end.

How was it work­ing on that? The Foley was a crit­i­cal el­e­ment of that se­ries and, be­cause of that, it’s one of the piv­otal projects of my ca­reer. It was an as­ton­ish­ing project for me and my crew, cre­atively. We were re­lied on and ev­ery episode was han­dled like a small fea­ture film. There’s very lit­tle mu­sic in that show, so ev­ery­thing we did was way up front.

Would it be true to think that even sev­eral years af­ter that show fin­ished, you could still get into Wal­ter White’s char­ac­ter in terms of how he walked? Oh, ab­so­lutely. They all have their own style and you learn how they walk and you get their shoes just right. In fact, the shoe I used for Wal­ter White I now re­fer to as ‘The Wal­ter Shoe’. Some char­ac­ters are very easy to walk, some are much more dif­fi­cult, they’re un­pre­dictable in what they do, and you have to learn these things.

Fi­nally, do you ever get a slap on the back from the stars – or have they long since moved on to their next project by the time you’re in­volved? Well, we gen­er­ally don’t have much con­tact with the stars, but it’s not al­ways so. Dur­ing sea­son one of Break­ing Bad some of the stars were down the hall do­ing their ‘loop­ing’, where they re­place di­a­logue, and I saw Aaron Paul who played Jesse Pinkman. I was out in the hall and I said, ‘Hey, I do your feet!’ and he wanted to see how we did it. He came back and watched us work and we got some pic­tures to­gether.

Gregg Bar­banell (with his son) hold­ing a few of the MPSE Golden Reels he was awarded for his Foley work

Greg and his team have a range of props and tools of the trade for post-pro­duc­tion work in films

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